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Parshas Nitzavim - Paradigm Shift     26 Elul 5778     

09/13/18 17:38:09


There are few Jewish communities the size of San Diego that boast a late Maariv minyan. Most Shuls daven Mincha and Maariv back to back around sunset. Our success rate with the late Maariv is approximately ninety percent, which, of course, leaves a ten percent chance that there won’t be a minyan. One of the unwritten rules is that we wait until a certain time before we call off the minyan for that night if we did not get ten men. The exception to the waiting rule is when there is a need for someone to say kaddish for a loved one, specifically a mother or father. We try to make extra calls to gather a minyan so that a person in need of a minyan to daven can fulfill his obligation, but we don’t always succeed.

Recently, we had this situation occur twice; it was resolved one time but not the other. This occurred the last night the Beth Jacob summer grill was open, and a family from LA was finishing up their dinner. I mentioned to them that we were going to start soon, but they said they needed to get going back to Los Angeles. Just about the time we would usually call the game I went outside, they were still lingering around, I asked again, and they replied, ‘how many do you need?’ I said we need three and without pause they said, ”We’re coming.’ We made the minyan, and two people were able to recite kaddish. A week earlier, we weren’t so lucky. It was the night I had just flown back from New York, and we only had four people for the late Maariv. An attempt was made to get a minyan by calling some people to no avail. I felt terrible because there was someone who has come to rely on this late Maariv to say Kaddish for his late father. I was embarrassed to face the young man who needs to say kaddish. I sheepishly walked over to him, apologized and said hopefully we’ll have a minyan tomorrow night, and we proceeded to pray individually. As I was walking home a car pulled up next to me in the parking lot. It was the mourner who is saying kaddish. I thought to myself, ”Oh now he is upset, etc, Instead, I received an incredible lesson. Just as I was going to apologize a second time he blurted out saying,“Maariv was really special tonight.” I’m thinking to myself, ”Really? We didn’t get a minyan and you couldn’t say kaddish!” He said, ”This was the first time I was able to say the entire Amidah in Hebrew. You see, my Hebrew reading isn’t up to par and I need to say some parts of the Amidah in English so that I can finish with the group in order to say Kaddish.” I was totally blown away by that conversation. He took a bad situation and created a great opportunity for himself. I stepped back from that two-minute conversation with words from a mussar sefer (book of self-improvement). Imagine a world where everyone took bad and disappointing situations and created positive circumstances from them. Then, keeping that world of people who focus on the positive and take a moment to look within ourselves, seeing how our personal lives could be so much better if we each would try to take the bad situations which too frequently come our way and focus consciously to create something positive from them.

In truth, this sounds so incredible and, in our day, and age it unfortunately is. In today’s world the typical response to a bad situation is to exploit it even further, giving no attempt to look for the possible good which could occur as a result. But that is not the way we are supposed to react. To the contrary, the Torah teaches us to counter a challenging, difficult situation with something positive and good. In this week’s Torah portion Nitzavim, the Torah states in Devarim 30:15 “R’ay Nasati L’Fanecha HaYom Es HaChaim V’Es HaTov, V’Es HaMaves V’Es Horah”. “See! Today I have set before you [a free choice] between life and good [on one side] and death and evil [on the other]. The Midrash Tanchuma in Parshas Pekudei Siman 3 writes that Hashem decrees upon each person before they are even born what they will be. (Until recently people thought this was strictly a metaphor. Now with the discovery of DNA we are coming to know this concept in a new light.) It is pre-determined whether a person will be weak or strong, poor or rich, short or tall, ugly or handsome, thick or thin, ruddy or smooth, and finally the decree on all that will happen! But whether a person is a Tzadik or a Rasha (righteous or wicked) is strictly determined by the person himself. He is not predisposed to either characteristic; he chooses which path – the righteous or the evil – to take. The verse states: ‘Behold I am placing in front of you ‘life and the good’ and ‘death and the evil’. Then later in 30:19 the Torah states: U’Bacharta BaChaim L’Maan Tichyeh: …. and you have chosen life so that you shall live.” The Torah (God) is telling us that the choice is ours; the decision lies within ourselves. If a person chooses to to lean and then to follow towards a certain course – whether it be towards the road to life or the road to death – they are free to do so. The choice is entirely theirs. Therefore, a person will receive punishment for the bad they do (that they chose to do) and others will receive a hefty reward for the good and straight path they chose.

In my humble opinion the pshat (understanding) is the physical life or death and good or bad but not the literal translation of either doing the Mitzvos or not. Rather, the choosing here is not limited to the action but rather the attitude. There is so much to life that is determined by one’s own attitude. It is the attitude and approach to life that literally can be the difference between life and death in this world. A person who always sees and interprets things in the negative will lead a less enjoyable and possibly a physically shorter life. On the other hand, someone who takes everything in stride, determined to figure out a way to take challenging circumstances and make each challenge work for his or her benefit is a person who chooses life. That person will adapt to any situation and come up with a way to shape it to his advantage. A mourner goes through many hoops to make sure he has a minyan to say kaddish. It can be demoralizing when the needed number for the minyan falls short. If we focus on the failure, then we choose feeling bad, and that leads to death. If we attempt to take that situation and come up with something positive, then we are choosing good which ultimately gives us life.

As we close out this year and we welcome the new year, let this new year bring each of us a focus on making the best of bad situations so that we will all have a year of goodness, happiness and the ultimate good life!

Ah Gut Shabbos & Ah Gut Yur

Rabbi Avraham Bogopulsky

Sun, May 24 2020 1 Sivan 5780