This column that I have utilized to share my ideas with you, my dear readers, has run for about three years. At the outset, I must admit, I was nervous that it would be only a few weeks before I ran out of topics.
About a month or so after I began this column, I distinctly remember struggling to come up with an idea that would meet the criteria that I set out to achieve at the very outset. At that time, I recalled a piece of advice that I received from my father when I entered the dating scene as a young man of 22.
I wasn’t exactly socially anxious, but as an introvert by nature and not what you would characterize as a conversationalist, I was nervous that I would encounter some awkward silence while out on a date, and that thought was extremely unsettling to me at that point in time.
My father told me something that I probably thought was weird at the time but in hindsight was literally a stroke of genius. He said, “Talk about the fact that you have nothing to talk about.” That conversation and piece of advice came into the center of my consciousness when the deadline for my column drew near and I was experiencing writer’s block.
Thinking about it now, it isn’t dissimilar to the driving instruction of turning into the skid when your car has lost control on a patch of ice. It is the sudden movement of the car in the opposite direction that might cause tension and lead to an unfavorable incident. Similarly, fighting the silence rather than embracing it would end up creating a far more anxious situation than being vulnerable about it.
In the course of writing about the fact that I had nothing to write about, it occurred to me that there are two sources of existence in the world that G-d created—yesh and ayin. Yesh means ego, existence, and ayin means negation or non-existence. In the world of yesh a person tries to actualize himself or herself, unlocking their fullest natural capabilities. At the end, though, although he or she may be far superior to a large block of competitors, there is a ceiling to man’s capabilities. In the world of ayin a person becomes subsumed within the Divine reality, which gives way to a limitless form of existence. As such, I asserted then, in that article back in February or March of 2020, that the article in which I had nothing to write about would end up being longer than those in which I knew exactly what I wanted to say. And so it was.
I’m writing about this now because after spending the whole of yesterday trying to develop an idea that just wasn’t coming together, and the deadline for this week’s column looming, the thought of not having an article in the newspaper on the week of Rosh Hashanah seemed a bad omen for the rest of the year, and so I began to grow somewhat stressed.
At the same time, as a person of integrity, it was important to me to give you something of value to read over yom tov, rather than just a rushed and concocted idea thrown together in the absence of anything of real substance to write about.
Before I continue with the idea, it just struck me as ironic that Rosh Hashanah, the holiday that is known for its long-winded and inspirational sermons, of all days, is the one about which I am struggling for an idea to present to you. I believe there is a distinct Divine Providence at the backdrop of this itself. Rosh Hashanah is a holiday of din, or judgment, which is characterized by contraction rather than expansiveness. Rosh Hashanah is the holiday wherein we seek to renew G-d’s sovereignty over creation, which enters into a realm, if for a split second, where the energy of this year peters out prior to the next year setting in, which is punctuated by a moment of uncertainty as to our fate vis-à-vis the renewal of G-d’s sovereignty. It is that realm of uncertainty that I believe gives way to the writer’s block that I described at the outset to this piece.
There is a famous Chabad niggun that is sung during this period of time to the words, “Avinu Malkeinu ein lanu melech ela atah.” The way the words are set to the tune is as follows: “Avinu Malkeinu ein lanu melech, ein lanu melech, ela atah.” It seems as if we are saying to our Father in Heaven “We have no King,” and after a short pause it is revealed that what is being conveyed is that You, G-d, are our only King. The interpretation I heard is that the song is meant to describe that moment of the year where G-d’s sovereignty is coming to a close and we are looking expectantly at Him to renew His sovereignty for the year ahead, which, at that moment of time, remains in doubt.
I was agonizing over the fact that my thoughts were not flowing as they usually did. I was tossing and turning most of Monday night into Tuesday, listening to shiurim in an attempt to jumpstart my creative juices, which seemed to stall at the most inopportune time. It was early Tuesday morning when a specific Gemara came to mind that helped me overcome this writer’s block.
The Gemara in Pesachim tells us about an initiative set upon by Shimon HaAmsuni to expound on every usage of the word “es” in the Torah. He successfully expounded upon them all until he reached the verse: “Es Hashem Elokecha tira—Fear Hashem your G-d,” whereupon he was lost on what the word “es” in that verse might be adding. He thought, “Could the Torah mandate that we fear anyone else other than G-d?” He concluded by saying, “Just as I have been rewarded for my expositions I will similarly be rewarded for pausing it.” Until Rebbe Akiva came around and taught that the “es” in that verse was likening the fear of Torah scholars to the fear of G-d.
The Kotzker Rebbe, in classic Kotzk fashion, interpreted this teaching of Rebbe Akiva to say, “Torah scholars are mandated to fear G-d just as we all are.”
However, for the purposes of this column I wanted to read differently into these words of Shimon HaAmsuni.
Rosh Hashanah is the coronation holiday. However, it is also a time period when we are focused on character refinement and repentance ahead of Yom Kippur. Although we don’t officially engage in penitential prayers on Rosh Hashanah, with many communities omitting the words “Avinu Malkeinu chatanu le’fanecha” in the Avinu Malkeinu prayer, still, the two days of Rosh Hashanah are a part of the Ten Days of Repentance.
One of the difficult things about being a columnist and a Torah teacher on some level is that we are always on the lookout for material to express rather than take to heart. There is something stoic about being a journalist or a reporter in that we interface with material in a very external manner. It is in that light that I once read from a different Jewish thought leader the idea that journalists will be the last people to repent.
So, although I was hoping to leave you with an idea or a perspective relevant to the day of Rosh Hashanah that you can use in enriching your holiday experience, a part of me is relieved in the sense that I am not entering into the holiday pontificating, and perhaps my heart will be open to internalizing the messages that I encounter now and throughout the holiday.
I called this article “Pause” because Shimon HaAmsuni paused his initiative due to a deeply held principle of remaining genuine and truthful, and to me it was a message to give pause to allow the messages of Rosh Hashanah to penetrate without seeking to export them. Perhaps this is something that we could all bear in mind as we seek to commit ourselves to New Year’s resolutions. Wishing you all a kesivah v’chasimah tovah and a shanah tovah u’mesukah. n