This article was written for the August edition of The Scroll but was published in September.
Everything has two sides to it: What it looks like and what it really is. The trick, and a true test of one’s perception, is to be able to tell the difference. Some of us are more inclined to pay attention to what something looks like rather than what it actually is. This is not uncommon and, in many ways, perfectly natural. We live in a society that is heavily based on this concept. For more than a half-century, advertising geniuses have earned millions just for making us see products as the brand makers want us to see them without really considering what they really are. I mean, think about it… When you see a Rolls Royce, do you see a well-made car or does your brain just scream “MONEY.” We were told that we would like Life cereal because even Mikey liked it (and he hates everything). At the checkout aisle of any department store or supermarket, you will find products just waiting for you to see and buy them on impulse: whether you need them or not.
One of the funnier stories from my life with Chana is an example of this. Chana one time asked me with great wonder how stores can make money when they have these incredible sales. I explained that it was a way to get people to come in and buy other things while they were in the store, whether they needed them or not. I am not too sure she believed me until one day she came back and was all excited about a special deal she got on some halva at the grocery store. (Chana happens to just love halva.) She was so happy to have gotten it on sale. Well, I smiled and walked over to the refrigerator. I opened the door, reached into the back of the first shelf, and pulled out a large piece of halva that had been there for a while. At that moment, we burst out laughing together and she understood the concept. We still laugh about this wherever we think about it. (I was reading a draft of this article to Chana and when she heard where I was going with this paragraph she was howling with laughter at the memory).
Politics in our society work the same way. Politicians running for office are always trying to make themselves look like something they frequently are not. One party is always trying to paint the other in extreme and negative terms. It doesn’t matter whether or not the things said or depicted are true or not, they are meant to make things look a certain way and they rely on the naive viewer, listener or reader to just accept what it looks like without actually delving into the matter to determine what really is. A great example is the anti-Israel movements that are proliferating throughout the world. Israel is depicted as an apartheid nation because it defends itself against an enemy that murders women and children. There is an organization whose name I will not dignify in these pages that uses the term “May his memory be for a blessing” in describing terrorists killed while attempting their bloody deeds. They count on people not to look beyond what they are saying to actually determine what is.
Sometimes, taking something at face value is OK but at other times it can lead one to terribly wrong conclusions.
Personally, I have tried to be more of a “what-it-is” man rather than a “what-it-looks-like” kind of guy. Part of it comes from my professional training. As an accountant, I was taught to recognize “substance over form.” As a programmer, your entire life is based on determining “what-is” and going beyond “what-it-looks-like.” Trust me when I tell you that if you cannot go beyond what something looks like to get to the bottom of what it is, you will be unable to debug a program and you will fail miserably.
Now that I am out of technology and in operations I do the same, and I have tried to inculcate that outlook in those who work for me. Let me give you one small example: I was having a discussion with two of my maintenance guys about decommissioning some equipment because I was concerned about safety. One of the maintenance guys responded, “Yeah, could you imagine the article that would come out if a kid got hurt with that?” I blinked first because I could not believe what I heard. I told him, “You know, that was a very interesting statement. I am worried about a child getting hurt and you’re worried about a newspaper article?? How about we worry about what it is first and what it looks like after.” I went on to explain that 99.44% of the time (see if you get that reference), if you take care of what it is, you will not have to worry about what it looks like.
No, it is not always the easiest thing to look beyond to see what is. I have failed many times and am sure I will fail many times again. Still, I do pride myself in being able to ask myself the questions that make me see beyond what my visual, audio or olfactory senses tell me to determine what is actually going on. I much prefer to try and recognize people, occurrences and things for what they really are.
In this vein, let me tell you something I see that isn’t what it might look like.
In my mind’s eye, I am used to attending Shul on Shabbat and seeing a sanctuary filled with dozens of people. In my mind’s ear, I am used to hearing a congregation joining me in such melodies as Kel Adon, the various tunes of Kedusha, Ein Keilokeinu and, of course, Adon Olam. In my mind’s nose, I can smell the aromas of the Shabbat Kiddush. None of that happened this past Shabbat.
Were I to pay attention to what things look like, I could easily become depressed. I might see a congregation that has declined so far due to the current pandemic that so many of the things that we look forward to on Shabbat are not there anymore. It could make one weep.
But, that is not what I see. I see a much different, and truly joyous, picture.
You see, four weeks ago (I am writing this on July 6th) I spent Shabbat at home. Our beautiful sanctuary was closed, empty, and desolate. The prophet Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) describes Jerusalem in Aicha (Lamentations): (1:4), as “Empty of festival pilgrims; All her gates are deserted.” Such was our beautiful sanctuary, constructed of Jerusalem stone, empty and alone for the 14th consecutive week. The Torahs were in the ark with no one to read from them or to speak about what they say; the cantor’s lectern stood barren with no music emanating from her.
Yet, three weeks ago, I stood at that lectern and was able to lead services. True, we only had nine people at services; we did not have a Minyan. Once again the Torahs stood in the ark but the building was once again the source of prayers and hope as we gathered for the first time in almost four months. How easy it would have been to be discouraged by the small number of people but my spirits soared! Once again the words of Yirmiyahu played in my head but, this time, the words were so different!
Thus saith the LORD: Again there shall be heard in this place, which you say is ruined, without man or beast, in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, without man, without inhabitants, without beast; the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of bridegroom and bride, the voice of those who cry, “Give thanks to the L-rd of Hosts, for Hashem is good, for His kindness is everlasting!” as they bring thanksgiving offerings to the House of Hashem. For I will restore the fortunes of the land as of old—said Hashem. (33:10-11).
My heart was lifted just by being back in our holy sanctuary. I could almost feel the spirit of the edifice itself lift as it once again served as a House of Prayer to Hashem. Although song was absent, my soul could almost hear the Shul itself singing as we were once again praying in its hallowed walls.
The next week saw us achieve our first Shabbat Minyan. We had 16 people. Last week saw us with 18 people who came together, pandemic or not, to pray and give praise to Hashem. No, we don’t sing yet and services go a lot faster so that we can minimize exposure and opportunities for transmission, but we are BACK. No, I don’t see a mostly empty building: I see a congregation that is RE-building and coming back from the nightmare of the last four months.
We have a ways to go, to be sure, and many questions to deal with. The High Holidays present certain challenges, but we will meet and conquer them. The night is over. Daylight is not here yet but the light of dawn is on the horizon and, G-d willing, it will only get better from here.
I don’t see what we do not have. I see what we have once again, and that fills my heart with joy and makes me want to sing. And sing I will even if, for a while longer, those songs will have to be in the shower.
We miss you. We would like nothing more than to see each and every one of you in Shul on Shabbat but make no mistake: your health and safety come first by any and every measure. Please be safe.
Right now, I can see not only what is but I think I can see what will be. The streets of Jerusalem, by which I mean the rows of pews and aisles of our own little piece of Jerusalem, will once again be filled with song, and joy, and laughter. May Hashem bring that day to us soon!