Are You Ready?
This week we ushered in the Jewish month of Elul and that means that Rosh Hashanah is less than 4 weeks away! Who’s ready? No one! It’s too early in August. And so for the next few weeks I’ll try, in my remarks, to help us—myself included—get ready.
Today’s Torah reading discusses the possible future appointment of king to rule over the Jewish people. It seems from the text of the Torah and the commentaries that Gd was reluctant for the Jewish people to have a king and that a king should be appointed only when necessary. The reason apparently is that Gd is the real King of the Jewish people as He is King of the Universe.
The kingship of Gd is a central theme of Rosh Hashanah and its liturgy beckons us to review our lives so that we may live in the New Year in such a way that we make Gd our King—doing the things He want us to do like living a life of chesed, love and compassion while following His commandments.
Question: How’s your relation with the King of the Universe going? What can you do to strengthen it? Make a deal with Him to do something new to deepen your relationship and begin to do it now before Rosh Hashanah!
Perhaps you’re reluctant to disrupt your regular routine by setting aside a few minutes every day to pray to Gd, or by eating Kosher even outside your home or by deciding to come to shule more often—even when Sukkot falls out on Thursday and Friday. This month of Elul and Rosh Hashanah are supposed to shake us up a bit and disrupt our regular routine because we all need to come closer to Gd. So which mitzvah should you choose?
Let me share with you an amazing true story. Rabbi David Ibn Zimbrey, the Radvaz—who lived in the 16th century—was asked the following question:
There was a Jew who had been working on an estate for a non-Jewish nobleman. In this feudal society, the noblemen were like kings and had absolute power. This particular nobleman became angry at this Jew, threw him into jail and discarded the key. “You’re in here for the rest of your life,” he told him.
Some years passed and, for whatever reason, this lord of the manor said to the Jew, “Jew, I feel very generous today. I’m going to let you have one day of freedom out of jail—one day.” And then as he thought about this, he said, “And you know what? It doesn’t make a bit of difference to me which day. You pick the day you want to go free.”
This man when he was in jail could not fulfill any mitzvot. On Pesach, he couldn’t get any matzah. On Sukkot, he couldn’t sit in the sukkah. On Rosh Hashanah, he couldn’t hear the shofar. He wasn’t allowed to have even a siddur or a pair of tefillin. So what he had to decide when he was given the choice as to which day would he should choose for his freedom, was actually a far more vital question. And that is: What is the most important mitzvah? What would you choose?
Suppose it was the day after Rosh Hashanah and the correct answer was Rosh Hashanah, then he would have to wait a year. The Radvaz said that the correct answer is to pick the 1st day you can. So, if it was a Friday, yes pick Shabbos, but if it were a Sunday, pick Monday. To do otherwise would be to say, “I am delaying putting on tefillin until tomorrow because I am waiting for a better day, a better mitzvah.” One should not wait to deepen his relationship with Gd. The 1st opportunity that presents itself…grab it! So don’t choose something you’ll get to in a month or 2. Choose something to deepen your relationship with Gd that you can begin doing now.
Let me conclude by reading to you another true, but inspirational story I found in this month’s Jewish Georgian by Howard Margol. It’s called, “An Act of Faith—a Key to Survival.” Margol describes how he was in the army just after WWII ended and his unit was ordered to transport several thousand Jews from a concentration camp to the Austrian luxury resorts Bad Gastein and Bad Hofgastein. He writes:
When our division chaplain, Rabbi Eli Bohnen…heard about the plan, he was against taking this group of Jews from a concentration camp and putting them in the fancy hotels with all of their posh surroundings. He was concerned that the sudden change from years in a concentration camp would be too much for them to deal with. His pleas…were to no avail.
…We had been driving all day when, suddenly, yelling and screaming was heard throughout the entire convoy of Army vehicles. All of the drivers stopped so we could investigate the problem. All of the Jews got out of the trucks and sat down on the side of the road. They refused to ride any farther.
The leaders of the group of Jews explained that it was late Friday, the sun was almost down, and the Sabbath would start. They refused to ride on Shabbos. I, together with several other Jewish soldiers, explained that we were Jewish and fully understood about Shabbos. After what these Jews had been through in the concentration camps, they deserved to spend the night in fancy hotels, with hot food, hot baths, and clean clothing. In another 25 or 30 minutes we would have them at the hotels.
They absolutely refused to get back in the trucks, and all of the Jews sat down on the side of the road. The Army set up field kitchens to prepare hot food and brought out blankets, and the Jews coped as best they could. All Friday night and all day Saturday, the Jews stayed on the side of the road. After the sun went down on Saturday, they returned to the trucks, and we brought them to the hotels.
…For years, the Jews in that group of survivors were not allowed to practice their Judaism. However, regardless of their suffering and circumstances, they held on to their faith in their minds [and hearts]. That day, in Austria, was their first opportunity to practice their faith. That is why they refused to ride on Shabbos, and they spent the night on the side of the road instead of in comfortable hotel rooms. I have no doubt that holding on to their faith in their minds [and hearts] was a major reason for their survival. It gave them something to hold on to, to look forward to, and a way to survive against all odds.
I think it was also their way of showing that they won, and Hitler lost.
How important was their relationship with Gd! Like the man imprisoned by the nobleman in the 16th century these Jews weren’t able to observe any mitzvot in the concentration camps. But how they deepened their relationship with Gd in that the 1st day these starved and emaciated Jews—only a half hour away from a well-deserved rest—could have stopped an entire transport just to observe the mitzvah of Shabbos!
My friends, Elul is here. Rosh Hashanah beckons. We’re not ready yet so I ask you to begin by taking the time to think about how you will deepen your relationship with Gd before Rosh Hashanah. What will you do now? Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis