We start the days of teshuva declaring Hashem “our Father our King.” We clop our chest and confess on Yom Kippur. We live in huts that must, by halacha, leak, yet we decorate them and bring our finery, as if we’re safe at home. The process reaches it’s pivotal turning point on shabbos chol hamoed with the reading of Koheles, by Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon). It’s a profound and beautiful poem, quoted ubiquitously on every kind of occasion, “a time” for this and “a time” for that. That one powerful passage, the ’60s hit of the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn,” has spoken to every generation’s “time” and “times,” giving us confidence that there is order in the universe, and the world at last recognizes the times are ours.
Reading this prosaic passage out of context, however, few people realize it’s actually a very sobering, some might say fatalistic, reflection by the elderly king that the more things change the more they stay the same. “There is nothing new under the sun.”
What is Koheles doing here in the middle between the yomim noraim and simchas torah? Just as Shlomo Hamelech reviews his life and the many lifestyles and detours he explored, so too do we review our year and the many wayward paths we thought would lead to “the real thing,” only to lose track of what’s important and come to a dead end. “Vanity of vanities.”
“I Koheles” tries wine, women, merriment and song to fully experience pleasure and joy, only to realize that those delights are fleeting. He tries the pursuit of wisdom, only to realize the wise die like the ignorant. Their ideas die with them, only to be thought again and again by later generations who think it’s their original idea. He even tries the life of piety, only to realize the pious die like the evil. Exhausting every alternative, Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest man in the world, comes up empty, “I haven’t got a clue.” The only purpose of life, he concludes, is to be a faithful servant of Hashem.
A servant is not what modern democratic society aspires to, with ever expanding definitions of freedom and equality. I don’t know what you associate with being a servant, but it probably depends on who or what you’re serving. There probably is a waiting line of young graduates with doctorate degrees who would beg to be a mere servant of Bill Gates. We’ve heard you are what you eat. Judaism believes “you are what you worship.”
The difference between Judaism and pagan religions is not that we have one G-d and they have many. It’s not the number of G-d, but the nature of G-d that is different. Not the quantity of G-d, but the quality of G-d.
The gods of pagans were merely aggrandized versions of themselves with all the same foibles and frailties. They were jealous and rivalrous, they squabbled and fought, they ate each other up. You could appease them, trick them, make them drunk, marry them, have children with them. Worshiping them was to remain as you always were, not grow.
As Hallel says, “Their gods are gold and silver, wood and stone, they have feet but can’t walk, mouths but can’t speak, eyes but can’t see…like them shall their makers become” (Teh. 135:15-18). Simon and Garfunkel’s Hallel-inspired song “The Sound of Silence” (“the people bowed and prayed to the neon god they made, talking but not speaking, listening but not hearing” injustice, “only the sound of silence”) warns against being lulled into complacency by TV’s alternate universe of blandishment and banality, blind to injustice and the work to be done.
As I look back, like Shlomo Hamelech, I too have run to go nowhere for nothing, getting lost, only to end up in the same place. I too turned a blind eye to a neighbor, a student, a law, only to forget what I was supposed to look for to begin with. I too can be blind to even my own potential. I treat hoarders. They’re people who like to see everything they own; they don’t know what they’re looking for, but it’s something that just isn’t there. Similarly, when I “knock knock” my chest, who’s there?
By contrast, Hashem is all knowing and all powerful. You are what you worship. Worshiping Him is to aspire to something greater with no limit. Just as Hashem is all knowing, I can make it a point to know and understand issues that are difficult or uncomfortable, and not jump to convenient conclusions or self-protective rationalizations. I can understand others’ circumstances and put myself in their shoes. I can see not just what is, but what can be. Just as Hashem is all powerful, I too can take action hands-on, not only write a check to someone to act for me. I can be tznius yet powerful like Hashem, Who is, after all, invisible, yet “mighty in His humility” (Meg. 31a). If you’re tznius you don’t need to persuade, please, entice, seek approval; what you see is what you get. You have nothing to prove, no argument to win, no need to have the last word. You don’t have to manipulate to succeed, because nothing can stop you from getting where you’re going, with Hashem’s help. When you’re tznius, you can speak just as softly as you please because everyone knows you wield a wolloping big stick. When you’re tznius you are powerful. And if you’re not powerful you’re not tznius; you’re just depressed.
When we do teshuva and confess an endless catalog of every conceivable deviancy, we lay bare our defenses. Our deficiencies are so ingrained, we don’t even know what else to ask for instead. “We have no mouth. What can we say? What can we declare?” (Selichos). We rely upon the inarticulate shofar to speak for us. We put ourselves in Hashem’s hands to show us the way. We are all “the son who does not know how to ask” of the seder (Sh. 13:8), but Hashem “opens our mouth” (Teh. 143:11, 51:17) and shows us it is indeed “in your mouth and in your heart” (Dev. 30:14). He leads us, more self aware and empowered, into our leaky creeky succahs, assured of Hashem’s protection against the elements that led us astray. Because when I “live every day within the house of Hashem… what do I have to fear?” (Teh. 27:1 & 4)
You are what you worship. A servant of Hashem is not a slave; he is a master. The master tends to and mentors the servant as if he could be a master one day (Kiddushin 20a:13-15). When we become aware of the godliness within us and our true potential, we become the Bnei Yisrael, Children of Israel. And we make Hashem our Father and our King.
Shmuley Brodsky is a psychologist in private practice, a foremost specialist in OCD and Panic providing teletherapy globally. He is also a political scientist and holds 5 degrees in Psychology, Political Science, Economics, Fine Arts, and studied Biology and Chemistry. He is an alumnus of Aish Hatorah. He writes on the intersection of religion, psychology, and society, and has appeared hundreds of times as a media commentator. He lives in Passaic with his wife and has 3 grown children. He can be reached at email@example.com or through his website www.OCDhotline.com.