It’s Not So Simple

By Moshe Horn

I will never forget that day in yeshiva in Jerusalem. It was September of 1988, and we were studying the Yamim Nora’im. There was a kid in the class who was mouthing off to the teacher and causing trouble. The teacher confronted the student and asked him why he was misbehaving. The student said that he didn’t believe in anything that was being taught; he just needed a place to stay. The rabbi said to him, “so you don’t believe in God?” The student said, “no, I don’t.” The rabbi then looked at him and said, “in that case, I would like you to ask God to kill your parents.” The room went silent.

The student looked rattled and asked what he meant. The rabbi said, “it’s a simple question: you say you don’t believe in God, so asking God to kill your parents shouldn’t matter. For example, I don’t believe this chair that I’m holding has any power, so I have no problem asking it to hurt my children. So go ahead and ask God to do it.”

The student froze and we all watched, silent and uncomfortable. Eventually the teacher looked at him, saying, (and boy, do I remember these words): “It’s really not so simple, is it?”

He had won the room. He then began his lesson on the Yamim Nora’im around that very theme: it’s really not so simple. He challenged us all to find a personal way to connect both to God and the holidays. The key, he said, was to make it relevant to us personally. To be clear, I am not endorsing this kind of education; quite the contrary.  But I would be lying if I told you that I didn’t remember this vividly.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that the most powerful moment of Yom Kippur occurs during the book of Jonah, when Jonah is asleep during the storm, in the lower decks of the boat. The boat captain goes down to Jonah and yells at him, saying, “ma leha nirdam,” which is usually translated to mean “how can you be asleep?” The Rebbe, however, translated it as “sleeper awake!” The Rebbe taught that we are all asleep in some kind of storm, and the High Holy Days serve as God coming to us and yelling, “sleeper awake! Go do your part in the storm. Go fight and improve the world.”

I think of that teaching every year. What is the storm this year? What am I sleeping through? How do we make the holidays relevant to this year?

When I was a prosecutor on my first homicide call, we once went back to the cell block to question the defendant. I was with a hardened police detective who said to me: “I will teach you a lesson, Horn: the first thing to look for is if he is sleeping. If he is sleeping, you know he’s guilty because he knows he got caught; if he is pacing the cell nervously, then maybe he’s innocent”. We walked back and the defendant was asleep in his cell, just like Jonah in the terrible storm, giving the story of Jonah new meaning for me.

Suddenly the story of Jonah story wasn’t just one we read once a year on Yom Kippur. It was alive in that moment; it was thinking about guilt and awareness all at once. The thought of a tough NYPD detective somehow making me see new relevance in the story of Jonah was remarkable to me.

I think about these stories every year when we are about to enter Ne’ila, because they each speak to the continuing process of finding new relevance and meaning. We chant the same tefillot and sing the same songs every year, but our lives change, and so does the way we experience the hagim. Somehow, that rabbi’s voice saying that “it’s not so simple” is a message that is always relevant and haunting for me. It’s one that I will always struggle with, while my experiences surrounding the story of Jonah are a constant reminder that the old texts can become relevant in new and unexpected ways. As we share these hagim together, may that be the case for all of us.

To this wonderful BJ family, I wish you all a wonderful hagim season filled with joy, meaning, and l’chaims!

About Moshe Horn

Moshe is proud to be a long-time BJ member and resident of the Upper West Side shtetl. His father was Youth Director at BJ in 1954, where he worked at the 89th Street Community House; with this in mind, going back to Shabbat Under One Roof was especially meaningful. Moshe considers himself profoundly lucky to have this community as his spiritual home. The highlight of his week is sitting in in the balcony every shabbat with his BJ family and appreciating the magic of BJ davening.