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Elul / Rosh Hashanah

And Straight Again!

By Rabbi Label Lam

I stumbled upon a list of aphorisms and one-liners from one of the premier Baalei Musar-Masters of Ethical Teachings, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, also known as the Alter from Kelm. One phrase made me chuckle at first but I realized it wasn’t and couldn’t be a joke so I highlighted it and parked it in a file entitled, “more thought required”. The statement goes as follows: “Torah is divided into three portions; 1) Simplicity 2) Complexity 3) Simplicity!” That’s it! Get it!? Which one of these is not like the other? Two of the three are exactly the same! What are and why are there three parts when only two different ones are listed?

A model for explanation may be found in the Rosh Chodesh Bentching, when prior to each new month we pause in synagogue to recite some prayers of hope. Amongst the handful of items we cry out for is that this month should be filled with: “fear of heaven”, and that it contain wealth and honor, and not have embarrassment and shame, and then at the end of the list again we ask for “fear of heaven”. Twice! Why is it mentioned twice on the same short list? The answer is given that there is a “fear of heaven” that comes before wealth and honor and before embarrassment and shame and there’s another brand of “fear of heaven” that comes after the experience of wealth and honor and embarrassment and shame.

We find a similar pattern by the blowing of the Shofar. In order to have fulfilled the Mitzvah of the day one has to have heard a longish straight sound and some combo of broken sounds followed by a straight sound again. The pattern is straight-broken-straight! Perhaps this is a key to unlocking the code of the Shofar’s simple and not so simple message.

Every good thing in life begins with an almost naïve and yet beautiful simplicity. A child looks at his parents at first like the sun and the moon. His introduction to the Aleph and Beis are tinged with wonder and honey. A bride and groom stand as celebrities posing for pictures and generating song and dance wherever they go.

All those pictures and memories are purposefully preserved and remain on the mantelpiece of our minds. So too our relationship with HASHEM begins, as a New Year, bathed in hope and idealism.

By the second week of school the sharpened number two pencil points are dulled and the knapsack is already lined with peanut butter and lost notes home from the teacher. After a period of time the awareness of ever emerging complexities begin to dominate the brain. The ocean that looked so pristine and inviting on the travel brochure grows darker and more dangerous as we wade deeper into the reality of the scene. The mother and father are not so perfect. The Rebbe’s halo has a stain. The Torah is hard to understand. Those relationships that seemed so natural at first require real work and commitment to maintain and to avoid going insane. “What’s going on here? Is this some kind of bad joke?” one may wonder. Welcome to the realm of the complex!

If one stalls at this point, the lingering sense of frustration may yield to disappointment, disillusionment, and ultimately terminal cynicism and depression. In that place one cannot survive long, so there are only two choices. One natural approach is to drift backwards to the world of the childish, to “never-never land”, where all forms of escapism dominate However, when the movie is over and the thrill is gone the complex realities of life are still there staring even more intensely.

The only healthy approach and admittedly the more difficult, is the one the Shofar urges desperately. Don’t stop moving! Live with hopeful anticipation of a mature simplicity that reconciles the profound complexities of life with its innocent beginnings. Is this not the paradigm of ultimate optimism for all cycles of life and psyches? So too we are encouraged to strive as King David (following the same pattern) directs us, “Hope to HASHEM, strengthen and fortify your heart, and hope to HASHEM!” Straight--------Broken-------- and Straight Again!

Text Copyright © 2006 by Rabbi Label Lam and



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