Erev Yom Kippur, 5778
G-d does speak to us. He speaks to us in numerous ways at various times; sometimes quite directly and personally, at times less so. He is not limited in how often he communicates; it is we who are limited in how well we listen and how often we hear. As we grow older, gain experience and become humbler, our hearing improves – at least our hearing of G-d’s messages improves provided we practice the art of listening out for them.
Hashem speaks though coincidence, suffering and sometimes, through large dramatic events. But this year, as we watched large dramatic events unfold on the American continent I knew that Hashem might be about to communicate with us in different, quieter, less dramatic and more personal ways. As two unprecedented (in this part of the world) hurricanes hit the continent followed by an unusually devastating series of earthquakes I thought of the word of Hashem to Eliyahu:
And He said: See, Hashem will be passing by and a large and powerful wind will split mountains and shatter rocks before Hashem; not in the wind will G-d be. And after the wind, an earthquake; not in the earthquake is Hashem. And after the earthquake, fire; not in the fire is G-d. And after the fire…a very quiet, fine sound. (Melachim 1:19, 11-12)
So, after the natural disasters, I listened, I listened very, very carefully. I am sure I was not the only one who heard the kol demmama dakka (the very quiet, fine sound). In my case the message I heard, as subtle as it was, was life changing.
There’s how it happened:
Just before Rosh Hashanah, I am in Johannesburg teaching and consulting to a client. On Shabbat Parshat Ki Tavoh, I am visiting friends. Early that morning standing in my friend’s study, I reach out to take a sefer from his bookshelf. It is a new edition of Reb Tzadok Hacohein’s Tzidkat Hatzadik, an edition I didn’t know existed. I open it on its first page and I study paragraphs 1 through 3. I am moved by two ideas. I put the book back in its place as I prepare for shul. The intensity of my work and travel schedule right after Shabbat, causes me to forget the two ideas I saw.
Fast forward to Rosh Hashanah. In shul, I page through a sefer I had brought with me. It is an anthology of insights from the Mussar School of Kelm. In it I find a moving thought: When saying the first three words of any beracha, “Baruch Attah Hashem” (You, Hashem, are blessed…) it is possible, for an instant, to feel yourself in the immediate presence of the Shachinah (Hashem’s presence).
Later that same day, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, back at my home I reach out to my bookshelf to look at my own older version of Tzidkat Hatzadik, the book I looked at in Johannesburg. I find the piece I saw at my friend’s home and had subsequently forgotten. As I saw the idea again in the book I was holding, I recalled the thought and also saw the thought from paragraph 2 which I had forgotten. The idea in paragraph 2 turned out to be exactly the same idea that I had seen in Shul a few hours earlier in a completely different work. Even when I saw the idea in shul, it didn’t trigger my memory back to the idea I had seen in in my friend’s home not even two weeks earlier.
The idea, as expressed by Reb Tzadok Hacohein, is:
“In the beginning of a Beracha, Hashem should be present in front of your eyes as if He is standing before you directing you to do the mitzvah you are about to do. Then, in a moment, Hashem disappears again. This is why the first part of a Beracha is expressed in the second person (you) and the second part of the beracha refers to G-d in the third person (He).”
The strangest part of all, is that this piece is underlined in my hand in my copy of the book at home. I must have seen it and noticed it many years ago, and had forgotten about it. Even when I first saw it again at my friend’s home, it didn’t trigger any familiarity.
So, over the period running up to Rosh Hashanah and on Rosh Hashanah itself I was thrice taken to an idea I had seen many years ago, and forgotten. An idea of how to manifest Hashem each of the one hundred times a day we say a Beracha. It happened in a “random” way – but, nothing is truly random if we opt into a life of Hashgacha. To me this was a very quiet wake-up call from Hashem, teaching me a skill that would be important for me to know and to practice in the days and years to come. I have practiced it since Rosh Hashanah, and when I am successful, the effect is astonishing, even though, as Reb Tzadok says, it lasts just a moment.
But why, I wondered, did it not make enough of an impression on me when I first saw it and underlined it years ago?
Suddenly it became clear to me. At that time, when I was younger, it was interesting information but didn’t penetrate my heart. At that stage of my life my mind was forming and growing far more actively than my heart was. Knowledge was more intellectual than emotional. We remember the things that make an impression on our hearts much more effectively than we remember information in our minds. “Write them on the tablets of your hearts,” King Solomon advises us in Mishlei 7:3. Memory requires the active transference of ideas and even facts, from mind to heart. When I asked my friend, Rabbi Feldman of Benei Berak, how he remembers every detail about so many people around the world, he answered: “One only forgets what’s in the mind. When I meet people, they make an impression in my heart. The heart never forgets anything.”
Why then, I wondered next, did Hashem bring this insight about the Beracha back to my attention so forcefully this year? Why, after seeing it three times in two weeks, did it impress my heart this time, not just my mind? Why this time did I start practicing whereas last time I saw it so many years ago, it remained theoretical knowledge for me?
My conclusion was that I just wasn’t emotionally and spiritually developed enough then, as a young man, to fully grasp the idea and to be able to act on it. To spend even an instant in Hashem’s presence requires a level of humility that we often don’t have as young people – at least I didn’t. Only through decades of life experience and growth might one reach a stage where one can say a beracha as we are meant to, and even then it is hard enough and mostly we don’t. This reminded me of how when working out, for example lifting weights or doing press-ups, it is really the last few repetitions that deliver the most value and strengthen the muscle. So it is also with life. There are things that will only really add spiritual value to the strengthening of our souls when they follow years and years of working up to it. We need decades of practice and life experience to get to a point when just a moment in saying a Beracha can be so deeply transformational.
When I shared this thought with my wife, she added the insight that perhaps Neilah is similar. The last moments of Yom Kippur can deliver life-changing power, but much more so if it is the culmination of nearly six weeks of buildup. Neilah is just a moment in time; but what a moment! Yeish koneh Olamo besha’ah achat — One can capture a universe of one’s potential in just a moment.