Same Place Last Year

As Rosh Hashana davening concluded, I once again felt an ambivalence of relief that I made it through the lengthy tefillos and contentment that for once during the year, I reached down into the depths of my neshama and attempted to spiritually connect with Avinu v’Malkeinu.

Rosh Hashana has always been the most difficult day for me – and that includes Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, it’s all about my foibles, my inadequacies and my abject failures. The person I am today, as an individual, a husband, a father and above all, a Jew, is completely exposed to the Borei Olam. And to the extent that I can articulate the viduy with kavanah and sincerity, I have bitachon that I will indeed be forgiven if for no other reason than He loves me. I certainly don’t intend to trivialize my aveiros, but He’s forgiven us so many times since Adam HaRishon and for far greater aveiros than mine, there’s no reason to think now will be different. Regardless of what we’ve done or failed to do, He still loves us and protects us. Rosh Hashana, however, is an entirely separate matter.

Honestly, I dread Rosh Hashana. Part of it, of course, is the long davening. But the trepidation I feel even before we begin blowing shofar on Rosh Chodesh Elul is rooted in the absence of that which embodies Yom Kippur. It’s not about kapora. It’s not even all about teshuva. Sure, we’re obligated to begin the teshuva process. But it is not about me, or at least not the person I am today. It’s about the person I can, and should, become tomorrow. Who will I be during the coming year? It is taught that after a hundred and twenty years, one of the questions we will be confronted with isn’t why we weren’t as great as Moshe Rabbeinu, but why we weren’t as great as our own selves. That sends shivers down my spine. Each year, I worry whether I will actualize the potential that Hashem knows I possess and expects of me? And each year like the year before it, I fear that I will fail. Standing before HaKodesh Borochu in the same place I was last year is terrifying. What will I say? How will I know whether He’ll accept me? Worse yet, given my track record, what exactly do I say to persuade Him that I am worth His taking another chance on me?

Rabbi Mordechai Rhine, a Rav in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, writes a weekly Torah “Parsha Message.” As Musaf concluded on the Second Day, I read his Rosh Hashana message in which he recounted a moving and inspiring story. A young boy ran away from home. Years later, having regretted his rash decision, he wanted to return home to his parents but was unsure if they would accept him so he decided to write them a letter. He wrote, “Dear Mom and Dad, I know that I must have hurt you very much when I ran away. I would like to come back but I will understand it if you don’t want me to. So here is what I ask. If you would like me to come back, please place a kerchief on the apple tree in the backyard. When I pass by on the train, I will be able to see the tree. If the kerchief is there, I will get off at the next stop and come home. If not, I will understand and just continue on my way.” Several days later, the young man boarded a train to his hometown. As the train got closer to his home, he sensed a fear beginning to overtake him. What if his parents didn’t want him back? What if the kerchief was not tied on the apple tree? As the train neared the final bend before the backyard would come into view, the young man couldn’t bear to look. He turned to his seatmate and said, “Excuse me sir, but can you do me a favor. As we turn the bend, can you look out for the big apple tree in the yard? Just glance at it and tell me if there is a kerchief hanging from its branches.” The seatmate, unable to figure out why the young man was so agitated about a kerchief, graciously agreed to look. As the train turned the corner and the tree came into view, the seatmate gave a gasp. “What is it?” the young man asked, “Is there a kerchief there or not?” Those seconds seemed like hours to the young man. Finally, the seatmate responded, “Who would have thought? The whole tree is adorned with kerchiefs.”

With tears welling up in my eyes, I finally achieved clarity on the ambivalence that had eluded me all these years. Hashem has far more emuna in me than I do in myself. I have no doubt that He will always do His part, because He loves me and knows what’s best for me and my family. And above all, He believes in me. The young man that couldn’t bear to look at the tree was, at least in his own mind, that same little boy who had run away years before. To his parents though, he was anything but. Everyday, we’re running. Running to work, running at work, running home, running at home, running to bed and running to do it all over again. Some run faster than others and some run farther. But very few of us run toward Hashem. After an entire year of running, we arrive at Rosh Hashana and can’t bear to look for the kerchief because all we see is that we’re in the same place we were last year. We can’t, or don’t, see ourselves as any different and can easily understand if He won’t either. And yet, to Him we are neither the same person nor are we in the same place as last year. He clearly sees where we were yesterday, last week, last month and last year. If we’re lucky, we might recognize our accomplishments and improvements over ten, twenty or thirty years. But for that ever so slight, even microscopic, difference He sees in us, we’re still worth the world to Him.

May we all be granted a G’mar Chasima Tova, a gut g’bentched yohr and the strength to spend Atzeres Yemai Teshuva implementing even the most modest measures that will allow us to be zoche to stand before HaKodesh Borochu in a better place next year.

9 comments on “Same Place Last Year

  1. maybe it’s the copyright lawyer in me but that story sounds a great deal like “Tie a Yellow Ribbon round the Old Oak Tree”

  2. David-WADR,At the risk of summarizing and inadequately quoting RYBS, I look foward to the Yamim Noraim.These are days when Lifnie HaShem is in the air, especially from the Maariv of RH, when we engage in the “crowning of HaShem” as the King.

    RH, especially, is a day on which we basically reemphasize three basics of Hashkafa 101-Hashem is (1)the King,(2) is aware of everything and (3) acts in history. We tend to lose sight of these basics during the course of the year and we need to proclaim them again for our benefit and to say Kvachol, that we believe in them before we have the temerity and chutzpaph to ask HaShem to forgive us. RH is a very unique day-we use the Shofar to wake us up and also to remind us of these basic concepts. Yet, we do not say Vidui or Selichos and it is a Yom Tov.

    On both RH and YK, the Machzor contains a huge difference between the Tzibbur and Yachid. That is intentional-While an individual stands almost defenseless in judgment, the identification with the comunity provides huge weapons of defense and helps immeasureably in attaining kaparah and taharah. There is also a tension in the Machzor on both RH and YK between Gadlus HaAdam and Katnus HaAdam.

    Moreover, there is an amazing Ramban in Parshas Emor where Ramban states that RH is a Yom Din Brachamim and that YK is a Yom Rachamim Badin. When you put that Ramban together with another Ramban in Acharei Mos on the purpose of the Seir HaMisthlaech, we see that HaShem wants us to do teshuvah and that the Seir LaAzazel represents all of the efforts that we wasted our time on, as opposed to a real Karban.

    FWIW, every year, I try to gain an additional level of understanding of the Machzor. From my POV, it greatly enhances my sense of the Kedushas HaYom.

  3. “Hashem has far more emuna in me than I do in myself. I have no doubt that He will always do His part, because He loves me and knows what’s best for me and my family. And above all, He believes in me.”

    Brilliant! Thanks for a neshama-energizing posting, David.

  4. Thanks for that inspiring food for thought. Good timing, both for reflection and for preparation of Yom Kippur.

  5. Yasher koach! I agree that it’s often hard to see our progress from year to year, so it’s great to hear a reminder that Hashem sees the change in ourselves even if we don’t.

    I had a striking example of this happen to me on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. At the Shabbas table we were talking with our guests about a certain theme of Rosh Hashanah that is hard to understand, and we all gave our takes on it. At the end of the conversation I remembered that we had the exact same conversation last year before Rosh Hashanah, with the very same people, and then too we had difficulty understanding the same concept!

  6. The theme of Rosh Hashanah is our yearning for HaShem’s kingship over His creation to be manifest to the people of the world. The pain we feel when we see examples that this is not yet the case, and the hope we have that HaShem will reveal Himself to all as King this year drive the emotion of our prayers. I was very moved in particular by the second day’s Haftarah portion.

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