At the age of 57, Rachamim Cohen seemed to have a great life. He was the father of six beautiful children and a proud grandfather, held a Ph.D. in Special Education, worked in a senior position in the Israeli Ministry of Education and published two critically acclaimed books.
One day he began to feel some weakness in his left shoulder and when he recited the Kiddush on Shabbat evening, the cup shook and the wine spilled. Dr. Cohen and his wife Elisheva began to visit numerous specialists before one doctor told him he had Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The doctor outlined the relentless and fatal course of the disease – that he would become paralyzed and, in the final stage, his lungs would stop working. “You will become dependent on other people for everything,” the doctor said, “and you have three to five years to live.”
That was 22 years ago. Since that time, although Rachamim Cohen has become completely paralyzed and can only communicate through a program which tracks his eye movement, this same man begins each day by praying and studying Torah. He continues to go to work where he is consulted by people throughout the world on a myriad of educational issues. He has mastered Photoshop, which allows him to paint with his eyes, and has publicly debated Israeli advocates of euthanasia.
Perhaps most incredibly, since his illness Rachamim Cohen has authored eight new books, with subjects ranging from education to Jewish topics, personal anecdotes to poetry and a book of advice to people suffering from chronic or terminal illness.
How does he do it? How does a someone whose life is so profoundly compromised, manage to function on such a high level? Did Dr. Cohen somehow, after the illness, develop a new capacity to cope with his failed body or did he already possess some quality that he could tap into to confront this new situation?
There is a verse from the Torah which we recite in our daily prayers, in the Az Yashir, the Song at the Sea: U’veruach apecha n’ermu mayim – “And the breath of your nostrils caused the water to pile up” (Exodus, 15: 8). This verse refers to the famous splitting of the Red Sea, when the Jewish people fled Egypt and the sea miraculously split, saving the Jews and drowning their Egyptians pursuers. The great 19th century Chasidic master, the Ruzhiner – Rabbi Israel Friedman of Ruzhyn (Ukraine), interprets the word “apecha”, not as nostrils but as anger, so the verse according to this interpretation reads: “God split the sea out of anger.” To what does this refer? The Ruzhiner quotes the Midrash which says that in the very beginning of time, when God first created the world, He made a deal with the Yam Suf, the Red Sea. God told the sea: “In a number of generations, a people will arrive at the banks of your river and when you see them, I will need you to split so they can be saved.” The Red Sea, of course, agreed but asked: ‘How will I know who these people are?” And so God showed the Red Sea an image, a picture of the Children of Israel who would be there.
Fast forward a few hundred years, the Jewish people are freed from Egyptian slavery, they arrive at the Red Sea, but it does not split on their behalf. God reminds the sea of its promise to split for the Jewish people but the sea responds: “You showed me an image of tzadikim, of a righteous people who were pure and holy. I don’t see such a people. These people are fighting and arguing. These people are carrying objects of idol worship and complaining to Moses, saying ‘Let’s go back to Egypt.’ These are not the people you showed me in the picture.’ God became angry with the sea and said to it: ‘If you will not split for these people then I’ll do it myself’. Hence “God split the sea out of anger.”
What are the sages of the Midrash teaching with this whole argument between God and the Red Sea?
The Ruzhiner suggests that the sea only saw what was on the outside, the externalities. The sea saw a people complaining, afraid of starting a new life. However, God was able to look deeper, past all the complaining and fear to see the potential within this newly freed people. God, the creator of all, knows more than anyone the potential of each person. God sees us for what lies within and not simply the way we act on the outside. We tend to view ourselves based on the actual, but God also sees the potential. We look in the mirror and see a reflection of a lifetime of mistakes. God sees something deeper, something more.
Every morning we say in our prayers: elokai neshama shenatata bi, tehorah hi – “the soul you placed within me is pure.” We acknowledge the existence of something pure and holy within. In the Modeh Ani prayer, when we thank God for returning that soul to us as we arise in the morning, we conclude the prayer with the words: rabbah u’munatecha – “great is your faithfulness.” We don’t say “great is our faith in you, O’ God” but rather “great is your faith in us.” We start our day by acknowledging the faith God has in us to fulfill our purpose and realize our mission in this world.
God knows of the greatness that exists within us. That is why the Hebrew word describing the High Holiday process of getting closer to God is teshuva, which means “return.” Some mistranslate the word as “repentance,” but teshuva really means coming back, implying we are returning to some place we once were. I always thought that was just a more politically correct translation or an encouraging idea meant to keep us in the game, but the Kabbalah teaches that naturally, we are metaphysically connected to God and it is only sin that creates distance.
Teshuva means we are returning to our natural state of spiritual closeness, to our pure souls within. As the Maharal, Rabbi Judah Loew (16th century, Prague) taught, teshuva is the process by which we remove that which stands in the way of who we truly are. And who are we? We are beings closely connected with God who ultimately want to do the right thing. This can be seen in a very strange Jewish law: Maimonides ruled that it is permitted to hit a man who refuses to give his wife a get (a Jewish divorce writ). How is this? We know that a contract which is coerced becomes null and void. However, deep down, within the recesses of one’s pure soul, we believe everyone wants to do the right thing and it’s only the evil inclination that gets in the way. Hitting a person who, like this man, is behaving inappropriately, helps align one’s outward behavior with their deeper inner will, which desires to do the right thing.
And so the goal of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is not to become someone else, or someone new but rather to tap into the deepest part of who we already are. There are sculptors who say that when they sculpt, they’re not creating anything new. The image, they say, is inherent within the stone – they just need to remove the blockages to express what’s already there. Auguste Roden, the great French sculptor said he could see the figure within the block of clay he was sculpting, even before he would begin his work and would sometimes leave some clay to make that point.
This is why we call someone who converts to Judaism a ger shenitgayer, “a convert who has converted”? Of course, someone who converts to Judaism has converted; why not just call the person a ger, a convert? Because someone who converts to Judaism always had within them the spiritual interest to be a Jew. He or she was always a ger, even before they converted. The conversion was just the process of revealing that which was concealed. That is ultimately our task and the mission of the Jewish people – to reveal that which is hidden. It’s also the job of any parent or a teacher. A good teacher isn’t someone who tries to mold their students but as one of my teachers, Rabbi Riskin said, to extract, to reveal that which already exists within their student.
One of the goals of Rosh Hashanah is to align our inner being with our outward, our actual, with our potential. This is one of the reasons why on Rosh Hashanah we read the episode of the akeidah, the binding of Isaac. Right before Abraham is about to slaughter his beloved son, God sends an angel who calls out: Avraham, Avraham al tishlach yadcha el hanar. “Abraham, Abraham: do not raise your hand against the lad.” Why does the angel repeat Abraham’s name? The Yalkut Shimoni (Midrashic source) explains that there are two images every human being possesses – our worldly image and our heavenly image. The worldly image is the actual, what we reveal to the world, what everyone sees, whereas the heavenly image represents our inner self, and the potential – what we could become if we reached within to the depths of our souls. Abraham, after he passed this last of his ten tests, the binding of Isaac, reached his complete potential and so the angel called out his name twice because Abraham’s two images, the worldly and the heavenly, the actual and the potential were now one and the same.
This is why we cannot afford to sell ourselves short when making our new year’s resolutions. It’s why, even if we were not raised in Shabbat observance, we should still ask ourselves: what will we do in the coming year to celebrate Shabbat? Because, even if we aren’t accustomed to observe, we all have some Shabbat within us.
It’s why, even if we didn’t grow up in a particularly Zionist home, we can still ask ourselves what will we do in the coming year to be more connected to Israel? The great mystic and first Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, wrote that deep down, within the soul of every Jew is a love and yearning for Zion and Israel.
Some great sages also wrote this about God: that even a professed atheist has within him or her a love for God. On the surface there may be issues – philosophical, cultural, all sorts of factors that get in the way – what the Kabbalists call klipot, blockages that keep us from being in touch with that deeper part of ourselves. But it’s there. We just have to tap into it which we can do by observing any one of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah. The mitzvot of the Torah were specifically designed to engage the deepest part of who we are, allowing our soul to be revealed in the physical world. Prayer, giving charity, performing acts of chesed (kindness), Torah study and all the other mitzvot enable us to access the purity and holiness of our souls so we can align our actual with our potential.
Rachamim Cohen, who somehow managed to accomplish so much after contracting Lou Gehrig’s disease, had that capacity within him. He’s a hero, not because he became someone else, but because he learned how to access the holiness and strength that lies within.
The sounds of the shofar we heard on Rosh Hashana, are meant to inspire us to look within. To search our deeper selves so we can live our outside lives according to the holiness of our soul within. Let’s not define ourselves simply based on the way we live externally. Close your eyes and envision your inner self, your potential self and then imagine that potential becoming your actual reality, please God, in the coming weeks and months of the New Year. Focus on a mitzvah that you can bring into your new year which will you help you align your actual with your potential. In the merit of that inner vision may God bless us all with a new year of sweetness, good health, meaning and purpose.