The High Holy Days are over. It was an awesome spiritual time – when we probed or souls, asked profound questions and tried to determine what our lives are all about.
We made resolutions – each in our own personal way – committed to being better Jews. We promised to become better ambassadors of Hashem, more meticulous with mitzvot, more devoted and zealous in doing acts of loving kindness, and in general, become more dedicated to our Torah and all that that implies.
And now comes the big question: Are we still determined to make that change? Are we controlling our anger or are we indulging our moods, making others miserable, suffering from our ups-and-downs? Are we exercising discipline in our speech or are we back to the pitfalls of lashon ha’ra, and once again resorting to crude and foul language? The list goes on and on. How many of these promises are still throbbing in our hearts and how many have been put away with our Yom Kippur machzorim until next year?
Was it only yesterday that we made those wistful commitments to become different? Have we already slid back to “same old, same old”? Can it be that our old habits have once again taken a grip on our lives?
To be sure, it’s not easy. We live in a consumer society and value that which is “pricey,” so we appreciate name-brand items, fine jewelry, spectacular homes, etc. But acts of chesed: a smile to someone who is downcast, a visit to the sick, a word of encouragement to the hopeless, an embrace to the lonely, a warm loving word… those little things which in reality are huge are of no consequence in our culture. In our consumer world they are valueless and go unnoticed.
Acts of chesed cannot be translated into dollars and cents; consequently, we consider them to be of no value. We cherish luxuries and are obsessed with accumulating things and more things, but ironically, the more we have, the more we desire and the less content we become. We are the generation that possesses more than any generation could have dreamt of; yet we are also the generation that is the unhappiest.
There is nothing surprising about all this. King Solomon and many of our sages taught this truth, but this gem of wisdom has been blown away by the winds of materialism and we no longer understand it. So yes, while on Yom Kippur we divorced ourselves from the craziness of the world and actually heard our souls challenging us, and even made genuine commitments to change, to live true Jewish lives, today it all seems like a faraway dream. The gap between our resolve and actually translating it into action remains more distant than ever. Once we exited the safe portals of our Yom Kippur sanctuary and the many voices of the outside world assailed us, we lost our spiritual underpinnings – our anchor melted away.
To be sure, we have other problems as well. Our yetzer ha’ra – that little voice in our minds and hearts – is relentless, ever on the attack. Insidiously, it whispers, “Those resolutions, those promises that you made they made sense in the isolation of the synagogue, but in the ‘real world,’ it just won’t work. All those mitzvos and acts of chesed that Jews are called upon to do are simply not practical. As it is, it’s difficult enough for you to manage your time. You cannot possibly undertake more.”
But our Yiddishe neshamos are so powerful that they will not let us go. Even when we are ready to run, there are always some quiet moments – sometimes just a split- second – when our neshamos talk and prod us to get back on track. They remind us that we are dissipating our time, wasting our days and years that we are investing our energy in “fluff” that has no substance or lasting value. We need only speak to individuals who have confronted or are battling terminal illness. Not one of them will ever say that they regret not having spent more time at the workplace or having made more money. Nor will they tell us that they regret not having pursued more pleasure. But they will all confide that they feel remorseful for not having been more connected with their Jewish roots, for not having made an effort to know G-d. Most painful of all, for having failed to fulfill their mission to impart a legacy of faith, love and honor.
The most devastating experience a neshamah can have is to arrive at the Next World and behold that which it could have accomplished, and then contrast that portrait with what it actually became. The agonizing, piercing cry of such a neshamah, “What on earth could I have been thinking of? How could I have done that?” reverberates through the seven heavens, and there are no answers.
But today we can still correct it, wipe the slate clean and recapture the days and years of our lives.
We need only bear in mind that life is not about accumulating things, but about elevating ourselves. It’s not about acquiring more, but about being more. Life is about making a difference in this world, fulfilling our Jewish destiny, the purpose for which
G-d created us. Every day, at the conclusion of our morning prayers, we beseech the Almighty to help us so that “our labors may not have been in vain and our lives may not have been lived for naught.” How tragic it is that so few of us are familiar with those words and even those among us who pray repeat them mindlessly and fail to absorb their deeper meaning.
But how do we realize such lofty goals? How do we remain grounded, yet spiritually elevated?
It is simpler than we realize. G-d has actually provided us with wings, available to all, with which to soar and rise above the morass of this world. We need only seize them.
When we study Torah on an ongoing basis, we are automatically transported into another world. We are reminded of our true purpose and of that which has lasting value. Our Torah is not only our road map for life, but it is the voice of G-d, directing us, speaking to us, telling us who we really are. Our mitzvos are not just random rituals and laws, but are life-transforming experiences that render us more generous, loving and kind. When we do chesed, it is we more than others, who benefit; when we give of ourselves, we become enriched and elevated. The formula is there; we need only take hold of it.
It sounds so simple – but is it?
The answer to that is an emphatic yes.
G-d promised us that if we take one step toward Him, He will take two steps towards us. He is ever ready to help us and will place in our hands that which we thought was beyond our reach. We need only will it and it will be.
In my next column, please G-d, I will share with you some real-life stories that demonstrate just that.