Last week was Bnos Avigail’s graduation. Everything worked. The girls were so there in graudation mode, and at the same time so genuinely themselves. Rabbi Refson and Rabbi Kass spoke with their usual mixture of erudition, dry British wit, and absolute sincerity. The real food was good, but the unreal food was much better. There was a chocolate fountain spewing forth milk chocolate conveniently placed alongside marshmallows and barbeque sticks. When it was over, and the girls returned to the dorm to continue taking pictures, crying, and seeing a video that they made, I went on a long walk.
I walked for close to an hour and a half, reviewing the enormous syatta dishmaya (help from Hashem) that we experienced this year. It was an easy jump from reviewing the year, to reviewing my entire life. Two scenes that flashed back again and again, both disturbing and enriching my thoughts.
The first scene was a replay of the day before graduation. The girls and I went to Rav Gamliel Rabinovitch’s home. The Rav shlita, who is a very well-known and highly regarded scholar (he heads the yeshiva “Shaarei Shamayim”) is known for his availability and the wise advice he gives. He had generously given us some of his time.
His Rebbitzen gave us still more. When we arrived, she spoke to us about tefillah, and how no matter what we experience, that there are always possibilities that Hashem will turn things over, and open doors that we would have assumed to be shut. She spoke about Leah, who ended up being the mother of six of the tribes, including the future kohanim and kings. She then brought it back to the present when she told us about her school chum back in Bnei Brak who never gave up on davening that her husband learn to love Torah, and saw defined results.
All of this happened while we were in the dining room and the Rav was in the adjacent study talking to someone. When he opened the doors that separate the two rooms, I assumed that he would speak to us briefly with words of encouragement and hope, and give us a brachah. Instead, he took out two pictures. One was of his grandfather, a well-known Torah scholar. He told us that his grandfather, an only child, was orphaned at a young age. He was virtually alone in a world that was far harsher than the world we live in today. He turned to Hashem for everything, developed himself, and when he passed away at the age of 95, he had over 1,000 descendants (5 generations!). He then showed us a picture of his parental family. In the sepia photo, he was the baby. “I have a hundred descendants presently” he told us, and shared that they are attending a bris of a grandchild the next day, and the wedding of another grandchild that evening. The reason that he spoke so much about his life was that he wanted the girls to know that “you are the future of untold generations. What you turn yourselves into will go far beyond you”, and that so much depends on both tefillah and what it is that you daven for. He saw the “Forty something friends who are here as four thousand new members of klal Yisrael, and ultimately 40,000.” He then distributed what at first appeared to be small fliers. He invited the girls to write their names, (in the traditional formula of so and so bas so and so) and any small change that they want to make to move forward. It clearly stated that this is not a vow, but a genuine desire to progress. He stipulated that it could even be something temporary. The Rav then collected the papers, and told them that he would not look at them, but would take them with him when he next visits the kivrei tzadikim, and daven for us there. The image of this meeting was so fresh that it resurfaced in my reverie as I walked down the silent streets of Har Nof. Then something else entered. This time the “address” of the thought was something that I had recently learned.
The Talmud says that “Whoever doesn’t bow when saying modim (the prayer of thanks in shmoneh esreh, the silent and most important part of the prayer service), must bow. “If they don’t bow, their spine will turn into a snake seven years after their death”. Maharal explains this rather cryptic and esoteric piece. This, he tells us, is a veiled reference to the events that took place in Gan Eden. The first human, Adam, and the snake, were the only two creatures that could stand erect (this was before the snake was sentenced to crawl on his belly because of his having enticed Adam to sin). The reason that they could both stand erect, was that they both had a sense of being masters over the rest of creation. This was Adam’s most significant challenge. Is he willing to surrender his desire for mastery to Hashem or not? When Adam sinned by eating the fruit of knowledge of good and evil, it wasn’t about wanting a specific food. It was about wanting to eat it because it was forbidden. It was an endeavor to achieve dominance over his own life, and ultimately of the world, by excluding G-d from any meaningful presence in his choice making process.
Everything that Hashem created has some sort of awareness of Him. The only being that can lock Hashem out, is we humans. The desire to dominate is very human. Hashem made us with the ability to live with the illusion that we are independent. When you die, the illusion is shattered. Reality sets in, and you see how every moment and every breath is a reflection of Hashem’s compassion. Your spine (that part of you that gives you the ability to stand erect, and to feel like you are lord and master of your world), is then “turned into a snake”.
When you bow as you say Modim, you affirm that everything you are, and everything you have, and everything you will ever be comes from one source, Hashem’s love.
The more you review your life, the more beloved you will feel.