Early Friday morning this past week, as I was preparing the Gemara I would be teaching in shiur later that day, I recalled a question one of my students had asked me about a certain halachah regarding bris milah. I have a couple of s’farim about bris milah that are together on a shelf, and I reached for one of them. If I receive a sefer as a gift, or if I purchase it at a memorable place or a special occasion, I often will record that on the inside cover of the sefer. When I opened that particular sefer about bris milah, I found that I had written the following in Hebrew: “I purchased the sefer in honor of the birth of our twins on the sixth of Elul, Erev Shabbos Parshas Shoftim 5776, and, through the kindness of Hashem, we entered them into the bris of Avraham Avinu on time (the eighth day), Friday, the 13th of Elul.”
I will admit that with seven children, baruch Hashem, and never being good with numbers, I don’t remember all of my children’s birthdays. Although we are preparing to celebrate the twins’ upsherin, b’ezras Hashem, in the near future, for practical reasons it will be after their birthday. After reading the inscription, it dawned on me that that day was 6 Elul, and it was the twins’ third birthday.
These types of things happen every now and then. But they feel like a small kiss from heaven. What are the odds that I would pull out that particular sefer (which I probably haven’t looked at in three years) on that particular morning?!
Of course, as soon as I informed Chani that it was their third birthday, our minds flashbacked to where we were three years earlier. Just as it was this year, that year, 6 Elul was Friday of Parshas Shoftim. We were in Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan, waiting for the babies to be born. I had an eye on the clock, knowing that if they were born before Shabbos, I would have to race across the George Washington Bridge on a late summer weekend for a double shalom zachar.
Amazingly, they were born healthy in the early afternoon. After holding them for a few minutes, I rushed home and, with the help of my parents, friends, and neighbors, we arranged a beautiful shalom zachar.
As the pregnancy was fraught with complications, and Chani needed weekly and often semi-weekly tests, the insurance company would send us numerous receipts of bills they had paid. At first, out of curiosity we opened them. But when we saw the astronomical amounts they were paying, we decided it was better not to look. But I kept all the envelopes in a large plastic bag as a reminder to us of the chesed Hashem had done for us.
After realizing that it was their third birthday, I took out the huge bag of envelopes to marvel at it. For a few moments, it rekindled within me that indescribable feeling of gratitude to Hashem. My mind was flooded with memories of reciting T’hilim together in the waiting room, nervously watching screens, the overwhelming fear of the unknown, consulting with doctors and nurses, and then finally the incredible moment when I was able to actually hold our two miracles.
The events of that morning afforded me a unique perspective on the concept of t’shuvah. The simple meaning of t’shuvah is to return. Our sins create a spiritual distance between us and G-d; and when we repent, we return to again be closer to His embrace.
But perhaps t’shuvah also refers to returning and reflecting upon the past. That we need to reflect upon our negative deeds and character traits so that we can improve is obvious. But on another level, we also need to reflect and remind ourselves of the trajectory of our lives.
The Gemara Kiddushin relates that Rav Yochanan would stand respectfully for every elderly person he encountered, even a non-Jew. Life is the greatest teacher, and therefore an elderly person is deserving of respect simply by virtue of the fact that he has inevitably absorbed the wisdom and lessons of a life lived.
My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, often says that when a person learns to drive, before he pulls onto the road, he has to look into his rear-view mirror. One has to see what’s behind him to know how and if he can proceed. Rabbi Wein explains that that is why it’s so important for us to know Jewish history.
This is true not only globally, but on a personal level, as well. When we look back at the events that have shaped our last year and the course of our lives, it’s clear that there is a force that prods and guides us, even though it’s not always the way we would have chosen or what we would have wanted.
Rosh HaShanah is called Yom HaZikaron, loosely translated as Memorial Day. It has such a title because G-d “remembers” all of our deeds of the previous year, and judges us accordingly.
Many s’farim explain that the very concept of the remembrance of G-d, Who never forgets, is that G-d “remembers” based on how much we remember. The more we remember and reflect upon G-d in our lives, the more He remembers our good deeds and reflects upon us positively.
As part of our process of t’shuvah, we should mentally return to the events of the previous year, and of our entire lives until now, to recognize the divine force that lovingly shapes our lives, even when that path is unclear to us.