If we are not in the vicinity of Houston, or Florida, we have it easy. No blown roofs, no submerged homes, no displacement, no lives turned upside down. No worries, at least not hurricane related worries. Unless living in the vicinity of the ravaging fires around Los Angeles. Or British Columbia.
So, no worries,, and therefore a clear path to the Yamim Nora'im, the Awesome Days.
Not so fast. No one wishes upon anyone to live under the doomsday threat, and the upheaval, of the Texans and the Floridians. But it is they who have a more clear path to the Rosh HaShana - Yom Kippur period. With all they have endured, they emerge grateful to be alive, and fully aware that material matters, including having a safe, secure, and comfortable domicile, are secondary to life itself.
It is they who have inspired us with their courage, their heroism, their camaraderie, their resolve, their gratitude, their unyielding faith. It is they who come into these most meaningful days with a perspective on life that thousands of well meaning speeches and lessons could not create.
What about all of us, the lucky ones who were spared the wrath of Harvey & Irma? What are the lessons for us? Are they any different this year than other years? Should they be any different?
This is somewhat akin to asking if someone else going through a near death experience should have any affect on us?
It is in a way unfair for our own lives to be even partially governed by what happens to others. There are disasters and traumas happening all the time. If we let everything affect us, how will we be able to live?
Good question. But the answer is clear. How will we be able to live if we let everything affect us? We will be able to live better. That is how.
How does this dynamic actually work? It goes like this. These massive, destructive hurricanes could have perpetrated even greater damage. They could have been even larger than the record breaking (as far as we know since records were being kept) Hurricane Irma, they could have stayed longer, gone in different directions, been even more destructive. It was not merely those in the south who were spared the ravages of the hurricanes who avoided disaster.
We all avoided disaster. The fact that we may have been hundreds of miles away does not change that reality. And it leads to the unavoidable conclusion that we are all survivors of sorts, and therefore of necessity should be full of gratitude for that.
Yes, it sounds preposterous to think of ourselves in the same way as the Houstonians - as fortunate to be alive. But we are all fortunate to be alive. The Houstonians know it because they were so perilously close to losing everything, including life itself. We were not that close, so we may not feel it. But that does not change the simple reality that we too are fortunate to be alive.
How does that affect the way we enter the Aseret Yemay Teshuva, the ten days of return, or as I like to refer to it, the ten days we focus on getting better? It can, and arguably should, help us enter these days full of gratitude for our good fortune, full of appreciation, and therefore ready to translate these sentiments into action on all fronts.
Obviously, gratitude for those who continue to face enormous rebuilding challenges but who are alive to do so, means that we do whatever we can to help them - kind words, kind deeds, continuous prayers. Gratitude, contrary to what some may think, is more than a passing sentiment. For gratitude to be genuine, it must translate into meaningful expression.
Consider the following - can someone legitimately claim to be a grateful person and at the same time be mean, insulting, uncaring? Phrasing the question in this manner exposes the glaring nonsense of a claim to gratitude that is devoid of appreciative behavior. Gratitude, to be real, must be the prelude to action.
We make an interesting adjustment for the Ten Days of Teshuva, the Ten Days of Repentance, the Ten Day of Getting Better. In the first part of the main prayer, the Shemoneh Esray, we conclude the three-blessing introductory by referring to God as the "Holy Majesty," instead of the "Holy God." Majesty, or King, seems to be a demotion in status from God. Only God is God, but there can be, indeed there are, many kings, or monarchs. Precisely at the time that we are more sensitive to the sacred, and to Godliness, we make what seems to be a peculiar turn in a questionable direction.
What exactly are we doing by extolling God as THE Melekh? As is clear from the works of Rav Yonasan Eybishitz and Rav Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad, and further developed in Honeycombs (by Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka and Rikki Ash, Ktav Publishing House, 2017, p. 8), to praise God and the Godly attributes, but to ignore the obligation to embrace those very attributes makes a mockery of the praise. The praise of God's holiness comes with the challenge to emulate God, to embrace a life of holiness.
In carrying this idea through as it applies to the ten days that extol God's holy Majesty, we are challenged to bring majesty to our lives. But what exactly is majesty? Perhaps more than anything else, majesty means taking the lead, taking the initiative, and not allowing oneself to be governed by circumstance. To hide behind convenient excuses such as "I got busy," "I forgot," etc., is anything but majesty. Majesty sets the agenda.
For all of us entering the majesty phase of these ten days, it means that we have the capacity, and therefore the responsibility, to set the agenda, and to keep to it. An agenda of meaningful gratitude, profoundly expressed, is an inspired way to begin the year. It will include gratitude to God, gratitude to parents and grandparents, gratitude to spouse, gratitude to anyone and everyone, institutions included, that have helped us, followed by this simple question - in addition to conveying a genuine thank you, how can I translate this gratitude into an enduring expression?
The question is the same for everyone, the answer differs according to our situation, our capacity. Yes, we enter this penitential period with many "asks" to God. But if we come into this period in the fullness of gratitude, and with "asks" that we pose to ourselves, we will provide answers that spread blessing, appreciation, and goodness.
After all, is this not what we all want, and need?
Rabbi Dr. Reuven P. Bulka has been the spiritual leader of Congregation Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa since 1967. In addition to being an accomplished author of more than 30 books and countless articles in the fields of religion, health, and psychology, he is also host of Sunday Night with Rabbi Bulka on CFRA and regular contributor to "Ask the Religion Experts" in the Ottawa Citizen.
A dedicated grass-roots volunteer, he is renowned for his tireless commitment to the Ottawa community through service on charitable and civic boards and regular participation in charity events. He has received numerous awards including the prestigious Gilbert Greenberg Distinguished Service Award for his exemplary service to the Jewish Community of Ottawa and was the inaugural recipient of Scouts Canada's National Salute Award. He was cited by Canadian Blood Services for more than 300 blood donations and is actively involved in the promotion of organ donation programs. Rabbi Bulka serves as Honorary Chaplain of the Dominion Command of the Royal Canadian Legion, is the chair of the Trillium Gift of Life Network (responsible for organ and tissue donation in Ontario), and chairs the Hospice Ottawa West campaign.
He received his Semikhah (Rabbinic ordination) from the Rabbi Jacob Joseph Rabbinical Seminary, New York, in 1965 and his Ph.D. (concentrating on the Logotherapy of Viktor Frankl) from the University of Ottawa in 1971. He received an honourary Doctor of Laws from Carleton University in 2006 for his community and humanitarian service, and was awarded the "Key to the City" in February, 2010. In June 2013, Rabbi Bulka was appointed a member of the Order of Canada.
It Is Up To Us, More Than We Think
Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka C.M.