Once there was a pauper who went door to door, begging for money with which to support himself, his wife, and his two children. In his youth he had worked lugging firewood and well-water, but age now kept him from those tasks, and so, every day, he rose early in the morning and began his rounds, walking from home to home, from town to town, absorbing abuse, eating little if anything, until he returned home at the end of the day with a few coins.
One night, as the pauper slept, he dreamed that he was now king. But where we might have expected this to be a happy dream for that poor man, it was actually a nightmare. “My Gd!” he wailed in the dream. “As it is now, I go door to door, town to town, just to get some small amount of food for my family! How will I ever beg for enough money to be able to support my soldiers, to maintain a palace, to run a government?!”
Rav Klonymus Kalman Shapiro told this story in order to make a point regarding the way our minds work.
Rav Shapiro, the Piaseczner Rebbe, was one of the leaders of Polish Jewry before the Holocaust. He led a yeshiva, where he argued for modernizing educational methods to meet the needs of his generation’s youth. He said that each child must be taught “a vision of his own potential greatness,” and be “an active participant in his own development.”
Then came the war, though. Rav Shapiro lost his only son, his daughter-in-law and his sister-in-law, in the Nazi bombing of Warsaw. After the Nazi invasion he was interned in the Warsaw Ghetto, until the Ghetto was liquidated; while in the Ghetto he wrote an intense work, אש קודש, his most famous book, acknowledging and addressing the suffering and the religious doubts of Jews around him in the ghetto. When the Ghetto was liquidated he was transferred to the Trawniki work camp, until he was shot to death, along with the rest of the Jews there, on November 3, 1943.
While in the Ghetto, this giant of spirituality, who understood so much of life, was approached by young men who wished to refine their spiritual awareness, their sensitivity to holiness in their lives. In response, he wrote a book called בני מחשבה טובה, “The Conscious Community.” A translation is even available on-line.
In this book, Rav Shapiro described our own insensitivity to Gd, and to that which is godly in our lives and in our actions. He presented the story of that foolish pauper to make the point that we don’t see Gd, we don’t notice a bedrock layer of our existence, because our minds are focussed elsewhere.
That pauper in Rav Shapiro’s story lives in a world in which people earn money by begging - and he cannot envision any other way he might function. He is only aware of his box, his experiences, and is unable to transcend that life.
We are similarly limited; in our box we focus on what we can see, hear and touch, in which actions are everything and thoughts matter only insofar as they lead to action - so that many of us cannot see Gd in a waterfall or a sunset, cannot envision the value and impact of a mood or a moment of inspiration, cannot sense the spirituality involved in eating, in talking, or even in davening.
But Rav Shapiro offered a simple psychological prescription to treat our limitedness, to broaden our box. Rav Shapiro wrote, “In order to serve God, a Jew needs …to expand his thought, and to be able to feel passionately.” In other words: We need to open our minds, and we need to open our hearts.
Rav Shapiro charged his followers and readers to take advantage of strong emotions we feel at various moments. Whether the joy of a business deal that went well or the pain of a stock price that plummeted, whether the laughter of seeing a small child playing or the sorrow of attending a funeral, in these many moments we feel the beginnings of passion. So Rav Shapiro argued that rather than do the socially acceptable thing and bury the passion and move on, we need to build that emotion, so that our minds become trained and sensitized to feeling more powerfully, more acutely. Once we introduce these strong feelings into our box, we will be able to summon that passion whenever we wish.
At that stage, we will enter into prayer and envision the things that matter most to us - our most vivid fears and concerns and loves and worries. We will be open to feeling, really feeling, the illnesses and economic needs and loves and relationships and remorse and repentance that are on our minds and in our hearts. Then we will look at the words of our prayers and realize that we are standing before Gd, Gd who hears all weeping, that it’s okay for us to pray, to sing, to cry, to feel.
Tonight, with as much emotion as our box permits us to muster, we will recite our private Amidah, and the Ashamnu/Bagadnu and Al Cheit paragraphs in which we enumerate our wrongdoings. We will be invited to cast aside foolish justifications and rationalizations, and reflect honestly - and passionately! - on the lives we have lived.
We will continue with the statement, “עד שלא נוצרתי איני כדאי, ועכשיו שנוצרתי כאילו לא נוצרתי, Before I was created I was unworthy, and now that I have been created, it is as though I had not been created.” We will have the opportunity to demand of ourselves: “Is the world a better place for our presence? How much have I accomplished, in the great mission that is my life? Do I even know what that mission is?”
We will recite apologetic Selichos, in which we will describe ourselves as clay in the hands of the potter, and begin the humble acknowledgement that, no, we did not create ourselves, that we are not the ultimate rulers of our lives.
In those Selichos we will cast Gd not in the role of judge, but in the role of plaintiff, of wounded party, recognizing that we have a relationship, that Gd cares what we do, watches us, and longs for our repentance.
We will quote psukim from the Torah which identify Gd as merciful, invoking in particular the 13 attributes of Divine mercy, the ways in which Gd is prepared to welcome us back.
And we will cap that with Avinu Malkeinu, a prayer which begins with the frank admission, “אבינו מלכנו חטאנו לפניך, Our Father and King, we have sinned before You.”
These prayers contain so much which could resonate within us and call forth our emotions -
• so much which speaks to our own rarely-acknowledged misgivings about our behavior;
• so much which addresses our relationship with a Gd we can neither see nor touch, but who shapes our lives;
• so much which underlies our spiritual lives and the goals we have for ourselves and our families.
• Individual passages like “אנו סגולתך ואתה אלקינו, We are Your treasure and You are our Gd.”
• Thematic poems like “כי הנה כחומר ביד היוצר,” placing our trust in that Gd who shapes our lives.
• Biblical passages which pledge that our records, though red with sin, may yet be whitened of wrongdoing.
All of these have the power to evoke strong emotion - if only we will allow and encourage it.
In April 2007, the Washington Post staged a psychological experiment in a Washington DC subway station. They hired world-class violinist Joshua Bell, dressed him in jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap, and had him play in the station, like any other subway musician. Bell ordinarily plays to sold-out concert halls; just a week after his foray into subway symphonics, he played a sold-out concert at Boston Symphony Hall, where the cheapest tickets would have set you back $100. He played not a cheap fiddle, but a three million dollar Stradivarius violin. The goal of the Washington Post’s experiment was to see whether anyone would stop, would take notice of Bell’s beautiful artistry, would allow themselves to be emotionally drawn by music acknowledged as among the world’s best.
Well, if the Washington Post’s findings are any indication, we’re in trouble. Joshua Bell played for 43 minutes. 1070 commuters passed his way; you can see the video of it on YouTube. Out of those 1070 commuters, 27 gave money, totally thirty-two dollars and change. Only 7 stopped what they were doing for more than a minute, to listen. Almost no one stopped, almost no one allowed themselves to feel something.
However, tonight, here, we have some advantages that they did not have in the experiment.
Tonight we read the Joshua Bell of our liturgy not in a DC subway station but in a beautiful shul, not distracted by work or school or food but focussed on fasting and repentance, not buffeted by rushing commuters but surrounded and reinforced by others who are doing just what we are.
Tonight we can allow ourselves - and push ourselves - to be moved.
As Rav Shapiro wrote:
Know how to look. Know how to look at everything that is occurring within you and outside of you…
We have many feelings that flow shallowly and weakly. If we broaden such feelings and bring them into full being, they will turn into a great river whose waters, with those of its tributaries, will never run dry. But if we do not expand these feelings, they will disappear without ever having seen the light of the sun…
Therefore, we advise you: Teach yourself to look.
Tonight, let’s not imitate the foolish pauper and the Washington DC commuters; rather, let’s follow the counsel of Rav Klonymous Kalman Shapiro, and teach ourselves to look, to listen, to sing, to feel, to daven for real, and so earn a Gmar Chasimah Tovah.
1. My goal at Kol Nidrei is to help myself daven. If others benefit, so much the better. I don't even use it to discuss teshuvah in any direct way; I really focus on prayer.
2. The Joshua Bell experiment, and its potential tie-in to the work of R' Shapiro, was brought to my attention in a "drasha nugget" shared by Rabbi Marc Spivak with other rabbis, through the CJF's Yarchei Kallah resources.
3. The on-line translation of בני מחשבה טובה is available here. The Joshua Bell experiment is available here.
4. Of course, one may build up strong emotion and use it entirely inappropriately, not to react to Gd but to react to any other stimulus! This advice would fit equally well in a cult environment. That troubles me, but not so much that I wouldn't recommend the method for Jewish sensitivity and growth as well.
5. Added note, courtesy of a reader, Devorah: Seems that the Bell experiment was not the first time it was done; violinist Jacques Gordon did it in Chicago in 1930. For more see here.