How to Achieve Growth in Judaism: A Yom Kippur Message 5781
This is a written version of the Drasha that I gave to the WJCC Kehilla on Yom Kippur, before Mussaf.
In today’s Drasha, this Yom Kippur, I want to talk about a subject that can possibly make some of us uncomfortable. But ultimately can be the most important Drasha I have given so far in my almost two years in Wellington. The question I want to answer is:
How do we achieve true growth in Judaism?
One of the great leaders in business employee management, leadership, and corporate success is Simon Sinek, a world-renowned speaker, TED Talk keynote speaker, a consultant for many small and large corporations. Simon Sinek speaks about the Millenial Problem.
During the talk, Simon addresses how corporations should relate to Millenials and lead them, despite the stigma against them that they are lazy, wide-eyed, and over idealistic. Simon claims that the Millenials were "Dealt a bad hand", and therefore companies should fill in as their parental leaders, and fill in for the sense of entitlement that they grew up with, because of today's parenting. Let's take this as a given, despite the fact that it is a very extreme claim, just for the sake of this article and Simon's next point. Simon continues to set a clear path for how companies should manage Millenials - building trust in the company and putting people first. How do you build trust? Simon gives a practical example of the 90 seconds before a conference meeting. Many people will be on their phones and look up when the meeting starts, and then put their cellphone on the table, face-up or face-down. According to Simon Sinek, this is a trust breaker and malpractice for a company's leadership. There should be no cellphones in conference meetings since the goal is to have a face to face meeting and build trust and camaraderie. Moreover, Simon advises that in the 90 seconds before the meeting, you should put away your phone and turn to the other person and ask them about how their family is doing, if their parents are sick, if they finished the report. The person will probably respond - "thanks for that, my family's doing well" or "my parent is not doing well, really appreciate you asking". If you ask them if they finished their assignment and they realized they didn't, and then you offer to help them - that's what builds trust. The common denominator between those examples is that they are small but significant statements. Incremental steps and longevity, which leads to sustained success. That’s the way a successful company is run. d gradual steps are the key to building trust. Consistency leads to trust, which leads to
Yom Kippur is a day when people come once a year to Shul and join the Jewish community in order to fulfill their Jewish commitment once a year. As Rabbi Raymond Apple, formerly the Av Beit Din of the Sydney Beit Din, puts it:
Yom Kippur is a Jew’s annual confirmation of his or her Jewishness. During the rest of the year, the Jewish dimension of one’s being is sometimes glossed over, weak and irrelevant, but on Yom Kippur, it comes out of the woodwork.
There is no Jew to whom the Day of Atonement does not mean something; to many of us it means more than we can put into words, but even to those whose attachment to Judaism is most tenuous and who, basically, are uncertain what their religion is all about, there is something different about that one day in the year.
The issue with Rabbi Apple's description of Yom Kippur is that it only comes once a year, and that is not a formula for growth in one's Judaism. The Torah reading that we read on Yom Kippur, Parashat Acharei Mot, confirms this claim.
On Yom Kippur, we read about the procedure in which Aharon can enter the Kodesh HaKodashim, the Holy of Holies, in light of the death of his two sons, Nadav and Avihu. Nadav and Avihu died while entering the Kodesh HaKodashim in Parashat Shemini, when sacrificing the "foreign fire", Eish Zara. Regardless of which commentary you subscribe to as to the reason that Hashem killed them with an internal fire on the spot, one thing is clear - they wanted to enter Kodesh HaKodashim without any preparation or taking any preliminary steps. They wanted to go right to the source, the most intimate connection with Hashem with instant gratification, and they got "burned", both figuratively and literally. Their death was tragic not only because they were Aharon's two eldest sons and were supposed to be his successors, but it was also the day of rejoicing when the Mishkan was inaugurated and Hashem accepted Israel's sacrifices on the eighth day of the inauguration process, hence "Yom HaShemini". Entering the Kodesh HaKodashim was dangerous for Aharon's sons, and by extension for Aharon as well. As an analogy, imagine someone who is in a cave and is immediately exposed to the sunshine at noon, on a very sunny day. That person could be blinded for life since they did not build up their resistance to sunlight. On the other hand, if one is drawn to the light and slowly, gradually, and consistently moves forward - they will eventually be able to be in the full sunlight if they take the appropriate steps, and time it correctly. That is the analogy for the path that Aharon HaKohen took in order to enter the Holiest place on Earth - slowly, gradually, and consistently moving forward, unlike his sons who launched themselves into the Kodesh HaKodashim without adequate preparation.
In the wake of their death, Hashem tells Aharon that not all is lost. There is a way for Aharon to enter the Kodesh HaKodashim. The Abarbanel teaches us that the entire first section of Parashat Acharei Mot, which we read on Yom Kippur at Shacharit, is Hashem's step by step plan to give Aharon HaKohen the opportunity to properly enter the Kodesh HaKodashim. First, Aharon must offer the Tamid offering, the daily lamb offered each morning, and then continue with the atonement offerings in a very particular order: 1. For Aharon and his family, 2. For Aharon and the Cohanim as a tribe, 3. For Aharon and for the entire Nation of Israel. There are a series of immersing in a Mikveh, changing of clothes, and an entire procedure laid out in "Seder Ha'avoda", the High Priest's service on Yom Kippur during the time of the Temple. Those steps were a necessary prerequisite for Aharon to work up to being worthy of entering the Kodesh HaKodashim, and not put himself in danger of being exposed to God's most holy and spiritually intense connection. Aharon, unlike his sons, would not be burned by the intense spiritual light of the Kodesh HaKodashim. Aharon had to begin with consistency - the Tamid offering, and continue with incremental steps in order to finally merit entering the Parochet in the Kodesh HaKodashim, offering the spice offering and spraying the blood on the Parochet, and finally entering the centre of the Temple - the Ark of the Covenant and saying Hashem's explicit name 4 times.
The origin of the Yom Kippur service is to strive to achieve the deepest and most intimate connection we can have with God, to achieve ultimate spiritual success, and to do so by taking small, gradual steps and consistently improve our spiritual connection in order to be able to merit entering Kodesh HaKodashim. Like Aharon, we too must take the same approach when setting our sights on achieving spiritual accomplishment. Jewish growth can be achieved with incremental and consistent steps, just like someone exiting a cave into the sunlight.
How can we follow Aharon's footsteps, and what practical steps can we take?
The Torah prescribes the plan for growth in Judaism in the second Mishna of Pirkei Avot:
Shimon HaTzadik used to say - There are three pillars of the world: Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Chassadim.
Torah - Pursuit of Knowledge
Avodah - Pursuit of Spiritual Growth
Gemilut Chassadim - Acts of Kindness and Charity
These three pillars represent three levels of our existence:
Torah - intellectual growth
Avodah - emotional growth & development of values
Gemilut Chassadim - growth through action
Shimon HaTzadik teaches us a holistic approach to our growth as a Jew - in all three levels of experience: thought, feeling and action. Becoming closer to Hashem and achieving spiritual success is multi-faceted. It takes a holistic approach to achieve our spiritual goals, because people live in all three levels of existence.
Following the model of Aharon's Yom Kippur Service, Seder Ha'avoda, we can achieve growth through steady improvement and consistency in all three areas. Attached to this article is a Goal Planner that I developed, which serves as a template to track your own pursuit of success in enhancing your Jewish connection this year, 5781. The Goal Planner implements the idea of gradual and consistent growth, in all three areas that Shimon HaTzadik lays out for us - pursuit of knowledge, spiritual growth and acts of kindness. There are three pages, each corresponding to one of the levels. In each page, there are specific measures of how to achieve success in each area. The metric is not in level of connection or other amorphous accounts, rather they are metrics of commitment of time. For example, one of the metrics in "Torah" is commitment of time to learning with a partner, on one's own and attending classes. The metrics in time is a spectrum from "not yet" to "1 hour a day". The concept of the Goal Planner is to mark down what your current level is and mark your goal for this coming year. Challenge yourself to move up one commitment level, and grow incramentally. If you learn for 1 hour a month, try to learn 1 hour a week or 1 hour every two weeks. Just go up 1 level, no more, and the key is to be consistent about keeping to that goal throughout the year. One step at a time, and stay at that level the year throughout.
We all have comfort zones. Comfort is the number one obstacle of growth. In order to grow we have to leave our comfort zone, get slightly uncomfortable and set goals to advance ourselves. Coming to Shul on Yom Kippur can be a great inspiration, but it is not the formula of advancing our Jewish connection or achieving spiritual growth. The only formula to achieve spiritual growth is setting clear goals, taking one step at a time and focusing on achieving few goals with consistency, rather than trying to leap towards intense spiritual experiences once a year. Think of how you achieve growth and success in your business, in your relationships, in your financial dealings, and relationships. It's about the long game, not short, amazing experiences. If you want a successful marriage, business relationship or friendship then taking that person out to an expensive restaurant once a year does not develop a strong relationship. Alternatively, if you speak with that person 10 minutes or more every day without your cellphone one, and give them undivided attention - that will develop a very strong bond.
Take the plunge! Download the Goal Planner YK 5781 and fill it out. This year, take charge of your Jewish connection, and choose one area, just one, on each page. One area in Torah, one in Avodah and one in Chessed. Mark down what time commitment you currently dedicate to that area and challenge yourself to go up one level. This is the most effective way of truly achieving spiritual success. Wishing everyone Gmar Chatima Tova, Chag Sameach and may we have a year of blessing, growth, prosperity and free of all pandemics!
Rabbi, Wellington Jewish Community Centre, New Zealand