At this season, when we wish each other Shanah Tovah, we usually don’t think of the possibilities that the greeting offers us. We simply hear it as a greeting of good cheer for the New Year. But not me, not anymore. This year has been filled with too many challenges, some hard and hurtful, some sorrowful and stern. And so I turn to the meaning of the words Shanah Tovah for comfort and courage and encouragement. I find in the maze of meaning, hope for a better second half (this is, after all, the seventh month of the Jewish year). For me, for my inner well-being, I parse the words Shanah Tovah to mean “May this be a time of good changes.” In that blessing I hope and pray that in the coming year of 5775, I will learn the lessons that are sent my way and find the changes to be as gentle as the breeze through the meadow. I look back at the past year and find that the winds were too harsh. I look to the coming months with the hope that comes with spring and the promise that is fall. I have seen too much this year of the end of life paths, some before they even had a beginning. Nevertheless these changes have been punctuated with lessons; I now must face and accept that which happened this year as messengers and teachers. My daughter and son in law have taught me so much about compassionate courage and indomitable hope. The untimely and shocking passing of a friend challenges me not to surrender in the face of adversity. The stark challenge of Cancer, faced with courage and faith and love demands of me an awareness of the gift of life that I often take for granted.
And the passing of my Rebbe brings into focus so many of the lessons that he offered as gifts to me. Every day, before I Daven (pray and meditate) in the morning, I see his picture and his Mateh, his walking stick. And the slow, too slow awareness of his great and quiet lessons that he gave me in private council call to me. I hear them, see them, feel them so deeply. And I wish that I could once again share with him, question him, laugh and cry with him. And maybe we do, but it is hard for me without his physical presence. Yet they do come to me and in many guises.
I was once kvetching about never learning to chant, whether it be Torah or Tfilah (prayer). He shared a story of how he at times chanted a Torah portion not according to the traditional trop, but according to the meaning of the words and the message he wanted to transmit. I recalled that once, with my father (ztl), I had been asked to lead an Orthodox minyan. Coming from a Reform background, this was a challenge. My father (ztl) gave a wonderful sermon off the cuff, which was to be expected. But I was to chant Torah and I am Trop deficient. When it came time for me to chant I made it up as I went along, according to the meaning. After the service, an elderly member of the congregation complimented me on my chanting (a very compassionate lady) and not recognizing it, asked if it was Sephardic. I glibly answered: “As far as you know!” I felt that I had gotten away with something until my Rebbe shared his story. Then I felt foolish. We had both done the same thing. But, I had done it to disguise my ignorance and he had done it to impart a teaching.
After my Rebbe passed this year, I noticed that my davenin (as he would pronounce it) has taken on a new character. I chant everything. And each time, the chant is different. The chant follows the meaning of the prayers and at the same time the chant reflects my mood, my meaning, my need and my hopes. The chanting is prayerful and to me powerful and extremely personal. I can’t chant that way in front of others. I get intimidated and return to the melodies that I have learned, the traditional or not so traditional tunes, depending on the mix of the people who I am leading. But when I am alone I find myself delving into personal meaning, and each time I find something new. Each time I receive another Rebbe lesson.
A few weeks ago, it struck me as I was davenin, how the first and second paragraphs of the Shema have a small divergence in the phrase ” דבר בם” (speak them). After being charged with teaching our children, in the first paragraph we are instructed to “ודברת בם” (and speak the words) and in the second paragraph, “לדבר בם” (teach them to speak the words). In the first version we teach the way of Sacred Connections to our children “And speak of them” that is to say by living them ourselves. In the second version “so that they will speak of them” we teach them so that they will live and breathe and say them. It struck me as a great parental teaching. If we are to teach our children, the first and best way is by doing ourselves. Then we can share with them and they will learn the holy lessons and will speak them and live them. It’s a great lesson that I might not have picked up, if my Rebbe hadn’t challenged me to chant with Kavanah, that intense intention.
And there is a hidden lesson within the hidden lesson. There is another teaching that I received from my Rebbe which ties in with the teaching of ” דבר בם” (speak them). Once we were chatting in the car and he offered me a challenge. My Rebbe told me to go home and spend fifteen minutes a day realizing that I am a Tzadik. I must admit that while I laughed at the challenge, my ego swelled to the point that I didn’t think that I could fit it in the car. When I arrived home I found a private place to explore what I thought would be an enjoyable fifteen minutes. I sat for a while feeling proud of myself for being a Tzadik until it struck me that pride was not appropriate for a Tzadik, so I had to discard that. Then into my mind came those who had, in my way of looking at things, wronged me. My disdain for them flashed (after all I was a Tzadik for fifteen minutes) until I realized that antagonism too was not very Tzadik-ist. I struggled to push those thoughts away and began to concentrate on what a Tzadik should think and do. The more I tried, the farther away Tzadik-hood seemed to travel. I became angry with Tzadik-ness. That too interfered. So I tried to think of how I could actuate my Tzadik-itude. But that too eluded me. Finally I let go and some sweet thoughts of hope and love and compassion filled me. It made me feel happy with myself. Damn, missed again. I then noticed that I had been sitting for over an hour. I hadn’t even gotten the timing down. For a whole week I struggled and strained and failed. When I reported back to my Rebbe, I told him that his assignment was the cruelest thing he had ever done to me. His belly laugh was infectious. Well I have continued to try and fail and probably will continue to fail for the rest of my life. But there was a wonderful lesson there. No Tzadik realizes that s/he is a Tzadik. No Tzadik tries to be a Tzadik. That is the challenge for us, the Benonim, the in-betweeners. And I notice that in the lesson of ” דבר בם” (speak them) is another hidden message from my Rebbe. The two letters that make the difference between “ודברת בם” and “לדבר בם” are ל and ו. ל’ו Lamed Vahv which refers to the 36 righteous people who hold our world in balance. A Tzadik lives his teachings and we who are fortunate enough to bump into that Tzadik along the way, have the opportunity to learn the lessons and speak of them and sometimes, when we aren’t trying to be a Tzadik, we can live their lessons and they become ours.