For Shemini Atzeret, here is a great joke along with a beautiful lesson from the Rebbe that I heard from Rabbi Schneur Kaplan of Fort Lauderdale’s Downtown Jewish Center Chabad.
A 60-year old guy goes to the doctor for his annual check up. The results come back and the doctor says to the man that his numbers and everything looks great, and he’s in perfect health and must have great genes. The doctor asks the man, “How old did you father live to?” The man says, “My father, he’s still alive and swims, golfs, and even skies frequently.” The doctor marvels at this and asks, “Well how long did your grandfather live to?” The man responds again, “My grandfather, he’s still alive too and at 99-years old, he’s about to be get married again.” The doctor is truly amazed now, and asks “What makes a 99-year old man want to get married?” The man answers, “Well his mother is pushing him into it!” 🙂
Rabbi Kaplan asked, “What’s so special about this eighth day after the seven days of Sukkot—why do we even need this eighth day?” The Rabbi explained that the eighth day is called Atzeret, which mean to stop. On this day, we stop to absorb the whirlwind of the last few weeks of Jewish holidays from Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. Before we go back to the “real world” again, we need to internalize the introspection, teshuvah, and changes we made in ourselves during the holidays and bind ourselves to carrying through on it through the rest of the year! Unlike a typical New Year’s resolution, we want to actually live up to our goals for betterment. Rabbi Kaplan said for example, “What new mitzvah will you add or be better at this year? If you put on tefillin one day a week, maybe this year you could do two days or week or even every day. If you didn’t keep kosher, well maybe this year you could keep kosher at least or home or even keep fully kosher.” The idea is that improvement is incremental and requires not only taking it upon yourself for the holidays, but to carry through with it all year long.
Later, at the kiddish in the Rabbi’s succah, Rabbi Kaplan continued that the Rebbe’s message was that self-improvement was really about helping others! All the changes we commit to around the Jewish New Year and make in ourselves is not really about us, but rather about us being able to develop ourselves in order to “give it all away” to help others. Too often, people think in terms of self-help, self-improvement, where everything is sort of in terms, well, ourselves–my looks, my degrees, my career, my bank account, my family, and so on. However, people should not lose sight that everything that Hashem gives us is really for a higher spiritual purpose, for giving to others or “paying it forward.” In this vein, we learn Torah not just for the sake of learning, but rather in order to actually do Mitzvot! Rabbi Kaplan explained that the Rebbe would make each and every person feel special and important. Why? Because by building up the individual, each could then go out and build up the world. And this is one of the reasons that I love and respect Chabad so much—from my experience, people like Rabbi Kaplan and Chabad in general, are all about living this life lesson from the Rebbe and giving, giving, and then giving some more in order to really improve the Jewish community globally and by extension the world.
Going back to the little joke at the beginning about the guy’s good health and that of his many generations of family, the good health is not just just physical that we are looking for, but also spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and social. We want to be “healthy” and self-improve so we can do good in this world. When my dear father, Fred Blumenthal, used to observe others acting selfishly or in a self-serving way, he would say, “I, I, I” to emphasize that this was not the way to live. My dad was not in Chabad or a chasid, but he was a tzadik in the truest sense of the word who believed and acted in giving everything of himself to Hashem, his family, his community, as well as to the strengthening of the State of Israel. The lesson from my father, Rabbi Kaplan, and of course, the Rebbe is that it’s never really about “I,” but rather about how I and you can give to others!