The story is told of an aspiring young yeshiva student, who approached his rabbi and mentor to inform him that he was going to seek out a new yeshiva to begin his studies in the new year. The rabbi was heartbroken, as this young man was somewhat of a prodigy, with tremendous potential to advance rapidly in his studies.
He discussed the issue with his star student, attempting to cajole and convince him to stay. Yet his student was steadfast in his decision, and soon thereafter departed. “You could be a tremendous Torah scholar if you stay here!” were his rabbi’s parting words to him.
The student acclimated quickly to his new surroundings and really enjoyed the studies in his new environment. After a few years, he began to miss his old rabbi, and returned back to his old yeshiva for a visit. “Shalom Aleichem!” he was greeted warmly by his former rabbi. “Tell me! After all this time, what did they teach you over there that I couldn’t teach you? Why did you leave my yeshiva?” he inquired incredulously of his former student.
“Why, they taught me how to read minds!” was the perplexing response.
“What? Read minds? That is ridiculous!”
“So let’s test it,” came the challenge from his former student. “You think of a particular topic, but don’t tell me. Give me a few seconds, and I will tell you what you’re thinking.”
“This is crazy,” said the rabbi. Not sure what else to do he said, “Ok, fine! I accept your challenge. I will take a moment to compose my thoughts…”
“Now tell me, what am I thinking?” challenged the rabbi.
“Ah, you are thinking of the verse from King David’s Psalms (16:8), ‘I constantly place G-d in front of me.’”
“Ha! I knew it! They didn’t teach you to read minds – that’s not what I’m thinking!”
“And that’s why I left your yeshiva!” came the final response from the precocious student.
Judaism enjoins us to constantly be aware of G-d’s presence in the world. It is not limited to a particular time or place. With that in mind, it is somewhat curious that during the period from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur – known as the Aseret Yemei Teshuva, the Ten Days of Repentance – our Sages teach us that we should be particularly aware of G-d during this time.
Isaiah 55:6 states, “Seek G-d when He is found, call on Him when He is near,” and our sages (Talmud, Rosh Hashana 18a) explain that this verse refers to the Ten Days of Repentance. There is no contradiction, for it is indeed true that one must constantly be aware of G-d’s presence, and do all in one’s power to connect; yet the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah are particularly propitious days for such connecting.
What does it mean that G-d is “found” and “near” during this time period? Is He not “found” and “near” at other times of the year?
Indeed, as mentioned above, one must always be conscious of G-d’s presence. An analogy may be drawn to a wi-fi internet connection. Sometimes you can pick up a signal which is weak, yet you can still connect (although it may take a few attempts). Other times, the signal is very strong, and your computer connects immediately. So too, the Aseret Yemei Teshuva: It is easier to connect to the Creator at this time of year. Furthermore, one is capable of accomplishing more by the same action during the Ten Days of Repentance that at any other time.
Although we are always close to G-d, as the verse states, “[the Jewish people are] a great nation whom G-d is close to” (Deuteronomy 4:7), yet at this time of year, G-d makes His closeness to us felt even more than usual.
This is a very warm and reassuring idea – yet what are we to do with it?
The lesson is, in fact, quite simple. If G-d makes Himself more “available” to His people, then certainly we should do the same for each other. At this time of year, between the holy days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, make yourself more available to another. There is a mitzvah (commandment) to emulate G-d. Yet how can a finite human being emulate the Divine Creator of All?
Well, it’s actually very simple! We should make ourselves “found” and “near” to G-dliness, by becoming intimately involved, more than ever, in all good things. We must “find” and “be near” to all good things, with greater devotion both in quality and quantity. These acts of goodness can – and should – extend both on the individual and communal level.
When we conduct our lives in this way, we help assure a sweet and happy New Year!