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Thursday, 26 October, 2017 - 11:28 pm

I once wanted to be an atheist, but I changed my mind—they have no holidays.

Jewish life is saturated with holidays. If you are Jewish, you don’t stop partying and eating, because there is always another holiday ahead of or behind you. In fact, the only month without a holiday is the one we presently find ourselves in: Cheshvan. Cheshvan has no special days, neither feast nor fast. It is the most boring month in our calendar.

What is more, this month follows the holiday-laden month of Tishrei. From a great spiritual high, we leap into the ultimate downer. Why?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe answers this based on the opening verse of this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha.

The entire history of Judaism commences with the following episode: "G-d said to Abraham, 'Go to yourself, from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing… all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.'"

One thing is amiss in this verse. What is the meaning of the words, "Go to yourself, from your land, birthplace and father's house?" How do you "go to yourself" when you leave your home? You go BY yourself, not to yourself!

The answer is that sometimes, paradoxically, you must leave your comfort zone to discover your truest self.

As long as I remain glued to the environment I grew up in, as long as I remain in familiar territory, I may never discover who I am. I do things because everyone around me does them. I emulate, rather than create; I respond, rather than initiate.

Only when I embark on a journey to a new space, a new environment, new people, where I have nothing else but me alone—can I discover the real me.

Indeed, the instruction of “go to yourself,” say the Jewish mystics, is one given to every soul before it is born.

Some years ago, on a Friday, a Chassidic woman visited a hospital with her husband for a routine checkup. They expected to be home before Shabbat, but complications arose that forced them to remain there for the weekend.

It was time for candle lighting, and the Chassidic Jew was stranded in the hospital. He did not have his Shabbat clothes; he could not pray in the synagogue; he would not be able to celebrate the meal with challah and fish, with songs and melodies. He felt deprived, dejected, and spiritually empty.

As he strolled down the corridor, he noticed an elderly Jew in one of the hospital rooms. He entered to wish the man a “gut Shabbat.”

The aged man, a Jew in his 70’s with an impressive long, white beard and penetrating eyes, said to this Chassid: You seem down and depressed! What’s the matter?

The younger man told him how upset he felt. Usually, at that time, he was walking to shul with his children, meeting hundreds of other Jews, swaying, praying and dancing together. Here he had nothing. He felt like he had no Shabbat! Never in his life could he recall having such an empty, spiritually devoid Shabbat.

The old man lying in the hospital bed looked at the younger one intently, and then he said words the Chassidic Jew would never forget.

“Let me tell you something, my dear young man,” he began. “I spent 14 years in the Russian Gulag, in Siberia.”

The older man was Reb Mendel, a legendary Chabad Chassid, who spent over a decade in Soviet prisons and labor camps due to his involvement in spreading Judaism in Stalin’s Soviet Union and helping Jews flee.

He continued, “I had nothing there. Not my wife. Not my children. Not my family. No home, food, money, security. I was a prisoner in Stalin’s Gulag, and did not know if I would survive the month. Millions died in the Soviet Gulags. Would I be any different?

“I had no community. No synagogue. No friends. No books. No Torah. No cantor. No fish. No Kiddush. No challah. No kosher food. No Torah scroll.

“I had nothing. Nada.

“But let me tell you something, my young friend,” Reb Mendel said.

“Every single Friday evening, as the sun set over the horizon of Siberia, I looked up to the sky and I knew that it was------SHABBAT!

Shabbat had arrived. Shabbat, at last, was in Siberia.

This is what we call in the Chassidic lexicon “pinimiyut,” a relationship with Judaism and G-d that is real, internal, and authentic. It is not for show, nor is it influenced by external factors.

This is not a circumstantial or environmental Judaism. This is “Lech Lecha,” “go to yourself.” This is what it means to be a Jew on the inside. Reb Mendel had no atmosphere, no community, no ambiance to help him feel it was Shabbat, and yet it was still Shabbat, still a holy day!

Reb Mendel was telling this man, don’t make your Judaism dependent on the people around you. Own it! Let it become part of you. Learn how to live an internal, not an external life.

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”

It is like that in marriage. The engagement, wedding, and honeymoon are always exciting. Most couples have an awesome time then.

But how do you know if you are really connected? How do you know if the marriage will survive? When you “land” into a tedious life. When the daily grind consumes you. When the drama, fanfare, and fun are over. When all you have is each other and you must create romance and music from within. Now the love and loyalty needs to come from your heart, not from external excitement. Not every day is a vacation; not every day is a holiday. Some days are boring, monotonous, uneventful, or even tough and rough. But that is precisely when a relationship is tested and when it is capable of reaching its truest potential—when two people choose to link their lives and fates to each other, basking in each other’s presence, even when the radiance may have to be invented from within.

It is said, courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.”

That is the beauty and depth of this month of Cheshvan. “Lech Lecha.” Leave your environment and discover who you are. “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go, instead, where there is no path create a trail,” Emerson said. You need to find your own inner fire. If the world seems cold to you, kindle fires to warm it—because you have that fire within yourself.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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