By Larry Gordon
It is not just a Shabbos to inspire, but a day on which rabbis throughout the length and breadth of the land hope to find the right combination of words to rouse their congregants and listeners from their spiritual slumber and move them (us) forward in the newly arrived year.
It is quite possible that today worshippers are looking more than ever to hear words from their leaders that can inspire them. There are an ever-increasing plethora of distractions that can easily propel a person to lead one’s life in a wrong and even damaging direction. Despite the extraordinary gadgetry that we are surrounded by today, it is mere words—the right words with a carefully crafted message—that can still outdo and outperform all the electronic wizardry that we find available to us and at our fingertips.
This coming Shabbos, the Shabbos between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is one of the periods during the year when people’s ears are perked and ready to listen to some of those messages. This year, in our preview of Shabbos Shuvah derashos, we reached out in some new as well as in veteran directions.
Rabbi Pinchos Weinberger, a young and dynamic Torah scholar, is rav of the relatively new Inwood Shul. Inwood is in fact one of the Five Towns, but until recently was somewhat overshadowed by the influx of families to Lawrence, Cedarhurst, Woodmere, and Hewlett.
Rabbi Weinberger is also the head of Yeshiva Nishmas HaTorah in Lawrence, a new, fledging makom Torah that is making inroads and attracting attention in the post high school yeshiva world. Today Inwood features about 40 Orthodox families, houses are going up for sale, and young families from around New York are taking notice. The shul—for now anyway—conducts services at the Yeshiva Ketana building located on Doughty Boulevard.
Rabbi Weinberger will speak on Shabbos about what he believes “is our need to connect to our real selves.” Too much of life is fake and artificial, he adds, and he says that young children, especially teenagers, are sensitive when they detect that we may be going through the motions and have lost some intensity or connection to the reality of our faith.
“There is too much insincerity, and kids see it and it sends the wrong kind of signals,” he says. The young rabbi, the son of Congregation Shaaray Tefila of Lawrence spiritual leader Rabbi Dovid Weinberger, emphasizes that he plans to communicate to his growing shul members that telling the children how you prefer they conduct themselves is more often than otherwise not sufficient. He says that it is vital that parents set a true living example for their children, and that if it is not real or if it is some kind of act, today’s children are likely to detect that.
“What does a child see a parent get enthusiastic about?” he asks rhetorically. “Is it only about making money or acquiring a new car or the new iPhone?” Rabbi Weinberger says that he believes that young parents today have the opportunity to make important adjustments in their lives before a misunderstood impression is generated to children. “A parent today who was brought up with a solid yeshiva education needs to wonder whether his children are absorbing his enthusiasm for life being rooted in his excitement about coming home after learning with a chavrusa, a study partner, or a particularly good and inspiring davening.
“I plan to tell my congregation on Shabbos Shuvah that it is vitally important that we all need to get real about life and make Hashem—the existence of G‑d—an active part of our everyday life,” the rabbi said.
Rav Simcha Kook is the longtime Chief Rabbi of the city of Rehovot in Israel. He is also the rav of the rebuilt and majestic Churva shul in the Old City of Jerusalem. I spoke with Rav Kook the other day about his thoughts for the upcoming Shabbos Shuvah derashah that he annually delivers in Rehovot.
“I’m thinking this year about the Beit HaMikdash and the avodah or service of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur,” says Rav Kook, who is a Kohen. He says that he plans to focus his remarks this year on where he believes the answer is located to all that plagues the Jewish community on a communal as well as personal level. “We have to pray to Hashem as if we were in the Beit HaMikdash with our prayers reaching the heavens directly from the Holy of Holies,” the rav says.
Another local young rabbi whose congregation is for the most part even younger than him is Rabbi Yissachar Blinder of the Ahavas Yisroel shul located on Peninsula Boulevard on the Cedarhurst-Woodmere border. Rabbi Blinder plans to address a number of issues at this year’s derashah, challenging his congregants with a number of declarations and questions. For example, he says, he plans to tell his shul, “It’s easy to say that this year will be different, but then we have to recall that we said the same thing last year and the year before that. A person has to honestly look inside and see who he really is. We have to ask of ourselves, ‘What am I supposed to be doing? Who is the real me? And what can I really be?’”
The truth is, Rabbi Blinder says, that a person has no clue what he is capable of until he gives it a fair try. And on the subject of good old fundamental middos, Rabbi Blinder will tell his shul, “Having good middos is intelligent; having bad middos is stupid.”
Rabbi Pesach Schmerling is the Chabad shliach in Far Rockaway. He conducts services at the Bnos Bais Yakov building on Beach 9th Street in Far Rockaway and will be delivering his derashah this Shabbos on the matter of teshuvah. “It says in the Zohar that Shabbos blesses the six days following it. It follows that in a sense Shabbos Shuvah is higher than Yom Kippur as it blesses Yom Kippur. Yom Kippurim is KePurim, like Purim, but only like and not the same, as we have to fast on Yom Kippur unlike Purim when we feast,” says the rabbi. “All the days of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah one may fast (even on Rosh Hashanah, when it is forbidden to fast, the Shulchan Aruch discusses a situation where one would have to fast), except for Shabbos Shuvah when there is a mitzvah to eat. In this we find the uniqueness of this Shabbos over Yom Kippur.”
There are two approaches to teshuvah. One is to be removed from the world, as on Yom Kippur when we are similar to angels (wearing white, not eating, etc.). The other is within the world, which is symbolized by Shabbos in general (as chassidus teaches the connection of teshuvah to Shabbos, which has the same letters as toshev) and especially Shabbos Shuvah. Rabbi Schmerling will address the combination of both approaches in teshuvah and how both are needed in our avodah.
Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag of the Island Shul in Woodmere plans to talk to his kehilah about the importance of contributing to the Klal, to the community at large. “It’s not sufficient to be satisfied with what we call ‘doing your own thing’ anymore,” he says. “We have to be aware that we are part of a community, and that on both a material and spiritual level our contributions are required and needed.”
He says that he plans to urge his congregants to become more aware in the New Year that there are people around them that can use their assistance in a variety of ways. It is not unusual today, Rabbi Ralbag says, to feel that you want to arrive home at night and just keep the doors and windows locked, shutting out the world around us. “That’s not our way and it was not the way of our mothers, fathers, and our sages,” the rabbi said.
Rabbi Hershel Billet, one of the deans of the American Orthodox rabbinate and the rav of the Young Israel of Woodmere, says that his derashah will take a unique look at the various dimensions of teshuvah. His topic is a look at a unique dimension of teshuvah, or more specifically, teshuvah and its impact on one’s character.
When we do a conventional teshuvah or repentance and you adjust some of your actions or old habits, the rabbi asks, does that make you a better person? He explains that he plans on integrating ideas from the Rambam, Rav J.B. Soloveitchik, and Rav Yitzchok Hutner on the subject. Rabbi Billet will present his thesis that if doing a proper teshuvah involved dealing with one’s character or requires that you change to the point that you become a different person, then that is what is required of you by the mitzvah of teshuvah—that is to become a different person.
For me, this time of year was about a rav that I had the privilege of davening with on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for about 15 years until his passing at the age of 100 a few years ago. Rabbi Yakov Nayman, as far as I can recall, never really spoke on Shabbos Shuvah. If there was a derashah in his shul in Lawrence, known as Bais Medrash HaRav, it was usually delivered by someone that Rav Nayman would defer to. I’m sure that in his almost 50 years as a rabbi in Chicago, he delivered many a Shabbos Shuvah derashah.
But he did indeed address us at certain times over these very special days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As I recall, he used to speak to us on Rosh Hashanah before the blowing of the shofar and sometimes on Yom Kippur prior to Neilah.
Rabbi Nayman was a very unique and special man. He escaped war-torn Europe in the 1940’s and made his way with the Mir Yeshiva to Shanghai. Through his special style he managed to bring the ways of the shtetl to America and transmit those values to many thousands of people in both Chicago and New York.
I recall that when Rav Nayman would speak it would be with a lot of heart and passion. When he spoke, you were able to detect that this was not just a man or a rabbi speaking, it was his collective personal experiences being brought to the fore. It was the history of the Jewish people of nearly a century pouring out of him, urging us to beseech the heavens on behalf of K’lal Yisrael.
Very often his message was about something that is mentioned in this week’s Torah reading in Vayelech. It is the allusion to what we have come to know as “hester panim,” that is G‑d’s admonishing of us by His concealing His countenance. The Torah refers to it as “Haster aster.” Rabbi Nayman seemed preoccupied and puzzled by the extent and nature of G‑d’s hiddenness from us for so long. But despite the concealment and the frustration of G‑d’s seeming lack of involvement in our lives, Rav Nayman knew not just that it wasn’t so but that we were indeed experiencing daily miracles wrought directly upon us by His benevolent hand.
In fact, if we suffer from anything of this nature in this day and age, it is the meaning behind the use of that double expression translated as “hidden, it shall be hidden.” One commentary insists that the duplicate expression is best explained as “G‑d’s hiddenness will itself be hidden from us.” The fact is that He is very much in our lives, but the problem is that the reality of His role in our everyday lives is not only hidden from us, but we are personally unable to see this or recognize it.
I believe that more than anything, year after year, that’s what frustrated Rav Nayman. That is our lack of recognition of this inability to see and appreciate clear G‑dliness in our lives. It was during that last year on Rosh Hashanah before the shofar was sounded that he stood before us and with every ounce of his strength emphasized and reiterated this point. He would sigh and sometimes pound the lectern begging us to pray for Hashem to reveal Himself in a more open fashion. That last year before he was hospitalized for the last time he was in shul on Yom Kippur, but before Neilah he said that he was just too weak to speak. I suppose that everything had already been said.
G’mar chasimah tovah to all.
• • •
Rachel Baron, a’h
I received an e-mail shortly before yom tov began on Sunday. It stated simply, “We lost Rachel Baron.”
Mrs. Baron was a woman of immense spirit and enormous faith. Though she struggled for years with a debilitating illness, she fought back like a tiger staring death down repeatedly with a deeply abiding love for her neighbor and faith in Hashem. On the occasions when I met her, it was usually because she was involved in or concerned about the needs of others. My wife, Esta, relates to me that for years on Rosh Chodesh at the Ohel Sara group in Lawrence, Rachel would lead the singing of the Hallel and that she would sing His high praises with melodious style and spirit.
Despite her illness, she insisted on attending every simcha that she was physically able to, even if it meant being brought out in the heat or in the snow and pushed to shul in a wheelchair. She wanted more than anything to share other people’s joy with them. That she endured what she did for so long is one of G‑d’s carefully held secrets and an aspect of the mystery of that hiddenness that will someday be revealed, clarified, and understood. May her memory be a blessing for her family for all the people of Israel.
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.