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Friday, 18 September, 2015 - 12:50 pm

Chaim Bialik, one of Israel’s great poets, once found himself walking through the very religious neighborhood of Meah Shearim, in Jerusalem, looking for a synagogue. Coming across a young child in the street, Bialik asked him, “Where’s the synagogue?”

The child replied, “The synagogue is only for Jews, not for non-Jews.”To which Bialik retorted, “Why do you think I’m not Jewish? The child answered, “Because you are not wearing a kippah.” Bialik, looking up to the heavens, said, “Kippah shamayim,” literally, all of heaven is my kippah. The boy, looking up at him, said, “That’s far too big a kippah for such a small head.”

It’s The Shabbat between New Year - Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the holiest days of the year; time to think big. So, my question: If G-d were to say to you on this special day, “I am prepared to grant you one wish. Any one thing you want, you may have,” What would you answer?

In the Bible, we are told that G-d did in fact once confront a person with this very question. The story appears in the Book of Kings, just after the death of King David. Solomon, his young son, has succeeded him, and one night, right at the beginning of his reign, G-d appears to Solomon in a dream and says, “As a final courtesy to your father David, and to help you be an effective monarch in his place, I am prepared to grant you one wish. Any one thing you want, you may have.”

Solomon is overcome by the great burden and grave responsibilities he has inherited, and tells G-d, “You have set me on my father’s throne, but I am only a young man and my experiences are few. I don’t know how to rule this great people.” He ponders for a few moments, trying to decide what he should ask of the Creator at such a moment.

Solomon’s first instinct is to ask for a long and healthy life, so he can take pleasure in his long rule. His second instinct is to ask for great riches so as to enjoy the splendor of his kingdom. Next, he thinks to ask for the downfall of his enemies in order to enjoy a peaceful and tranquil reign. But what does Solomon actually request?

He turns to G-d and says, “If I can really have any one thing, what I most want is wisdom and a sensitive heart, so that I may rule and judge your people wisely.” Concern over his noble relationships with others is Solomon’s primary interest. G-d, particularly pleased by Solomon’s request, says:

“You could have asked for a long life or great wealth or victory over your enemies. But you did not think of yourself; instead you’ve asked for wisdom to judge others fairly. Your wish will be granted. And although you did not ask for great wealth, long life or honor, you shall have these, too.

All these gifts shall be yours In service to his people, in judging them fairly, in establishing noble relationships with them, Solomon would find riches, honor and long life.

What a remarkable and valuable message for us today, as we ascend the throne of life for a new year. The true riches of life do not lie in amassing for ourselves, but in the sensitive heart that learns to act kindly and wisely with others. 

Not everyone agrees. There are those who argue that a rich and happy life is attained by amassing possessions and physical pleasure. According to the famous philosopher Rousseau, happiness is, “a good bank account, a good cook, and a good digestion.” If that is the standard of happiness, however, are we not reducing human beings to the level of a poodle? A good dog- house, fine biscuits, and healthy stomach may make for a happy poodle, but not for a happy person.

Even a poodle might find cause for discontent just chasing food. A puppy once said to an older dog: “After much study, I have mastered the philosophy of happiness. I have learned that happiness for a dog is in his tail. Therefore I chase my tail. And when I catch it, I shall have happiness.” 
Upon hearing the puppy, the older dog said, “I too find happiness in my tail. But I've noticed, that as I chase my tail, it runs from me. However when I go about my business, my tail follows me.”

When we chase happiness, or biscuits, we are using puppy logic, or Rousseau’s logic, and we will find ourselves going in circles. But in following an elevated, G-dly purpose and responsibility beyond ourselves, we discover that happiness follows us. It is a byproduct of right action. It is created by the Mitzvot we do, the relationships we form, and the extent to which we enhance the lives of others.

In England, a bright young Jewish man graduated Cambridge, started teaching philosophy, became a rabbi and began writing his dissertation, but was unsure what type of career he ultimately wanted to pursue. He was not part of the Chabad community, but a Chabad friend of his suggested that, while visiting New York, he should consult the Rebbe. His friend advised him to put his question in the form of three options, allowing the Rebbe to pick the one he liked best.

The young man agreed that he had much to gain in asking the Rebbe’s thoughtful opinion, and upon arriving in New York, he went to consult with him. Standing before the Rebbe he said, “I have a career in front of me, I have three choices. The first is to continue being an academic; perhaps a professor at Cambridge. The second option is to become an economist. Or the third is to pursue the legal route and become a lawyer.”

The Rebbe looked at him with a penetrating gaze and replied, “Not one, not two, not three.” The young man thought to himself, “Hang on, this is against the rules!” 

The Rebbe, however, suggested another option. Anglo Jewry, he said, was short of Rabbis, and the young man had already been ordained. “Therefore,” he said, “if you want my opinion, you should become a congregational Rabbi, and not only that, but you should endeavor to train Rabbis at the Jewish College, where rabbis are trained in Britain. And then,” he said, “your students will come to your synagogue to hear you give sermons and learn from you.”

The young man walked out of the Rebbe’s room baffled. “I am a nobody, from nowhere, and here is one of the greatest leaders in the Jewish world challenging me to change Anglo Jewry.”

He decided, however, to take the Rebbe’s advice and take him up on the challenge. He gave up his three ambitions, trained rabbis and taught at Jewish College. In time, he became the head of Jewish College, and eventually rose to become the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain. Today Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is a global religious leader, philosopher, and author. 
Reflecting on his life’s journey, Rabbi Sacks said, “Having given up all three of my ambitions, having decided to walk in a completely opposite direction, a funny thing happened. I did become a professor. I have a professorship at Oxford University, and have also been appointed Professor of Law and Ethics at King’s College London. And I have delivered Britain's top two economic lectures.”

Sacks concluded, “You know, you never lose anything by putting Jewish life first.” Like young Solomon, young Jonathan did not pursue his three personal ambitions, in the end they pursued him. 

He won prestige and honor and long meaningful days Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, tells the story of an Israeli couple that had an unusually loving relationship. He wondered what their secret ingredient was. Then he discovered it. 

One day, the young woman, Naomi, appeared at his door. “Excuse me Rabbi, but I have a sensitive question to ask you, and I hope it's all right to do so.” 
The question that unfolded was unique to the Israeli experience, one Riskin had not encountered in all of his previous nineteen years at the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan.

Naomi's first husband had been killed several years earlier in the Lebanon War. She was left with a baby girl, and had remarried some time before she came knocking at the Rabbi’s door. “Tomorrow is the memorial service on the date of death for my first husband at the cemetery where he is buried. We had a wonderful marriage and were blessed with a daughter. I'm now remarried and I love my present husband very much. Would it be disrespectful to him if I attended the memorial ceremony for my first husband?”

Certainly the issue was complex. Nevertheless, Rabbi Riskin explained to the woman that a new relationship, as good as it may be, did not obliterate the relationship that had been. This was especially true if her first marriage had been blessed with a daughter. He advised her to attend the memorial. 
Not an hour later, a young man whom he recognized as Naomi's present husband rang his doorbell. His heart immediately sank. Was the husband upset at his decision? Had he advised too quickly about a situation which was not in the orbit of his personal experience, and about which there was no clear Jewish legal ruling?

When the husband began to speak, however, it became clear that he knew nothing of his wife's visit. As if Riskin were totally oblivious to this previous history, he told him the story of the impending memorial. “I never really knew my wife's former husband. But he loved and nurtured a woman whom I now love; he gave his life for my country, and I have the privilege of rearing and loving his daughter. Rabbi, do you think it would be proper for me to honor him by attending the memorial service?” Riskin said that he certainly should.

Naomi and her husband were able to express such awesome sensitivity to others in the midst of tragedy. And like Solomon, in the well-being of the other they found their own lives enriched with love. 

So friends, as we ascend the throne of life for a new year, what is your one wish today?

Let us do as Solomon did, and look beyond the natural instinct to pray just for length of days, wealth and honor. Let us pray for wisdom, for a wise and sensitive heart that will know how to love and lift others. And when we act on behalf of something beyond our own well-being, we will find true riches, honor and a long and blessed life. Amen!



Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


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