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Nitzavim-Vayeilech: We Don’t Control the Weather

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End of Year Thoughts

So, it finally comes down to the last week of the year. The last of the Seven Weeks of Comfort that lead us into the New Year, Rosh Hashana.

And what a year it has been. A year that has shaken the universe at its core. A year that has nakedly exposed our vulnerabilities – security-wise, economy-wise, and otherwise. Israel, America, the Middle East – and the entire world have been turned over again and again.

The first anniversary of September 11 also marks the anniversary of the creation of the universe. To be exact: Tuesday, September 11th 2001 coincided with the 23rd day of Elul, the third day of Selichot (prayers recited each morning in preparation for Rosh Hashana), exactly one week before Rosh Hashana.

The universe was created on the 25th of Elul, and six days later, when the human was created (Adam and Eve), we celebrate the New Year. The human being is the central purpose of existence, charged with the power to transform the universe and bring it to fruition. Thus, Rosh Hashana is celebrated on the birthday of the human race.

As we approach this upcoming Rosh Hashana, each of us humans should ponder on the question: How have I fulfilled my calling in affecting the universe for the better?

September 11 crystallizes this question for all of us. Whether you have suffered a direct loss or you have been shaken to the core by the events of the last year, whether you are shocked by the ability of fanatics to wreak senseless pain on innocents or you are amazed by the heroism humans can have in helping each other, 9/11 beckons each of us to appraise our own role as humans.

What rights and responsibilities do we have as humans? How are we to use the tools and technologies we were blessed with? Are we accountable for our actions?

In one word: Duty. Rosh Hashana compels us to ask: “What is our duty?” On this day we must renew our contract with G-d and re-commit to our personal mission and role in the universe.

Allow me to reflect on some of my own experiences over the past year.

One of my most striking observations this year has been to see how people react – or do not react – to the historical events of our times. For most of us there probably will not be any more earth shaking experiences than the ones we are facing today. These are moments of truth – when you can see who is who and what is what.

Are there any people around you that make you feel more secure in these uncertain times? Do we have leaders to turn to?

When the foundations of our existing frameworks are being shaken we can see in clear light what we are made of. How many around us are taking an initiative, being proactive in face of all the uncertainty. Is there anyone you know who is behaving not like a victim today? Do we have anyone that is more than just a ‘firefighter,” extinguishing fires of crisis, anyone with a vision, with direction, with clarity and fortitude to forge ahead?

America today is debating whether we go to war with Iraq. Pundits of all sorts are lining up to state their brilliant opinions. Imagine if Truman had to contend with CNN experts whether he should drop the atom bomb on Japan, and every general in time of war had to consult with committees and specialists how they should conduct themselves at the front?

And Israel is no better. Thank G-d that the recent crackdowns have abated the onslaught. But what does the future hold? Is anyone offering a vision for tomorrow?

Now, all this may seem very negative. But in truth, the clarity that has emerged in the last year is actually a blessing, even if it is a painful one. We have become acutely aware that what we are lacking a vision for the future, and how vital it is to have such a vision. And this awareness is half the cure. We now know what we need to be looking for.

I submit that with this question in hand we can enter Rosh Hashana in a way that will allow us to find the answer. Sometimes we need to know what question to ask when we are in search for answers.

And when we ask it with sincerity, we WILL get the answer.

That is the message that I have learned more than any other during the past twelve months. Let me tell you how.

Small things often teach us much. As the 23rd of Elul is approaching, my friend Mark reminds me that our annual camping weekend is right on that day. This coming Shabbat, Shabbat Selichot, the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, is the 23rd of Elul – exactly one year since September 11th.

If any one of you knows me, you know that I am not exactly a camper. So what am I doing going camping in the woods, let alone in questionable weather?! And to boot, shlepping along hundreds of others to go do Shabbos in some obscure forest in New Jersey?!

Well, here’s the answer, my friends. Several years ago when I was invited to go camping, I thought to myself: “This is crazy.” Why should I leave the comfort of my home and environment to sleep in some tent, in who know’s where? Too many unknowns.

But then I thought to myself, “Hey maybe that’s the best reason to go – precisely because I don’t want to. And lo and behold, the Shabbat was magical. Without the superimposed constraints of man-made structures, we had to create our own energy and beauty. Sometimes, we need to do the things that we don’t feel like doing. That shift in consciousness opens up new channels.

Yes, we could not control the weather and the other natural elements in which we found ourselves. But we could control how we would handle the challenges. In the lifeless structures of steel and bricks in the city we may not be quite as vulnerable to the elements (or so we think – until rudely reminded by 9/11), and we can develop an illusion of invulnerability, we can actually convince ourselves that we can control the weather. But we also are not forced to learn that we can control how we will live our lives. The comforts of artificial security come at the great expense of eroding inner security.

So off I went camping the next year, and the following one. By now it has become an annual ritual (I dislike the word ‘ritual’ so let’s change that to ‘annual tradition’), which is wild, but precisely for that reason it opens us up to the unexpected.

And what better time in the year to get out of our comfort zones. If we want new changes in our lives, we need to initiate change. If we want G-d to bless us with a NEW year, a year filled with new gifts, blessings and opportunities, if we want G-d to change our destiny for the better – we need to create a container that invites such change. If we are not ready to do something different, if we are not willing to crawl out of our own comfort zones and do something that we don’t feel like doing, if we are not open to go beyond ourselves, can we honestly expect G-d to ‘go beyond’ (kavyochel) His plans for us? And even if G-d goes beyond the letter of the law, are we able to receive G-d’s new blessings if we are still stuck in our old place?!

My suggestion to all of us is: If nothing else, prepare yourself for the New Year by doing something good that is inconvenient for you to do.

In the process of going camping I learned the secret of forging ahead with strength and clarity even in the shadows of uncertainty. And I realized what the Jews must have learned during their 40 year wanderings in the wilderness, what Abraham must have discovered when he began the first ‘lech lecho’ trek, and what great men and women have realized through their respective journeys: When you get out of your comfort zone you reach new heights. There is no alternative to greatness, to excellence.

So, yes, we may have to brave the weather as we go camping this weekend. But we will learn the most vital lesson of all:

We don’t control the whether (weather), only the how.

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60 Day Journey

Each daily posting contains an inspirational thought and a practical exercise for the day -- excerpted from 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays.

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