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Capital-R Reality

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Pinchas Winston

We are witnessing events that shake us and cause a seismic shift in perception. Attaining clarity of what it all means is our goal on Yom Kippur.

It was a very different Rosh Hashana for me this year, as it was for everyone. Every Rosh Hashana I try with all my might to concentrate and prove to God as well as to myself that I take life seriously, and believe in a concept of Divine judgment that affects the length and quality of my life.

After living year after year, in spite of the mistakes of my past and present, and in spite of the fact that I didn't always take the Ten Days of Repentance seriously enough, it is easy to look at the long High Holiday prayer services as formalities. I used to look at them as thresholds to cross over into the upcoming year, "dues" to be paid before proceeding forward.

I shed that image years ago, especially once I started having children. Somehow, the thought of being prematurely and permanently separated from one's wife and children, God forbid, makes one more aware of the tenuousness of life. I often use that fear to "inspire" me on these crucial days, and to "get real" with my plea for another year of life.

However, this year, with the Sbarro attack in Jerusalem still fresh in my mind, and the incomprehensible assault on the World Trade Center, it was different. This year it seemed as if the entire prayer service jumped out at me. Even simple phrases that we say everyday when praying took on new meaning.

This year the prayer service jumped out at me and took on new meaning.

For example, when I said the words, "You feed the living in kindness," I thought of those who were trapped without food and water underneath the rubble. "You revive the dead in great mercy" made me think of those who had given up hope of survival after being buried alive, only to be saved. And it made me think of the thousands who didn't get out, but who will one day come back to life -- forever.

"You support those who have fallen" -- so many fell; "You heal the sick" -- so many need of healing.

"You free the imprisoned" made me think about those trapped beneath the ruins of the Twin Towers, who battled against time to get out and survive. In spite of all of our technological prowess, there was still only so much we could do for people so close, and yet, tragically, so far away.

Reference to the Covenant made me yearn for the redemption, and references to evil empires "going up like smoke" gave me faith that it will one day happen, maybe sooner than later. In the end, I don't think there was a single word or phrase throughout the two days of prayer services that did not tug at my heart and pull me back into the darkness of those hijacked planes.

And, when the shofar blew, I heard only crying...


Like so much of Jewish life, on Rosh Hashana I felt as if I was walking with each foot on different sides of a line. Dipping the apple into honey didn't have the same effect as in previous years. I smiled and sang with my children the traditional songs, but it was dampened. We had guests with whom we shared the festive holiday meal, but it wasn't as joyous as it ought to have been.

We now stand on the threshold of Yom Kippur, the holiest and most solemn day of the year. It is the day on which, historically, Moses achieved atonement on behalf of the Jewish people who had built and worshipped the Golden Calf. It is a day that possesses the power to change everything for an individual and the Jewish nation. If any day of the year represents a spiritual fork in the road, it is Yom Kippur.

Kabbalistically, Yom Kippur is associated with the trait Binah -- "understanding." The point of Yom Kippur is to achieve understanding and clarity. This task is made easier, since Yom Kippur is the only day of the year that the Yetzer Hara -- our self-destructive tendency to move away from God -- is given the day off. (Talmud - Yoma 20a; Zohar - Vayishlach).

If any day of the year represents a spiritual fork in the road, it is Yom Kippur.

The clarity achieved on this day forms the basis of our repentance and atonement. After all, priorities in life are based upon one's understanding of life and its goals, and that is what Heaven judges at this time. But, what clarity are we trying to achieve? That it is wrong to sin, and if we do, the bigger the sin, the bigger the punishment?

Certainly we must understand this immutable rule of creation and abide by it. However, life -- Jewish life -- is not so simple, as we are now finding out once again. There is a larger picture to grasp on Yom Kippur, a bigger context within which to see our slices of time.

People often say, "Reality is what you make it." At best this is partially true, and at worst, it is dangerously incorrect. The correct expression would be, "Reality is what God makes it, and everything else is illusion." This self-styled skewed reality is what I call "small-R reality."

God's version of reality is the only true one, and it is based on His original plan for creation, which has never changed. Years go by, man advances, the world evolves. But the purpose of creation remains intact, always. We may be surprised by historical events, for better or for worse. But God isn't. If it can happen in creation, then it is by definition part of His master plan for creation, which we will call "capital-R Reality."

"Capital-R Reality" is not a secret. In fact, God gave the Torah, so that we can align our perception of reality with His. All of Torah is designed to help us see creation and life in this world as God does, so that we can live spiritually constructive lives and earn eternal portions in the World to Come.

We start life with "small-R reality" only. As babies and young children, we only know what WE want, and care less what others think. The process of growing up and spiritually maturing is to apply one’s mind to develop a vision of reality until it matches God's. If we are successful, then we "naturally" do that which is in keeping with the purpose of creation, bringing satisfaction to both God and ourselves. On the other hand, if we follow our whims, we end up constructing a life model based on false premises.


Like any parent, God gives His children time to develop their understanding of what is right and wrong, and even leeway to err here and there. The problem is when "small-R reality" infringes too much on the goals of "capital-R Reality," even to a dangerous extent. That is when God, like any responsible parent, puts His foot down, so to speak, and imposes His will upon history, to help us get back on track.

God puts His foot down, to help us get back on track.

Anyone who knows Torah and Jewish history understands this point. We may not like it or want to accept it as true, because of the implications. Yet always, God has the final word. "Capital-R Reality" has veto power over "small-R reality."

When I imagine the recent mega-terror, my mind short circuits. One morning shuts the entire civilized world down for a day, and may have set in motion a scenario for the End of Days. It should never have happened. It was all so amateurish, both the way the attack was carried out and the way it wasn't prevented. It reminds me of a little moth who flies into a super-computer and shuts the entire system down.


There are already people who want to use this attack against so many innocent people as proof that God doesn't exist, or, if He does, to say that He doesn't get involved in the affairs of man. Not that these people spoke much about God before the attack, but they feel vindicated in having ignored Him until now.

There is something very faulty and hypocritical in this way of thinking.

For others, they believe in God and saw what happened as being from Heaven, but they are angry about it. They are furious that God let such evil be perpetrated, allowing so much pain to be inflicted on so many innocent families. Also a faulty and dangerous way of relating to God and life.

Then there is a small group of people who look at what happened in the context of all of Jewish history, because, in spite of the fact that it occurred in New York City and not Jerusalem, does not change the focus from the Jewish people so completely. This we are finding out with each passing day since the attack has created strange consequences for Jews all over the world.

The point is not to return to normalcy as quickly as possible.

This third group won’t try and explain why one person was miraculously saved and why another person wasn't; only God can do that. Furthermore, this group cries over the tragedy just as anyone else does. However, they have difficulty just picking up the pieces in order to re-build what was lost. There has been a paradigm shift and they want to know what it means.

The point is not to return to "normalcy" as quickly as possible. The point is to understand how our previous "small-R reality" was misguided and how this event is a message for change.

That is precisely the point of Yom Kippur: to align our "small-R reality" with God's "capital-R Reality." If we have made costly mistakes, it is because we let our versions of reality supercede God's. Repentance and atonement is the process of evolving our perception of truth into God's perception of truth, so that, in the words of the Talmud, "His will can become our will and our will can become His."

This year, Yom Kippur came early, imposed upon us from Above.


This awakening happened, and is still happening. It has set many things in motion, things that may have severe consequences for our own lives and the world in general. Even world leaders have hinted at this, though they appear unable to articulate exactly what that message is.

This experience tells us that the King is coming. Not a flesh-and-blood king, but The King, the Real One. History has an end and a purpose, all contained in "capital-R Reality." The very surrealness of current events begs one to stop and think about the deeper implications of it all, and to wonder if our "small-R reality" is being forced to give way to a much larger, more Biblical version of reality.

Yes, this sounds strange. The very word "Bible" seems to imply events from the past, a time long gone, never to be seen or heard from again. However, that's always been an assumption, only part of "small-R reality."

If the yearly Yom Kippur is to make us think about our versions of reality and to see where they differ from God's, then how much more so is this true of the "Yom Kippurs of history," those events that shake us and cause a seismic shift in perception. If the perennial Yom Kippur is the time we come face-to-face (so to speak) with our Creator, to rejoin with Him and commit ourselves to His plan for creation, how much more so must this be the case this year, in the midst of one of the great Yom Kippurs of history.

We are one step closer to Reality. This year, it will surely be a very different Yom Kippur than ever before.

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