The Synagogue and the Women from Taiwan

This Rosh Hashana, Jews around the world prayed and blew the shofar, arousing in the Creator of the Universe a new level of desire to embrace our world and be its King. They did this, whether they knew it or not, on behalf of all humanity, for without this service the world would not continue to exist.

I had the privilege of celebrating this Rosh Hashana in ‘770’, the central synagogue of the Chabad movement in Brooklyn, NY. Shortly before prayers began, four Taiwanese women walked in.

“How can I help you,” I asked.

“We want to know how we can get seats in the women’s section for the holiday,” one of them replied. I looked around me. Although prayers had not yet started, the synagogue was standing room only – and that standing room was already in short supply.

“I’m sorry, but you won’t be able to get seats,” I said. “It’s a very holy day, and people have come from all over the world to be here.”

She answered in heavily accented English. “We know it’s a holy day,” she said, “That’s why we came. We pray for the welfare of the Jews every day.”

Not wanting them to leave totally empty-handed, I managed to push them to the front of the packed women’s section for a few moments so that they could see the awesome picture of thousands of Chassidic Jews gathered in prayer. They thanked me profusely. I said to them, “It’s very important that you continue to support the Jews. The prayers of the Jews on this day are what cause G-d to keep the world in existence.”

“Yes, we know that,” they answered. And with that we said goodbye. An hour later I looked up from my place and saw them sitting on the steps with a Hebrew prayer book in their laps. Two of them were crying. One was listening, rapt, to the singing of the congregation. And one had her hands over her eyes; her mouth moving in prayer.

I didn’t know much about them. But it was obvious that they understood, on some essential level, what was happening there.

For thousands of years the nations of the world persecuted the Jewish people and did everything possible to stop them from serving G-d. Unfortunately, these attempts are not entirely over, particularly in the Arab world.

But, for the first time in history, there is a growing consciousness among the non-Jewish people that their own welfare is intrinsically linked with the Jewishness of the Jews.

A New Light is Dawning

This awareness is one of the signs of the End of Days. We are living through the climax of history, a time predicted by the prophets long ago.

The world is approaching a long-awaited era of unity, when the spiritual and physical realms, once separate and opposed to each other, begin to merge.

These times are turbulent and challenging. It sometimes feels as if we’re surrounded by darkness and danger, our world teetering on the brink of chaos. And to make matters worse, many of the systems we looked to for support in the past seem to be breaking down.

But, at the very same time the darkness is increasing, a new light is beginning to shine.

Human history can sometimes seem endlessly repetitive. But this is only because we fail to see the bigger picture. We have always been moving forward. We have always had a destiny. And at this time in history we are almost there.

So why does it look so dark?

Imagine all of history as a long tunnel, from the beginning of Creation until today. For thousands of years we’ve been moving through the tunnel by the light of its entrance – the light of the past. It was a strong light, and lasted for a long time. But as we approach the end of the journey, that light is fading.

If we insist on holding on to the past, we run the risk of losing our way. But if we change our focus, turn toward the future, we can see the new light shining from the end of the tunnel. That is the light that will guide us home.

Stuck in the Prison of the Past

In the ordinary course of life our choices, our future, is based on the past. Generation after generation we’ve passed down beliefs about what’s possible and, more importantly, what’s not.

This collective past combines with our own successes and failures to form the boundaries within which we allow ourselves to change and grow. If we were taught that something is possible, and our successes have confirmed that teaching, we are usually willing to try to achieve it.

And if we were taught that something is not possible, or we’ve tried hard but failed to accomplish it, the opposite is true. In fact, with each failure and disappointment we experience, our life and future becomes more limited.

In either case, when what’s possible for the future remains firmly limited by what’s been possible in the past, truly meaningful change cannot occur. Our identity feels fixed and solid. We know what we can do – and what we can’t.

This sense of solidity, though, is not an absolute reality. It’s just a very persistent illusion. It began in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge. At that time, self-consciousness and self-criticism were introduced into the human experience, together with guilt, regret, shame, inadequacy, anger and fear. These feelings can keep us locked up as firmly as prison bars.

Yom Kippur Holds the Keys

On Yom Kippur we receive the keys to the prison of the past. We fast, pray, and confess our shortcomings. As we separate ourselves from the mundane and repetitive activities of daily life, from the struggles of the dog-eat-dog world, we begin to nurture our souls. We come closer to G-d and to our own essence.

In resolutely facing up to our flaws, admitting our humanness, letting go of denial, excuses and blame, we allow the brittleness of our ego to soften. We become open to our more authentic self. And this openness helps us to wipe the slate clean.

On Yom Kippur we become free to create a future that is completely new.

Internalizing the Light of Yom Kippur

The truth is, you have the potential to do this at any time. But it’s not easy.

On Yom Kippur the light of your essence shines. This essence is one with your Creator. It is an infinite source of Divine creative energy, above the limitations of time and space. It can’t be touched or limited by anything, including your past. It’s pure potential, the core of who you are.

From this place you have the power to create a new reality. But to do so you have to be willing to let go of the old.

That’s what atonement is all about. Yes, we’re sorry. We want to be better. We want to be forgiven. But that’s only the lowest rung of the ladder.

The truth is that we can go way beyond repentance, forgiveness and good resolutions.

We can become who we were born to be.

Fulfilling Our Destiny

Never was this more possible than now, and never was it more important.

Our world is moving rapidly toward its destiny. We are well into the Era of Redemption, the time of transition between the old and the new. Ancient prophecies are unfolding before our eyes. But it’s not only the world around us that’s destined to transform.

We ourselves – the very definition of what it means to be human – must change. We are destined to fulfill our potential as human beings created in the image of G-d, to become authentic and powerful partners in Creation. The challenges we experience, whether personal or global, are all designed specifically to help move us toward that destiny.

But incremental change – step by step progress – will not do the job. It’s all based on the light of the past, on building on what came before. We need to make a quantum leap into the future, making choices not based on who we’ve been, but on who we want to become.

Now, About You

So ask yourself: Is there anything you once thought you could achieve, someone you thought you’d be that you’ve given up on? Are there relationships in your life that were once fresh and hopeful but are now scarred by bitterness, resentment or disappointment?

How about your spirituality? Has cynicism, fear, sadness or disappointment colored your relationship with your Creator, marred your sense of purpose or joy of life?

Do you sometimes think of making changes, only to quickly get discouraged, telling yourself that your efforts just won’t make a difference anyway?

As you travel through life, you inevitably leave behind you a trail of regrets, mistakes, broken relationships, and abandoned dreams. It’s as if each mistake, each hurt, each angry moment, each failure and disappointment leaves a little scar, a blemish, on the canvas of your future.

We are all damaged. But Yom Kippur has the power to make us whole again.

What might your future look like if your fears and past failures were not in your way? If you could start all over again? Who would you be? What would you create?

The energy of Yom Kippur is intense and pure. If you let it, it can take you above time, to a place of pure Divine potential, a place from which it is possible not only to fix the past, but to transform it. From this place you have the power not only to heal old scars but to create a future that is awesomely bright and completely new.

May you use it well.

(*Since the Torah forbids the erasing of G-d’s name, it’s customary to avoid writing it out in full)