By Yochanan Gordon
By the time you read this, it will be just before or following your extended Shabbos nap in consideration of the 12:00 a.m. Selichos start. With the onset of Selichot, we can already hear the solemn tunes of the Days of Awe almost on replay. If you’re anything like me, it might even be manifested in your everyday, mundane conversations.
Another item which sets itself in the center of our rearview mirrors is the sermon: that of Rosh Hashanah, Shabbos Shuvah, and, of course, of Yom Kippur prior to Kol Nidrei and culminating with the pre-Ne’ilah derashah which is perhaps the highlight of the rabbi’s High Holiday preparations. As you’ll recall, the rearview mirror on your cars bears a message: “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” So if you’ve been getting the sense that these items are right around the corner, well, they are a lot closer than that. I’m sorry if I aroused anyone’s PTSD or any negative emotions; it certainly wasn’t intended in that manner, G-d forbid.
On that note, there is a famous humorous anecdote told about a cantor, a rabbi, and shul president who were taken hostage right around this time, during the peak of their High Holiday preparations. Believe it or not, there isn’t anything wrong with a little healthy comedy in preparation for the High Holidays. Anyway, the captors, like most captors in these stories do, offered their hostages one last wish before they are to be executed.
They turn to the rabbi first. He pleads emotionally with them to allow him to deliver his High Holiday sermons, which he said turned out much more potent and effective this year than in all of his years in the rabbinate. They turn to the cantor next and ask him what his final wish would be. He says that after two decades of chanting the High Holiday liturgy, he had decided, this year, to change up his style and was excited to use the new rendition he had developed. The captors then turn to the president of the shul who, with conviction, demands: “Shoot me first!”
While merely a joke, it is reflective of an inherent hazard built in to all authoritative platforms. We are all aware of the distinction between one who preaches as opposed to lives the lessons that he or she expresses to a broad public base. This isn’t a censure of people in the clergy, G-d forbid; rather, it is a critical idea of which all people need to be mindful, especially in today’s day and age when everyone with a cellphone is essentially a reporter. The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that everything a person sees or hears during the course of a day is a direct message from G-d to that person with regard to his or her avodas Hashem. The importance of this teaching cannot be overstated. We are so often receiving messages and just forwarding them indiscriminately to so many people. And while it is important at times to disseminate information, especially that which holds a valuable lesson for those on the receiving end, it is just as crucial that we discover the reason why that message made its way into our line of vision.
Many years ago I read an article by Rabbi Simon Jacobson who wrote that it is said that writers are the last people to repent. The reason he offered was: “Every potent story is just another good topic to editorialize about.” So as important as it is to broadcast good content, it is equally important to internalize the messages we receive before putting them out into the world.
As I was reflecting on what to write about this week, this was the message that kept jockeying for position in the forefront of my mind. In a time when we are all looking to inspire and be inspired—which is no doubt an important and even commendable virtue during this time of year particularly—if we want our message to resonate, it is important that we not preach but rather allow it to flow forth from our essence, similar to the verse we say in our Shabbos liturgy: “Kol atzmosai tomarna…”
There is a beautiful Torah thought from the Maggid of Mezritch on this very topic on the verse in Kings II (3:15): “‘And now get me a musician (menagen).’ And it was that when the musician played (k’nagein ha’menagen), the hand of the L-rd came upon him.” The Maggid teaches that the Hebrew word for a musician is a menagen; a nagen is a musical instrument. The essential difference between a musician and an instrument is that the former plays the music while the latter is the music. The Maggid writes that if you want your children, students, viewers, readers, or congregants to connect to and be impacted by your constant output of content you have to be an embodiment of those ideals and lessons that you are attempting to impart to them.
I was trying not to cite Chazal or pesukim here because it’s often easy to hide behind the words of the Torah or Chazal, causing a lack of transparency as to who is promulgating the message. Perhaps a Chazal to which this idea is similar is: “Rav from Babylonia, Rebbi from Eretz Yisrael, and more exalted above all of them are those personalities who are referred to by their names.” The Gemara says that the Amoraim who hailed from Babylonia are referred to by the honorific Rav, those from Eretz Yisrael are referred to by the title Rebbi, but the most exalted among the Amoraim are those who are referred to simply by their first names.
Being called by one’s own name is indicative of a pervasive sanctity that is integrated within the person under discussion. If we all seek to become a little more transparent in the New Year, it will be a step in the direction of the completion of history, when Adam and Eve could exist without clothing and have no reason to be ashamed.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at email@example.com. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.