Ahavnu-Beirachnu-Gadalnu…A Dvar Torah before Yom Kippur
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Ahavnu-Beirachnu-Gadalnu…A Dvar Torah before Yom Kippur

One author's reflection on how we can measure the "length of our days" when we look back on our own lives

Courtesy of Lisi Levisohn
courtesy of Lisi Levisohn

Ha’azinu is the song Moshe sings to the people on the last day of his life. He tells them what he wants them to most remember, as they go on with their lives, and he finishes with these words:

For it is not an empty thing for you, for it is your life, and through this thing, you will lengthen your days upon the land…   כִּי לֹֽא־דָבָ֨ר רֵ֥ק הוּא֙ מִכֶּ֔ם כִּי־ה֖וּא חַיֵּיכֶ֑ם וּבַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֗ה תַּֽאֲרִ֤יכוּ יָמִים֙ עַל־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר אַתֶּ֜ם עֹֽבְרִ֧ים אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֛ן שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ:

 

וּבַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֗ה תַּֽאֲרִ֤יכוּ יָמִים  It is through this thing that you will lengthen your days. There are a few other places in the Torah that we are told you should do a certain thing, to lengthen your days.  We find it connected to the mitzvah of Shiluach ha-Ken—sending away the mother bird before collecting her eggs or chicks: 

  שַׁלֵּחַ תְּשַׁלַּח אֶת-הָאֵם, וְאֶת-הַבָּנִים תִּקַּח-לָךְ, לְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ, וְהַאֲרַכְתָּ יָמִים.   You shall let the mother go, but the young you may take for yourself; that it may be good with you, and that you may lengthen your days.

 

We also find it with the mitzvah of honoring one’s mother and father:

  כַּבֵּד אֶת-אָבִיךָ, וְאֶת-אִמֶּךָ–לְמַעַן, יַאֲרִכוּן יָמֶיךָ, עַל הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ.    Honor you father and you mother, so that your days may be long upon the land which Hashem your God has given you.

 

And we find it in the second part of Shma:

 לְמַ֨עַן יִרְבּ֤וּ יְמֵיכֶם֙ וִימֵ֣י בְנֵיכֶ֔ם עַ֚ל הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר נִשְׁבַּ֧ע יְהֹוָ֛ה לַֽאֲבֹֽתֵיכֶ֖ם לָתֵ֣ת לָהֶ֑ם כִּימֵ֥י הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ 

So that your days, and your children’s days, will be many…

We know from our experiences as humans that doing the right things doesn’t necessarily lengthen one’s life, at least not in a literal sense. The Talmud grapples with this reality. It tells the story of a boy whose father asks him to climb a tree to fetch some eggs from a nest. The boy climbs the tree for his father and also makes sure to shoo away the mother bird—but then he falls and dies. He did both mitzvot connected with long life—sending away the mother bird and honoring one’s parents—but in that same moment his life is cut short. In the Talmud, it was witnessing this incident which dissolved the faith of Elisha ben Avuyah. The sages try to explain: so that your days will be lengthened does not refer to this world, but to Olam ha-Ba, the world to come, the eternal, spiritual world.

But how do people measure the length of their days when they look back on their own lives?

But how do people measure the length of their days when they look back on their own lives?  When Yaakov, after all the years of separation from his son Yosef, comes down to Egypt, and Pharoh asks him how old he is, Yaakov answers:  

…יְמֵי שְׁנֵי מְגוּרַי, שְׁלֹשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה:  מְעַט וְרָעִים, הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי, וְלֹא הִשִּׂיגוּ אֶת-יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי אֲבֹתַי, בִּימֵי מְגוּרֵיהֶם. ‘The days of the years of my living are a hundred and thirty years; few and bad have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained unto the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their lives.’

 

מְעַט וְרָעִים —few and bad—“Waiter, the food here is terrible, and portions are too small!”  Yaakov had a very tough life—including losing his beloved Rachel and then his beloved Yosef.  And perhaps because his days were so bitter, they felt like they were too short.

A similar sentiment emerges at the end of the movie Boyhood, a movie that follows a family, and the growing up of a boy, over the course of 10 years.  The mother has a tough life: she raises two children mostly herself because their father was not ready to parent; she finds a new husband but has to escape when he becomes abusive; she works very hard to put herself through school and support her family.  Near the end of the movie, both children—who turn out quite nicely—have graduated and begun college and the mother decides to down-size to a smaller apartment. Her son—who has become a passionate photographer— is chatting with her and milling around, as she does some paperwork at her new mini-size kitchen table, and she tells him to make sure to take the small cardboard box where she has put the rest of his stuff.  Resting on top of the stuff is a framed photograph of a skateboarder—the first photo the boy ever took. The boy thinks his mother should keep it. And then the mother is crying. “Mom,” he asks, “what’s wrong?” “This is the worst day of my life,” she cries. She begins to explain that her life has gone by too quickly—“like a series milestones… getting married, having kids, getting divorced, the time we thought you were dyslexic, when I taught you how to ride a bike, getting divorced again, getting my masters degree, finally getting the job I wanted, sending your sister off to college, sending you off to college—you know what’s next? My funeral!” Her boy says, “Aren’t you jumping ahead by like 40 years or something?”  She answers, I just… I thought there would be more.”  

When I first watched this scene it really bothered me.  The mom had a tough life… but she shouldn’t feel that way, I thought.  I shared this with my own mother, who is an expert on literature and film (any many other things). She thought it was an excellent, poignant scene. “It may have bothered you,” she said, “but that character felt the way she did.” 

Still, somehow it seemed morally wrong for this fictional mother to feel the way she did looking back on her life.  I wanted to tell her the words of Ha-azinu, כִּי לֹֽא־דָבָ֨ר רֵ֥ק הוּא֙ מִכֶּ֔ם כִּי־ה֖וּא חַיֵּיכֶ֑ם –it is not an empty thing, it is your life! Then my mother pointed out to me: “But your life has been incredibly blessed.” She was right. I couldn’t know what it felt like to be the mom in Boyhood, or the Biblical character Yaakov, or anyone who didn’t have my life. But still. I guess I wanted these fictional characters to be happier.  

I wanted to tell her the words of Ha-azinu, כִּי לֹֽא־דָבָ֨ר רֵ֥ק הוּא֙ מִכֶּ֔ם כִּי־ה֖וּא חַיֵּיכֶ֑ם –it is not an empty thing, it is your life!

A few years ago, I came across an original Tefillah by Rabbi Binyamin Holtzman, and a similar one later by Rabbi Avi Weiss, both variations on the וִּדּוּי, the Yom Kippur confessions, where we list in alphabetic acrostic all the ways we have done wrong: אָשַׁמְנוּ בָּגַדְנוּ. גָּזַלְנוּ we have trespassed; we have betrayed; we have stolen… But this new וִּדּוּי, in perfect mirror form, lists the ways we have done good: אָהַבְנוּ בָּכִינוּ גָּמַלְנו we have loved, we have cried, we have given back; ּ אָהַבְנוּ, בֵּרַכְנוּ, גָּדַלְנוwe have loved; we have blessed; we have grown.  It goes on: we have learned, we have forgiven, we have comforted; we have tried, we have remembered, we have embraced; we have created, we have yearned, we have repaired.  I immediately fell in love with it. I shared it with my family and announced I was printing out copies for everyone to paste into the back of their machzorim.

But this new וִּדּוּי, in perfect mirror form, lists the ways we have done good: אָהַבְנוּ בָּכִינוּ גָּמַלְנו we have loved, we have cried, we have given back; ּ אָהַבְנוּ, בֵּרַכְנוּ, גָּדַלְנוwe have loved; we have blessed; we have grown.  It goes on: we have learned, we have forgiven, we have comforted; we have tried, we have remembered, we have embraced; we have created, we have yearned, we have repaired. 

But my family wasn’t so sure. Tshuvah, repentance, isn’t about announcing what we did right, they said. It’s about reflecting on what we did wrong and what we need to improve; the purpose of Yom Kippur is to repent and to change.  My son said, if this was in the future tense—we will love; we will bless; we will grow—then it would seem right. But to congratulate ourselves on having done all these things didn’t seem to be in the spirit of Tshuvah. 

I had already spread the glue-stick all over the back inside covers for this new Tefillah and was prepared to defend it. First of all, I said, it’s a prayer, not a literal list of what we did; it is a prayer to help orient our hearts. Second, it’s collective—just like we say the Ashamnu—we have sinned—not just for ourselves but for all of us as a community and as a people—this too is collective: We have loved, We have blessed. We know that so many people , near and far, have done so many good things and we are singing about them—not our individual selves.

But then I realized the literal and personal list was important to me.  This is a list of all the ways God has blessed us with a נשמה, a soul.  This is a list of the best things we as humans, are able to do.  A list of ways we partner with God. His greatest gifts to us. The reasons He created us.  There is something about listing them—acknowledging and appreciating them—our loving, our blessing, our growing, our words, our compassion—listing the doings of our neshamot during the past year, which seems spiritually important; in fact, it would seem spiritually wrong if we did not stop to deeply acknowledge these things.

But then I realized the literal and personal list was important to me.  This is a list of all the ways God has blessed us with a נשמה, a soul.  This is a list of the best things we as humans, are able to do.  A list of ways we partner with God. His greatest gifts to us. The reasons He created us. 

And then I realized what made me so sad about the mother in Boyhood.  When she looked back on her life, as a passionate teacher and mother of two terrific kids, I wished she would have felt, אָהַבְנוּ, בֵּרַכְנוּ, גָּדַלְנו

Sometimes on Friday night, after I’ve lit the Shabbat candles, I sit down and look out at the twilight sky and silhouetting trees (a minhag I learned from my mother) and think about my week, about the people in my life, about things I managed to do and things left unfinished, thing that made me bless God and things left unknown. There are no scripts or liturgy for this thinking I do, so religiously, every Friday night, but perhaps if there were a liturgy, it would be: אָהַבְנוּ, בֵּרַכְנוּ, גָּדַלְנוּ

But we can ask God to help us lengthen our days, by helping us fill each day with goodness, strength and peace.  We can love, and bless, and grow; we can care and we can try; we can notice and we can embrace.  וּבַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֗ה תַּֽאֲרִ֤יכוּ יָמִים  . And through this thing you will lengthen your days.

At the end of Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing we will recite on Yom Kippur, there is a prayer that begins, May it be God’s will:  It asks God to lengthen the days of those closest to us… וְתַאֲרִיךְ יָמַי וִימֵי אָבִי וְאִמִּי/וְאִשְׁתִּי וּבָנַי וּבְנוֹתַי.  But the request finishes with the words בְּטוֹב וּבִנְעִימוֹת, בְּרֹב עֹז וְשָׁלוֹם With goodness, and pleasantness, and strength and peace. The number of our days we can’t control and can’t really know.  But we can ask God to help us lengthen our days, by helping us fill each day with goodness, strength and peace.  We can love, and bless, and grow; we can care and we can try; we can notice and we can embrace.  וּבַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֗ה תַּֽאֲרִ֤יכוּ יָמִים  . And through this thing you will lengthen your days.

 

Lisi Levisohn is a child psychologist who also enjoys teaching Torah-Inspired science, Girl’s Tefillah and the Matan Bat Mitzvah program in her community, Silver Spring, MD.

Posts are contributed by third parties. The opinions and facts in them are presented solely by the authors and JOFA assumes no responsibility for them.

If you’re interested in writing for JOFA’s blog contact dani@jofa.org. For more about JOFA like us on Facebook or visit our website.

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