Alive or Living?
My son recently posed a clever riddle. “Imagine you’re faced with three doors, and you must choose one to open and go through. One room has ninja assassins, another has a lion that hasn’t eaten in three months, and the last opens into a flaming inferno. Which door do you choose in order to live?”
Before I had a chance to reply, he answered, “The one with the lion, of course! If it hasn’t eaten in three months, it’s dead!”
His riddle got me thinking about the true meaning of life and death. On Rosh Hashanah, we beg for life, but are we really living now? If we want to do better than just survive in the physical realm, we will need to nourish something deeper within ourselves.
Fifteen years ago, while delivering a lecture, I shared that I passed by the window of a Starbucks, and three people were each sitting alone, facing the street and staring into a laptop. Not one person in the coffee shop was conversing with another human being. Today, this scene is typical, but at the time, this example was shocking to any onlooker.
Five years ago, I shared to a class the example of a couple typing on their phones during dinner at a restaurant. While sharing this story, I saw visible disapproval of this practice in the faces of the audience. Today, this behavior sounds all too familiar in our own lives.
These days, and especially amid COVID-19, we are plugged into our screens for most of our waking hours.
Just like the physical body needs nourishment to survive, our soul requires nourishment. Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski labels the lack of spiritual nourishment as “Spiritual Deficiency Syndrome.” Just as the body can be deficient in certain vitamins or minerals, the soul can become deficient in its needs, and wither.
The time before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur should be one of introspection and prayer. It’s a perfect time to reflect on ways to nourish the soul so we can really live a full life. Yet how do we “feed” something non-physical?
The Ben Ish Chai explains that mitzvot provide nourishment to the soul, and we perform them with the physical shell that Hashem gifted us, our bodies. He further notes that there is a physical, verbal, mental, and emotional aspect to every mitzvah which nourishes different parts of the soul.
Take, for example, the act of eating. It’s a mitzvah to nourish the body. We use our mouth, tongue, and teeth to physically fulfill this mitzvah. We verbally recite a blessing when fulfilling this mitzvah. We are meant to mentally stay present at this time, and feel grateful to Hashem for all the people, resources, and energy that went into the preparation of our food. And there is also an emotional aspect to this mitzvah, which is feeling joyous and satisfied with eating.
Incorporating physical, verbal, intellectual, and emotional needs in every mitzvah is much easier said than done. Sometimes, mitzvot feel more like just going through the motions as we robotically and even grudgingly perform them.
- How often do we prepare for Shabbat and holidays with exhaustion rather than zest and excitement?
- How often do we grunt or groan as we receive yet another email or phone call asking for tzedakah?
- How many times do we sigh with frustration when caring for our children?
- How many times do we zip through prayers, only to realize when we finish that we were merely on autopilot the whole time?
We may begin the process with the best of intentions, but actually performing every mitzvah with mind, body, intellect, and emotion is difficult to maintain.
Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of the creation of man, offers us a chance to rejuvenate, and is a shortcut to feeling alive and vibrant while serving Hashem once again. Just as when Hashem initially created man with His breath, when the shofar blows, life in its truest sense is blown back into us. It is no coincidence that neshamah, “soul,” and neshimah, “breath,” share the same letters. The blowing of the shofar serves as the physical representation of this rejuvenation.
The Shulchan Aruch asks a fascinating, yet seemingly irrelevant question regarding the shofar. If a shofar were to have a second shofar inside it, can it be deemed kosher for use? The halachah explains that a double shofar is kosher if the inner shofar extends on both sides beyond the outer shofar.
Rabbi Eli Mansour explains the deeper message behind this question: Everyone is made of two shofars—one outer and one inner. One’s inner shofar, or inner life, must extend beyond the outer shofar. In other words, our priority must be on the inside, on the soul. Otherwise, we risk a life that creates a shell with an inner void.
Of course, the body must be nourished; otherwise, life ceases. But our physical body is just a vehicle for the soul to achieve its higher purpose on Earth. The inner soul must be a priority, or we risk a life with no meaning.
We beg G-d for a good year, but what will we choose for ourselves this year? A life that feels like an empty shell, plugged into a screen 24/7? A life that views acts of kindness as drudgery? Or a life that recognizes how every moment has potential to draw forth spirituality and meaning into our daily existence? Every mitzvah we partake, no matter how seemingly small, can potentially to nourish our soul if we perform it with enthusiasm. We can pray even one blessing with deeper kavanah, we can clean out homes while saying “L’chovod Shabbos kodesh,” and we can honor our parents or grandparents with gratitude that they are still in our lives.
We beg Hashem for life, but we have the power to create life, true life, for ourselves.
As the gates are opening for us this year, we must keep in mind the very first line of the Shulchan Aruch: “Arise like a lion, ready to start the day.” That lion must have a zest and energy with which to tackle life’s challenges. Feed the lion, both inside and out, so we can once again start living.
 Twerski, Abraham J., The Enemy Within: Confronting Your Challenges in the 21st Century