Harry Zeitlin
Grateful Every Day, Modeh Ani Lefanecha!

Love, Respect, Responsibility-Yom Kippur תשפא/2021

Much of my Torah study focus these past years has been Zohar. One of its major themes describes (in great detail and from almost unlimited perspectives) how The Creator, through an incredibly complex process, reduced and reconfigured the Infinite Light, the unimaginable Pure Energy, in a way to first make a space for our world, to then provide it with everything it needs and also manages it so we, fragile humans and other life forms here on earth, are not overwhelmed with too much energy.

While contemplating this process we can’t help but ask why He would go to so much effort. Being All-Powerful, He could have chosen to bring our world into being with, in manner of speaking, a mere finger-snap. This is actually a secondary question since the most obvious question is why God bothered to create the world, with Man in his position “at the top of the foodchain” at all. God, lacking nothing, certainly didn’t need a plaything.

Ramchal, in his basic introduction to how the world works and what it really is, Derech Hashem, The Way Of God, simply states that God’s intention is to bestow His good to another (to a being other than Himself) (א, א, 1). Realizing that the absolutely highest Good He can bestow is Himself. And while we can’t really understand, let alone begin to describe His Essence, we do know that it includes אור אין סוף, Or Ein Sof, infinite energy.

Working with the principle, Sof Maase b’Machshava Techila, סוף מעשה במחשבה תכילה that the ultimate goal is the very first thing conceived, from the very beginning, Creation was done with Man’s Being in mind. Everything that was done, that needed to be done, to create a livable, nurturing environment so that Man can then earn his ultimate reward (God’s Goodness), was planned and executed from the very first step.

One thing that stands out to me is the Infinite Love that motivates the entire process. Without this love, or with lesser love, why go to all this trouble? Likewise, why make our living so filled with challenges which often (usually?) so overwhelm us, that force us to our very limits to merely survive, let alone to overcome?

The optimal mechanism The Creator gives man to experience the Ultimate Good is the opportunity to, as much as possible, resemble God, even to the point of not only being enabled to create, but also to look beyond ourselves and to use our creativity to benefit not only our own selfish desires, but the needs and desires of others. The very act of creating, on every level and in every realm of endeavor,be it artistic, design, communication, science (including medical research, in order for this essay to be timely…..) is one of the most joyous in which Man can participate. Man’s ultimate act of creation, creating a new human being, is based on the very definition of pleasure. We have been created, designed from the very beginning, to be creators.

As Jews, we believe in an active and present God. Merely to acknowledge Him as The Creator is not enough because the very idea that He threw together the ingredients of life and then took off for “Parts Unknown”, the “Clockmaker” thesis paints God as malign and negligent. While not falling off the cliff on the opposite side and viewing God as manipulating the world minute-by-minute, we do see Him overseeing, quietly (silently?) advising, always involved. It’s a delicate balance to emerge to Create and then to partially withdraw in order to allow us the most independence and responsibiity we, as humans, are able to shoulder in order to continuously maximize our access to Him as the Ultimate Good we’re able to experience. Not only is a balance like that, at least from our point of view (remember that God is All-Capable and All-Powerful) almost impossible to conceive, let alone perform, it is also exactly within our abilities. God maintains His responsibility for us the creatures He created.

Thus, we’re not merely empowered and enjoined to create, but we’re also obligated to to act responsibility. In Bereshit (Genesis 18) charges man l’avdah u’lashomrah, to work and protect the earth, especially the delicately balanced mechanism by which we receive sustenance in exchange for our responsibility. Our “job”(s) in the world are constant and constantly changing as conditions evolve and change.

And this brings me to Yom Kippur תשפא/2020, one of the strangest and most challenging New Years any humans have experienced. Not only are we besieged, world-wide, which the pandemic plague of Covid-19, the earth itself seems on fire with record high temperatures over much of the globe. There have been massive fires, in the western United States as well as in New England, Scandinavia, Brasil, Central Africa, Siberia, much of Southeast Asia, New Zealand, and Central America (all of which, remember, are also experiencing the Covid Pandemic!). There have recently been devastating  earthquakes from Alaska, Russia, Mexico, New Zealand and more as well as unusually high volcano occurrences. One could be forgiven for speculating that, maybe God Himself is less-than-pleased with our stewardship.

Locally, here in Israel, even in the strictest lockdown against the corona virus, I see barely over 50% of the people I cross on the streets properly wearing masks or keep reasonable distance from other people. When those of us who have tried to comply with the restrictions are starving for human touch, I see large gangs of people, unmasked, or course, shouting and hugging their ways down the street, either unaware or merely callous to the health risk they not only expose themselves to, but to everyone else on the streets……

Seeing these minimum requirements flaunted once the first lockdown of the first wave (when we here in Israel were the examples to the world of how to stand together to fight this plague) was relaxed, it’s certainly obvious to me why we’re in our pressent lockdown.

I daily see not only selfishness, but a complete lack of feeling responsible not only for others but for themselves. Underlying this irresponsibility is a glaring lack of love, not only for others, but even for oneselves. While many individuals continue exemplary behavior, as a nation we’ve dropped the ball. Whether from exhaustion, from contempt for each other and contempt towards The Creator, we now arrive at Yom Kippur.

The grand theme of these ten days since Rosh Hashana is Tshuvah, returning. With this year being unable to observe this day as we’re accustomed, no support of a kehilla, community, no heartfelt community prayer and song, no intimately sharing each other’s efforts to make this day one of our “repentance” being accepted On High, it seems that one of our very last and meager tools and consolations have been taken from us.

On the other hand, a new opportunity opens for us. Painful as it is, removing the socializing over this chag, doing without the support of group prayer and group supplication and group singing, also frees us from the distraction of the very same things. More than any time in recent memory, we can choose either dispair or we can sieze the opportunity to really focus our own, individual efforts at prayer, meditation, love for the good of all. This is an opportunity and an invitation to really be and do all we can, to model ourselves on The Creator in this unique moment, to work for the common good and not for our individual benefit.

And, perhaps if we succeed in teaching ourselves how to do that, all this pain will have been, somehow, worth it. Here is our opportunity to really try to bring Good to all those around us, relying that they, focused the same way, include our goods even while ignoring their own.

This is how we can turn a disaster into a win-win for all manking.

G’mar Chatima Tova, may we all our shining futures be assured, for ourselves, our families, our communities, our nation and for all humanity.

Ken Yehi Ratzon, Thus may it be His Will.

About the Author
After almost 30 years, Harry Zeitlin returned home to Jerusalem! Growing up in Denver, CO, he began Torah studies at an early age. He also had the privilege of knowing and studying with Rabbi Shloime Twerski zt"l. He graduated from Yale College (BA 1974) with an independent degree in communications, theory-and-practice, focusing on filmmaking and linguistics. Harry had a 45+ year career as a professional artist (photography, to which he is just now returning!) and has played guitar for more than 50 years, in addition to his 30+ years as an orthodox rabbi teaching Torah across the denominational spectrum. He lived in Israel from 1982 - 1989 and returned in 2016. I'M BACK! Grateful every day! Follow his spiritual adventures. He is always available to speak, teach, present a Shabbaton or other workshop. ......or to serenade your group with his guitar.
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