How Can We Not Try?

Will it really make a difference?”

That was the question I heard over and over again this past week as I harassed every person I know to take part in the 180 for 180 campaign led by the Orthodox Union. The goal of this letter-writing campaign was to get the attention of the administration in a peaceful yet compelling fashion. Being that this past Wednesday was the 180th day of captivity; 180 days of hell for the remaining hostages, it was impossible to just let that day go by. To bring attention to that terrible milestone and to get the administration’s attention, the decision was made to get 180,000 letters signed, printed, and hand-delivered to the White House on that day.

Over the past few days, as I posted about this campaign daily, as I called anyone I knew encouraging them to participate, the question I heard over and over again was, “Will it really make a difference?”

First of all, it did make a difference. Never in the history of the White House did they get a shipment of letters on this scale. I had the honor of delivering these letters and I could tell you the members of the administration we met with were blown away that this many people made their voices heard in such a short amount of time. I explained to them how one of the days of this 6-day campaign was Shabbos, making it a five-day campaign. It was made clear to us that this would get the President’s attention as we made it clear that a good portion of the Jewish community has spoken.

But I did not know any of that until Wednesday.

Before Wednesday, what I answered to all those who asked me “Will it really make a difference?” was simple –

How could we not try?

The State of Israel is in its most precarious position in decades if not longer. The political tension is reaching a boiling point, half the country is mobilized for war, 100,000 people are displaced, missiles are raining in from all sides, and over 100 men, women, and children are still in captivity. How could we not try?

Yes, we may not get 180,000 letters. Yes, we may not be allowed to bring the letters into the White House. Yes, they may be completely ignored. But with the stakes so high, how could we not try?

* * *

I spent last Shabbos with 450 divorced women. I attended a retreat for an organization called Sister to Sister that provides support to divorced women in the Orthodox community. Some people assumed I was going on vacation. Not exactly. It was intense. There was so much pain in that hotel. So much heartbreak. So many impossible challenges.

I was asked to give a class on prayer. The title of the class was ‘How to Pray in a Distracted World.’ I assumed if you showed up to that class, you were interested in praying, just that you were distracted and were interested in trying to figure out how to navigate the busyness of life with spirituality. But I assumed wrong.

Instead, the majority of people who attended the class didn’t want to pray at all. They were angry with G-d. “Why did He let this happen to me?” “I poured my heart out every day, asking Him to help make my life just a little less miserable, and He didn’t.” Or, “Is He really listening to me? Because it certainly does not seem like it.”

I do not blame them whatsoever for having those questions; after what they have gone through, it is totally understandable. It only occurred to me later that the question they were asking was no different than the question I was facing all week: Do my prayers really make a difference? And what I should have answered them was the exact same thing I was saying all week. Yes, your prayers are not always effective in the way you want them to be. G-d does not always accept our prayers. For our prayers to break through and bring about some quasi-miraculous outcome is not simple. But with the stakes so high, with our life on the line daily, how could we not try?

We have a direct line to the President of the world. Sometimes we won’t get through the gates. Sometimes they will turn us away. Sometimes our message won’t be compelling enough. And yes, that is incredibly demoralizing and crushing. But He’s there and He could do anything He wants. It would be ludicrous to not keep banging on those doors. How could we not try?

* * *

One of the things I learned this past week is the importance of protectzia. It’s a word you hear a lot in Israel, which means having the right connections. The White House never lets a truck full of letters onto their estate. The White House does not just let any delegation show up and make a ruckus. But with the right friends in the right places, with protectzia, it was able to happen.

When we try to access the President of the world, we could also use some protectzia. Who do you have to know to get in with G-d? Which rabbi? Which mekubal? Which chassidishe rebbe?

Allow me to share with you a story about a group of people who were trying really hard to get G-d’s attention and yet they could not. G-d seemed to be ignoring them, leaving them feeling despondent like all their hard work was for naught. About 3500 years ago, the Jewish People built a Mishkan. It was built as an attempt to reconcile with G-d after sinning with the Golden Calf. They donated virtually everything they had to the Mishkan. They spent months of hard labor constructing it according to the intricate Divine design. They spent a week preparing. And finally, vayehi bayom hashmini, it was the eighth day of preparation, inauguration day. G-d had given them instructions; they followed them down to the finest of details. And now they waited for a sign from G-d. Did G-d accept their apology? Did He forgive them? Or did He move on? Because that’s what it seemed like.

They waited for a sign. Nothing.

They waited some more. Nothing.

People were praying with all their heart and soul. But eventually, people started murmuring that they should head back to Egypt. People were losing patience.

Moshe and Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, all entered the Mishkan to pray. Moshe and Aharon entered the Mishkan and immediately turned around, exited, and went to give a blessing to the nation, to comfort them. Nadav and Avihu, in a frenzy of ecstatic prayer, kept on going inwards and brought an offering to G-d.

We all know what happened next. Nadav and Avihu were killed by a heavenly fire. And at the same moment, G-d accepted the gesture of Moshe and Aharon and brought a heavenly fire onto the altar letting the people know that G-d had forgiven them.

These two incidents are not juxtaposed for no reason. There is a profound lesson here. The way we access G-d in Judaism is not through the most soulful prayer, by going deeper and deeper into the sanctuary. No. The way we access G-d is by turning around and making sure His people are cared for. Nadav and Avihu were well-meaning and highly spiritual, but they ignored the people and paid the consequences. Moshe and Aharon held the people’s hands, cared for their needs, calmed their fears, and that was the protectzia needed to bring about G-d’s compassion.

* * *

This story of looking out for others goes back even further to the days leading up to the Exodus. The Jews were given two weeks’ notice about the upcoming holiday of Pesach (imagine only having two weeks to prepare!!). But they did not spend the weeks leading up to Pesach cleaning their homes; their homes in ancient Egypt were tiny. They did not spend the weeks leading up to Pesach packing to leave; they likely had almost no furniture. They had one thing to do. Prepare a lamb. Now how long does it take to find a lamb? Not very long. But it was not enough to find a lamb, they were given a law to consume the lamb on the night of Pesach. Do you know how many people it takes to eat a single lamb? Per my good friends at Google, it takes 45 people! 45 people! No single family can finish one Korban Pesach on their own. It would seem that the Jewish People spent the weeks leading up to Pesach looking around their community and inviting guests. When our Sages tell us that the Korban Pesach was the catalyst for their redemption, it wasn’t the slaughtering or the sprinkling of the blood. It was the fact that the Jewish People opened their doors to others. By opening our door, G-d opened His.

* * *

The Jewish People are facing an unprecedented threat. Who would have thought that October 7th would have happened? And who would have thought that things would get worse for the Jews in Israel and abroad since then? We need G-d’s assistance. We need a miracle.

Yes, protesting is important. Yes, prayer is essential. But we have connections. The best way to enter the Divine Presidential Palace is by making sure that the President’s children – that G-d’s children are cared for. There is a little over two weeks left until Pesach. Take a moment to think about who may appreciate an invitation, whether it’s for the seder or whether it’s for any of the many meals over Pesach. There are so many people around us carrying impossible burdens. There is so much pain and fear in the world. We may not be successful. But with all that is at stake, how could we not try?

The above was delivered as a sermon at Ner Tamid, Baltimore, for Parshat Shmini

About the Author
Yisrael Motzen, a native of Montreal, Canada, serves as rabbi of Ner Tamid Greenspring Valley Synagogue in Baltimore, MD. He is a graduate of Ner Israel Rabbinical College and holds an M.A. in Clinical Community Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.
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