Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz – What’s New?

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Operation Inspiration

On a trip to Jerusalem, I went to something called the “Shteeblach” of Meah Shearim. As the name suggests, this complex is a group of eight or nine “small rooms” used for Tefila at all times of the day and night. Some rooms can barely hold more than the requisite ten men for a minyan but these rooms serve their purpose well as men stream to the Shteeblach from all directions and join with their Jewish brothers in prayer. Most wear identifiable Yerushalmi garb: black hats and long black coats during the week, with regal gold and blue robes and white knitted yarmulkas with pompoms on Shabbos. Others are Yeshiva bochurim from various countries, Sefardic Jews with either short suits or elaborate robes, and of course, visitors like myself.

One morning of my visit, I walked into a shteeble and with my peripheral vision noticed a clearly American-looking fellow. I didn’t stare at him but merely noted the cut of his jacket and figured he was a guest like me. A moment later, however, he walked over to me and pointed to the name on his Talis bag. As he had already donned his Tefillen he didn’t speak, but upon reading the name I suddenly looked at his face and recognized a friend I knew as a teenager whom I haven’t seen in over a decade! I shook his hand though I couldn’t say Shalom Aleichem before davening. I was excited to see him and said we’d speak after davening. [On a side note, I had spoken at his Sheva Brachos and I count that as my first professional speech. I can still tell you what I said. E-mail me if you’re interested.]

He was in a rush to pick some people up from the airport but in the minute or two we had to reconnect I confirmed my assumption that he was in town for the inauguration of the new Rosh Yeshiva of Aish HaTorah (he’s an Aish rabbi himself.) I didn’t want to ask the standard, “What are you doing with yourself these days.” First of all because some people may not be doing anything they want to speak of, and second of all because it’s not as important as the question I DID ask.

“So, what are you doing for Klal Yisrael these days?” Everyone should be thinking globally and I knew he would, so that was the right question for him. He responded, “The same thing I’ve been doing for the past twenty-five years!” I knew he was reaching out to people, teaching, and doing G-d’s work. It was admirable indeed. BUT. Something in his answer disturbed me.

Should we be doing the exact same thing year in and year out? There’s a saying, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always gotten.” True, a person can keep the mitzvos, learn Torah, and even reach out to help others come closer to Hashem, but is that where it ends? Shouldn’t we constantly be trying to grow, advance, and infuse new life into our Avodas Hashem? Would someone in business be satisfied with making the same amount of money year after year? Would he not try to bring new clients into his business?

Now I’m not saying that he didn’t try to increase what he was doing on a regular basis. It’s very possible, and in fact, probable, that he does. It was simply the turn of the phrase that caught my attention and piqued my thought process to approach this topic. I wondered to myself how I have been working on doing new things in my service of Hashem. Have I been trying to better my performance of mitzvos? Have I been trying to become more sensitive to others and add life to my observance of Judaism?

Even now, I’m contemplating the question of whether I challenge myself to do more and be better than I was yesterday. The Ramban, in his famous letter to his son, advised him to learn new things every day and put into practice what he had learned. I do try to do that. It would seem to me that one who follows the Ramban’s advice is, in fact, introducing newness into his Yiddishkeit. Maybe it’s relearning basic laws of Tefillen which he hasn’t studied since his Bar Mitzvah. Maybe it’s working on understanding the words of davening or Tehillim instead of just saying things in a language that one isn’t as fluent in as he might be.

I don’t think it has to be a big jump, but I think there needs to be constant movement and thought about movement. If you’ve ever tried to ride a bicycle up a hill, you know that it can be next to impossible. If you’ve just ridden down one, though, or have been riding straight and you’re continuing that momentum, it’s a lot easier. Even once it gets difficult you can keep going with some effort but if you stop, you will have to put your feet down at a standstill and it’s very hard to get moving again.

So, here’s what I suggest: take some time each day to ask yourself, “What’s New?,” and make sure you have a good answer.

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