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Posted on September 22, 2022 (5782) By Rabbi Pinchas Winston | Series: | Level:

Friday Night

This is not my story, but it could be anybody’s.

It was the first day of Selichos, Motzei Shabbos, 12:30 am. I never enjoyed being up so late, and I never looked forward to having to saying Selichos at that time of night. But there I was once again with everyone else in my minyan, saying Ashrei to kick off another year of many days of long dovening. It made me more tired just thinking about it.

But then something happened to me, and quite unexpectedly. I don’t remember during which verse of Ashrei, but something “touched” me inside, and all of a sudden, my whole mood changed. Within a moment this feeling welled up inside of me, and the next thing I knew I was fighting back tears, totally unexpected tears, and I hoped no one else noticed. Suddenly, I had this second wind and all of my tiredness just…vanished.

For three weeks I had dutifully listened to the shofar being blown after Shacharis, and said L’Dovid like everyone else. The shofar, if blown well, has its own power to get “inside” you. A trumpet sounds regal, ceremonious. A shofar sounds like a heart crying and personally, that gets to me, at least a little.

But not once did a shofar blowing ever make feel what I felt that first night of Selichos. It even happened a few more times that night, and by the time Selichos was over, I was charged up. I was definitely still tired, but another part of me was wide awake and feeling the serious of the time of year. It was over a week until Rosh Hashanah and I was already connected. I wondered how long that would last.

Normally I might have walked home with a neighbor, but I made a point of slipping out quickly to walk on my own. I was curious about the experience I had and wanted to figure it out. It was like there was this other side of me that I had never met, and I wanted to know more about him.

The next day I spoke about it with my chavrusa. He listened the entire time without saying a word, just smiling the whole time. When I finished, I asked him what his smile was about, and he told me something I have never forgotten, even decades later.

“That was no other side of you,” he told me. “That was your soul. Your body is like a hard stone mountain, and your soul is like the magma inside of it. When enough pressure builds up inside, the soul, like the magma, blows the top off the mountain…your body that is…and reveals the inside to the outside. That experience may have been new to you that night, but you’ve been carrying it around with you your entire life. It just finally made it out. You finally made it out.” And then, grinning once again, he said, “Welcome…to yourself!”

Shabbos Day

I THOUGHT ABOUT his words. “But why now?” I asked my chavrusa, “What triggered it all of a sudden?”

“I’m not sure,” he said. “Only you can really answer that question. Was there anything special that happened just before that?”

“Are you kidding?” I said. “I was so tired and just wanted to go to bed already.”

“That sure is spiritual,” he teased.

But as he did, something inside me caught my attention. I had asked the question to him, but seemed to be answering it myself, from the inside. I don’t even know what made me think of it, but once I did, it made sense to me. At the time of the incident, I had thought little of it, but I guess it left an impression on me, or rather, inside of me.

My wife and I had been guests for Shabbos lunch at our neighbor’s. It was Parashas Ki Savo, and the host, while talking about the curses found in the parsha, spoke about hester panim, the hiding of God’s face. He explained something that in all my years I had never heard, and used a moving story to make his point.

The story was about two brothers, and how the younger of the two liked to tag along with the older brother and his friends, especially on the day they decided to play hide-and-go-seek. The older brother would have said no, but their father insisted that the younger brother be allowed to join them.

As everyone ran to hide in one place or another, the younger brother did the same and waited to be found. But instead, his brother and friends used the opportunity to ditch the tag-along, who waited in vain to be found. When no one came looking for him for a long while and he could no longer hear any voices, he came out to investigate.

He didn’t understand at first what had happened, but it slowly dawned on him that while he had hidden, everyone else had left. Feeling abandoned, he began to cry and went home.

When he was close enough to his home, his father recognized his crying and came running out to see what had happened. The younger brother explained everything to his father in between his sobbing, after which his father began to cry as well. This distracted the son who then stopped crying as his father began to cry even harder.

Confused, the boy asked his father, “Abba, why are you crying? It happened to me, not to you!”

The tearful father said, “Because my son, until now I did not understand. You hid from the other boys, but not because you didn’t want to be found. You wanted the others to come looking for you, but was saddened when they didn’t. I realize now that the same can be said for God. He has hidden Himself, but not so we shouldn’t find Him, as many might think. But to see if care enough to go looking for Him…and yet so few do. How sad He must be!”

As the host finished his dvar Torah, my wife turned to look at me to see if I had enjoyed the analogy as much as she had, and was surprised to see a tear in my eye. What she did not know until later was that the story had happened to me with my older brother, several decades back. But my father had not heard me or come out to comfort me like in the story. Nevertheless, the story hit home and gave new meaning to an incident from my past. For a short while, I again felt the same pain, but this time I transferred it to God.

After all, my incident had experienced been an isolated incident, but it has been happening to God daily for thousands of years now. I was able to move on, but God has to deal with it every day. My brother and I eventually became the best of friends, but so much of mankind has turned its back on God. I found myself feeling very sad for Him.

We enjoyed the rest of seudah with our hosts and later returned home. The story, I had assumed, had simply become a memory.

Seudas Shlishis

WE ARE NOT always aware of the things that change us. Sometimes the subtlest of ideas can have the profoundest of impacts on a person, for good and unfortunately, for bad. Sometimes ideas can be planted as “seeds” in our minds, and take root and sprout on their own over time, changing us into better or, God forbid, worse people.

My neighbor may never know it, but his little story was such seed for good. It took a past sensitivity of mine that I had forgotten about and turned into one in the Present. But not for me this time, but for God. It enhanced my relationship with Him in a way I had not done before that.

What incredible hashgochah pratis—divine providence…that we were invited for a Shabbos seudah…the Shabbos of Parashas Ki Savo…which led to a dvar Torah with a story that seemed custom-designed for me. And it was amazing hashgochah that the first Selichos was later that night, while I was still impacted by the story. As a result, when I said Ashrei that Selichos night, I already felt a connection to God, and the sadness I had felt that afternoon once again moved me emotionally.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it wasn’t just sadness I was feeling for God. It was also love, a more intense love. I mean, I had wanted to believe that I had always loved God, but the “sympathy” I felt for Him somehow made Him seem less far away…more accessible.

Or maybe it was the other way around. Maybe it made me less far away…more accessible. Until that day, I lived my Judaism from day to day, trying to be sincere but often falling short. Life can be very tiring and very distracting, especially when it comes to do mitzvos properly. I always knew God was there, you know, “there.”

My chavrusa thought that was really going on was that God had reached out to me. He thought that, once God saw me reach out to Him, He reached out to me. As the Gemora says, “Someone who comes to sanctify themself a little, they sanctify him a lot” (Yoma 38b). I told him that I really liked that idea.

The story, and the idea behind it made God seem more here to me, more a part of my everyday life. It talked to my soul and kind of neutralized my body in the process. The feeling of love just automatically resulted, and it spilled over into the way I learned, prayed, and did the rest of my mitzvos.

Who would have thought it? But then I began learning the next parsha, Nitzavim, and even that seemed to talk directly to me now. And all the promises that God made about bringing all of us back to Eretz Yisroel seemed so much more real, as if they were being made now. But the verse that really made me stop and think was this one:

And God, your God, will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, [so that you may] love God your God with all your heart and with all your soul, for the sake of your life. (Devarim 30:6)

“Wow…” I said to myself softly, feeling all emotional again. I thought, “Did this not just happen to me?”

Though I had read that verse countless times before, it was always as if it was going to happen to some future generation, not mine. Not now. Now I felt blessed that it had happened to me, and wondered how many others it was happening to as well.

Ain Od Milvado, Part 19

IT ALSO GAVE me a new perspective on the following:

You have been shown, in order to know that God, He is God; ain od Milvado—there is none else besides Him. (Devarim 4:35)

I always had two questions about this. First of all, why does God have to show us anything to prove Himself? Humans are limited and have to prove they can do what they say. But God is unlimited, and by definition He can do anything He says.

Secondly, they were shown, not us. And just reading about it doesn’t do very much to fight back atheism and agnosticism, or to help with the lack of zealousness that results from not taking God seriously. Just as they needed to see to believe that God is the only one, we need to see it as well, probably now more than ever.

But we do. All around us is evidence of God and His providence…if we’re open to see it. It is amazing how we can look at something one moment and see it one way, and then have an experience that shows us the same thing the next moment in different, sometimes even an opposite way. The verse is telling us that God is showing us things so that we can know He is the only one. We just have to learn to see it.

As for the first question, He doesn’t need to prove Himself. We need to prove Him to ourselves because of our own fears and insecurities. We doubt God but not because God is doubtful, but because we don’t make enough effort to work out why He is not. The verse is telling us that God knows this and even accommodates us. “What a chesed!” I thought to myself, and that only made me love God more.

With Rosh Hashanah just a few days away, I never felt more ready. In fact, I even looked forward to all the dovening coming up, something new for me. I used to look at it as just something I had to do at this time of year. I was beginning to look at it as something I wanted to do at this time of year. I planned to use it as an opportunity to expand upon what I had experienced over the last week.

And if my chavrusa was correct, and the Gemora seems to say that he is, I can expect God to do the same. Rosh Hashanah is not a one-way street. It is the time that the Jewish people run towards God, and God runs towards the Jewish people. As God says, “I am to My beloved, and My beloved is to Me” (Shir HaShirim 6:3).

I can’t wait.

Thanks for another year of Perceptions reading. I hope you’ll keep reading in the new year, b”H.

Kesivah uChasimah Tovah

Pinchas Winston