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High Holidays: Is Judgment Day Supposed To be Joyful?
Video 4 of 5
You see you and me, the average, everyday Joe or Jane, who doesn't experience revelation, we live what we might call normal lives. I'm doing my own thing, I was born in San Francisco in 1965 and then I moved to New York when I was a teenager, and I can tell you the whole story of my life, what I'm trying to achieve, what I'm trying to do, I have my story. But imagine what happens if Joe or Jane experiences revelation at Sinai. The being who originated the universe is right here and you are standing around the mountain. It changes everything. Who am I anymore? I am so small in the face of the Master's immensity, I am so overwhelmed that I am in danger of losing my entire sense of self. My little story, it matters anymore that I moved to New York when I was thirteen and a half?
Okay, so that is the crisis. But if Malchiyot provokes that crisis it also contains the seeds of an answer to it and those seeds are known as Zichronot - the notion of G-d's memories. Let me explain by taking you into an exploration of the idea of memory. What does memory do? What exactly is its function? So you might say, well that's obvious, memory helps you remember, right, if you want to just remember things. But memory does far more than that, it's actually the way we understand ourselves, we understand who we are, identity itself is wrapped up in the idea of memory, and the reason is, that memory is really about storytelling. When you remember things you're actually connecting the dots between your various experiences, weaving them together to form a story. That's actually the only way you do remember anything.
How easy would it be to remember 75 disconnected things, or 1,000 disconnected things? Just even what happened to you yesterday, how many things do you think happened to you yesterday? There might have been 938 discreet, little things, do you remember all of them the day after that? You don't. You remember what, maybe 23 of them, if you're lucky. But how do you remember them? Because if I asked you about your day you'd begin to tell me a story about your day and you'd weave together those dots into actually one story and the story is rememberable, it's just one thing. Yesterday we went to the park, first we went into the van, when we were at the park my little daughter Jane, she was on the swings, but Timmy twisted his ankle when he got off the jungle gym. We took him to the Emergency Room and thank G-d everything was fine and there we had the nicest of nurses. When we came home it was already way past lunch so we stopped for pizza. That's the story.
When we remember our lives, we're not remembering a thousand disconnected things we did, we're remembering a story, a story that we tell ourselves. And our identity emerges from that story.
So if you think about it, that means that some points in my life are going to be more important to the story than others. Let's say I'm a big, fancy investment banker and as I'm rushing out the door to work one morning so my seven-year-old daughter spills orange juice on the floor and I clean it up before I go to work. So that might have happened, but in the way that I talk to myself about my life, you know it's a rather disconnected dot, it doesn't really contribute to the grand story of my life - at least the way I see it. But now, here's another way to start thinking about the crisis of Malchiyot that we talked about before. If there really is a king in this universe, maybe there's a grander story than the one I'm telling myself? Maybe the Creator has a story too? That's a scary notion if you think about it, I don't precisely know the Creator's story - at least not in this world.
You know a good friend once called me up - it was actually Erev Rosh Hashanah - the day before Rosh Hashanah, and he said something to me I think I'll always remember. He said, David, you know the trouble with life? The trouble with life is that it doesn't come with a soundtrack. You know a soundtrack to a film, the music, it helps you understand the film. When you hear the swelling of the violins and the kettledrum, something climactic is about to happen, but you don't necessarily know that in real life, you don't get to hear the music.
You think your life is about your story, and from your perspective when your daughter spilled orange juice that wasn't a big deal, it was a disconnected dot. But maybe the Creator in His story, maybe He doesn't think so? Maybe that's where the violins were swelling? Maybe when you stopped and you patiently cleaned up that mess and smiled to your daughter, maybe that was a really meaningful dot? Maybe everything needs to be seen as how it connects to that dot? Maybe your life in the Master's view is not just about what a good hedge fund manager you are but how you balance your career and family?
You don't know what the soundtrack is for your life, and at one level that's scary, but on another level it's deeply comforting. Because if there's a Creator there is a grand soundtrack out there, there's a story being told in this universe, and it's so much larger than just you. There's a grand weave of history and if you could be part of that weave in a meaningful way, if you and your whole life can be a dot that connects in some visceral, significant, redemptive way in the world, how can there be more meaning in life than that?
You know, we speak about Rosh Hashanah as the beginning of the Yomim Noraim - the Days of Awe. What is awe? We feel awe sometimes when we're in the presence of something like the Grand Canyon, or when you sit on a grassy knoll looking up at the stars at night. But ask yourself why do you feel awe? Is it just because you feel like you are small and this is big? I don't think so. So you would say okay, fine, so I'm small, that's big. The reason why you feel awe when you have those experiences is because you begin to get a sense that there might just be a larger story here. And if there is, I have to figure out how I fit. I want to be a part of that larger story. Sure if you want you don't have to, you can continue telling your own story, be my guest, but at what price?
For those of you who read Harry Potter, remember that moment when Harry is at Platform 9 ¾ and he's trying to figure out where that train to Hogwarts is. So he's asking around and he asks somebody, a guy by the name of Joe, and Joe doesn't know, he says, I've no idea, I've never seen Platform 9 ¾ before. Imagine you're Joe. So here you are, you're Joe, you have your life, you're doing your own thing, but imagine that one day you figure out you're part of J. K. Rowling's novel? There's a creator here and there's a grand epic story, it's Harry Potter, and you just got bumped into and asked which way the train is?
Now in that moment of revelation - revelation itself - when you see the Creator and you realize there's a story here, the Sinai moment as it were, what do you want most deeply? It's like you feel like petitioning the author and say, could I have a significant role in this story? I don't want to just be the guy who got bumped into to ask where the train is, how can I help, how can you take my life, my personality, my gifts, my track record, what I've done, weave me into that story.
So yes, on the one hand the Sinai moment, the encounter with kingship, implies Din - it implies judgment. You're going to look at my life, You're going to see who I am, You're going to see my track record, what have I done, how can I contribute. But that's a glorious thing that judgment, it's not the black robes at the birthday party, it's not judgment in order to be punitive and see what terrible things you deserve to be subjected to, to be paid back for all your sins. No. This judgment is a marvelous opportunity, it's my opportunity to be a part of the grand unfolding story. Take me in.
How do I make that plea to the author? This brings us to Shofrot, the final element of the triad of Malchiyot, Zichronot and Shofrot. The author knows me better than I know myself. What am I going to do, come to the author and bargain with them, lawyer with them? How do I make the case to include me in the story? Think about the moment of revelation itself in our national experience. How did we confront the author? We confronted the author because we heard His voice, we heard the untrammeled cry, the ethereal sound of a Shofar that wasn't a physical Shofar but was the sound that the Almighty channeled towards us as a way of reaching out to us and saying, here is who I am. This is the deepest way I can represent Myself to you.
The most powerful thing we can do is to match voice with voice. To give our voice back to the Almighty in the deepest way we can. Not with words, with something deeper than words, just our voice, this is who we are. That is the Shofar. When we blow the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah at one level we are remembering the cry of the Shofar we heard at Sinai, we're showing we remember by echoing that voice. But we're also doing something else. We're matching that voice with a voice that comes from us. If G-d revealed Himself to us most deeply through that voice, we reveal ourselves in turn to G-d most deeply through our Shofar calling.
The Sages say it; Say the verses of Zichronot, they say, so that G-d tells a good story about you, brings you into the web of His memory. Uba'meh - but what's really the vehicle? Through what will you truly be remembered? Ba'shofar - through the Shofar. It goes all the way back to Eden. The first time we heard G-d's voice, G-d was reaching out to us with His voice. That moment was catastrophic, we hid from the voice, we hid from ourselves, we couldn't bear to understand who we were.
We were choosing to think that we're the ultimate master, we're going to be the guy who bumped into Harry Potter, and we're going to continue doing our own thing. Sure, I know there's a guy Harry, and there's this guy Dumbledore, but this is really about me, I'm going to trim my hedges, I'm going to invest my money in some nice, Muggle bank, I'll let the other folks take care of that Voldemort guy, whatever. So you could choose to hide from J. K. Rowling.
But back in Eden, we didn't have to hide, what could Adam and Eve have done? They had just sinned, they had just eaten from the tree, they were afraid maybe of the Master's story. I've sinned, maybe I don't have a place in Your story anymore. What could they have done in that moment? They could have matched a voice with voice. They could have reached out to G-d with their own voice, not with words. I hear Your voice Master, I know who You are, this is who I am. You're the creator, I'm the creature. Here is me, the deepest thing I can give You is my voice, listen to it carefully, in it You will hear that the deepest desire I have is to be part of Your story. You, the great arbiter of Tov and Ra'ah, You'll decide what fits and what doesn't fit. But take me in, allow me to fit, I want so deeply to be part of Your story.
Malchiyot provokes a crisis, the possible loss of self, but Zichronot and Shofar provide the deepest of answers to that crisis. I can be more meaningful than I ever thought possible. I could be part of Your story. Take me in.
Okay, so in these last few seconds of this video, let's just pull back for a moment and I'm going to play the role of someone talking to me. So you're telling me, Rabbi Fohrman that on this most holy of days, the beginning of the Days of Awe, you want me to let go of the way I've approached this Holiday for years and years and years; fearful, dour, nervous, maybe even a little depressed, and you want me to let go of that and embrace this day, emotionally, spiritually? You want me to tremble, not so much in fear but in awe and in joy? You want me to let go of the black robes at the birthday party and instead revel at the possibility of being part of G-d's unfolding story? That seems like a tall order and what if you're wrong? It sounds like a nice theory but what if you're wrong? Rosh Hashanah isn't a good day to get wrong. Is there any additional evidence you can give me that would make me feel a little bit more comfortable?
Let's turn to that question in our final video.
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