To Walk With God
I know what they will do by how they behave right now, even before they
enter the land I promised to them. (Devarim 31:21)
Of the many things that we said on Rosh Hashanah, these verses are from the
section of the Mussaf Prayer called Zichronos—Rememberings:
Praiseworthy is the man who does not forget You, the human being who takes
strength in You, for those who seek You will never stumble nor will those
who take refuge in You ever be humiliated.
This is quite a promise. If you are someone is who tired of stumbling, or of
being humiliated (is there anyone who is not?), then these verse are for
you. All you have to do to take advantage of them is to not forget God, and
to take strength and refuge in Him. If you do that, He will take care of the
rest. However, it seems to be easier said than done.
I once asked someone why he takes such a long time during his Rosh Hashanah
Amidah. In general, he takes his time during prayer, and he is known to be a
sincere person. But, on Rosh Hashanah, he takes an extraordinary amount of
time to finish his personal Amidah, and I wanted to know what he does while
He explained to me that it takes him a long time to build up the kind of
focus and concentration that allows him to feel the Presence of God. He
makes a point of saying each word slowly and clearly, with the goal of being
able to feel its meaning in his body, not just in his mind. Once he finally
reaches that level of intensity, he then feels tremendous love for God and
the opposite for his previous mistakes. He knows that he has “arrived” when
his fear of life becomes greater than his fear of death.
What he meant by that, he explained, was that after feeling such a closeness
to God, one that he did not want to end ever, and knowing that the moment he
stepped out of his Amidah and back into the world of everyday life that he
would become distracted, he felt safer dying and going to Heaven that
returning to a life that could be far from Heavenly:
For there is not a righteous man on earth who does only good and never sins.
Staying in his Amidah as long as he did was a way of prolonging the Heavenly
This person suffers from the same problem from which most of us suffer:
translating into everyday life what we are able to achieve during our
greatest spiritual moments. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are inspiring days
that allow us to rise our mundane realities and connect to God on high
levels; who doesn’t want to maintain such a connection and level of
spiritual growth on an ongoing basis?
If so, then what does one have to do to do so? How does one translate
intellectual spiritual growth into emotional growth as well? This week’s
parshah advises as follow:
Remember the days of old, understand the many generations that have passed.
Ask your father, and he will tell you; your elders, and they will say it to
you. (Devarim 32:7)
To appreciate these wise words, a person has to understand that there are
two types of memories: intellectual and emotional. Though intellectual
memories can stay with us for years, emotional memories, often, disappear
over time. It doesn’t mean that they cannot be reinvigorated, but it does
mean that, over time, they cease to be automatic.
The Talmud says that God made the world that way because if He hadn’t, a
person might mourn the loss of a loved one the rest of his or her life. How
debilitating. Thus, in spite of the fact that we don’t intellectually forget
deceased loved ones, after a while, we do cease to feel the loss on an
The down side of that is that people, forgetting the pain of earlier times,
often repeat their mistakes and suffer all over again. Someone I know who is
recently divorced is doubting his decision because he has already forgotten,
emotionally, the pain he had suffered daily that drove him to divorce in the
first place. Now being out of the marriage the pain has subsided and
therefore is being overshadowed by the pain of living the life of a divorcee.
Therefore, when the Torah says that we should recall what happened to
previous generations for living spiritually meaningless lives, it isn’t
talking on an emotional level. Every year we review those stories and still
it does little to change the lives of most people. Rather, the Torah is
advising us to recall such stories on an emotional level as well, so that
they impact us and inspire positive change.
In the past, previous generations had help from their local anti-Semites,
who made a point of stopping by and making the lives of the local Jewish
population miserable, if not outright dangerous. There was usually never a
large enough time gap between one pogrom and another to allow Jews to forget
how bad the situation can get during times of exile and separation from God.
The Israeli government, to try and help the local population and visitors to
emotionally recall how much blood has been spilt to secure the country, has
strategically placed collections of damaged war vehicles throughout the
country. At least for those who believe in God, it is an ongoing and blatant
reminder of Israeli vulnerability and the need for God’s protective help.
Personally, I experienced how easy it is to manipulate emotions when working
on my first novel, “Not Just Another Scenario,” which is an End-of-Days
scenario, which I wrote back in the summer of 2001, because the attack on
the Twin Towers. Since the world was still quite peaceful at the time, I had
to image the entire plot in mind, and writing it caused me to become
emotionally engaged in the story.
In fact, so-much-so that even after taking a break from the writing, I would
still feel the emotional impact of the story. I remember walking out my
front door on many occasions and looking up at the sky with an uneasy
feeling, as if missiles might start falling at any moment in time. I had to
verbally tell myself, “No, that is only a fiction you are working on. This
is the real world, and for the time, there is no war, so, chill.”
This showed me how if you create the right environment and perform specific
activities, the emotions can be aroused and made to respond to a reality
that may exist only in a person’s mind. In fact, to such an extent that a
person can actually spiritually change even in an environment that
discourages such spiritual growth. My friend, by creating an environment
that mimics, to some degree, the one in which he achieved during his Amidah,
he can maintain his connection to the Divine Presence in spite of the
distractions occurring all around him.
This is what Avraham Avinu was able to achieve. The commentators point out,
on Parashas Vayaira, that it is better to act like God than to talk to Him.
We learn this from the way Avraham interrupted his conversation with God to
take care of the wayfarers, before returning to his conversation with God
But did he really stop talking to God once his guests showed up and he ran
to take care of them, or did he simply just change the mode of
communication. In other words, taking care of the guests was not a
distraction away from God, for Avraham Avinu, but a way to perceive God on a
higher level. He may have taken care of angels-dressed-as-human guests, but
every action he took was just another form of communication with His
Creator, especially since with every step he took, he felt the pain of Bris
Milah he had just performed to cement his relationship with God.
This takes planning, and in truth, it is really a good portion of one’s
avodas Hashem—personal service of God. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is the
time we clear our minds in order to come to terms with what our priorities
in life should be. The environment of the Aseres Yemai Teshuvah is to
provide an artificial spiritual environment that supports teshuvah, to give
us a taste of what it means to pursue and find God.
Succos takes that environment out of the shul and brings it one step closer
to the outside world, so that he can be to practice to create it on our own
on a daily basis, something that is easier to do in Eretz Yisroel. For, as
the GR”A said, the only two mitzvos to totally encompass a Jew are succah
and Eretz Yisroel, and they both function in a similar way.
After that, a person has to look at the world in which he lives, and
identify what is lacking from his everyday environment necessary to promote
the kind of spiritual growth that was achieved in the more perfect spiritual
environment. A person has to ask himself, “What can I add, or take away,
from my everyday life so that I will have an easier time relating to God and
the mitzvos I am doing?”
Some of the answers will be obvious, but some will be novel. In some extreme
cases, people have even changed jobs or communities, and were delighted to
find out how quickly they were able to grow once they did. Just the fact
that a person asks such a question in the first place invokes Divine
assistance, which usually results in all kinds of insights necessary to get
an emotional handle on the situation.
This is what it means to walk with God. This is what it means to be a
chariot for the Divine Presence.
Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Torah.org.