Regaining What Was Lost

I want to let you in on a personal struggle of mine. Sometimes I feel that I do not know where to turn. COVID-19 has created a new paradigm for our and every other community with so many new needs, concerns and objectives, that sometimes I feel that it is too much.

I wonder if any of you are feeling this way or have felt this way over the course of the last six months.

What are we supposed to do about this feeling? What should our priorities be? How do I sift through all of it and focus on one thing?

Rabbi Soloveotchik addressed this, at least on a communal level in an essay entitled Jewish Self Sacrifice (Found in Divrei Hashkafa 194-196)

He states something that is at once remarkable and rather logical. He calls it a “Fundamental of Faith”. He says that if we really want to know what is important, we should listen to what our enemies are saying. We don’t always have to turn to the Rambam or R’ Yehuda HaLevi. If our enemies are focusing on something, then that is a signal that it is really important. This explains a strange Gemara that declares that at certain times a Jew must be

willing to give their life even if they are pressured to change something even as seemingly unimportant as the traditional color of their shoelaces. The point is, that if enemies of the Jewish people are focused even on the simplest aspect of Jewish identification, that is a certain indication that it is a crucial principle.

Here is a telling example.

Why does the Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi contain the rules of Kodashim - the rules dealing with sacrifices brought in the Beit Hamikdash. The answer is that despite the fact that those rules were not relevant at the time the tractates were written, since the idea of the importance of the Beit Hamikdash was disparaged by the nations of the world, the Rabbis specifically spent time studying that topic. Our ongoing hope for the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash influenced our sages to never stop studying the laws related to the temple.

The nations of the world wished to erase our deep connection to the Beit Hamikdash, therefore our Rabbis worked extra hard to continue studying those subjects in the hope that they will be relevant once again.

We learn something remarkable from this approach. Sometimes we do not know what we should be fighting for. There are so many important things in our lives, so many worthwhile endeavors we can and should devote our time to. But, when it comes to what our focus should be at any given time, it should be on those things that are under siege. When the nations of the world were trying to discredit the importance of the temple, our sage doubled down on studying those rules as a message to all of us as to how important it is.

It seems to me that the front we should open up is clear. Our sense of community is under siege, not from outside forces or an external enemy - thank God - but because of our circumstances. Our communities, our shul, our schools are struggling. If so, then, that is where our focus should be.

There is a beautiful story in the Gemara that illustrates this idea:

נקנור נעשו נסים לדלתותיו והיו מזכירין אותן לשבח

With regard to Nicanor, miracles were performed to his doors, the doors in the gate of the Temple named for him, the Gate of Nicanor. And the people would mention all of those whose contributions were listed favorably.

The Gemara goes on to explain the story of the Gates of Nicanor:

ניקנור נעשו נסים לדלתותיו ת"ר מה נסים נעשו לדלתותיו אמרו כשהלך ניקנור להביא דלתות מאלכסנדריא של מצרים בחזירתו עמד עליו נחשול שבים לטבעו נטלו אחת מהן והטילוה לים ועדיין לא נח הים מזעפו בקשו להטיל את חברתה עמד הוא וכרכה אמר להם הטילוני עמה מיד נח הים מזעפו והיה מצטער על חברתה כיון שהגיע לנמלה של עכו היתה מבצבצת ויוצאה מתחת דופני הספינה ויש אומרים בריה שבים בלעתה והקיאתה ליבשה
§ The mishna related: For Nicanor, miracles were performed to his doors. The Sages taught in the Tosefta: What miracles occurred for his doors? They said: When Nicanor went to bring copper doors for the eastern gate of the Temple from Alexandria in Egypt, famous for its craftsmanship, on his return voyage by ship, a storm arose in the sea and threatened to drown him. The ship’s passengers took one of the doors, which were exceedingly heavy, and cast it into the sea, fearing that the weight of the doors would sink the ship. And still the sea did not rest from its rage. They sought to cast the other door into the sea, at which point Nicanor stood and embraced it and said to them: Cast me into the sea with it. Immediately, the sea rested from its rage, and it was necessary to cast neither the door nor Nicanor into the sea. The ship continued its journey with one door and for the entire voyage, he regretted the fate of the other door that he allowed them to cast into the sea. When they arrived at the port of Akko and prepared to disembark, despite the fact that it was made of copper, the door that was thrown into the sea was poking out under the sides of the ship. And some say a sea creature swallowed it and spewed it onto the land.

As this story progresses, Nikanor ermges, not just as a donor, but as a person with a vested interest in his project that is under siege. His commitment to the door increased as he realized that they were both at risk of being lost.

At the end a miracle is performed and BOTH doors survive.

The end of the story is beautiful.

לפיכך כל השערים שהיו במקדש נשתנו להיות של זהב חוץ משערי ניקנור מפני שנעשו בו נסים

Therefore, when the nation prospered and the people replaced the doors made of various metals, the doors in all the gates in the Temple were altered to become doors of gold except the doors in the Gates of Nicanor because miracles were performed to them.

At the end of the story, even what was thought to be lost was found and became a permanent feature on the Beit Hamikdash.

In the merit of Nikanor fighting for what was under siege, not only what he fought for was saved, but even that which was thought lost forever was rediscovered.

Collectively, our struggle is on the communal level. We have to double down on our community - on supporting UOS. And we have tried mightily throughout this period of time to provide programming and connection to as many people as possible, to all of our members - through calls, letters, deliveries, counseling classes, we haven tired. Our community, UOS, needs the collective support of all of us. RMBA, Robert M. Beren Academy, likewise needs the hug that nakanor gave to his door, to make sure it would not be thrown into the sea. Our communal institutions, these twins of ours, like the twin doors of Nicanor, require our commitment. And like the Rabbis who doubled down on learning about the sacrifices, we must double down on our commitment to our institutions.

Individually, well, we all have our own areas where we may have slipped, understandably, over six or seven months.

Regular davening, getting dressed for Shabbat and having regular Shabbat meals, Torah learning opportunities to do Chessed are examples of things that, for some of us, may have slipped out of our hands.

Who among us does not wish to repair relationships? Maybe we think they are too long gone; too much has happened and there is no hope. Nikanor’s story reminds us that we should never give up hope. We have to hold fast to our loved ones...even if they have disappointed us. We must try, and try again to regain love, friendship and civility.

The story of Nikanor’s commitment reminds us of the sacrifice needed to preserve what is important. Finding what was lost is not easy - but it is possible...if we are willing to try...try hard.

Rabbi Yehsaya Horowitz, known as the Shelah Hakadosh - teaches that the reason why every section of shofar blowing starts with Tekiah and ends with a Tekiah is to remind us of the possibility of new beginnings. We start with a straight and pure tekia, but then we have the broken sounds, representing when things go wrong. But, we always return to the strong and solid Tekiah.

This is the message of the Shofar this year. Our Tekiah plans have been interrupted by the broken sounds of the shofar, yet, as the shofar sounds teach us, we can always come back to the Tekiah. We can always regain what was temporarily lost.

We may think we have lost things. We may think we have lost aspects of our community, we may think that elements of our personal observance have suffered, but if we fight for what is important, like Nikanor did, then not only will what we struggle for survive, but even what we think is already gone can miraculously reappear.