Life's Most Important Thing
Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 )
Now is the time to ask: What are you really living for?
Every person has one thing that he is living for. Let's call it a "personal bottom line." For some it is money, for others prestige, for others pursuit of pleasure. Now let's imagine that you're faced with a situation where you are about to lose everything – your job, your house, your car, even your health and your family (God forbid). But ... you are given the choice to hold onto one thing, only one thing. What would it be?
This week we begin the month of Elul. In many respects, this is the most important time of the Jewish year. As the month which immediately precedes the High Holidays, Elul is a crucial period of preparation.
To get started, let's first ask the question: What is Rosh Hashana all about anyway?
Imagine that you are a scientific researcher who is funded through a philanthropic foundation. Each year, you are required to appear before the Board of Directors and present a summation of your achievements during the past year. How much money the board grants you for the coming year will be based on how well you utilized last year's grant – and how solid is your plan for the coming year. Of course, if you've squandered past resources and are unprepared for the future, your chance of receiving additional grant money is slim.
So, too, on Rosh Hashana. Ever since the creation of Adam and Eve, Rosh Hashana has been the day when every human being (so to speak) is created anew. We stand before our Creator and say: "This is how I have utilized my resources, and this is my plan for the future."
Appreciating the Gift
This is indeed serious business. Life is not to be taken for granted. Life is a precious gift from Above. It is delicate and tenuous and can be taken away at any moment.
The story is told of a sculptor who was commissioned to design a bronze statue of a horse for the town square. After many months of work, he produced a sculpture with perfect detail – showing every sinew and hair follicle. It was truly a masterpiece! However, when the statue was proudly placed in the town square, everyone walked by and completely ignored it! The sculptor was very disappointed to find all his hard work going unappreciated. Finally a friend said: "I think the problem is that the horse is so perfect that people think it's real! But if you would make a crack, then people will notice it as a work of art."
The point of this story, explains the Chasan Sofer, is that our lives are full of blessings. Our eyes alone are worth many millions of dollars! But we mustn't take our "funding" for granted!
A person's relationship with God is similar to that of a parent to a child. For example, what happens when a child asks for a cookie? The parent is glad to give one. But if the child would show a lack of appreciation (like refusing to say "thank you," or throwing the food on the floor), do you think the parent will give the child another cookie? No way!
Now imagine that the child takes the cookie, and says something to the effect of: "Thank you so much. This cookie is sweet and fresh and delicious. I really appreciate your efforts to get me this cookie." What will the parent say when the child looks up gingerly and asks for a second cookie? "It's my pleasure!"
This Rosh Hashana, will we be able to stand before God with confidence? Only if we have first done significant soul searching – who we are and where we are headed. Because if we don't have such clarity, then how can we expect God (the Board of Directors) to grant us another year of life?!
Personal Bottom Line
There are a few special customs that Jews perform during Elul, to help awaken us to the task ahead. One is the daily recitation of Psalm 27. There, King David exclaims:
"One thing I ask ... is to dwell in the house of God all the days of my life."
King David tells us a tremendous insight: If I was stripped bare and could only choose one thing, it would be You, God. That's the bottom line. A relationship with God supercedes all else, for He is the source of everything. No if's, and's, or but's.
Coming to this realization is what Elul is all about.
Not long ago I was sitting and learning Torah in a synagogue near my home. This synagogue is located in the basement of a large apartment building. (In Israel, the basement of every building is a bomb shelter.)
So I'm sitting in this bomb-shelter-turned-synagogue, and I'm thinking that if ever (God forbid) there should be a war, this bomb shelter would be a good place to be stranded. There's Torah books, scholarly rabbis and holiness permeating the walls. I could gladly spend weeks here!
Then I recalled a time in my life when I was keeping less mitzvot. I had gone out one evening with some friends to hear music at a local tavern. As we were leaving to go home, we discovered that the winds were howling at 100 kilometers an hour and a meter of snow had just fallen. It was a full-fledged blizzard! The streets were shut down and the entire city had come to a grinding halt. Nobody was going anywhere. We were stranded. Snowbound.
I spent the next 48 hours in the tavern with a group of strangers, and I recall at the time considering myself fortunate to be stranded there and not elsewhere. There was so much to keep us entertained: Video games, a pool table, a superb sound system, etc. How grateful I was not to have been stranded in the dentist's office or a gas station!
So recently, when I imagined being stranded in my synagogue bomb shelter, that snowstorm came to mind. Tavern versus Synagogue. The qualitative difference is astounding. Could there be any question? King David's words rang like a bell: "One thing I ask is to dwell in the house of God..."
Policing the Gates
Another special custom for the month of Elul is to blow the Shofar every morning in the synagogue. The Shofar sound is literally an alarm clock designed to arouse us from our spiritual slumber. The Shofar brings clarity, alertness, and focus.
The reason we lose touch and make mistakes is that we don't take the time every day to reconnect with our deepest desires and essence. Therefore, the solution is obvious: Spend time alone everyday to ask: "Am I on track? Am I focused? Am I pursuing goals which will make the greatest overall difference in my life and in the world?"
This week's Parsha begins:
"You shall appoint judges and police for yourself in all your gates." (Deut. 16:18)
The commentators explain this verse metaphorically: You should set guards at "your gates" – i.e. at the openings of your body. Guard your ears from gossip. Guard you mouth from falsehood. Guard your eyes from straying after frivolity.
Elul is the time to construct a sincere, realistic model of where we've fallen short in the past and how we expect to change in the future. May this be a meaningful time of growth for us all.
Rabbi Shraga Simmons