Every year I write an annual Yom Kippur greeting and send it to people I’ve interacted with over the course of the year. This is the eleventh year I have done so. I appreciate the time you take to read it.
The Torah states that a man can be excused from military service in a preventative war for one of three reasons: If he has been betrothed, but not married. If he has built a house but not dedicated it. Or if he has planted a vineyard, but not yet redeemed its fruit. They seem like three odd things to take precedence over a war. Perhaps, you might say, these are things that leave a lasting impact on a country, on a society. All are things that will outlast the man’s life. Vineyards can last for hundreds of years. The shells of ancient homes are around even today. And families can last forever. But the act of creation isn’t what excuses the soldier from duty. By the time he has built a house or planted a vineyard, the act of creation has been completed. It isn’t enough to build the house, he must dedicate it. And it isn’t enough to plant the vineyard, he must redeem it’s fruit. Indeed, in last week’s portion of the Torah we see among the list of curses that a man will betroth a woman, but another will take her. That he will build a house, but another will live in it. And that he will plant a vineyard, but another will drink its fruit.
It’s clear that it is a curse not to enjoy the rewards of ones accomplishments. And it is not just a blessing, but a mitzvah (a good deed), to realize those rewards and to recognize G-d’s hands in those accomplishments.
This hasn’t been a year of curses. But it hasn’t been a year of fundamental accomplishment either. It has been a muddled year. A year of complexity. People talk of maturity as a process of understanding the complexity of the world. Of not just intellectually understanding that the world is a complex place, but of actually feeling it. In a way, that is maturity. But it is also darkness. You get wrapped up in the complexity of the world, and you lose the clarity – the light – of simplicity. You grow up, and you grow old.
It doesn’t, of course, have to be that way. There is another path. A path of wisdom. As I understand it, wisdom is achieving understanding, and clarity, *because* of the wrinkles that may be thrown in your direction. For me, this has been a year of maturity – but not of wisdom. I have been blindly stabbing away without much accomplishment, and without enjoying the fruits of what I have accomplished. I’ve been buried in the details and forgotten the greater picture.
There is a man here (in Australia), who davens at the shul in East Bentleigh. He is an old man, from Moscow. He goes back regularly. For our wedding he gave us a bottle of Russian vodka. His name is Benyamin. Why do I mention him? Because every time he sees me, his face lights up. He shakes my hand vigorously. He smiles. And he assaults me with a barrage of Yiddish and Russian words that he knows I don’t understand.
And I smile. I enjoy shaking his hand. Because that is how you greet people. That is how you react to people.
That is how I used to greet him, and he is returning the favor.
In the day-to-day complexity of publishing the book, of moving, of handing over the reins of the shul, of looking for work in Australia and of spinning ones wheels on various and sundry other things, I’ve forgotten to interact with the world with that kind of simple love and attention. You can infuse every moment of life with holiness and blessing. Greeting the old man reminded me of that. His was such a simple action. And yet it cut through so much that is complex. It cuts through so much that clouds a life and prevents it from getting the light it needs to flourish.
Before Yom Kippur Jews attempt to wipe the slate clean. They turn to G-d to ask forgiveness for their sins against him. But G-d can not grant them forgiveness for their sins against their fellow man. In this message, I am asking you for your forgiveness for anything I might have done to harm you, whether it was intentional or not and whether it was overt or hidden. But there is more to apologize for than outright harm. There is also a failure to create holiness and light.
All of us have so much to add to the world. We can accomplish great things. But small accomplishments are not to be forgotten. Small things like infusing a handshake with love.
In the coming year, may you all experience true joy and happiness. May you accomplish things great and small and may you taste the fruits of your accomplishments.
Oh, and if you get the chance, read a copy of “Grobar and the Mind Control Potion” 🙂 I know that sounds like a gratuitous pitch, but it actually isn’t. It is a book people enjoy. The pleasure it has brought its readers has been my year’s greatest accomplishment. And seeing that pleasure has been my year’s greatest reward. I thank G-d for both.
May you all be inscribed in the Book of Life and the Book of Joy and the Book of Wisdom.
Happiness to all,