This was originally composed the Thursday before Rosh HaShanah as my ‘message’ for the New Year. Events and preparations prevented me from sending out. My intention was then to follow-up after the chagim and see how everything measured up. Once again, events of a compelling nature imposed themselves and it made little sense to try and yet come to any conclusions.

It is now December 3rd and the time as come to at least continue.

What Do I Do?

Part One: Preparing for the New Year

It’s Thursday morning. I haven’t davened yet. I Can’t. Who’s davening? Who’s me? What defines me? Is it what I think? Or what I feel? Or what I do? Last Friday on the way home to Tekoa from Yerushalayim, having passed Efrat, a big rock was thrown at me by one of our cousin’s and I received it on the side of my head. I have not yet been able to really deal with it yet. But I know the trauma is lurking behind every breath I take and moment I live and will soon require attention.

But if I was blessed with not having my outer face shattered, my inner face has most definitely been. And so, here I am.

It’s the best kind of hard time of the year, Elul. The end of the year and Rosh HaShana is coming. And whether I want to or not, I am forced to confront. I am forced to examine my year and myself and figure out where I’m at, where I’m going, where I’m being led. It’s inevitable. From without, the divine magnetic power of that which is flowing down from Above, especially here in the Land, is too potent and commanding to ignore or resist. From within, with the constant dramatic changes and shifts in ‘reality’ that is all pervasive, it’s so hard to find stability and continuity, that I am impelled to question what’s up with me and where is my place in these times and events.

I naturally assume that this agonizing process, for me, inevitable and wrenching, is one that everyone goes through. When I study and hear all the Torah regarding the last days of the year as well as the Acharit Hayamim b’Gadol (the Real End Days; the Big Ones) the descriptions of Heaven’s challenges to us, the Birrur (process of clarification of the soul within the body), it all makes some kind of contextual sense. And then I don’t think that I am so crazy; we’re all in the same boat.

Then I realize, not everyone goes through what I go through. Most people have a certain stability and continuity with their families and work. Whatever the process of the teshuva Elul engenders in them, it is contextualized within the flow of the constant that is their lives. And for me, it is the opposite: My life is contextualized within the teshuva I struggle to manifest.
And so, I come to it: What do I do? (Note: I wrote this piece the Thursday before Rosh HaShanah. The title was meant not as a question as to what to do; a way out of a tough situation, having to make a choice. It was in response to the question I disconcertingly still receive: “Moish, what do you do?” No one got it that the piece attempts to establish my criteria for defining what I do. It has long been a pet a peeve of mine: You ask someone what they do and they respond, “I am a……I am a lawyer, I am a doctor, etc.” Wait! I didn’t ask you what you are. I asked what you do. Not who you be.

By way of illustration, a story. Reb Zalman Schachter’s youngest son was becoming bar mitzvah in Yerushalayim and I was asked to be the gabbai for the Shabbat davening: I needed to sit with Reb Zalman to go over the whole thing, how he wanted it to flow, the names for the aliyot, etc. When I arrived I said, “Before we start, I need to ask your mechila (absolution).” With a curious, startled expression, he asked why.

I told him the story of an experience I had at a Rainbow Gathering in ’92, that it was so shattering that as soon as I got out of the forest, I called Shlomo in New York. He was in Israel. I called Yerushalayim and was told that he was in Johannesburg I called and missed him by five minutes, but was told that he would be in New York Shabbos, so I could see him there.

I shlep to New York from Philly and when I arrive, there’s Shlomo right outside. I cross the street and he says to me, “Moishele! You’re calling me all over the world! What’s going on?” I briefly fill him in and he asks, “Where are you these days?” I told him I was in Philly. He asked me, “So why don’t you talk to Zalman?” And I answered, “Because if I ask Zalman, I’ll get Zalman! If I ask you, I’ll get Torah.”

I told Reb Zalman, “I have been disturbed by that response ever since; the lack of Derech Eretz, the implied condescension. Especially since I was not shomer torah u’mitzvot at that time!” He laughed a big, full-hearted laugh, gave me a big Reb Zalman bear hug filled with love, and said: “First, I am mochel you. Second, you were right! If you asked Shlomo, you would get Torah. If you asked me, you would get me.

“You see,” he continued, “I am like the antenna on the head of the cockroach. Did you ever notice that it walks along the base of a wall and before it turns the corner, stops and sends its antenna to see if it is safe? I am the antenna for the Jewish People.”

I have thought about that experience with Reb Zalman often. It is so metaphorical for Elul: Carrying a hidden guilt, being thrust to confront it later, being forced to humble oneself, Viduy – confession, the request for forgiveness and absolution, being given it through an awesome flow of love and joy and acceptance, the receiving of it and the sense of having been cleansed and being fresh and a new beginning.

This, by the way, is Reb Shlomo’s definition of who is a rebbe: “Who’s a rebbe? Someone who washes your soul clean!” Reb Zalman IS A REBBE! Thank you for everything, heleige, zisse Rebbe!

So, so, so…..so what does all this have to do with What Do I Do?

When I was a kid and people would ask me what my father did, I responded, “He’s a shul doctor.” My father is the retired Dean of Communal Services and Professional Rabbinics at Yeshiva University. In the fifties and early sixties, the formal title didn’t yet exist. Indeed, there was no school with a curriculum to learn how to be ‘shul doctor.’ My father created it virtually yesh may’ayin – something out of nothing. Other kids’ fathers were doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc. Mine was a ‘shul doctor.’

Have you ever noticed that when you ask someone’ ‘what do you do?’ they answer, ‘I am a…..a doctor, a lawyer, etc.’ But you didn’t ask them what they were, you asked them what they did. We have been so subtly conditioned to define ourselves by what we do to provide material sustenance that we have lost the knowledge, wisdom and understanding to know who we are. Rosh HaShana is an awesome time to retrieve the truth of who we are and to properly contextualize what it is we do to fill time and provide for food, shelter and clothing.

When you combine the power of a society to impose its sensibility on an individual before that person becomes a person, with the divinely endowed sense of aloneness, loneliness, vulnerability and need to trust, you produce a conditioned, mostly unconscious, non-self-aware, victim. Most people are unquestioning, unchallenging, non-examining, almost robot-like. And society has succeeded in imposing a distorted definition of self; a kind-of unconstitutional prior restraint imposed upon G-d and us, pre-empting the non-distorted authentic definition given over by the One Who Created us. And so, by every one of society’s definitions of success, society is an abject failure.

For myself, I struggle for a personal liberation that leads to increasing and evermore refined authenticity in the service of the Creator and all the Creation. By doing so, like Reb Zalman, I anticipate the struggles of others and therefore am available to help them make it. Among the things I seek to do is help redress this situation by being a living example of the possibility of cleansing oneself of the conditioning and returning to an original, more authentic paradigm of self.

So what do I do? How do I define my work? Rabbi? Educator? Healer? Counselor? Advisor? In past times I would respond to the question with, “I try and figure it out.” They would then ask, “Figure what out?” And I would say, “Whatever.” If I was paid, I could have called myself a professional contemplator. At other times I would respond, “I comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” (liberated from H.L. Mencken)

But finally, I like to think of myself as a Liberator. It’s a good title. Doesn’t pay much, but the rewards when they come are priceless.

Reb Shlomo says, “HaShem wants us to serve him as free people. Not as slaves. That’s why He took us out of Egypt. So what’s the definition of a true spiritual master? Someone who’s a free person. What’s the acid test of who’s a free person? How much freedom they’re giving over to everyone they meet.”

Finally, Rosh HaShana restores to us the liberation that our lives are not truly in the hands of George or Ehud or Ahmadenijad or the boss, or circumstance or income or looks or any outside factors. That there is One with whom we can be intimate and alone, who restores our sense of true selves, restores the trust, faith and belief that we can do good things in this hard world for the world and ourselves and that new beginnings are whenever we choose to step up to them.

The more of us who liberate ourselves and consequently help others to do the same, accelerates the process of ending the worst evil in the world: the idea that there is no better day coming, at least not in our lifetime. This is the lie evil employs to dry up our insides and take us out of the Redemption game.

I bless you and me and all of us and pray you bless me back that we wipe out this evil voice from our hearts and minds, that we remind ourselves that hearts and minds are like parachutes: they only function when they’re open, that we embody the joy that emerges from the knowledge that The Great Day IS coming and that in turn allows us to perform the highest function possible: to help people free themselves from the lack of hope, faith and trust, giving them the courage and strength to persevere without cynicism and endow them with the knowledge that they bring beauty and light into the world.

This is the divine service HaShem is performing on Rosh HaShana. This is the God that we are meeting on Rosh HaShana. May we emerge this kind of Tzelem Elokim, this kind of ‘looking like’ God. And as Reb Shlomo says, “I don’t just want to be inscribed in the Book of Life. I want to be on the same page with everyone I love.” Shlomo loved everyone.

Part Two: The New Year and Its Shocks

Rosh HaShanah: I participated in the minyan, ‘V’Ani Tefilati,’ created by Rav Raz Hartman. The collective focus and atmosphere was everything I could have hoped for. I am amazed and ennobled by the nature and quality of this particular chevre. It is an awesome privileged to be a part of this community. I was shaliach tzibbur for Musaf the first day and Shacharit the second day. It was a good, if tzimtzumed effort, feeling somewhat awed and humbled. Shacharit I was more expansive.

The day after Rosh HaShanah I began a six week struggle with health. I was hit with a raging four-day cold that kept me depleted and in bed. Shabbat Shuva was recovery time.

For Yom Kippur, I once again led Shacharit. I utilized a recently discovered unknown Shlomo tune and it took the roof off the house. But when I was done, I was truly done. I was totally, completely wiped out, so much so that I had difficulty finding the strength to stand. Baruch HaShem, the place the services were held was a children’s community center and they had a lot of thick mats. For most of the rest of the day, I was on my back and only with great effort was I able to stand at the important times.

Once again the cold returned and I while was at low energy, I able to make Sukkot preparations. For the first day, I traveled to Rechovot to be with my recently ‘aliyahed’ friends, Bob and Amy Katz and their kids. Halfway through the davening Shabbat/Sukkot morning, I was feeling ill and left early. By the afternoon, I had a fever, aches, chills and pains and exhaustion. This kept up till Wednesday, when I was finally able to go home, still weak and in discomfort. Shabbat/Simchat Torah, I was once again in Nachlaot and once again became too ill to eat or go out.

I had variations of the cold, viral symptoms and some new strange with my kishkes. I started a battery of tests and when all is said and done, four doctors couldn’t figure it out, and for almost three weeks, went without eating or sleeping. I never knew such weakness over so long a period. It took another 3 weeks until I was feeling myself. I still have some kidney problems, the doctors still don’t and I am grateful for herbs, the Creator of the herbs and those who teach and advise me about them. They got me through the fear the doctors gave me.

Part Three: How Much More?

I have identified the effort at teshuva and what its components and dynamics are for me. They are enough in and of themselves to fully occupy a person’s life. I have identified being ‘stoned’ by an Arab and being ill. Here’s a laundry list of other things that have been the reality of my life for four and a half months:

After I left the Eden-like magic of the Rocky Mountain forest and Rainbow Gathering, I was faced with news of my mother’s surgery, while itself medically successful, has had its price to pay in the accelerated aging of my mother. And shortly thereafter, until her weakened condition, she fell and broke both her writs. Imagine not having use of your arms and hands for six weeks.

After five months of focused work, the recruitment effort at the Rainbow Gathering was a smashing success. I found eighteen gems – true stars – all potential serious leaders within the Jewish People. I knew that with war, the ‘recruits’ would not want to come. None had been to Israel. All had considered the notion only because I was there to turn them onto the notion. An autonomous program, run by me, was set up. Everything was in place and for the first time I would have a serious salary and work I could depend upon and give hope for my life.

And then war broke out in Israel; a bad and stupid war (as if there good and smart ones!). I knew that the group would not want to come and that I would have to work hard to pull them in. It meant constant contact and bucking up. I was also out of money and I would have to go to New York and raise it if I was going to be able finance the next months of work. August is the lousiest time to try and fundraise in New York and with the powerful magnet of the war, I really had no choice but to go home and pray that HaShem had a plan.

He did. The program and my parnassa collapsed, I got stoned and I got sick. Couldn’t accomplish much under those circumstances. Add to this that when I returned to Israel, I found out my religious-hating ex-landlord was suing me for some $4000.00 and needed some $1500.00 for a lawyer. Plus, I found that my Tefillin were not kosher.

There at least six more really bad things that come to mind that occurred over this time. It all adds up to being so knocked down, that I wonder how I’m still standing. Rav Raz says that I’m incredibly strong, because no matter how often I am knocked down, somehow I always come back. I don’t about that. I can see clearly how much less of me there seems to be. It’s like pieces of me die with each blow; some larger pieces, some smaller. However….

Part Four: Wrestling With G-d

Be sure, I have spent a meaningful part of this period wrestling with G-d: What possible use could I be to You, knocked down like this. There are people’s lives in crisis, people who are seeking my help and have no where else to turn. Strong healthy and funded, there is no limit to what I can accomplish for the good of HaShem’s Holy Name. And how do You expect me to live without parnassa? How am I to pay my way: transportation, medical costs, etc.? To say nothing my self-esteem. None of this heals and fixes either mine or anyone else’s image of me as a shlepper and a mizkain, chas v’shalom.

On top of all this is one enduring pain, one element which gnaws away at heart, spirit and soul: The lack of my helpmate, my soul mate, my wife. The balancing factor that Torah teaches is critical to a man’s life is his eizer k’negdo. I don’t have mine and all this I have to fight through alone. Why deprive me, HaShem?

But not really.

Part Five: Hope

In all of this gloom and doom, there is a light that gives hope. To start with, here I am, able to write about it, communicate and reach out.

There is always need, always work to be done and service to perform and within the limits of my circumstances, I still was able to touch some lives and help. Sometimes you have to be forced out of the action to prepare you for the next round which never announces its arrival and for which you can never anticipate and therefore consciously prepare and which always comes. The work finds you.

And I can testify that HaShem does indeed not abandon you, if you have the eyes to see. I have friends. I have chevre. I have a bountiful group of people who hold me up in all kinds of ways. From Yerushalayim to California, there are those who with profound love, respect and affection, go above and beyond the call to try and fill the empty spaces as best as they can. Financially, they help me survive, spiritually they affirm my light, physically, they seek to share time and space. If the rich and wealthy gave the way my poor friends do, there would be no hunger or poverty in the world, nor loneliness or abandonment. They are the (hopefully) temporary stand-in’s for my not yet identified, beautiful, rich, loving, supportive wife and children. It’s a big task and tall order. They perform majestically and magically. One can ask for no more from friends.

Part Six: Next

While ill, the most I could do was read. I read a lot. One of the books I read was Rav Gedalia Fleer’s account of breaking open the gates to visit the grave of Rebbe Nachman in Uman, Ukraine. It’s a long story.

For years, people have either urged me to go to Uman or nudnicked me about why I didn’t go or both. Simple as it is, I never heard the call. But in the course of reading this book, it came to me strong that I need to go. At the same time, a real friend and brother decided that I needed to go and that he would finance it. I only found out a couple of weeks later. But both my ‘call’ and his came the same time. Only Heaven can coordinate like that.

Rav Shalom Brodt asked me to begin teaching at Yeshivat Simchat Shlomo. The session is tomorrow night. The first was a smash. It’s a beginning. Financially, it is only a band-aid, as he called it. But it is a powerful vote of confidence in me that came just in time; the kind of vote that only comes from someone who both knows you well and even more, loves and cares.

Rav Natan Greenberg, Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivat Bat Ayin gives a weekly ‘shmoose’ that is mandatory to attend. This is strong stuff for a yeshiva that strives to have no forced anything. Over ten years, he has invited a handful of people to give guest shmooses. He invited me. I have reason trust that it went over well.

I am writing again. For me, this is the biggest sign that the times have changed; that the next season and passage of my life has been embarked upon.

I’m still broke and in debt; don’t know where my next shekel is coming from, don’t know how I’m going to take care of filling my fridge, paying my lawyer, do my laundry, etc. etc. etc.

To paraphrase Reb Shlomo, I don’t know anything, but one thing I know one thing for sure: HaShem is sticking with me despite my failings and I just need to hang out long enough and one day, the fullness of redemption will come to me.

As will it for all.

Stay tuned.