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Mordechai Soskil

How Are You?

How are you?

I’ve noticed these last couple of weeks that people use the phrase, “How are you?” or “How you doin’?” or the maybe the worst, “How’s everything?” as a response to “Good morning!” I know that it’s a polite social convention, but it’s grating on me. How am I?

Let’s over Talmudicize this for a minute. Let’s say that there are two ways to understand the phrase, “How are you?” On the one hand, it could mean nothing. It’s just a habituated response to a greeting. It doesn’t mean anything at all. They don’t care how you are. Or maybe they are actually asking how you are doing in which case you have two options; respond, “Fine. And you?” Or you can be honest. But can you imagine what the world would look like if as a follow up to, “Good morning,” you had to actually tell people how you are?

This was on my mind for all the reasons you can imagine, and mostly because every time someone asks how I am, and I say “great” or “awesome” or some other uplifting, positive and socially acceptable response I feel like in some small way I’m turning my back on our people. Somewhere, a long time ago in my teaching career I heard a quote that resonates with me. “When the principal sneezes the whole school gets a cold.” I know that my attitude has an outsized impact on my environment in school, so I work hard to keep a positive spin on everything. Sharing stories about the amazing works of chessed our alumni are doing in Israel, and sharing videos about Shabbos and Simcha and light, and prayer, and all the things we can and should be doing. I’m saying Tehillim and focusing on davening and working in my own small niche of the world to improve Shalom where it’s been damaged. I’m doing the things we do and saying the things we say. But how am I?

I hope you won’t realize that this is a fragment of a lyric from a Taylor Swift song when I say it, but I’m not fine at all.

I’m not fine that there are over 200 Jewish people torn away from their families and that the families are in a constant, unrelenting state of worry and panic. I’m not fine that there are wonderful Jewish families torn from their homes and living as refugees. I’m not fine that our soldiers have to be in such danger and that these are my students and my cousins and my friends’ children there. These are not just “Israeli soldiers,” these are people I know and love. I’m not fine that my students have to hide the part of their identity we worked so hard to cultivate in school in order to be safe on campus. And I’m really not fine when I think about what 10 years from now might look like if these protestors on campus are the academic elite and the future of our country. And I hope you won’t realize that this is a fragment of a lyric from 5 Seconds of Summer when I say it, but I’m not fine at all.

Since the war began and our lives were all changed forever, my oldest daughter got married, we had the requisite week of Sheva Brachos, and we had a very special Bar Mitzvah in the family. At these events and here at school I’ve had to try and explain to myself and to others how we can possibly go about living regular lives in such irregular times. One answer I’ve tried is that we should NOT be living regular lives. In the Mishkan and the Beit Hamikdash there were vessels that all served a function. The golden mizbeach was where they burned the incense. The Menorah was lit each evening. The golden table held the miraculously fresh Lechem HaPanim bread. But the Aron – the Ark – served no function. It just sat in the Holy of Holies. It was never used as part of the temple service. (And if you are scholarly to object and say, “Hey! They used it on Yom Kippur when the Kohen Gadol burned incense near it and sprinkled some sacrificial blood on it!,” then you are also scholarly enough to know that they did all of those things during the second Beit Hamikdash without the Aron there. So you see it was not an integral part of the service.) The only function of the Aron was to hold the Luchot – the tablets. It was a point on earth where G-d’s presence rested in a profoundly evident way. It was that point that connected heaven and earth and the upper realms of angels and the mundane realm of mortals. It didn’t have a ritual function, but it was the main purpose of everything. Because the Jewish people are defined by what we kept inside the Kodesh HaKadoshim. What was so deeply held in that sacred, inner chamber defined who we are much more than any particular act of service. We’re defined by what we keep in the Kodesh HaKadoshim.

Rabbi Chaim Volozhoner in his Nefesh HaChaim reveals that the inner most part of a Jews mind, the thing we hold deeply in our heart, IS a Kodesh HaKadoshim. It is the holy of holies. He means that in a mystical way that highlights how our physical bodies and our souls mirror the world and G-d’s presence. But I suggest it’s true in this way too. What we keep in our Kodesh Hakadoshim is what defines us. We can make weddings and go to Bar Mitzvahs and cheer on the varsity boy’s soccer team in the conference championship, but in our hearts, in our most inner, sacred place, we can’t ever step away from our prayers for protection and the safe return of our hostages. We shouldn’t be living regular lives now.

Seven years ago my son was in what we politely call, “an accident” but actually involved him falling 60 feet off the side of a mountain. This week we had our annual family gathering on the (Hebrew) anniversary of the fall to give thanks for his (our) miracle. During the months long recovery period, somewhere at the point where he could transfer to a wheelchair and leave the house but still had debilitating nerve pain, but before starting physical therapy to learn to walk again, somewhere in there a friend asked, “How’s Shua?” And I said, “Good. Baruch HaShem,” because it was good and Boruch Hashem, but it was still very much in the middle and there was a long way to go. But this friend responded with, “Oh! Good! He’s better? That’s great.” And I was totally dumbfounded that he understood, “good” as “all better.” That little vignette is on my mind now because, what if I say, “good,” and people think I mean, “I’m fine.” Because I’m not fine. But I guess I’m moving forward.

Modern day secular saint, Mr. Fred Rogers, told people that in the face of hurt and evil we should look for the helpers. There are helpers. So many Jewish people doing so many things, physical and spiritual, it’s amazing. From people who have risked their mental wellbeing to recover and bury the victims, to people who work day and night to add some comfort to the displaced. We are an amazing people. It’s an honor to be a Jew. There are voices in the political sphere and the academic sphere still understand truth and goodness and the difference between a fight to defend, survive, and exist and an attempt to terrorize and exterminate. Hearing from my students in Israel about their work to serve the people and keep growing in learning makes me smile.  I’m not fine. But I guess I’m moving forward.

I don’t think that this is the whole solution. I don’t think that focusing on the good fixes everything. And I hope you recognize that this is a fragment of a lyric from the Indigo Girls when I say that the more I can focus my attention on the helpers and the work I can control, the more I can keep just moving forward, the closer I am to fine.

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He is also the author of a highly regarded book on faith and hashkafa titled "Questions Obnoxious Jewish Teenagers Ask." He and his wife Allison have 6 children. And a blessedly expanding herd of grandchildren.
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