On the 43rd day of the Omer I asked a child how many days there were to go. He immediately answered that 37 days remained. In response to my inquiry about his calculations, he excitedly announced that there were 37 days left to the school year! While all of us–he included–were counting down to the monumental day of receiving the Torah, he was also counting the days until he would be absolved of learning the very same Torah in the formal school environment! Interestingly, his response immediately reminded me of the actions of Klal Yisroel after they received the Torah. Chazal tell us that Klal Yisroel ran away from Har Sinai like a young child runs away from school. At this time of year, when we celebrate the milestone of graduation and the conclusion of another stage in life, the question we must ask ourselves is, “Where are we going next?”
If the purpose of life is to grow to our potential, the celebration of graduation must be one of a beginning and not an end. So many children finish their years in yeshiva and then proceed to subsequent states in life without setting their GPS devices to the proper destination. So many children finish yeshiva and are lacking the skills and/or desire to continue their growth in learning – in quality or quantity. So many young men and women finish their studies in Israel with a fire in their souls and a determination to make concrete changes in their attitudes towards Torah and mitzvos, yet return to autopilot and a journey-without-a-destination, within a matter of months. A parent approached me with tears in his eyes, asking how he could have paid $420,000 in tuition – 3 years in yeshiva in New York and two years of study in Israel – only to have his child shed Torah and mitzvos – including Shabbos observance – in only four months in college. What went wrong?
This heart-wrenching question is not a new one. Unfortunately, this is the pattern we have modeled for our children as we, and they, experienced Jewish events throughout the year. When the 25 hours of Yom Kippur are over and we have cleansed our souls with real teshuva, how long does the spiritual elevation remain? In one yeshiva I attended, it was customary to start Shachris the morning after Yom Kippur a minute early so that learning would then start a minute earlier; Yom Kippur would have been worth it if only to incorporate the extra minute of learning on the day after the fast. Forty days of teshuva, two weeks of selichos, ten days of repentance, 25 hours of fasting and fervent prayers… and all we have to show for it upon “graduation” is one minute of learning? Yes, because each minute, every moment has value.
Completion of a process and graduation is only successful if the next stage in life is begun immediately and successfully. It is so easy to go back to the autopilot of hergel, our rote, automatic actions, reacting to life and our surroundings instead of living a life of contemplative decision making and thought-out responses. This pattern unfortunately follows us throughout the year. We build a sukkah and brave the elements for eight days, and what do we take with us when we graduate the holiday? We spend time and money to purchase the four species, and what do we take from the mitzvah after seven days of blessing the lulav and esrog?
Preparing for Pesach, we clean our homes, search our houses for every last crumb, and change our dishes, but do we have cleaner souls upon graduation, or are we only left with a few extra potato-starch induced pounds? We become habituated to going through life by doing the routines of mitzvos and Torah study, but do we reach the level of “lilmod al minas la’asos,” study for the purpose of making real changes in our actions? When we allow ourselves to perform by habit, when we don’t use our religious experiences as a springboard from growth, when we don’t use our performance of mitzvos as an opportunity to connect to Hashem, ourselves and our community, then we risk alienating ourselves from it all when we are in a new environment and our routines do not come naturally.
How can we prevent this from happening? I can think of two possible solutions. Last week I attended my son’s Chumash seudah, a celebration of five- and six-year old boys as they received their first Chumash. It was the fifth Chumash seudah that we merited to attend in this yeshiva. Over a span of 12 years, five sons sang the same songs and performed the same performance. One might think it would be a boring experience since I knew the lines and songs by heart. Yet, the opposite was true. It was a beautiful, inspirational, emotional experience. Why was this repetitive experience so emotionally intense when I cannot feel the same rush of emotions when engaging in a new relationship with my esrog on the first day of Sukkos?
When this son was born after five beautiful children, despite having been through the experience of becoming a father on five previous occasions, I felt the intense appreciation of the new life Hashem had created. Upon his arrival in this world, all are declared his lifelong plan and graduated him all the way to bar mitzvah, marriage, and even grandchildren–“K’shem she’nichnas l’bris, ken yikanes l’Torah, chupah, u’maasim tovim”–just as this child was brought to bris milah, so too he should become bar mitzvah, marry, and have children of his own. Only seconds after receiving a name, we are mapping out his road plan!
I believe that part of the secret to success is in the events just described. First, capture the feeling of experiencing something special and unique. It is for this reason that we recite the blessing of shehechiyanu upon the birth of a son and at the entry of each Yom Tov, because this time is not just a repetition of past experiences, but this one is special and unique. Just like the experience of each new life, each child’s Chumash seudah is special even if we have already experienced the birth of a child or a Chumash seudah. So, too, should each mitzva and each day be special in its own unique way. The trick is to invoke the special feelings while you are involved the rote and repetitive experiences of everyday. Upon recovery from intestinal problems, a friend related that he said the blessing of asher yatzar with tremendous emotion, thanking his Healer for allowing him to do what was previously a non-meaningful experience. We must attempt to view each experience as special and unique, while we are engaged in it. Many mitzvos have special tefilos to say before we do them in order to remind us of the purpose of the act and their lasting impact upon us.
The second thought is that milestones–or graduations–often don’t signify an end as much as a celebration of beginning a new, more meaningful period. The birth of a baby marks the beginning of a full life, and the standard blessing is in anticipation of the celebration of many more special times together. When a boy receives his Chumash and proudly recites the first pasuk, he begins to wade into the vast sea of Torah, and we pray that he flourishes in his learning and grows to become a great talmid chochom. Similarly, when we do a mitzvah, we should plan how the future could be different based upon the thoughts gained from the present act.
We must experience the present with thought to live tomorrow with meaning. Before making a bracha or doing a mitzvah, we are supposed to stop for a moment to contemplate the enormity of what we are about to do and how that act, no matter how commonplace, can bring us closer to Hashem. An act without thought and a future is finite. Actions performed by rote and used as springboards for growth leave us virtually unchanged; acts preformed with meaning and intent result in constant growth, goal-oriented behavior, and the development of inner strength to battle life’s challenges.
Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev once saw a disciple remove his tefillin quickly before running out of shul early. Reb Levi Yitzchok ran after him and asked where he was going. The student replied that it was market day and he had to go earn a living. Reb Levi Yitzchok answered that he knew that one must earn a living… but if he was rushing so quickly without thinking, how did he know if he was going in the correct direction? As many of us celebrate graduations and milestones, we must take the time to think and make sure that we are headed in the right direction. May every day be a graduation to something better and more
About the Author: Rabbi Gil Frieman is the pulpit Rabbi of Jewish Center Nachlat Zion, the home of Ohr Naava. He is certified as a shochet, sofer, and has given lectures in the United States, Canada, and throughout Eretz Yisroel. Rabbi Frieman is currently the American Director of seminaries Darchei Binah, Afikei Torah, and Chochmas Lev in Eretz Yisroel, and teaches in Nefesh High School, Camp Tubby during the summers, and lectures weekly at Ohr Naava. In addition, Rabbi Frieman teaches all tracks in Ateres Naava Seminary. He is a highly anticipated speaker on TorahAnytime.com where he speaks live most Wednesday nights at 9:00pm EST.
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