Good Yom Tov!

That was a beautiful rendition of Kol Nidrei ... It's hard not to be moved at a moment like this ... truly a beautiful time of the year ... everyone comes together ... in a sacred environment ... with gratitude for our blessings of the past year ... with an eye on our hopes for the coming year … as we resolve to improve that which needs improvement on our part ... and request that G‑d improves that which needs improvement on His part ...

At a time of somber reflection on the day of Yom Kippur, it is those relationships - with G‑d and with mankind - that are at the core of our thoughts ... indeed, relationships are at the core of life itself ...

My wife and I found the secret to a great relationship: We go out TWICE a week, for some fine food and wine.... in a nice relaxing atmosphere. I go Tuesdays. And she goes Thursdays.

I'm only half kidding. Sometimes it IS important to reflect on your own ... isn't that what we're all doing here today? ...

And this issue of reflection touches upon a very serious question: what happens when only ONE person in the relationship wants to make the relationship better?

We're all in Shul tonight … we're back to talk with G‑d ... about the past year and about the coming year ... We're here to "commit"...

Does anyone get the feeling that this is sometimes a bit of a "one-way" relationship? ... Did we all get what we asked for last year on Yom Kippur? ... Did anyone here resolve to do a mitzvah ... and the problem is still there?

We're husbands, wives, sons, daughters, fathers, mothers ... Have our efforts to enhance our relationships with our loved ones been met with at least the same effort? ...

I was standing outside the new Preschool playground a few days ago and I overheard a cute conversation: A little girl approaches a little boy and says, "Hey Tommy, wanna play house?" "Sure, what do you want me to do?" "I want you to tell me your feelings." "Tell my feelings?" said a bewildered little Tommy, "I don't know what that means!". The little girl smiles and says "Perfect. You can be the husband".

It takes 2 to tango! And there is nothing more frustrating in a relationship - be it with G‑d or with your spouse - than being met with silence! ...

My dear friends ... Tonight is the time that we can temper that frustration ... because the "silence" that we hear is not what we think it is ... In OUR minds we TRANSLATE silence into absence ... and consequentially a profound sense of loneliness sets in ... a loneliness that is enough to drive a person insane ... at the very least it is the trigger for deep depression ... for alienation ... But it is not true ... on this holy day of Yom Kippur I hope to convey to you the message of this day - one that we must ponder over the course of the next 24 hours:

That the silence of G‑d and the silence of our beloved, does not mean that they are absent ... they may have not responded the way we hoped ... but Yom Kippur is the day that we find a new way to deal with our loved ones silence and with G‑d's actions that make us feel that He's not there with us:

The Mitzvah of the day is Forgiveness. We often think of forgiveness on Yom Kippur as something that WE are coming to REQUEST - from G‑d and from others. But it works the other way as well – and on a deeper level, forgiveness benefits us more when we give it than we receive it.

Where is the first mention of forgiveness in Jewish tradition and who was it that needed forgiveness? Here's a story from the Midrash:

It is written (Genesis 1:16), "And G‑d made the two great luminaries"; but then it says, "The great luminary... and the small luminary"?

[Indeed, at first they were both great; but then] the moon said to G‑d: Master of the Universe! Can two kings wear the same crown?

Said G‑d to her: Go diminish yourself.

Said she to Him: Master of the Universe! Because I have said a proper thing, I must diminish myself?

Said He to her: You may rule both during the day and at night.

Said she to Him: What advantage is there in that? What does a lamp accomplish at high noon?

Said He to her: The people of Israel shall calculate their dates and years by you.

Said she to Him: But the sun, too, shall have a part in that, for they shall calculate the seasons by him.

Said G‑d: The righteous shall be called by your name — "Jacob the Small," "Samuel the Small," "David the Small."

Still G‑d saw that the moon was not appeased. So G‑d said: "Offer an atonement for My sake, for My having diminished the moon." This is the significance of the he-goat offered on Rosh Chodesh (the first of the month) G‑d is saying: This he-goat shall atone for My diminishing of the moon.

That's the Midrash. I made things bad, I need atonement ... this is the very first notion of atonement, the seeking of forgiveness in all of Jewish history ... atonement for G‑d Himself! Clearly this serves as a template for the forgiveness that we all seek on Yom Kippur ...

But what is it that G‑d is seeking forgiveness for?? What was His sin?? That He made the moon small? There is clearly a reason for that - as He spells out ... not just a reason, but good reason that you acknowledge ... and anyways, size doesn't matter .... you'll rule during the daytime too ... small isn't bad, great people are small! ... So where did G‑d "sin" that he needs to be forgiven??

And more importantly – how was the moon appeased when G‑d simply said “I need atonement for diminishing you”. I can imagine the moon saying, “keep your atonement, just fulfill my request!” … but that’s not what happened – in actuality, the moon WAS appeased with those simple words … just some words …

These 2 questions compel us to acknowledge a fundamental truth about relationships ... about how easily they are shaken ... and about how central forgiveness is to their repair .... it is with this story ... the very first manifestation of forgiveness in all of history, where G‑d conveys to us a very important message about relationships:

In a relationship, forgiveness is not something that is requested - or granted - for sin, per se, because relationships are not about right or wrong ... relationships don't thrive on good reasons, on good excuses .... relationships thrive on "presence" ...

The Moon felt hurt by G‑d ... abandoned by Him ... and all the reasons in the world meant nothing ... because even if they were good reasons, they were G‑d's reasons, not the moon's ... and the diminishing feeling that the moon felt - could not be tempered by the best reasons in the world ... it felt alone and it needed to feel loved ..... Only when G‑d struck a conciliatory tone - by seeking forgiveness - was the moon appeased. It wasn't granted its request and changed back to its original size.... but that didn't matter. It wasn't about the size ... it was about the feeling of loneliness and that's what G‑d sought to erase. How? Not by changing the situation, but by requesting forgiveness...

When we're down and out and things are tough, either they're looking bad or they're just not as good as they should be, hearing "its going to be good!" doesn't necessarily bring us the comfort we need. Maybe it will be good, maybe it won't. But right now it isn't! ... At a time of pain, anxiety or even just concern, there's nothing more meaningful than hearing "you're not alone".

Being a Jew means G‑d is always with us, it means we are CLOSE to Him .... and it means we are close with each other ...

I'm proud to call myself a student of the Rebbe ... much of what I learned from him was not just through his words of Torah that I studied, but through his interaction and application of the wisdom of Torah to the lives of those who sought his counsel. These days I've come to realize a double irony: (1) it is specifically in the time SINCE the Rebbe's passing that we've discovered MORE of this "life-wisdom", due to the fact that only now are people documenting and publishing the communications, interactions and discussions they had with him during his lifetime. (2) The scope of these discoveries are also greater now in quality, because much of what is publicized now - as opposed to what he heard from the Rebbe during his lifetime - is specifically from those that are NOT Chabad, religious, or even Jewish - and is therefore geared to the most broad and diverse audience possible...

So here is the story of a modern Orthodox Jew – not a Chassid - named Yaakov Shiffman.

To read, listen to, or print out the story: www.chabadgreenwich.org/2258149

"When I was a kid he took me to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and also to Satmar and Bobov. He wanted me to experience the whole spectrum of Judaism – the modern side, the chassidic side, the non-chassidic side – to see what it’s all about. That way, wherever I found myself, I’d be able to fit in.

In 1973, my Bar Mitzvah year, my parents sent me to a summer camp in Israel. When I came back, I learned that my father was about to undergo surgery. It turned out he had colon cancer, and from that point on his health went downhill.

Two years later, just before Purim, my father’s condition took a turn for the worse. We went to the hospital, the doctors examined him, then they called me in and said, “You’d better go home; your father is staying here tonight.” That night they opened him up, but they saw that there wasn’t much they could do – just to try to make the end as painless as possible.

Of course, we didn’t want to give up, so we went to several rabbis for blessings. We even tried the alternative medicines of the time. My father was losing a lot of weight – he was five-foot-six, but pretty soon he weighed barely ninety pounds. Nothing was working.

Then one cousin told us, “You should go to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe.” It was winter; the first week of the month of Kislev. Five of us went – my father and mother, my grandmother, my sister and me. My father was so ill… he was haggard; his face had lost its luster.

We entered the Rebbe’s office. I stood in the back of the room, and my father spoke quietly with the Rebbe for a few minutes. When the Rebbe finished speaking with my father we began to leave, but suddenly the Rebbe said to me, “You stay.”

I was already anxious with everything that was going on; I was only sixteen years old at the time, and I got very, very nervous.

The Rebbe said to me, “Kum … Come over,” gesturing that I should approach. He went over to his shelf and pulled out two Talmuds Tractate Brochos, and he said to me in Yiddish:

“By the laws of medicine, your father is extremely sick now, he’s near the end. G‑d will help, but your father will be depressed, and you’re going to be depressed. You’ll need something to give you strength. I want to teach you something which will help keep you going.”

He opened up to page 10a and began to teach me the story from Kings II [20:1-6] which the Talmud is discussing. King Hizkiyahu is ill, and the Prophet Isaiah visits him. The prophet tells the king that his days are numbered and he should prepare to die, but Hizkiyahu refuses to accept this, and he says, “No, I have faith in G‑d.” Although the prophet says it is too late, Hizkiyahu begins to pray because, “even if the tip of the sword is pointed at your throat, you should never give up hope.”

I was standing across the desk from the Rebbe, and he was sitting. But in middle of the story, the Rebbe motioned for me to come around the desk, and I looked into the volume together with him. He translated the dialog slowly into Yiddish, word by word, pointing to the place, like a father teaches his son.

The point the Talmud is making through this story is that we should not mix into G‑d’s business. We have to do what we have to do, and G‑d does what He does, and that’s it.

I remember him pointing to the words with his finger, then looking at me, and pointing again. He had me repeat it until it was clear that I understood. Though my father was quite knowledgeable in Talmud, the Rebbe wanted to make sure that I understood the Talmud’s idea well, and that I could explain it to my father, as well – that even at death’s door you should never give up hope, you should never become depressed, and you should accept G‑d’s will. It took quite some time – about twenty-five minutes.

What stands out in my mind more than anything else is the earnest, loving way the Rebbe looked at me. I never saw that type of love. Here I was, a stranger to him, a young boy coming with his father who needed a blessing. He gave his blessing, but then he gave much more. He saw that this boy needed fatherly love, and he gave it.

When I came out of the Rebbe’s office, I was sweating. As we drove home, I told my father what had happened, and he broke down and cried. As soon as we got home, we learned the piece at least three or four times.

I remember my father asked me a few times, “Do you understand why the Rebbe told you to learn this with me? Do you understand?”

Two and a half months after our visit with the Rebbe, my father passed away. It was Monday night, the 18th of Shevat, and the last thing he said to me was that I had given him tremendous nachas.

After he passed away, I was on the verge of becoming despondent. I didn’t have relatives to look after me – my mother was an only child, and my father’s whole family had been wiped out in the war – and I was only sixteen years old.

I don’t know how to thank the Rebbe for this fact, but he sat me down and told me the facts of life. Everyone else had been telling me, “No, it’ll be good; it’ll be good.” The Rebbe looked at me and told me how to be prepared for it.

I had times when things got tough. I left yeshiva for a while and wandered away. But then I remembered what the Rebbe taught me. Through those years, I probably learned that piece of Talmud thirty times, and it got me back on track.

The fact that I am a religious Jew and that I raised a beautiful family is because of that day when the Rebbe spent so much time with me and explained to me: When you have a problem and are feeling that you’ve hit rock bottom, remember never to give up, because G‑d is there. Open your heart to Him, and He will help you."

This story is particularly meaningful to me. I have a close friend in the audience here tonight who always expresses a healthy skepticism about miracles. I say 'healthy' skepticism because he's right. Being Jewish - and especially being Chassidic, at least from Chabad philosophy perspective - is NOT about relying on miracles. It is through MAN's service that we become close to G‑d.

And ironically, its NOT thru miracles that G‑d becomes close to us ....

We cannot change the people around us ... our friends, our loved ones ... we cannot even change our spouse ... We surely cannot change G‑d! But we can and must eliminate the distance between us ... it ABSOLUTELY IS in our hands to banish the loneliness that creeps in ... by taking the initiative on OUR part ... and extending forgiveness ...we will come to acknowledge for ourselves and for them, that despite their failings, faults and shortcomings - their very presence is, in and of itself, most meaningful to us ... forgiveness fosters intimacy ... it doesn’t change the people .... it changes the relationship .... raising it and enhancing it ... sparking a higher awareness between the two ... and ultimately benefiting both sides .... you no longer feel alone ...

We owe G‑d a lot ... and He owes us ... Tonight we come together with each other and with Him, not with complaints about what has happened to us nor with regrets about our own faults ...we come together in a much deeper way ... we come together in our most important relationships, simply for the sake of coming together .... That's intimacy .... That's Yom Kippur ... and it is that energy of the day from which atonement flows .... from where resolutions are inspired ... between man and man .... and between G‑d and man ... and that's why we we'll have a good year ....

There are many things that make the Jewish People the greatest nation in history.

The miracle of the existence of the Jewish People is not because of the "miracles" - the Red Sea or the wonders of the Temple. The miracle of Jewish existence is the Jew in Greenwich of 2013! ... who - like the Jew in Warsaw of 1943 ... in Mainz of 1300 ... in Palestine of 70 - does NOT himself or herself see G‑d .... but all those watching him or her, clearly DO ... they see the actions of someone who could do what he or she is doing - whether it is defending Jerusalem from the Roman legionnaires ... defying the Crusaders on the pain of death .... or proudly displaying their heritage in a society that looks on with skepticism - ONLY because they are in a committed, intimate relationship ...

In the heart of Auschwitz or perhaps in another moment of historic persecution, there is a story told about a group of scholarly Jews brought G‑d to Bet Din - to Rabbinical Court - to be tried for the crimes that he allowed to be perpetrated against His people ... after much deliberation the jury of rabbis came to their conclusion: "G‑d is guilty. The court is adjourned. Now let's daven Mincha...."

And there is something else that makes us great ... the sense of togetherness among Jews is perhaps an even greater factor ... we see ourselves as the link ... the integral connection between all past and future generations .... and between all Jews that spread themselves across the globe in THIS generation ... we're never alone not only because we have G‑d, but also because we always know we have each other ...

So as we stand here over the next 24 hours .... as we ponder our spiritual and emotional state .... as we pray to G‑d and request His forgiveness ... its ok to bring to the table all of the problems we have with G‑d .... and all the problems we have with those around us ... and to forgive them ....

As we resolve to extend forgiveness .... the heightened intimacy brings that forgiveness back to us ... and wonder of wonders … not only will our relationships become stronger … but our requests will indeed – G‑d willing – be granted…


Yom Kippur ~ Yizkor Speech          Rosh Hashanah ~ Day One Speech