Rosh Hashana 5777 - Rabbi's Drosha; A Day to Express Gratitude
Rosh Hashana 5777 - Rabbi's Drosha; A Day to Express Gratitude
Why do we blow Shofar on Rosh Hashanah?
Although many reasons are given, the most fundamental and historic reason takes us back to that very first Rosh Hashanah - the day of Adam’s creation.
Immediately after his “birth” on that very first Rosh Hashanah, Adam gathered all his fellow creatures and said to them “Let us give thanks to G-d and crown Him as King of the Universe.” He then sounded the Shofar and proclaimed, “Come, let us bow down, let us prostrate ourselves before G-d Who made us!”
It turns out that the very first mitzvah performed by a human being was an expression of gratitude to the One who gave him life.
What was the very first sin?
You might say that it was the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Although in a certain sense you would be right, our rabbis tell us that Adam and Eve can hardly be held accountable for it. You see it was really a contrived sin. The odds were stacked against them and they really didn’t stand a chance. The urge to eat was so great that no human being could have resisted it. Why? Because G-d had wanted them to sin so that they would experience the real world - this world - not just Gan Eden. Our Rabbis go so far as to say that blaming Adam and Eve for that sin is shockingly libellous.
So what was the first real sin - the first sin that Adam did have a choice over?
Soon after Adam ate of the forbidden fruit on Rosh Hashanah Adam is confronted by G-d as to why he ate of the Tree of Knowledge. He replied, “It’s not my fault, the woman who YOU gave me caused me to sin!”
G-d had graciously given him Eve as partner to alleviate his loneliness. Not only does Adam not express appreciation for the beautiful gift. He turns the gift on its head, claiming that it is the source of all his sorrows.
You know the story: A woman's husband had been slipping in and out of a coma for several months, yet she stayed by his bedside every single day. One day he came to and motioned for her to come nearer.
As she leaned toward him, he said, “Esther, you know what? You have been with me through all the bad times. When I got fired, you were there to support me. When my business failed, you were there. When I got shot, you were by my side. When we lost the house, you gave me support. When my health started failing, you were still by my side...
“You know what?”
“What dear?” she asked gently.
“I think you bring me bad luck.”
So the first mitzvah in the Torah is gratitude, and the first sin of the Torah is ingratitude. And both occurred on Rosh Hashanah!
I am devoting today’s sermon to a man who I believe epitomised gratitude - my late father, alav hashalom.
Dad - The Early Days
Everyone’s father is of course special to them. He is the person, together with our mothers, to whom we owe our very physical existence. They are the ones who sacrificed so that we could be who we are today. They are the ones who when we were very young we aspired to be like. They are also the ones who, as we were growing up and began forging our own identities, we often had conflicts with. And they are the ones who more often than not, we don’t express our gratitude to. Well today I want to express my gratitude to dad for teaching me the meaning of faith and for teaching me the meaning of gratitude.
My dad spent the first ten years of his life in Poland. He didn’t like talking about it - he was born into the great poverty that followed the first world war and grew up during the depression. His father left Poland when he was three years old, sailing to far-away Australia, so he could earn money and send it back to the family in Poland. Dad didn’t see him again until he was 11 years old when, together with his older siblings, he joined his father after the untimely passing of his mother in Poland. Dad would tell me that for the first years of his life he had no father and for the rest of his life he had no mother. He had no recollection of his father and mother together.
The only positive memories I ever heard from my dad about life in Poland was his description of how he and his older brother Velvel would carry the pot of chollent to the local baker’s oven on Friday and retrieve it on Shabbos. He also had very fond memories of a favourite Uncle Benzion, his mother’s brother, who he loved dearly. It was after him that I was named.
Dad never had a bar-mitzvah - his father couldn’t afford it. But Yiddish was his mama loshon and he could read Hebrew slowly with a Poilische accent. When we were growing up, dad made kiddush Friday night and mum kept a kosher home. Dad made an effort to walk to shule on Yom Kippur - although it was many miles away from our home in Preston. He was also a staunch labour Zionist - as so many of Melbourne’s Polish Jews were - and our parents instilled in us a love for Israel. But apart from that, dad wasn’t religious.
Because of the family’s abject poverty even here in Australia, dad couldn’t finish school. But he was always inquisitive and in his youth had a passion for understanding electricity and technology. I believe that it was because of his love of technology, instilled in me from a very young age, that I became so fascinated by science.
More than anything dad, like so many of his generation, wanted me to have what he didn’t - a decent profession. You can therefore imagine his bitter upset when I decided to go to Yeshiva for a year, and then the year became two and then many more years. In the seventies for an Australian kid to become religious and go off to Yeshiva was almost unheard of. Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, I later realised that dad was worried that I wouldn’t be able to make a living as a Rabbi. Well, I made a living, but I can’t but agree with him that becoming a Rabbi is not a job for a Jewish boy. There are easier ways of making a living.
Dad was always a very hard working man who was absolutely and totally devoted to his grocery and health food store for over forty years. Then, with the advent of the big supermarkets life became increasingly difficult for small businesses. Although the shop began seriously losing money, and more money could be made by renting it out than by running a business in it, Dad didn’t want to let go. We assumed that this was because he didn’t know what else he would do with his life and feared becoming depressed. But we were wrong. Dad didn’t become depressed.
Soon after leaving the shop, Dad threw himself into U3A with vigour. He excelled at painting, pottery and woodwork - none of us had a clue that he was so talented. And then five years ago, Dad went totally blind. He could no longer paint. And how could he possibly do woodwork or pottery? We all thought that dad would finally sink into deep depression. But again we were wrong. Dad didn’t become depressed. Somehow he continued doing both clay work and woodwork - with a very patient instructor - while blind. Indeed he continued building toys for all his great grandchildren which they treasure.
Then after a few more health and other technical issues, this too became impossible. Again he didn’t become depressed! He took up to going to gym, to listening to audio books and discussing history, politics and current events with gusto. It was then that we discovered that dad was a fountain of knowledge of world history and geography. How he managed to know so much I have no idea - I never, ever saw dad reading a book!
It seemed that no matter what life threw at him - Dad was going to just keep finding different avenues to keep himself busy.
A few months ago dad fell and lost his ability to walk - he couldn’t move at all. The hospital psychiatrist came in and asked him, “Mr Milecki are you depressed?” Dad said he didn’t understand. The doctor thought that he didn’t hear so repeated the question. Again Dad said that he didn’t understand. So she screamed, “Mr Milecki, I am asking you whether you are depressed?”
“I heard you the first time,” Dad replied. “Why would I be depressed? What’s there to be depressed about?”
And then when the doctor left - Dad expressed indignation to my sister - what was the doctor talking about, “depressed”?
A couple of years ago I took dad out to porch. He wanted to sit in the sun. When we came back inside, dad said, “What a glorious day!” I was thrown. It was indeed a beautiful spring day. But dad was blind. What did he know and what could he see? But dad knew and dad saw more than many of us with 20/20 vision…
I’m reminded of something that Helen Keller once said,
There are none as blind as those that have eyes but do not see, there are none as deaf as those who have ears but do not hear.
Dad appreciated what he had. He may not have had sight, he may not have had hearing, he may not have been able to get around by himself. But he appreciated every single minute of life.
And he appreciated his family. Although he couldn’t see them, he knew all his great grandchildren.
Dad appreciated the small stuff in life - which at the end of the day is the only important stuff.
But more than anything else, dad understood how to express gratitude. And this is what I really want to talk to you about today on Rosh Hashanah. This very special day when we are all called upon to express gratitude.
Many people today talk of gratitude - gratitude to the Universe or the such like, an ephemeral gratitude that requires no concrete expression. This is not Jewish gratitude. Jewish gratitude is not merely a feel-good kind of thing - it demands action.
Dad acted. When my sister became engaged to her future husband, many of his friends, Yeshiva bochurim, came to our home to celebrate after the Shabbos meal on Friday night. Expecting a few guests, dad brought home a case and a half of wine and liquor thinking that this would be enough. The bochurim polished it all off. Dad was impressed. Not that they drank - although he didn’t mind that. He was impressed that they came to his house. You see, dad thought of himself as not being frum. Why would Yeshiva bochurim want to come to the home of a sinner? Yet they came, and he was so grateful that they came to his home.
After they all left Dad said to Mum, I know that I cannot be like them, but I can meet them half way. Starting this very Shabbos, I’m not opening the shop on Shabbos any more. I’m know it’s the busiest day of the week, the day I do the most business, but I’m not opening the shop on Shabbos any more. The shop was never again opened on Shabbos.
A year later my nephew was born - dad’s first grandson. And of course there was a celebration. But in dad’s eyes, a celebration had to be marked. And dad marked it - he began putting on a Yarmulkah - not in private, but in his shop where most of his customers were not Jewish. This wasn’t like it is today when lots of people wear yarmulkes. This was the seventies where even many frum people didn’t wear yarmulkas. When I came to Sydney in 1981 I could count the number of people who wore yarmulkas in the street on the fingers of one hand.
And then there was another simcha. This time, dad decided to put on tephilin each day - a practice that he continued religiously until the day of his death. Even after he became blind, he tied his tephilin by himself and then replaced them perfectly in their bag. The non-Jewish carers couldn’t get over how he was able to do this without any assistance at all.
Dad’s Belief in G-d
In spite of all of the above, I wasn’t sure whether dad really believed in G-d. I don’t think I ever heard him talk about G-d. I mean, you can go through the motions of religion and not necessarily believe! Then one day a number of years ago, after dad hadn’t been well, I told him that I was going to New York and asked whether he would like to write a note to be read at the Rebbe’s grave. Dad said he would and wrote the most amazing heart-rending letter. With deep humility, Dad asks the Rebbe to beseech G-d to forgive him for all his sins.
A few months before he died, Dad spontaneously explained to my sister why he believed G-d existed. Pointing to the radio he said, you can’t see electricity but you know it exists because of its effect - it’s powering the radio. You cannot see the electro-magnetic radio waves, but if you have the right receiver you can capture them. And he concluded: G-d is all around us powering up the universe. All you need to do is tune in.
When dad fell a few months ago and severely hurt himself, I called to ask him how he was. He said, Benzion, I really shouldn’t say this, but I think that this time G-d looked away. I quietly burst out crying - you see what dad was really saying was that every other time G-d was there rooting for him and looking after him.
Do We Express Gratitude?
And so my friends, if our lives are good - and compared to my dad’s life, the lives of most of us, most of the time, are good - what are we doing to express OUR gratitude to G-d?
What are we doing to meet G-d half way? What are we doing to let G-d into our lives?
Are we expressing our gratitude to Him in a meaningful way, by doing some positive action: by putting on tephilin, by keeping shabbos, by wearing a yamulkah, by keeping kosher, by lighting Shabbos candles?
Are we so grateful for the gift of life that we have no time to feel depressed or sorry for ourselves?
Have we discovered enough faith to keep us going like the Energiser battery bunny when all the chips are down?
And finally, when we see an old man - are we going to say he is a spent force, or are we going to ask ourselves what we can learn from him?
I don’t think that dad was an extraordinary man. I think he was a very ordinary man just like all of us here. But with quiet determination, and trust in G-d, he humbly met challenge after challenge without fanfare because he knew that G-d was rooting for him and constantly expressed gratitude to G-d.
Let me tell you about the impact of Dad’s passing on me.
In the almost two months since dad’s passing I have relearnt the beauty of prayer. I’m sure that this must come as a shock to many of you - I’m a rabbi, don’t I pray every day? Sure I said the words, and sure I tried to focus on their meaning. But after dad passed I committed to davening as a relationship with G-d. I don’t only say the words and understand them - I actually talk to G-d, I’m in conversation with Him. And that’s an entirely different way of davening.
You know there are blessings that we are supposed to say every morning. You will find them at the beginning of your siddur. We thank G-d for our vision - “Pokeach Ivrim”. Dad would have given anything just to see his grandchildren and great grandchildren. Do we thank G-d every day for the gift of sight?
We thank G-d for enabling us to move our limbs - Matir Asurim - who frees the bound. Dad spent so much energy on exercise just to keep moving. Do we thank G-d for freeing the bound and enabling us to move.
We thank G-d for enabling us to stand and walk upright - Zokef Kefufim. How dad tried so, so hard to stand straight and walk upright, but being blind and confined to bed for so long, he laced a point of reference. Do you thank G-d for this gift that we all take for granted?
And so I end where I commenced. Rosh Hashanah is a time to commit to gratitude. May each and every one of us experience enough humility to express active, meaningful gratitude and thanksgiving to G-d through our prayers and mitzvot. And may G-d, in turn, bless each of us with a good and sweet year and the fulfilment of all the desires of our hearts for good.
On behalf of the Rebbetzin and all of us at South Head I wish you a Good Shabbos and easy fast. May you and your family, together with Am Yisrael in Israel and throughout the world, be sealed for a good, healthy, secure and sweet year. May it be a year in which peace will reign on earth for all mankind with the coming of Moshiach, speedily in our days.
Rabbi Benzion Milecki OAM
The Daily Word
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