Rosh Hashanah 5781: This year, shul may seem far away

By Rabbi Binyomin Halpern

Rabbi Binyomin Halpern

(Calgary) – Life is full of challenges. Sometimes challenges come in unexpected ways and at unexpected times, but they are always there. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, in his classic work Mesilat Yesharim, (Path of the Just), famously compares a person going through life, to a warrior in the midst of a battle.

In his words: Venimtza shehu musam be’emet betoch hamilchama hachazaka

“We find that a person is truly placed inside of the fierce battle.”

When we think about this idea further, we realize that there are actually different types of battles.

There are battles of pain and emotion, where we are challenged to keep our head up, our spirits high, and just keep going. These challenges can be excruciatingly difficult, but they have one advantage; the knowledge of what success might look like and the path towards it. If I can get to the point where I accept my situation for what it is, with the knowledge that Hashem runs the world, He knows what He is doing, and He knows and wants the best for me, that is success. (Of course, even if we feel these emotions only partially, there is partial credit as well!)

But there are other challenges as well. The challenges where it is not even clear what to do, or which direction to turn. This is the challenge that many of us find ourselves in currently. A number of months ago, towards the beginning of the pandemic, it was the painful type of challenge. Many things were out of our control, and we had to roll with the punches and accept our situation with love. We had hoped that by this time it would all be past us. However, this is not the case, nor does it seem to be going away anytime soon. As an experiment, I typed in the words “should I still be…” into my search engine. Sure enough, the suggestions that popped up to finish the sentence were ‘worried about covid,’ ‘staying home,’ and ‘washing my groceries.’

The challenge for us then is to no longer merely accept our situation, but rather to figure out how we must move forward. How to maintain our health, while meeting all of our other physical and spiritual needs and responsibilities.

Do we venture outside? Do we go to indoor spaces? Which ones? How important is it really? Every day, and perhaps every hour, many of us wrestle with the balance of how much can and should we be doing of the things that used to be part of our lifestyle.

In our Jewish lives, this is a critical question.

OF COURSE, AND WITHOUT QUESTION, protection of our lives is of critical importance from the angle of halacha, (Jewish law), and from every other angle as well.

Simultaneously, sadly, we know all too well that our time away from shul, school and other Jewish togetherness has taken its toll. Hopefully, we can still see and feel that loss, but tragically, there will be many ways in which we will never know just what we have lost out on.

So the struggle continues.

But like every battle, it is not necessarily the brute force that shapes the victory, but the creativity of the strategy. It is striking that the week before Rosh Hashana we read Parshat Nitzavim which discusses an eerily relevant struggle.

Sometimes we feel that as much as we want to have access to Torah and to more Judaism, it is just too far away from us and out of our reach.

“No!” says Moshe Rabbeinu, (our teacher Moses) “that is in fact a false perspective.”

For this commandment1, that I command you today is NOT hidden from you and it is NOT distant!’ (Deut. 30:11)

“Torah is not in the heavens.” (Verse 12)

Okay, fine. We get the message. So where should we be looking if not far away?

כי קרוב אליך הדבר מאד בפיך ובלבבך לעשתו

“For the matter is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it.” (Verse 14)

True, there are some mitzvot that require going and being somewhere specific. But there are so many others that don’t. The mouth is a reference specifically to Torah learning which can be done with a book, on the phone, or by Zoom. The heart and the emotions, the essence of all mitzvot, particularly prayer and repentance, which can be easily done in the safety of our living room. Tzedaka (charity), chesed (kindness), and even bikur cholim, can still be done by all of us living inside of our box, if we are willing to be creative and think outside of it.

For some, shul will be far away this year; but there is so much that is within reach.

Malka and I wish everyone a Kesiva Vachasima Tova, a year of health and blessings, and may we all be able to celebrate together very soon.

Rabbi Halpern is Rabbi at the House of Jacob Mikvah Israel in Calgary. 


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