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Choosing Life 

11/12/2019 02:24:10 PM


Rabbi Dr. Bennett Blum

An interesting thing happened at my father-in-law’s funeral this past summer.  A friend of his, and mine, showed up to give comfort. He is a sweet, Moslem man who had a Jewish grandparent.  I knew that the month of Ramadan had started, and after he expressed his condolences, I asked him if there was a standard greeting or wish that is said during Ramadan.  He replied, “One of my friends is dead, and another is in mourning. Today I am Jewish.” 


Today is Rosh Hashanna.  It is also “Yom Ha-Din” the day of judgment.  The day God is described as a King and a Judge.  As in the Unetanah Tokef:


Let us relate the power of this day’s holiness, for it is frightening and awe-inspiring.


On it, Your Kingship is exalted


Your throne is established with Hesed and You sit on it in Truth.


It is true that You are Judge and Prosecutor, the One who knows and the One who testifies.


Who writes and seals and counts and calculates.


Who remembers all that was forgotten . . .


As the Talmud says:  this is the time when “the Books of the Living and Books of the Dead are open (Rosh Hashanah 32B).”


Let’s talk about what about us is being judged.  


The answer we’ve heard since we were children is the mitzvot we’ve done.  But let’s be a little more sophisticated.  Just as someone needs to train in order to become a professional athlete or needs to learn basic music in order to become a virtuoso musician, so too, we cannot reach our highest spiritual levels by mere wishing – we have to learn and practice.  Judaism considers the mitzvot to be the daily practices that we have been taught to do in order to become not just “good people” but uniquely Jewish good people.  


But we all have limits.  All the practice in the world will not make me into a professional athlete, or a renowned singer.  The coyotes in my neighborhood will testify to this whenever I sing. On the other hand, some people are gifted.  There are natural athletes and there are musical prodigies. Because of this, as Jews, we believe that God does not judge us only on “achievement,” but also on “effort.”


There is a story of a Chassidic master named Zusya.  “Before his death, Rabbi Zusya was very afraid and said, ‘In the coming world, God will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ God will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?'”


According to the Talmud, one of the questions a soul is asked when it goes to Heaven is “Did you set aside time for Torah (BT – Shabbat 31a)?”  Rav Grunwald, the brother of the founder of the Pupa Hassidic sect, says that the question is not about how much someone learned or did, but whether they made time to be Jewish.  


On a practical level, this means more than doing mitzvot.  It means doing mitzvot while being true to your own soul.    


If you want to know how to be true to your soul and learn the type of person you are supposed to be, here is an exercise recommended by some Medieval rabbis:  For various real-life situations, imagine what a “great person” would do. Each of you will have your own idea of what makes a person “great” and what he or she would do.  Whatever image comes to you is your guide, your clue, to knowing how to fulfill your purpose on Earth. The rabbis called this a “nevuah k’tana” (“a small prophecy”).


To paraphrase Noah benShea, the author of the “Jacob the Baker” books, this is an invitation, not to know more, but to know differently.


Of course, everyone is different, and it is those differences that make us better.  The second line of the Shema is there to remind us that as Jews we should never fear differences of opinions, but instead embrace them.  This is part of becoming the person you are supposed to be.


Let’s look at this line: Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto L’Olam Va’ed.  (“Blessed be His Name, Whose Glorious Kingdom is forever and ever”).  We are back to the “God’s Kingdom” motif. This line comes entirely from Midrash.  It is not in the Torah. Here is the origin story in the Talmud: 


As Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: “And Jacob called his sons and said, Gather round and I will tell you (Genesis 49:1).” Jacob wanted to reveal to his sons the end of days, but the Divine Presence abandoned him. He said: Perhaps, Heaven forbid, one of my descendants is unfit, as Abraham, from whom Ishmael emerged, and my father Isaac, from whom Esau emerged. His sons said to him: Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad  (“Listen Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One”). They said: 


אמרו כשם שאין בלבך אלא אחד כך אין בלבנו אלא אחד 

Just as there is only one in your heart, so too, there is only one in our hearts. At that moment Jacob our father said:  Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto L’Olam Va’ed. [BT- Pesachim, 56a].


Jacob was concerned that his children were all different.  They argued. They fought. They even tried to kill each other.  He was concerned that the differences were too much. Then they said:


אין בלבנו אלא אחד 


They said “yes, we are all different.  But our hearts, our intentions, all have the same goal.”   This gave Jacob a new insight. The nature of God’s Kingdom is such that everyone is separate and distinct, and God wants these differences.  And so Jacob makes this blessing: “Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto . . .” 


Back to Judgement Day and our trial.  God already knows our flaws and limitations.  The problem for us is that God also knows our strengths and what we could be.  Part of the trial is to see how we judge ourselves. Have we embraced God’s Kingdom – meaning, do we embrace differences?  Are we dedicated to helping the orphan, widow, and stranger? And if we are dedicated to helping others, do we do it while maintaining pride in our own religion?  Do we have the courage to stand here before God and say, like my Moslem friend said, “Today, I am Jewish?” Can we proudly say that to people in our daily lives? Or, perhaps even harder, can we say it to our image in the bathroom mirror every morning?  


Again citing Mr. benShea:


What makes our little corner of the world little isn’t its size but our regard for it. 


What diminishes us isn’t only how others size us up but how we size ourselves up. 


We begin to make ourselves more important by first refusing to diminish our importance. 


Little adds more to our importance than knowing how important we are to others.


Economists remind us that the cost of money is the cost of having it in one place as opposed to another.  And I’m here to remind you that in life the cost of being who you are is measured against who you might be.  Too many of us live our lives as if we have another one in the bank.


What isn’t growing is dying. 


Of all the things you can make in life, remember you are making a difference. 

And how you conduct yourselves can make all the difference. 


We all make mistakes. Next year, try to make new ones. 


My hope is that next year you have more days in which you say, “Today I’m Jewish” and in doing so you write yourselves into the Book of Life.


Shanna Tova u’metuka.  A good, sweet, and healthy year to all of us.


Mon, April 19 2021 7 Iyyar 5781