Many of our spiritual giants had an unusual practice. In one pocket, they would carry a piece of paper with the verse that read, "I am but dust and earth." And in the other pocket, they would carry a piece of paper with the verse that read: "For me was the world created."
It is the integration of these two motifs and feelings that is, at its core, the quest of the person of faith.
Every holiday has a specific mitzvah practice appended to it — the mitzvah practice that helps delineate the central message and motif of the day. The mitzvah of these days is, according to our sages, the sound of the shofar. "Uru y'sheinim meisheinatchem — Awaken from your sleep" is the call of the shofar.
Rabbi Zusha, a great Chasidic rebbe and teacher, taught a simple and sublime truth. He said that when he will be called on to give a reckoning and inventory of his life, he will not be asked the question: Why weren't you like the great Moses? But, rather, why weren't you like Zusha? Why didn't you obtain the magisterial heights that you could have?
A Tale of Strength
Have you ever heard the story of Laura Shultz, whose saga is also worthy of our attention this day? Several years ago, I heard the story directly from one of the participants in the drama.
Shultz was a grandmother living in the Orlando, Fla., area. One day, she was busy inside her kitchen, preparing some of her grandson's favorite foods. He'd come to visit, and though the weather was rainy, nothing was going to stop this boy from playing in the woods near her home. From the kitchen, she heard an ominous sound of skidding tires and, somehow, intuitively, she knew that her grandson had been hit by a car.
Her fears were confirmed. He was indeed pinned under the car. Rather than run back to the house to call 911, she ran to the car, and with the strength that comes with adrenaline, and the heroism that no doubt comes through necessity, she did something virtually impossible. She lifted up the car, allowing her grandson to be extricated.
A reporter from the Orlando Sentinel — from whom I heard the story — had learned about this unbelievable feat and tried to contact Shultz to do a human-interest piece. But she refused to be interviewed.
Some years later, this same reporter — now a prominent motivational speaker — was visiting Orlando, and decided to look for Laura Shultz and ferret out the real story. He went to her home, unannounced, and after a few cups of tea, he finally got his answer.
Shultz's reason for refusing to be interviewed is almost as plaintive as was the shofar blast this week: "If I, a 65-year-old grandma at the time, was able to lift up that car, can you imagine what I could have done with the rest of my life?"
Our tradition is equally as insistent that the question being posed to us is not, "Why am I not like Moshe, Zusha or Shultz, but why am I not the person that I am supposed to be?"
The word that we invoke a lot at this time of year is teshuvah, normally translated as "return" or "repentance." It is as difficult a concept to explain as it is to actualize. But in Hebrew, the word also has another meaning, "answer."
So, nu, what is the question? In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, "Life is the question, and Judaism is the answer."
May we all merit the strength to be inspired during these all-important High Holidays to re-engage with the wisdom of our tradition, to reintegrate ourselves into the nurturing embrace of our extended Jewish community, to reconnect more intimately to our own families, and to reawaken to our deeper, more meaningful selves.
Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.