The Emperor’s New Clothes

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By Rav Aryeh Z. Ginzberg

Chofetz Chaim Torah Center

Though the yom tov season is long behind us, the chachmei Kabbalah taught us that the upcoming yom tov of Chanukah is the true culmination of the yom tov season and forces us to take a look back. Recently

I was presented with a different opportunity to take a look back at the yom tov season, and it wasn’t pretty. I felt like I was in the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, when sometimes the innocent and brutal truths expressed by our teenagers leave us tongue-tied or totally speechless.

Let me explain.

Several years ago, I was invited to give a monthly rosh chodesh lecture to 9th-grade boys and also to 12th-grade girls in two different schools in the community. It began initially with a different topic each month, but the pressure of coming up with a different topic each month was too challenging, so I suggested something a little out of the box—that instead we just have a free-for-all, “ask the rabbi anything” hashkafah session. The schools were a little hesitant at first, not knowing if an uncontrolled session with teenagers would really work, but they agreed to experiment.

It has been an overwhelming success. The questions, the topics, the participation, the enthusiasm—it has all inspired me perhaps more than it has inspired the students themselves. This idea of a give-and-take on contemporary topics was not mine, for I learned it from my own revered rebbi, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, Rav Henoch Leibowitz, zt’l. Over decades, he used his blatt shiur as the forum to have a give-and-take with the talmidim on contemporary issues. I vividly recall very spirited discussions on the Vietnam War, Watergate, attitudes of dealing with secular Jews or different sects in K’lal Yisrael, etc., with the rosh yeshiva in middle of discussing a sugya. He felt it was just as important for us to hear his thoughts on these contemporary issues, so that we would develop our own sense of understanding how to look with “Torah eyes” at contemporary issues.

In no way would I ever claim to have the rosh yeshiva’s insight into contemporary topics; the only thing that we do have in common is that we both had great rebbeim to learn from. And so, over the last few years, we’ve discussed a wide-ranging slew of topics, such as negiah, discord amongst gedolim, dangers of the Internet, the agunah status, Messianism, secular education, and even some esoteric topics such as life on other planets, Olam HaBa, and others. These discussions or sessions are almost always spirited, and everyone leaves energized.

That is until last month’s discussion. It was Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, the first session after the yom tov season, and one young man, who never asked a question before, began with the following stunner. He asked, “What is the yom tov season really all about, anyway? It seems like an exercise in dishonesty.” He explained, “This past Shabbos was the first Shabbos of the year after the yomim tovim, and I watched my father and his friends in shul and they talked throughout davening and then they went out in middle of leining for a quick childish Kiddush get-together, etc. This is the exact way that they acted on the Shabbos before yom tov. They didn’t change, and they had no intention to change. It seems to me that the whole yom tov scene is just a game of charades and a dishonest display of teshuvah. What’s the point and why even bother going through the whole exercise to begin with?”

Another chimed in, “Actually isn’t it even worse, getting HaKadosh Baruch Hu angry at those who are not being honest in all that they say and do over the yom tov season?”

I was stunned. The brutal and honest truth of youth. The emperor’s clothes! I was prepared for a discussion on negiah, on covering hair, even on texting on Shabbos. But I was not prepared for, nor able at that point to respond to, this sincere and deep question. I asked the young participants for a day to gather my thoughts. Mercifully, they complied.

When we met again several days later, I shared with them the following thought. It is wrong to think that going through the majestic yom tov season automatically changes us. It does not. What it does do is fill our neshamos with plenty of fuel and ammunition that gets slowly absorbed into our mainstream. It is a process. For some it happens quickly, and for others it may take the entire year as the kedushah of the yom tov season slowly makes its way throughout the spiritual digestive system.

A chassid taking leave of his rebbe after an inspiring and uplifting season bemoaned the fact that another yom tov had ended. The rebbe responded, “The yomim tovim have not ended; they have been absorbed” (see R. Yitzchak Hutner in Pachad Yitzchak for a similar thought). The rebbe, Reb Bunim of Peshischa, explained the name of the month “Mar-Cheshvan” is related to the word “merachshan,” which means vibrating. The Gemara teaches us that even after a person finishes davening, his lips still vibrate with the aftereffects of the tefillah. Reb Bunim explained that in Mar-Cheshvan, we are still enveloped by the aftereffects of the month of Tishrei, and our lips are still murmuring the tefillos of the Yamim Nora’im.

I also shared with my candid young friend something I shared with my beloved ba’alei batim in shul on Shemini Atzeres this past year. One of the few Shabbos zemiros that we have that was written by the Arizal himself is the piyut of “Azamer Bishvachin” that is sung by mekubalim every Friday night. In the song, the Arizal wrote the cryptic words “Yehei raivah kameih d’tishrei al ameih” (may it be thy will that Tishrei be on the people). The Stoliner Rebbe, zt’l (Reb Asher), explained what the Arizal meant by this stanza. It means that we are asking Hashem to allow the influence of the month of Tishrei to remain with the people of K’lal Yisrael all year long.

And so the message is, there is no dishonesty or lack of sincerity by Yidden in the yom tov season, and the fact that you see your father and others acting no differently on the first Shabbos of the year post-yom tov than they did on the last Shabbos of the year pre-yom tov only means that the influence and kedushah of the yom tov season that entered their neshamos has not yet made its way through the spiritual digestive tract to change their attitude or behavior. Some have a slower digestive tract and it takes longer until the spiritual nourishment hits the intended target.

While, baruch Hashem, my words seemed to have struck a chord with the questioner and his chaveirim, and they seemed satisfied with my response, I am not completely satisfied by it myself. It’s something for all of us to think about and to do a little introspection over, and determine whether the lessons absorbed in our system over yom tov have yet to make an impact on our behavior and our attitude. The question of the emperor’s new clothes is not one we would like to answer, especially if it’s about ourselves.

The Mekubalim say that the yom tov of Chanukah is the culmination of all the avodah of the yom tov season. May we be zocheh that the ohr of Chanukah illuminate our neshamos, allowing all that was absorbed over yom tov to bring us to our full potential—for our children are truly watching. v

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