Days of Awe; Days of Wonder

Dedicated to Rabbi J Sacks z”l in honour of his forthcoming first Ya’artzeit. 
Inspired by his thoughts on the Chaggim September 2017

The soul nourishing wonder and appreciation of creation

Delivering a targeted compliment with sincerity and meaning creates a bond and a warm connection between the one delivering and receiving the compliment. Try it with your friends, co-workers, or your own children or spouse. Give them a heartfelt targeted compliment, even if they are not used to you giving them such praise, you will see the ear-to-ear smile that comes into their being, and the authentic warmth they radiate back to you. After you try it with a fellow human, try it with Hashem. 

Unquestionably, the single greatest malady and ongoing sickness facing modern Westernised society today, is the mental health challenge of depression and anxiety. So often we become prisoners in our own minds, and so many people struggle through these challenges. 

In the early 2000’s I was reading an entrepreneurial magazine discussing ‘burnout’ prevention and I came across a concept called ‘Forest Bathing’. It has become popular in recent decades. No, it’s not about baring yourself and showering or bathing in nature. It’s about escaping city life and spending an hour or two in nature on a walk or just being. Just being with trees, water, grass, sand, wildlife or simply the wind rustling your hair. Taking the time to soak in the natural world around you with wonder and awe. I’m adding an additional Jewish outlook to forest bathing, ‘… and appreciating the greatness of Hashem’s creation.’ After a couple of hours you can feel your restlessness begin to subside, your pulse slows, breaths become deeper, your constant striving ceases, and there are even documented benefits for your blood pressure, basically it enhances overall wellbeing. 

Another extraordinary thing occurs when we stop to appreciate the glorious Creation in which we exist. We appreciate our lives more, feel better about ourselves, our future and the world around us. 

It’s an extraordinary antidote to stress. 

Appreciating creation is part of our daily prayers. In fact, the book of Tehillim – Psalms, which remains the most beautiful and poetic book of praise of creation ever written, forms the backbone of much of our daily prayers. This daily focus on praise enables us to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us, to listen to the song of the kookaburra, or appreciate the beauty of the tree shimmering in the breeze; to inhale the sheer miracle of life around us as we gain a deeper and more detailed appreciation of our lives. We feel free and capable of loving, and of being loved. Praise allows us to be more present, more focussed and to pray more deeply. Prayer enriches our lives.

The cry of the shofar, reverberating through history

We have just experienced Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah takes us back to an epic moment in Jewish history. It is not, as is commonly misconceived, the birthday of the world, or the anniversary of Creation, but rather the anniversary of the creation of human beings, of mankind, of Adam and Chava. It celebrates the pinnacle of creation that culminated Hashem’s masterplan, the arrival of humans. 

It is telling that the only unique mitzvah that we can do today on Rosh Hashanah is the blowing of the Shofar. We can describe the Shofar sounds as three unique notes, Tekiah, Shevarim and Teruah, but in real terms it is only one simple sound, broken up in different ways.  

The Shofar sound is so simple, yet so poignant. It takes us back to the Akeidat Yitzdak – Binding of Isaac, that we read about on Rosh Hashanah. When Avraham sacrificed the ram instead of his son. The Midrash says that one of the ram’s horns was utilised by Hashem at the giving of the Torah, to sound the great Shofar, and the other has been set aside to one day proclaim the arrival of Moshiach. 

Throughout history, the sound of the Shofar signalled turning points in our story. 

This year on Rosh Hashanah we began the Shemitta year. The culmination of the seven-year cycle of Jewish time. In Biblical times, at the conclusion of seven Shemitta cycles, we marked the 50th year as Yovel the Jubilee year. In Yovel, the Shofar was blown to herald the start of the year, and it announced that indentured workers are to go free, all private loans are forgiven, and ancestral lands are returned into the possession of the original family owners. 

In more recent history, fifty-four years ago, during the Six Day War, Israel defended its very existence against a series of hostile Arab neighbours whose aim was to drive every last Jew into the sea. In six miraculous days of intense fighting, Israel was victorious and regained significant territory that was not allocated to the Jewish State in the UN Partition of 1947. We were reunited with much of Yehudah and the Shomron (colloquially called ‘The West Bank’), and more particularly, with the Old City of Jerusalem and the Kotel, the Western Wall. The Chief Army Chaplain of the time, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, acknowledged the emotional victory and reunification with our Holiest site by sounding the Shofar.

Throughout our history, the Shofar was a sound of faith and hope. Our feelings for the Mitzvah of Shofar, and all that it represents, drove some to extremes to hear it. 

The Rabbi of Rodoshitz, Rabbi Yitzhak Finkler, was in Skarzysko-Kamienna, a Nazi forced labour camp. He and his fellow Jewish inmates bribed one of the Polish guards to bring them a horn of a kosher animal, and sure enough, he brought them the horn of an ox. Unfortunately, an ox horn is not kosher for use as a Shofar. They bribed him again and he brought them a horn of a ram. 

Rabbi Finkler asked Moshe Winter, a polish Jew who worked in the metal workshops in the camp, to fashion a Shofar. At first, he refused, he had no idea how to make a Shofar, and even if he did, it was far too dangerous. Nevertheless, Moshe agreed in the end and fashioned a Shofar. All the Jews of Skarzysko-Kamienna were filled with hope that Year as the secret sound of the shofar reverberated through the camp and through their emaciated bodies; it nourished their souls. It provided life sustaining hope for the future to so many.

Moshe was transported to Chestachov and after the war he relocated to the US. Eventually, in 1977, the shofar was transferred to the Yad Vashem Remembrance Centre, and it remains there until today, telling its story of sacrifice and hope. 

Whether the shofar is Hashem calling to us, or us calling to Hashem, its simple sound comes from a place that is too deep, too pure, too true for words. In fact, it reminds us on Rosh Hashanah, on the anniversary of the beginning of the human story, that ‘when Hashem formed man out of the dust of the ground, and breathed into him the breath of life, man became a living soul’. The Shofar represents the very breath of life. 

We humans are simply fashioned from the dust of the earth (Adam = Adama = earth), it is the breath of Hashem which keeps us alive. 

Produced and directed by Hashem 

When I was studying in the States a number of years ago, I saw a billboard next to an American super-highway. It was when paid cable TV channels were just becoming popular. The billboard was advertising the ‘Weather Channel’, and it said ‘Watch the Weather Channel: Written and Produced by G-d.’ Sometimes we need a quick reminder in our lives that everything that we experience; our challenges, our opportunities our blessings, our successes and failures are produced and directed by G-d. Our job is to exercise our free choice and to make the most of it. 

Shules, to honour of King and welcome our Father 

Shules are often simple buildings, not grandiose, ornate or decorated to perfection as are some temples or places of worship of other religions. If you visit the ancient Shules of Tzfat, or most modern Shules today, they are simple, robust, functional structures. 

Shule simply means a ‘hall’ or a ‘place of gathering’. And although we refer to Hashem as ‘Malkeinu – our King’, thus we try to make his House regal, beautiful and as ornate as possible, at the same time He is ‘Avinu – our Father’, with whom we are comfortable and close. A Shule is like our family home. A place in which we are very comfortable and feel connected.

No time of the year is more ‘Shule intense’ than the Chaggim of Tishrei. More Jewish people spend more time in Shule this month than any other time of the year. It runs counter to our deeply rooted culture and psyche to be deprived of all Shule experiences this month during lockdown. Yes, we made our own homes into mini-Shules and we all did the best we can, but it’s a challenge to create that fulfilling and essential element of community and social connectivity.

I think it was this perceived lack of connectivity that drove hundreds upon hundreds of people to congregate in parks and open places to hear the blowing of the Shofar. There was a conscious craving for connection, as well as a spiritually subconscious desire to hear the Shofar within a ‘community’. To reignite that human spark, that very breath of life, on Rosh Hashanah.

Yamim Noraim – High Holidays, a prototype of a growth mindset

In recent times, we came to understand what real success and growth is all about. It’s actually a mindset. An attitude. As Carol Dweck, American Psychologist, asserts that what makes children or young people, or for that matter, all people, successful, is a belief/mindset.

It’s not their abilities. The differentiating factor is that some fear failure and don’t take risks. Others don’t even think about failure, they try and try again to discover what works. They view failure as a natural part of the learning process. Children who fear failure have a ‘fixed mindset’. Often, they believe that ability is something that you either have, or you don’t. ‘I’m just not artistic’, full stop = fixed mindset. Whereas children, who have what Carol dubs a ‘growth mindset’, think that talents or abilities can be developed, acquired and grown over time and throughout life. These children keep learning, trying, taking on new challenges. They have increased resilience and are not put off by failure. They know that achievement is a result of their hard work. It’s a fulfilling and liberating approach to life. 

The famed artist Van Gogh kept painting despite the fact that he only ever sold one painting in his lifetime; and it wasn’t for a lack of trying, since his brother and greatest supporter, Theo, was an art dealer. The greatest author of modern times, JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was turned down by the first twelve publishers she sent it to, but she persisted. 

These are examples of a Growth Mindset.

If we want to accomplish anything of real worth, we need to develop a Growth Mindset. This is especially true around the Yamim Noraim – the High Holidays. They are a sustained annual tutorial in developing a Growth Mindset. 

The very essence of Yom Kippur is forgiveness. Hashem forgives our mistakes if we are willing to own and admit them, strive to learn from them and make sure we improve our actions tomorrow. We are not afraid of failure, we see it as a catalyst for personal and spiritual growth. Hashem knows we are going to fail time and time again, and He provided us with an antidote for failure called Kapara – forgiveness or atonement = Kippur, or Yom Kippur. 

This is the whole idea of ‘Teshuva – Return, Repair and Repentance’. Teshuva is the flipside of Kapara. If we do Teshuva – by admitting and confessing, realigning the past, working on our personal growth, focussing on improving the future, then we can achieve Kapara – true forgiveness. That is growth. The Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur experience are a Growth Mindset experience. On Yom Kippur, Hashem asks us to dare greatly, and He will forgive our sins as He wants us to continue to strive and grow.

This is essential to Judaism. Jewish leaders are not born heroes, they are people who become great. They become great by surviving, striving and growing through challenges. All of our leaders, whether its Moshe Rabbeinu, David Hamelech, Ruth the Moabite, all of them experienced tremendous challenges, which led to tremendous growth. 

Yom Kippur: A holy drama of time, space and individual

There is a cosmic drama that unfolds every Yom Kippur. It’s an extraordinary drama that plays itself out again in Shules across the globe and in the individual hearts of Yom Kippur participants; whether we get to pray together in Shule, or whether, like this year, we need to pray with our family at home. 

The Yom Kippur drama: There are three dimensions within Judaism:

  • Olam – World or Place
  • Shana – Year or Time; and 
  • Nefesh – Soul or Individual.

On Yom Kippur, the pinnacle of Place, Time and the Individual coincide.

Olam, the holiest place in the world is Israel, the holiest city, Jerusalem, the holiest location Har HaMoriah – the Temple Mount, and the holiest spot in the Temple, the Kodesh HaKodashim, the Holy of Holies, which was entered into only once a year, on Yom Kippur. 

A convergence of Place.

Shana – Time. The most intense time in the calendar, a time devoid of worldly involvement, a time of fasting, self abnegation and sole/soul devotion to prayer, when we are more angelic than human, is Yom Kippur. 

A convergence of Time.

Individual – Nefesh. As a Jewish Nation we are represented by a clan called ‘Kohanim’, the ‘priestly clan’. They performed the service in the Temple on behalf of our sisters and brothers, the Jewish people. The Holiest Kohen, the Kohen Gadol High Priest, selected for his humility and piety, donned the plain simple white clothes and entered the Holy of Holies, only on Yom Kippur.

Time (Yom Kippur), Place (Holy of Holies) and Soul (Kohen Gadol) converged, and the results are extraordinary, Yom Kippur – Kapara atonement and forgiveness, a national and personal reset, that allows us to adopt a true ‘Growth Mindset’. 

This was, and remains, the prime service of Yom Kippur. The Kohen Gadol brought a special incense offering on a fiery golden shovel that exuded a cloud that enveloped him. It was a beautiful scent that spread outwards beyond the Holy of Holies into the rest of the Temple, and wafted into the rest of Jerusalem. In fact, it brought sweetness into the rest of the year and throughout our lives.

As we stand at the threshold of this unique Yom Kippur, we bless each and every one of you with strength and inspiration to converge your Growth Mindset on the holiest day of the year in your home and fill your home with sweetness. Take the moment to connect, to pray, to disconnect from the inhibitions of the world, to take your family with you along the Teshuva journey, and achieve Kapara – atonement; a real spiritual reset. And may the beautiful, sweet smell of your personal ‘incense offering’ bring blessing into your life, and lives of your loved ones throughout the entire year. 

Wishing you well over the fast, and G’mar Chatima Tova.

Copy of Copy of Untitled (20)About the Author

Rabbi Yehoshua Smukler is the College Principal at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.

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