From the confines of the secret annex, Anne Frank wrote the following moving words in her diary:
And in the evening, when I lie in bed and end my prayers with the words, “I thank you God for that is good and dear and beautiful,” I am filled with joy. Then I think about the “good” of going into hiding, happiness and of the beauty which exists in the world; the world, nature, beauty and all, all that is exquisite and fine. I don’t think then of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.
Despite all the reports Anne heard about the deportations of her own people to death camps, she remained a believer in the good that remained in the world.
As we approach the “days of awe,” or Yamim HaNora’im, it’s important not only to be inspired by Anne’s words but to take a good look around in order to gain an appreciation of the beauty that is everywhere.
One of the ways to see that beauty is to take a moment and observe the unfolding of nature. Toward the end of the day we can watch an amazing sunset full of dazzling colors and splendor. Or we can travel to the beach to see the crashing of the waves rushing in from the ocean.
At the end of the Rosh Hashanah evening service of we recite one of the most powerful mizmorim of Psalms:
The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof
The world and all that dwell within
For He has founded it upon the seas
And establishes it upon the rivers.
God, says King David, is the true owner of the world. And He created it with a seemingly endless supply of water that extends throughout the oceans, seas, and rivers.
On a recent trip to Austria to celebrate our fortieth anniversary, my wife and I had the opportunity to appreciate the phenomenon and awesomeness of water. Whether we went two minutes from our hotel in Kaprun or four thousand meters high in the snow-covered Alps, we were surrounded by gorges, waterfalls, and reservoirs. And we couldn’t help but say, repeatedly, “How great are Your creations, O God.”
Aside from the amazing world around us and the understanding of Who created it, there is another very important lesson to learn as we approach the New Year. Often we take life for granted, not fully appreciating what we have. Every moment is a gift, an opportunity given to us by God.
In the past two years our extended family lost several wonderful relatives to illness or sudden death – painful reminders that our lives in this world are limited. We simply do not know how much time we have, so it is incumbent upon us to utilize each day to its fullest. While the rabbis said the pasuk (Isaiah 55:7) “Seek out the Lord when He can be found; call out to Him when He is close” refers to the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, King David said in Psalm 145:18 that “God is close to all those who call upon Him.”
Is God only close to us during the ten special days of repentance or is it possible to approach Him at any time?
It seems the opportunity for closeness to the Divine is within our grasp every day, but we tend to become distant during the course of the year due to our daily routines and busy lives. Therefore, we need the reminder of the month of Elul to reinforce the genuine goals in our lives. In addition, we often take our loved ones for granted, and many times there is a need to renew these relationships with a kind note, a phone call, or just by saying “I love you.”
Eighteen years ago I was diagnosed with bacterial endocarditis and given no more than a fifty-fifty chance to survive. The doctors started with a “cocktail” of intravenous antibiotics, followed by open heart surgery to replace a damaged valve in my heart. I clearly remember the moments before surgery, and then waking up two days afterward in the ICU. Ten days later, with my heart still not beating properly, a pacemaker was inserted.
When I finally was allowed to shower, I must have sat under the hose for more than a half hour, exulting in how wonderful and therapeutic the water felt. It took nearly three weeks from my surgery before I could walk for the first time. After a one-month stay in the hospital, I returned home.
Throughout those days in the hospital there was an outpouring of tefillot offered on my behalf. There was never a single night that someone from the family did not spend with me in my hospital room.
That experience taught me the hard way that every moment we live on this earth must never be taken for granted. Life is a gift from God and it is up to us to make the most of each day.
Making the most of each day includes what we do for others. We are not alone but part of a family, a neighborhood, a community. There are always people who require an outstretched hand and various kinds of help. For example, every week in Efrat, where I live, food packages for Shabbat are prepared and distributed to more than forty families. Good deeds can have a powerful influence on us and our lives if they are performed on a regular basis. Doing good deeds, we are transformed into giving beings – people who care not just about ourselves but also about others.
When the Torah describes the act of charity, it does not merely say one should give to the poor, but rather (Devarim 15:7,8): “For if there be a poor person among one of your brothers, in one of your gates…do not harden your heart…for you shall surely open your hand to him.”
Giving charity is not just the act of reaching your hand into your pocket and putting a few coins in the pushke but having an open heart in order to really give to those who need it the most.
As we say in the tefillot of the Yamim HaNora’im, “prayer, repentance, and charity can remove the evil decree.”
May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a healthy and wonderful New Year. Shanah tovah.