Rabbi Nachi Klein, Rav of Young Israel Northridge.
On a recent trip to the airport, I was stuck in over two hours of traffic. Finally, after reaching check-in, the line for Security just seemed to wrap and wrap around. “I will be calm,” I said. “I know I’m going to make the flight.” I had a wedding to get to, and I was already going to be three hours late to the event. After filing through security, I zoomed as fast as I could down the corridors, whisking past stores, people and escalators. I was there! The finish line was right in front of me and I ran to show my ticket to the ticketing agent. “Sorry, the flight is closed,” she said.
“What do you mean closed, it’s seven minutes before the flight!” I was more than a little concerned that they had closed the gate. “Isn’t there something you can do?” The Agent agreed to help, “We can put you on the next flight in an hour and a half.” “Well, I guess I’ll go for that one,” I thought.
Then I saw that there were 27 people already on standby, waiting at the counter for the next flight. It was clearly overbooked, oversold, and my plans were just plain over. Still, I was number six on the standby list so I asked if there was something they could do to get me on the flight, perhaps something they could do for clergy, and the Agent responded, “You should pray!” I listened to her and sat down and opened up Mesilas Yesharim (Path of the Just), for the first time in months.
Those first few words of the book are so profound, that when you really sit and study them, the Heavens start opening for you. “Yesod HaChasidus V’Shoresh HaAvodah…” The foundation of piety and the root of true service is for a person to understand what their purpose is in this world. What they should be yearning for, how they should focus and where to put their energy. A person that doesn’t create a foundation, will be easily swayed away from their purpose. No matter how consistent they are in their actions, whether it be actions of mitzvos, or actions of character, if there is no set foundation, it can crumble in an instant. Furthermore, if the roots of one’s life are not set and are not nurturing from nourishing sources, then growth will quickly turn to decay and a person’s passions will wither away, into a state of spiritual atrophy.
What we stand for must be clearly defined, who we are as Jews must be articulated and understood for ourselves as well as for our family members. We don’t do things because we’re simply commanded, we need to develop a foundation, a bedrock that cannot be shaken. That bedrock must be based on our understanding of G-d, our purpose as Jews and our individual purpose in the world as a human being and as a Jew.
When you have a bedrock to start from, when the foundation is set, then you can spread your roots, then you can nourish properly. At that point, you can allow your roots and your spiritual yearnings to find new excitement and a palpable connection to life. But if you start sending the roots out, if you yearn for spirituality without defining your basis for doing so, you will cause the roots to be uprooted, and the spiritual seeker will have to search for spirituality outside of the framework of their true purpose in life. They will be doing things that feel good and feel spiritual without connecting to the true foundation of their life, the life that G-d presents before us.
After reading those words, which I have paraphrased here, I stood in the airport terminal thinking, “I hope I’m getting on this flight. I want it to be part of my purpose, my destiny.” Well, it wasn’t meant to be. I didn’t make that next flight, but with Hashem’s grace, I was the last standby allowed on the next flight, two and a half hours later.
What struck me at that moment, was the feeling of Rosh Hashana around the corner. It was Rosh Chodesh Elul, and on that day the shofar is blown to awaken us from our slumber. And it was on that same day that I was rejected from my flight twice, missing each flight by a hair’s breadth. Even though I had a ticket, and even though I was checked in. As I waited for the second flight, watching each person on standby lining up in single file, I was reminded of the Talmudic statement that says on Rosh Hashana each of us will pass through the gate of judgment in single file, our lives scrutinized individually to determine our future.
We all prepare for Rosh Hashana in our own unique way, each with a hope that G-d will accept our penitence and our yearning for change. We worry about the future, as the prayer of Unesaneh Tokef reverberates through our core, “Who will live and who will die? Who will be harried and who will have tranquility?” And we wonder what future lies ahead for us and for our loved ones. When I realized that I hadn’t made the flight, I heard a voice inside say, “You didn’t make it!” And that shocked me. Was this my stark wake-up call? All of our prayers go to heaven on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, but not everyone will make the flight. Not everyone will make it to their intended destination. The doors to the plane may be closed moments before you’re ready to board.
I was sure I was getting on that plane. But my certainty didn’t create the reality. And so it is the same with people when they come to the High Holiday services, Nobody’s conviction will guarantee them of a place in the next year, even if they have a ticket.
This is a somber thought for us to process at this time, and it may not be so uplifting. But it is a thought that will enable us to think of those profound words of the Ramchal’s Path of the Just. It doesn’t matter whether we get on that plane, what matters is where our foundation is built and how deep our roots connect to their source of nourishment. What will happen in the future is important, but what is more important is what we can do today. We need to build a strong foundation and let our roots continue to grow and that foundation starts with Torah study and acceptance of G-d’s will. Our roots grow with our sense of meaning in our Jewish practice and our appreciation for life.
Of course, there is always hope, that if we don’t make one flight, we can go standby on the next, and get to our destination with another story to tell.