On The Derech To Rosh Hashanah

Life is full of exceptions. So while I generally am uneasy about cross-posting (no pun intended), sometimes a piece is so important that you want a portion of the mitzvah of spreading it around. Rabbi Yakov Horowitz’s advice about unexpected guests in shuls for the Yomim Nora’im clearly qualifies.

[Sometimes there are less objective reasons for making exceptions. Because I have been unable to come down from the high of spending a week with the participants in the Tikvah Program For Yeshiva Men last month, whenever I find a trumpet sounding its success, I have a hard time putting it down. Earlier today, Gil Student published a new one on Torah Musings, by one of our participants, Shmuel Winiarz. He captured a good part of the magic.]

Back to the first compelling cross-post. Rabbi Horowitz speaks to an issue that is far more common than we would like to believe. I have observed the scene myself, but never had the insight to do something about it, as he did in his release earlier today:

Many of the kids my colleagues and I work with all year long return to their own Shul for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – even though they may no longer be observant. Often, their dress and overall appearance are at odds with the standards of the community and they may be tentatively standing at the outer edge of our Shuls – literally and figuratively.
On their behalf, I humbly appeal to you to reach out to them warmly and welcome them back.
Please don’t comment on their appearance or how long they have been away. Sadly, so many of the kids tell me that well-intentioned, decent people ‘kibbitz with them about the length of their absence, or the clothing they are wearing – and how deeply they are hurt by that.

Don’t misread their discomfort as disrespect, or their tentativeness as a lack of commitment. Just walk over to them and say, “It’s so nice to see you.” Give them a warm, welcoming and genuine smile. Invite them to sit next to you – and permit them the space to turn down your invitation. I assure you that whether or not they accept it, they will be grateful to you for your unconditional acceptance.

Next week, we will soon read in the beautiful and haunting Tefilla Zakka of Rabbi Avraham Danzig before Kol Nidrei, “Avinu Malkeinu, rachem aleinu k’rachem av al b’noi shemarad b’aviv …” – Our Father and King, have mercy on us as a father has mercy on his son who rebelled against him and left his home; [and] when he returns to his father with shame and tears, it is the nature of the father to have mercy on his son.”

In the merit of us welcoming our wayward children back home with open arms, so too, shall Hashem envelope us in His welcoming embrace and grant us a year of fulfillment, joy and happiness.

(It occurred to me that Maharal offers another model to draw from, besides the one in Tefilah Zakah. The gemara often caricatures people in bizarre ways. Describing Paroh as merely an amah tall, and his beard the same length, comes to mind. Maharal explains that Chazal often speak about how people would look if their outer appearance accurately portrayed their inner self. Paroh, for all his bluster, was a very, very small person. He would look to be an amah tall. Of course, says the Maharal, biology just doesn’t work that way, and Paroh looked no different from anyone else.

Imagine, following this thinking, what we would look like if our outer appearance reflected the aveiros which we drag to shul with us! What if every fault, every indiscretion, every bad midah became visible – as they are to HKBH. Who would look stranger? Us – or the OTD kid who shows up in shul, despite who-knows-what in his history that pushed him to the position he took?)

Rabbi Horowitz appends a related piece he published some time ago, which is still relevant and moving:

A distinguished Rabbi approached me a few months ago and asked me to share a personal experience of his with my readers. Nearly thirty years ago, a young man who came from a very distinguished Orthodox family and was no longer observant, approached him in Shul on Yom Kippur. This individual informed the Rabbi that he felt drawn to attend Yom Kippur davening despite his non-religious status, but that he was troubled by a nagging question. Somewhere in the recesses of his mind, he remembered hearing from his Rebbeim that if one repents out of sincere love for Hashem, all his previous sins are transformed to merits.

“Come on Rabbi,” he asked. “Do you really believe that? How is it possible for Hashem to consider everything that I have done in the past few years as mitzvos? Do you have any idea how many terrible things I did? How can G-d ever accept me back? I might believe that Hashem could wipe my slate clean. But how could what I have done ever be considered mitzvos?”
The Rabbi was quiet for a long moment, not really knowing what or how to respond. He then softly informed the young man that one day in the future he may wish to take all the mistakes and experiences of his youthful rebellion and utilize them to assist others who find themselves in similar predicaments. “When that happens,” said the Rabbi, “it will all becomezechusim (merits) – for you, and for the children whose lives you will save.”

The Rabbi informed me that this young man devoted his life to helping wayward teens and is currently heading a program in Eretz Yisroel that has, over the past two decades, assisted hundreds of at-risk teens regain their footing and become proud, productive members of our Torah community.

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9 Responses

  1. lacosta says:

    haredi society , maybe more than any other part of the jewish community, has great difficulty in how to deal with the OTD [although non-O don’t seem to do too well when their kids go OTD towards a more torah-true life], especially for the long-term ie those who have made eg a lifetime decision like atheism , joining a non-O branch and all that entails , intermarriage [all lo aleinu]

    may we never face that nisayon. may we be able to deal gently with our friends and relatives if thusly afflicted, so as not to be docheh them bishtei yadayim….

    ktiva v’chatima tova lchol klal yisrael, wherever on teh spectrum….

  2. Steve Brizel says:

    R Horowitz’s response, as always, was superb-but how about this suggested approach-I think that the Baalei HaTosfos in Shabbos write that while Zcus Avos Tamah ( and that we have no right to use the same as a means in our defense)-Bris Avos Lo Tamah ( that all Jews share a covenenal relationship with HaShem). Just welcoming anyone with a proper greating without engaging in a judgmental comment goes a long way in maintaining a relationship and in showing what it means to engaging in behavior that is a Kiddush HaShem.

  3. mb says:

    OK, maybe it’s me, but Orthodox Jews have to be told this?

  4. Raymond says:

    The message here seems to be this, that being that all of us are human, all of us make mistakes, sometimes mistakes that are foolish or terrible or both, but that what is even more important than those mistakes, are what we do with them. If we use them as a convenient excuse to continue such behavior or simply stay where we are, not becoming better people, than those mistakes are indeed something very negative and worthy of shame. But if we deeply regret those mistakes, learning from them to become better people, then those mistakes will not have been committed in vain, and in the long run are a positive thing in that they helped us become wiser, more compassionate people.

    Still, even if all this is true, the fact remains that if our past mistakes involved hurting people, all of our repentance cannot remove the harm that we did to those people. The damage has been done.

  5. Dov S. says:

    Good shul advice. I would hope anyone coming to shul would be made welcome. Where in halacha is there such a thing as “standards of the community” as a requirement for coming to pray?

    With regard to Rabbi Horowitz’s story of the “prominent rabbi” & the OTD fellow from a “very distinguished orthodox family”; it is quite inspiring. Why then the anonymity? How much more valuable is the lesson when verifiable. One is left hoping that the story is as accurate as it is inspiring. Also troubling, that someone “non-religious” has done “terrible things.” We know too well of terrible things committed in all circles of the Jewish community. One trusts that the merciful G-d has compassion for all his children, at whatever level of observance or belief.

  6. Y. Ben-David says:

    I am wondering what all the “terrible things” that OTD fellow from the “distinguished Orthodox family” did. Did he violate Shabbat? Did he eat non Kosher food? Or did he commit armed robbery or grand larceny? Or how about murder? Today, a person can still be considered civilized even if he is not religiously observant. Not everyone who is not Orthodox is a barbarian. It is wrong to relate to the non-Orthodox that way. The way to teshuvah is not the same for all. If one is building upon a base of good middot and a constructive but non-observant lifestyle then adoption or return to mitzvot observance will not require the same amount of wrenching remorse and regret that someone who really fell into a self-destructive lifestyle will entail. A “one-size-fits-all” approach to the non-observant (i.e. “you are all sinners!” can be very counterproductive. It can often be more appropriate to tell the would be penitent that he is a fine person, G-d is happy with what he has made of himself so far and that the way is open to a more fulfilling, more JEWISH life by way of the Torah. I think the average non-observant Jew today fits into this category and this is the best way to relate to him or her.

  7. Y. Ben-David says:

    It is sad that the situation Rabbi Horowitz is attempting to remedy even exists. The very fact that he states that “sometimes the dress of the (outsider) is at odds with the standards of the community” shows that there is a superfluous barrier between many Jews and the larger Jewish people who congregate in synagogues. As far as I know, the only thing that the halacha demands of someone who enters a synagogue is for him or her to be dressed modestly according to the standards of the larger society and that men have a head covering. The fact that many Jewish communities have a “uniform” that they wear that goes far beyond halachic demands is already placing a roadblock in front of the person who is not a part of that community. In fact there are many synagogues that have many very devout and observant members that have no such uniform and this makes new people feel much more comfortable.
    The fact is that in Europe it was common for there to be a “shoemakers synagogue” and a “grain-merchants synagogue” . This social stratification often lead to deep divisions within the Jewish community and played a major role in the embitterment of MOST Jews and their subsequent abandonment of Torah observance. Since the Jews are a PEOPLE and the Torah is our CONSTITUTION, a Jews should be able to feel that he or she is part of every synagogue in the world and should be able to feel comfortable in any of them. Thus, every effort should be made to stop this attitude of looking at a new person in the synagogue and then sizing them up to decide if “he is one of us” or not. If he or she is a Jews, then they are automatically ONE OF US.

  8. Rafael Araujo says:

    Y. Ben-David – From my experience, I believe it is just as dangerous that non-frum Yidden have the Bein Adom L’Chaveiro component down pat, that it is natural to them.

    As for MB, you are obviously coming from a non-Chareidi background. In my world, it is completely understandable that where one’s dress and appearance speak to one’s level of observance and therefore one’s view of Yiddishkeit (ie. positive, or disdainful) the perception of others must be “fixed”. Should we be beyond this? Maybe. I but think your reaction is too reactionary. I think in context these negative reactions are natural, as can be seen in the non-frum and non-Jewish worlds as well.

  9. mb says:

    Rafael Araujo. Correct I do not come from an ultra-orthodox background, although I suspect, in fact I have anecdotal evidence this problem also moves somewhat across the spectrum. In my comment I did say Orthodox Jews.
    But to me it is disgraceful, considering how many statements of Chazal condemn such behaviour.Or are they optional? here’s just 2, amongst many from Avot that we have studied for the past 6 months, that fit this situation perfectly. Shammai in 1:15, regarding greeting people, and Hillel 2:5 warning against judging somebody until you have experienced what he has.

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