I said a final farewell to vacation two days ago. Don’t get me wrong. I have the best job in the world, teaching the most intellectually elegant, relevant, and beautiful possible material, Hashem’s Torah, to women who are willing and able to learn for all of the right reasons. They often become my best friends, and as they move through life, they tend to change everything they encounter by being themselves in the best sense.
For years I resisted the entire notion of vacation. Even so, once it’s happening, it takes me maximum two hours or so to revert to early childhood and have a wonderful few weeks exploring reality with my family. As the kids grew, I had more freedom to explore Eretz Yisrael and discovered an entirely new aspect of what vacation could be.
This year, I just needed one more thing before starting real life again, so I drank my cup of vacation to the last drop. I took 13 women to see some of the less visible places of Yerushalaim, and to the tombs of some of the tzadikim. Most of you have seen the shuk in Machneh Yehudah. Right across from the multi colored kaleidoscope of Stuff, there is a synagogue with a sun dial attached to its façade.
The sundial looks like a smiley face. This synagogue was built by Rabbi Shmuel Levy, an American rabbi who had to make his living as a tailor, given what keeping Shabbos in America was during his lifetime. In 1906 he purchased a one story house, and added to it in stages. He sold lottery tickets to keep the venture going. It was completed in 1917. At the time, the building was the tallest one in Yerushalaim. It had a bet Midrash called Shoneh Halachot, a hostel for visitors and the poor called Tiferet Tzion ("Zion’s Glory"-what a different attitude towards the homeless or “different’ people than the attitude that prevails in so many places today), and most significantly, a synagogue called Zoharei Chammah, where people could come to pray at the exact times that are best times for prayer in halachah. At Zoharei Chammah, sunrise was sunrise! The sundial was designed by Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, a watchmaker from Meah Shearim. He had learned astronomy from the writings of Maimonides and those of the Vilna Gaon. He had already built several sundials (at least 15), but this enormous one on the tallest building in the city caught the eye of the wrong man, the Pasha who wanted him to build a similar one for his mosque, Rabbi Shapiro fled rather than use his talent for anything other than Hashem’s glory. There is a reason that I want to share the story of the sundial with you.
The Arizal says that “Because on these days the Holy One Blessed is He becomes a friend: He extends Himself to you Don’t lose a minute!
To the person who wants to do tshuvah, the entire month is one in which you can turn around the way you lived the entire year. The Vilna Gaon refers to these days as “painful days” for the yetzer hara (the drive towards evil). He relates the way the yetzer hara operates to the way King Achashveirosh plotted to destroy the Jews from the inside (a plot which lead to the Purim story as its outcome). Achashveirosh made a feast for 180 days. This is about half of the solar year (365 ¼ days). When calculating time in halachah, part of a day is considered to be like an entire day, so we would refer to the solar year as having 366 days.
The yetzer hara wants it all. He “gets” half just by the fact that we spend so much time in sleeping our lives away. Time by definition is the progression of change. The yetzer hara isn’t content with the passive you. He wants the part of you that isn’t asleep. He can easily grab the part of you that is least aware. He wants the alive you, the part that welcomes change, feels and experiences passion, newness, and wants to explore, enjoy, and move on. But there are three days, the first day of Elul, Rosh Hashanah (which is like one long day even though we divide it into two segments) and Yom Kippur that cause the yetzer hara pain. These days have so much power that they are the days that (potentially) leave the yetzer hara gasping for breath. (Just as an aside, the Vilna Gaon connects this to a verse in Torah where the phrase “many days” means three days of pain).
Rabbi Moshe Shapiro understood the significance and beauty of the passage of time both when he designed the sundial, and when he fled. He knew the preciousness of every moment. He understood the unspoken words of sunrise.
Tefillah is one way to “own “this time. The Satmar Rebbe once said, “People say that you can’t choose your children, but you can choose your children-in- law. I say the opposite. You can’t’ choose your son in law, because one receives whatever was decreed forty days before the formation of the child; However one can choose your sons because you can pray for them, educate them, and be a good influence on them.” Praying in Elul should involve your own words for every matter whether important or trivial. Even if you aren’t the most articulate person, you are beloved by Hashem...
Rav Yonason Eiibshutz, one of the most brilliant stars on our horizon, wrote in his famous work, Yaaros Dvash, “Another primary benefit of tefillah is that you will know in your heart that nothing happens by chance….you will be unlike those who think everything is a matter of good mazal hard work, and taking precautions. Rather you will learn to become aware that one doesn’t bang his finger below until it was decreed above (Chulin 7)
Search for Hashem the way you searched for your Mom when you were lost in the department store on the beach. He’s looking for you.