All lives are precious: Understanding the meaning of this time of year

Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum

By Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum, Guest Torah Columnist

Yom Kippur

I faintly recall Gracie Allen asking George Burns why they were celebrating flying rodents on Bat Day at the ball park. MLB has its share of gimmicky promotional days to get people to the park. But as we traverse through Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot, we don’t need gimmicks, because the messages and themes of these days are the essence of life.

I sometimes imagine that if I were a Madison Avenue ad man who was hired to coin a catchy name for Yom Kippur, what would I do?

The first time the Torah uses the word “kippur” or its equivalent is in Genesis 6:14, when G-d tells Noah to seal the Ark with “kofer” (sealant) inside and out. Usually, the word “kofer” is translated as “pitch,” a tar-like substance which is thoroughly waterproof.

All of us create emotional layers of habits and calluses which allow us to block out G-d’s presence in our lives, as well as blocking out the people around us.

On Yom Kippur, we allow ourselves to remove these defensive layers that build up over a year. Once we realize G-d can forgive our shortcomings, we can forgive other people’s imperfections as well, and we can even forgive ourselves.

Yom Kippur has the power to remove all of those blockages and the pitch blocking out G-d and our fellow humans. So I would call the day in my ad campaign “Pitch Day,” or, in Hebrew, Yom Kippur. Maybe we’d honor the shul president to throw out the first pitch. (I’m still working on a catchy jingle.)

After Yom Kippur we start a new chapter where we are more open to take in G-d’s love and express love amply to our fellow man.

It is just then we go from our fortified secure homes and go to the Sukkah, open to the elements. We don’t want to be shielded from G-d and people any more. We also take the four species (lulav and etrog) which represent the variety of all Jews from the most polished to the least, and remember we all have to stand together unified.

I am privileged to work at The ARK, and organization which brings all Jews together. Whether one comes to receive or provide assistance, we all operate in a unique spirit of harmony, cherishing every Jew from every walk of life. Every year when our Shelter residents come to The ARK Sukkah, it brings home tangibly the walls we construct to keep out others and the doors we open to welcome.

I’ll end with two brief stories which convey what the holidays are about.

The four species we use are subject to many Jewish laws as to their suitability. (Today it’s much easier than yesteryear, when one might have to look through 1,000 haddasim to find one that was optimally kosher, or mehudar.

Yitzchok Zev Soloveichik, the Brisker Rav (who later resided in Jerusalem) was out looking for kosher lulavim and species erev Sukkot. R. Chaim Brim, another prominent Rabbi, assumed the Bisker Rav is probably trying to see if he could upgrade the lulav he already had, so he asked if he could have the Rav’s “hand-me-downs” when he upgrades. R. Soloveichik told him, “a widow on my block asked me to get her son a lulav; this is for him. I didn’t get one for myself and I’ll have to borrow one for the mitzvah, so I have no hand-me-downs.”

Another story which was just published (Avihem shel Yisrael Vol. 6) (told by the subject of the story.)

“I was 8 years old when my father was killed in a tragic car accident. When I was 13 I wanted to buy an etrog for Sukkot. My mother was a young widow with mouths to feed and couldn’t help, but I saved up coins all year.

“I remembered going with my father and picking a Mehudar (top grade) etrog.

“I went to Machane Yehuda with my bank and picked an etrog and counted out the coins to pay. I was so proud. My etrog was in a box that said Mehudar and I was re-connecting with my father’s memory, who I missed so much.

“I then went to the Rabbi, R. Mordechai Eliyahu (the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel) to inspect my beautiful new acquisition. I got in line with all the others and on my turn he looked on all sides of the etrog and pronounced it kosher. I asked, ‘Is it Mehudar (top grade)?’ He said, ‘No, just kosher.’

“I was crestfallen. He looked at me and said, ‘How would you like to trade your etrog for one that is Mehudar?’ He handed me an etrog worth at least 1,000 shekel. I was so touched I began to cry and couldn’t even express my thanks.

“The next morning I went to the sunrise minyan to bless my etrog as early as Jewish law permits. R. Eliyahu was there as well. I saw as I took out my etrog R. Eliyahu was using the one I had in the same box. I realized he was willing to use my less than stellar etrog so that I wouldn’t be upset.”

Every year when the holidays roll around I am still touched by the Rav’s sensitivity to a young orphan, and how to put a mitzvah in perspective.

This year let us all remove our layers and look out for our fellow Jew. Let’s shed the narcissism that has permeated our culture and be inscribed in the Book of Life, where all lives are precious.

Shanah Tovah.

Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum is Director of The ARK’s Michael E. Schneider Spiritual Enrichment


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