Friday, September 11, 2009

NITZAVIM VAYELECH: CONTEMPLATION AND ACTION

by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

Nitzavim means "are standing." Who is standing? The Jewish people in Deuteronomy at Moses' farewell to arms? Who else might be standing?

Rosh Hashana is a traditional time of visiting the matzevah, the burial place of our loved ones. A matzevah is literally the memorial stone, the headstone that contains our essential data. We are to pause before it, we, the survivors, and contemplate the life of the one whose resting spot is marked by the stone.

We are, all of us, survivors on this anniversary of 9-11 from eight years ago. Eight is like the Bris, held on the eighth day, beyond nature, which is symbolized by cycles of seven. Eight is beyond this world. They say all our nerves are replaced after seven years. Now we have new nerves with which to feel the pain of 9-11.

But do we? Do we still feel the pain of that day? When did it already become history? History is when we no longer feel the pain. Yes, some of us still do. For some of us the pain and trauma is as real as yesterday. But for many of us, I suspect not as much.

The towers that fell on that day were the matzevahs themselves, placed there in advance of their own falling! It's like the man who knows, who has the strongest premonition that he is going to die, and makes sure he says kaddish for himself, as he knows no one is living who will be saying kaddish for him! In fact I read a story about such a man who himself perished on 9-11.

The towers were their OWN matzevahs, paying it forward, in a sense. We are to contemplate by them, but they are not there for the contemplation. So it is their absence we are contemplating,
not their presence. Like a loved one who lived among us in our world, but is no more of our world, we feel their absence keenly. And as Rosh Hashana approaches, and with it, the sounds of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer hauntingly remind us of our own mortality with its words: Who shall live and who shall die? Who by fire? Who by earthquake? Who by violence? Indeed.

So as a nation, have we forgotten the pain of that day? Have we lost sight of what we stand for as a nation and as a civilization? Have we lost our moral bearings? Are we still in a war, eight years later, in Afghanistan? Are we still fighting the war over there? Or are we just going through the motions?

As a nation, what happened to the sense of unity and common purpose which we all felt on that cloudless day in September eight years ago? How much have we become divided since then?

As individuals, who among us was not touched by the recordings and the stories of husbands and wives making that last phone call home, as the flames drew nearer, and heard the screams as the fires consumed them? How we shook our heads in recognition of the sadness when that last phone call went to an answering machine instead of to a live person. For the deceased it was sad.
For the survivors they could replay and replay their final words over and over again every day, wishing they had been there by the phone to answer the call.

As individuals, who was not touched by the fact that if you didn't kiss your spouse and hold her tight when you left for work in the morning, it might be the last chance ever!

But how long did that last? How soon after, did we all fall back into the routines we take for granted? How soon after do we find ourselves, "just going through the motions?"

But the name of the second half of our double parsha is vayelech - he went. There is a time for contemplation. But now it's time to get moving. Now it's time to act. Now it's time to remember the closeness and unity we all felt on that day- as a nation, as a family, as a human race even, and act once again to recreate that feeling. No, we should not pray for a disaster to happen to recreate that feeling, G*d forbid. Rather, the challenge is to recreate that feeling out of love for our fellow man, not out of fear in the wake of a disaster.

On Rosh Hashana we are reminded that there are two ways to serve G*d: Out of love and out of fear. Most serve G*d out of fear- fear of punishment, fear of what the neighbors might think. But the highest level is to serve G*d out of love! When we do that it is said that all our previous sins are then turned into merits. If we do teshuvah from a place of fear, then our sins are merely cancelled. But if we do teshuvah out of love, then all our past sins are actually turned into merits!

Last week my car door hit a stranger's car door in the parking lot and scratched it accidentally. Because I am a member of a club called Judaism which teaches that we have to live lives of integrity and act ethically in the street and in the marketplace, I resisted my urge to ignore the infraction and I wrote a note, leaving my name and number. I soon got a call, and then the estimate. $365. 94. One dollar for each day of the year. The benefits of doing the right thing were many. It taught someone that there are those who try to do the right thing. The next time they are in that situation they might also consider doing the right thing. No longer can they say, "well...everybody else does it."

It taught a non-Jew that despite the headlines, there are Jews who try to do the right thing. I said to him on the phone, when he expressed amazement that anyone would leave a note in this day and age, "I truly didn't want to leave that note. I truly wanted to walk away. But the Torah made me do it!" You see, it's perfectly human and normal to wrestle with the challenge of acting morally. If it wasn't a challenge, then what would be the point? There would be no pleasure in the thought that you overcame the temptation to shirk responsibility to do the right thing. The name Israel that was given to Jacob after wrestling with the angel means, "Wrestles with G*d." We do not submit to G*d, as in Islam. We wrestle with G*d! We challenge G*d, as did Abraham when G*d said he would destroy the evil cities of Sodom and Gemorrah, if there might be righteous people among them!

To do the right thing is to perform a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of the name of G*d. To give in and surrender to the comfortable conformity of moral lethargy is its opposite- a chilul Hashem, a desecration of the name of G*d. And by doing it out of my love for G*d and His Torah, I reversed the sins committed on those 365 days of the year! Each sin committed on that day has now been turned into a merit! And I only knew it when the estimate came in the mail and it said $365. One dollar for every day of the year!

The challenge is to love G*d in a world of sadness and tragedy and evil. The challenge is to love people in a world of crooks, cheats and con artists. Despite the evil, despite the dishonesty, despite the cowardice and moral failures of others, let us take this moment to stand tall and proclaim that we will love G*d and bring Him into our lives all the more, in a world that needs Him even more. I will bring G*d back into my life, because I have a void that can simply not be filled by anything other than G*d and goodness. And I will love my neighbor as myself, simply because G*d asks me to. And in a world such as ours, it's better to have a good neighbor than a bad one! Because goodness is ultimately it's own reward. Because it's the right thing to do.

Shabbat Shalom!

© 2000-2009 by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

These words of Torah are written in the merit of my beloved father, Israel J. Melman, obm, Yisrael Yehoshua ben Harav Ya'aqov Hakohen ben Meir Yisrael Hakohen Melman, z"l

I was raised in the musar tradition of silence and meditative thoughtfulness, as were my father and grandfather before me.http://seferchabibi.blogspot.com/2007/07/yahrzeit-of-my-father-27-tammuz.html

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9506EEDC1630F93BA35754C0A9649C8B63

Chabibi stands for CHidushei Baruch Binyamin ben Yisrael Yehoshua
(a chidush, from the word chadash, means a new, original or fresh perspective).
Dedications are available.

1 comment:

Mrs. Jude said...

beautiful, my friend..

Good Shabbos..

NEVER GIVE UP!

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The whole world is a very narrow bridge. And the most important thing is to not be afraid.
-Rebbe Nachman of Breslov
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About Me

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I played violin with Reb Shlomo and studied under him for over nine years at hundreds of concerts and learnings. Shlomo wanted to give me smicha before he passed. Deepest influences: My father,obm, who was a great scientist and human being, and my grandfather, obm, who was a great Torah scholar who was a musmach of the Mir Yeshiva and taught in Slobodka in Russia before WW1, and was also personal friends with the Chafetz Chaim and came to America in 1914. He knew the Talmud by heart! You could stick a pin in a word and he could tell you what word was on the other side! And my mother, Esther bat Baruch, z"l, who was a scholar of classical Hebrew and Tanach and who gave me a love for the language. And her mother, Anna (Sucher) Deutsch, who was born in Horodenka, spoke six languages, and shared her aged wisdom and eternal sweetness with me. I studied at Brandeis, Hebrew College, Pardes as well as seven years at The Metivta/ITJ earning my Advanced Semicha (yoreh yoreh)under Rav Halivni. What's truly amazing is that Shlomo and Rav Halivni each received semicha from Rav Hutner! But my deepest influences of them all are my sweetest sweetest girls who have taught me the most!