What I Learned at the Barber Shop — A Thought for Shabbos Shuva

This week rabbis all across the world will have a particularly difficult task. This Shabbat, sandwiched between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is very much part of the “Teshuva system.” Frequently, the rabbi will have a special sermon dedicated to inspiring his congregation in introspection, and to help them on the path towards fixing misdeeds, both interpersonal sins and ritual shortcomings.

The challenge is that our rabbis walk a fine line. We would like our rabbis to be human enough to understand what life is like here in the real world of life with grocery shopping and tuition payments, but not so human that they succumb to greed, hubris or temptation. Rabbis would like to find topics that reach a congregation where they are and inspire them to stretch further, but not leave their proverbial glass home open to maliciously thrown proverbial rocks.

The opposite is also true. If the rabbi spends too much energy saying, “be great just like I am!” he runs the risk of being labeled braggadocios. (And now I win a bet because I got braggadocios into my blog.) As I contemplated this entry I felt myself in this dilemma as well. What could I say that might touch a heart somewhere to stretch that is not also a domain that leaves me vulnerable to the label hypocrite? And yet without some specifics, what’s the point?

So I think I’ll tell a story. As it turns out, it’s a true story that actually happened. I know that I run the risk of this being too much like I’m tooting my own horn, but it happened and I think it will inspire me moving forward into next year. And maybe it has a lesson that others will relate to as well.

Let me start off with the observation –sometimes we work really hard for a mitzvah and sometimes it just falls into our laps. This was one of the latter; the situation just showed up uninvited. Last Sunday, Erev Rosh Hashanah, my son Meir and I went to our local barber shop for our pre-holiday haircuts. (Preceded of course by the mandatory wow-slichos-were-long trip to Dunkin Donuts.) We had a relatively short line in front of us because it was so early in the morning, but pretty soon the place started to fill up. Early Sunday morning, waiting for a haircut, I suspect my habit is typical of men in the 21st century — I had my phone. I was flipping through Facebook or email and pretty much settled in to pass the time.

After a few very quiet minutes a dad came in together with his son, about 13. The son was clearly autistic and was very loud considering the room’s tenor. “I’m excited for yontif! I’m excited for yontif!” He repeated that over and over. He was asking his dad about people in a picture he was holding. It was very loud and the room quickly filled with a certain tension and sincere attempts not to stare. “I’m excited for yontif! Right, tonight is yontif!”

The dad, clearly a very holy soul, whose extraordinary sense of calm and love were evident, seemed to feel other’s discomfort. In vain, he tried to help his son acclimate to the quiet in the room. And that’s when I decided to put my phone down and engage. I look over at the boy and asked, “Are you going to have a big meal for yontif?” And he said yes, and that he’s excited. And for the next 15 or 20 minutes, we spoke about Rosh Hashanah and his school, and his grandmother’s house, and brisket. Not much else happened in the room except haircuts and our conversation. But for a few minutes, that dad was at ease and that boy was not the center of awkward attention. Instead he was the center of praise for how much he knew. All in all, it ended up better for everyone.

That morning at the barber shop changed from uncomfortable to memorable when I decided to put down the phone and engage.

In kabbalistic literature and in rabbinic writings hell is described sometimes as being hot like fire and sometimes cold like snow. The Maharal explains that these two descriptions are hints towards two types of inclinations we have, hot and cold. “Hot” is that burning desire (pun intended) a person feels when faced with temptation, a desire to do something. “Cold” is the desire a person has for inaction, for staying put, disengaging, and complacency. Although much of the confessional prayers that we have for Yom Kippur will be for sins of commission, I’m much more fascinated by sins of omission. Times I could have shared a kind word or smile, times I could have stood up for a colleague, times I could have reached into my pocket once more, but didn’t. What about the times that I didn’t even realize there were opportunities to be helpful because I was too distracted by slightly bemusing memes? How do we repent for the “cold” sins of omission?

This week’s haftorah challenges us to repent. “Tear your hearts and not your clothes,” the prophet Joel tells us. “Take your words [not sacrifices] and return to Hashem!” says the prophet Isaiah. The holy voices of so long ago implore us to not take repentance as one more aspect of formal, sterile, ritual. This is as real as we make it. We can sit in shul, one more year and hear one more sermon, and go through the motions, or we can decide to really engage in this work. What is the best I can expect of myself? How often have I gotten there? How do I move towards a better version of me? Maybe that can be the theme for this year – less memes better me.

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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