from the heart of jerusalem

Standing before G-d, never alone


In July 2018, 12 boys, aged 11 to 16, were discovered and rescued with their 25-year-old soccer coach from a cave in Tham Luang, Thailand. They had entered the cave as part of a field trip but were trapped after monsoon rains flooded the cave entrance, blocking their way out.

The rescue was the culmination of a massive effort involving an international team of over 10,000 people and the pumping of more than a billion liters of water out of the caves. Saman Kunan, a 37-year-old former Thai Navy Seal, drowned.

The coach, who had managed to keep his team alive and hopeful for a week in the dark cave with almost no food, water rationed, and flashlights turned off to conserve batteries, described the moment he knew they were saved. At first, seeing a dim light far away and below in the water, he thought he might be imagining it, but after a few moments he could see two lights coming towards them and that was when he knew they were found.

Technically nothing had changed. They were still trapped, without a realistic way to bring out the boys — who had no diving experience — and the danger of additional monsoon rains persisted. But they were no longer alone and seeing that light, in that moment, changed everything.

This week we read the parsha of Nitzavim, which begins with Moshe’s strange exhortation: “You are standing today all of you, before G-d.” (Devarim 29:9)

We are described as standing; generally, we are either moving forwards or backwards, up or down. Why then does the Torah here, right before Rosh Hashana, suggest we are standing still.

In this month of Elul, we traditionally add Psalm 27 at the end of the morning and evening prayers. It begins with the phrase: “Hashem is my light and my salvation.” One would think that only when Hashem has saved me do I see Him as my light, so why does the verse suggest that only when Hashem is my light do I see Him as my savior? 

The Alter of Novahrdok, Rav Yossele’ Horovitz (1847-1919), who was a devoted follower of Rav Yisroel Salanter, suggests (in his Madreigos ha’Adam) that before we can be saved we have to see with clarity, that Hashem is the source of our light. Only when the path is lit and we can see clearly which direction we need to take, are we ready to find our way out.

Which brings us back to the value of standing still. Sometimes we need to pause to consider where we are heading and if that is really where we want to go. The Rambam in his Hilchot Teshuva (1:1) suggests that there are three stages of repentance.

The first stage is hakarat ha’chet, or recognizing our mistake. Before you can fix something, you have to recognize it’s a mistake.

The second stage is charata, or regret — it has to bother you.

But it’s the third stage that is really the critical one: Kabbala le’Atid, deciding the future will be different. This is all about creating a plan, with metrics and accountability and the ability to track our progress to determine whether we are succeeding or failing.

People often have magnificent goals but without a way to measure their program they have a recipe for failure.

Every year at our yeshiva in the Old City, Yeshivat Orayta, I try to meet with each student at the beginning of the year to get to know them. What are their goals are for the year, I ask. After all, having travelled 6,000 miles to live and study in Jerusalem, it’s important to know why you’ve come and what you hope to accomplish.

Some want to develop a deeper relationship with their Jewish identity, some want to develop their study skills, others want to mature and become more ethical or learn how to develop a relationship with Hashem. It’s not a simple discussion, as it is remarkable how many students come to study in gap year programs without ever having defined their goals for the year.

And when they have finished relating their goals, I ask them this: How do you know if you are succeeding? After a month how can you determine if you are 10 percent closer to your goals? Ninety-five percent of the students have to pause, because they have not considered this question.

Everything can be measured and one can create metrics as part of any plan, it just takes some thought.

Imagine I want to get more in touch with my Jewish identity. First I have to ask myself: what does Binny as a more identified Jew look like in six months? After taking an honest look at where I am now can create a plan to move in the right direction.

If Binny with a weak Jewish identity never studies or reads about Judaism and Torah, six months from now I might hope to be studying ten hours a day and experiencing inspirational moments in prayer and study and whilst fulfilling mitzvot like Shabbat. So I can track how many meaningful moments I experience in a week and see if that number improves. And I can measure how many hours I am learning and see that grow as well.

That is what Kabbalah le’Atid means: If I want the future to be different I have to create a plan to get there. Perhaps that is why our parsha begins with the Jewish people standing. Moshe is speaking to the second generation of Jews who are about to enter the Promised Land after 250 years. Maybe he is telling them to pause and consider their goals: Why are we entering the land? Who is it we want to be and how can we get there? What is the plan and the goals? 

As we enter the days of Awe and prepare for the New Year, we, each of us, can decide what will be different this year. Who is the “me” I really want to be, and how can I get there and be that person?

And with the clarity and light that accompanies such vision and purpose, we can truly put ourselves into bigger hands, to help us get there.

Wishing all a sweet, happy and healthy year, and a ke’tivah ve’chatimah tovah!