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A Sukkot Hug

ag-sukkah.jpgSeveral months ago, a couple in our community – Sarah and Steven* - were both given notice that the company they worked for would be terminating their positions in three months’ time. Understandably, they were devastated. Here they both felt secure in their jobs, and within an hour they found out they were both facing an uncertain future. In just three months their combined household income would plummet to zero. What a shock! 

Being highly qualified for their respective positions, Sarah and Steven immediately began sending out their resumes. Unfortunately, because of the still-unstable economy, they found themselves turned away again and again. The pressure was mounting and they worried about how they would survive even a single month without any income. 

They made phone call after phone call, sent out resumes galore and called on every connection they could possibly muster. They attended interviews and second interviews, but nothing materialized. They even considered temporarily changing careers as long as they could find some sort of work which would cover the basics. 

As they struggled, Sarah confided in me late one night. “What’s going to be with us?” she g-chatted. “What does G-d want from me? Why is He putting me through this?” Then a couple of days later, Steven texted me, “I’m worried about Sarah. I think she’s losing her faith in G-d.” 

Without minimizing their struggle, I continued to reassure them every time they texted, called and facebooked me that G-d loves them infinitely. I encouraged them to maintain faith and trust in His master plan, hard as it may be. I suggested they commit to doing an extra mitzvah and studying extra Torah, thereby creating a vessel for G-d’s blessing. Nevertheless, as the days and weeks flew by, and the dreaded day loomed ever-closer, Sarah’s belief in G-d continued to wane. 

The day before their termination was set to go into effect, Steven received a phone call from one of the companies he had sent his resume to. They wanted to schedule an interview, something he had done dozens of time before with other firms. But this one was different. That very afternoon he was hired! Even more extraordinary, the following day Sarah was offered a job in another company, which she gladly accepted. Of course, they were thrilled. 

When they shared their good news with me, I asked Sarah, “Well, do you believe in G-d now?” She smiled and nodded affirmatively, and I begged her, “Please, next time you’re struggling don’t lose hope and faith in G-d. He is always there for you and loves you unconditionally.” 

We are headed into the festival of Sukkot, where we will eat all our meals and spend a significant amount of time in a temporary outdoor booth made of at least two full walls plus one handbredth of a a wall. Kabbalah explains that the Sukkah is like G-d’s embrace. The two full walls are His “arms,” the third wasll is like His “palm.” When we hug another person, we use both arms and one hand to pull him or her close. On Sukkot, G-d is embracing each and every one of us. What better time is there to return His embrace, bring Him into our lives and internalize His teachings? This Sukkot, as we sit inside the Sukkah, wrapped in G-d’s affection, let’s return the love. 

A Cry From Mushkale's Little Heart

forgiveness-300x199.jpgA friend I grew up with, Simon*, is married with two children; a four-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter. Unfortunately, there have been some bumps in his relationship with his wife as of late.

For Rosh Hashanah he brought his son a fantastic remote control car, which the little boy was absolutely thrilled with. His reaction – running around in circles yelping with delight!- made Simon happier than he has been in many, many months. But when he asked his daughter, Mushka, what she would like, her answer was heartbreaking. She looked her father in the eye and said, "Daddy, the greatest gift you could give me would be for you and mommy to stop fighting.” 

I was thinking about this sweet, angelic little girl over Rosh Hashanah. Every time her parents argue, she feels tormented. When they raise their voices, her heart beats with fear. She internalizes the tension in the house and worries deeply that her family will be torn apart. 

We are just a few days away from Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest 25 hours on the Jewish calendar. G-d’s love for us is unconditional, and akin to the love between a parent and child. If we truly regret our wrongdoings, He will surely forgive us, no matter how low we’ve fallen. 

But no matter how much He loves us, there are some sins G-d cannot forgive: those between man and man. No matter how much we pray on Yom Kippur, if we haven’t first approached the people we’ve wronged, G-d cannot help us. He is like Mushka'le. Just as she desperately needs her parents to get along, G-d needs us to get along. When we fight, we cause G-d anguish and pain. Every argument that we have splinters His "heart."

So before Yom Kippur, if there’s a friend or relative we’ve wronged, we need to call, sincerely apologize for our offense, and genuinely ask forgiveness. We need to resolve to get along, and truly stick to it. 

But what happens if someone refuses to forgive us? We are told that if we approach a person, on three separate occasions, feel and show sincere remorse, and truly ask for forgiveness, and they refuse all three times, then the sin we originally committed against them, now becomes their responsibility. 

Jewish law also instructs us not to hold onto past hurts, but to be willing to forgive those who seek our forgiveness. 

As Yom Kippur approaches, let’s resolve to forgive those who have wronged us. And even if they don’t approach us to ask for forgiveness, we can forgive them in our hearts.

*Names and details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals 

Who are you really?

yk.jpgWith the end of summer, the High Holiday spirit takes over, and we find ourselves entering a different, more serious, frame of mind. It’s a time to make personal character improvements and up the ante on our religious observance. The impending Days of Awe motivate us to make changes both temporary and lasting.

My friend Steve* shared his High Holiday “technique” with me. “I don’t want to speak any lashon hara for at least the one day of Yom Kippur,” he explained. “Whenever I’m awake and around people I end up gossiping, so right before the fast begins I drink enough wine to send me into a deep sleep. By the time I wake up the following afternoon, it’s time for Neila, and I’m able to go the entire 24 hours without saying any lashon hara.”

Now, while I don’t condone Steve’s behavior, I do understand and appreciate his determination to do things differently in honor of the Holidays.

Last year a member of my congregation confided in me that he was terrified of Yom Kippur. When I asked him why, he began to list the many sins he had done over the year, including some pretty severe ones. But come Yom Kippur and he was at the synagogue praying fervently and sincerely, like the purest man on earth. I told him, “The man I see today is the real you. This is who you are at your core. The man who sinned last year, that wasn’t really you. Embrace your true self.”

It’s typical to wonder, “How can I stand before G-d, on the holiest days, knowing just how many bad things I did over the course of the year?” We consider it hypocritical. But it’s not hypocrisy; it’s reality. We all battle the good and evil forces inside ourselves. Deep down, we want to do the right thing, but sometimes we are swayed by temptation.

It’s important to remember that we maintain our intrinsic connection to G-d regardless. He loves us unconditionally, and we love Him back. Sometimes that love hides, and we lie, cheat, slander, steal, etc. But come the High Holidays, and all that fades away and our essence is revealed. The person praying in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah – that is who we really are at our core.  

This is the time of year we need to ask ourselves, “Who is the real me? And how can I get that real me to stick around beyond the High Holidays?”

But the first step is to reveal the “real” person within us, the one who prays on Rosh Hashanah. First we need to show G-d our deep love for Him. And when we blow the shofar, we’ll remind G-d, and ourselves, of the eternal covenant He made with us, and His promise to never separate from His people.

Let’s make sure we’re our “real” selves when we coronate G-d as our King on Rosh Hashanah this year. 

Love Him the Way He Wants to be Loved

return teshuva.jpgI recently met with a lovely young couple, Max and Susan.* Not long ago Max marked his 30th birthday, and his wife worked extremely hard planning a celebration. She arranged for a private limousine ride with sushi and wine, after which they ate together at an upscale restaurant. To top the night off she had booked tickets to a romantic movie.

Shortly thereafter, Susan herself celebrated her 30th birthday. Max planned a big bash. He invited all their friends, rented out a restaurant, and bought a giant custom cake. Everyone wished her well and brought her presents, and Susan herself stood and said a few words, thanking everyone for coming.

It sounds like they made each other extremely happy, but, while they both appreciated the effort the other had put in, they actually did not fully enjoy their respective celebrations. It turns out, what Max really wanted for his 30th birthday was a surprise party with all his friends, which is what he organized for Susan. Meanwhile, Susan really wanted the intimate evening with her husband that she planned for his birthday!

In marriage, we need to love the other person the way they want to be loved, not the way you want to love them. Everyone responds differently to different gestures. Part of the work is figuring out what our spouses do and do not appreciate, and treating them accordingly. 

This concept applies to the marriage between G-d and the Jewish nation too. Just this week a friend of mine came over for a calendar, and I suggested he put on tefillin in preparation for the upcoming High Holidays. He declined, explaining, “I love G-d and have my own way of serving him. I don’t need to put on tefillin.”

But that’s where he’s wrong. We need to love G-d the way He wants to be loved. And fortunately for us, we have a clear guide to exactly that – the Torah!

In turn, we ask the same of G-d. We often ask for “revealed good.” While we know that everything G-d does is good, even if it may not seem that way to us, we ask him specifically to love us the way we want to be loved; show us goodness that we can recognize as such.

More often than I can count, people tell me they are “good Jews at heart,” and I have no doubt that they are. Unfortunately, that is not enough for G-d. The trick is to serve Him the way He wants to be served. On Rosh Hashanah He wants us to hear the shofar, on Yom Kippur He wants us to fast and pray, on Sukkot he wants us to eat in a hut and shake the four kinds.

We’re so close to Rosh Hashanah. It’s time to repent and draw closer to G-d. We know exactly what He wants from us; let’s love Him the way He wants to be loved.

*Names and details have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.

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