Breaking Barriers in our Lives

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Last year, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya ran a marathon in 1:59:40, breaking the two-hour barrier  for the first time ever. To put it in perspective, he ran a mile in 4 minutes and 33 seconds — 26 times in a row. He ran at a pace of 13 miles per hour, for two hours in a row. When he finished, Mr. Kipchoge compared what he’d just accomplished to man walking on the moon.  How did he do it?


וּלְקַחְתֶּ֨ם לָכֶ֜ם בַּיּ֣וֹם הָרִאשׁ֗וֹן פְּרִ֨י עֵ֤ץ הָדָר֙ כַּפֹּ֣ת תְּמָרִ֔ים וַעֲנַ֥ף עֵץ־עָבֹ֖ת וְעַרְבֵי־נָ֑חַל וּשְׂמַחְתֶּ֗ם לִפְנֵ֛י ה׳ אֱלֹקֵיכֶ֖ם שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים׃ 

On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees…


The Midrash wonders, what do you mean bayom harishon, take a lulav and esrog on the “first” day? It isn’t the first day of Tishrei, it is the 15th?  So what is the Torah alluding to by describing the mitzvah as beginning on the first?


The Midrash offers a cryptic answer – ראשון לחשבון עוונות, it is in fact the first day, the first day to be accountable for the mistakes and bad decisions.  But how is that?  Yom Kippur was over five days ago.  There have been five days to go back to the way things were, to resume our poor behavior and bad habits.  How is Sukkos the day our misbehavior “begins”?


The Shemen HaTov explains that from Yom Kippur until Sukkos, who has time to sin? We are so busy running to pick our lulav and esrog, to build and decorate our sukkah, to cook for Yom Tov.  We remain on such a high from Neilah and we pour that energy and excitement into getting ready for the holiday.  


But then Sukkos comes and somewhat paradoxically, when we finally encounter those mitzvos we were so excited for in anticipation, we lose steam, run out of energy, and hit a wall.  Maybe we are excited for a brief moment entering the sukkah but then it is hot, uncomfortable, and inconvenient. There was such joy and fun in inspecting our arba minim but it wasn’t much fun having to carry them to shul and balance them with our siddur while walking in a circle for Hoshanos.  


So Sukkos comes, the work is done, the high is over, and now we have an opportunity to sit with family and friends, we have long Yom Tov days.  How will we spend them?  Will we become the people we caught a glimpse of in Elul and over the Yamim Noraim, will we fulfill the pledges and promises we made ourselves about who we could become and the lives we could live?  Will we be the best versions of ourselves and continue the growth spurt of coming more on time, talking less in shul, singing more, being better to others and to ourselves?  Or, will we simply be relieved that the marathon of the High Holidays is over, pat ourselves on the back, take pride in getting through it and go back to exactly who we were, the habits, patterns and behavior, back to the unlived life, underachieving who we could become?  


Rishon l’cheshbon avonos - Sukkos is the time we truly take an accounting about the year we are going to have.  Was it all lip service, pipe dreams, and empty aspirations? Or are we implementing and executing on what we promised ourselves, promised those around us, and most of all, promised the One above? 


The true test of a person is not if he or she is satisfied with what they have accomplished, but whether or not they continue to push forward, to set goals, to implement resolutions.  


Here is the amazing thing about Eliud Kipchoge.  He already held the record for the fastest marathon. Two years ago, he finished the Berlin Marathon at 2:01:39. So what made him push himself harder?  Before the marathon in which he broke his own record, he said, “I don’t know where the limits are, but I would like to go there.”  He wasn’t satisfied with what he had already done, he was focused on what was yet ahead.  


You likely recall, just a few days ago, on Kol Nidrei night when we got up to Shema we all proclaimed Baruch sheim kevod malchuso l’olam va’ed out loud.  Why? As we know, it is because we were on the level of angels.  Yet, moments after Neilah, just after screaming Hashem hu ha’Elokim, we said Shema in Maariv and we went right back to whispering baruch sheim.  I ask you – when are we more like angels, at Kol Nidrei when our bellies and bladders are full, when we roll into Shul at the very beginning of the Holiest day, or Motzei Yom Kippur when we have just spent 25 hours free of physical needs and pleasures, unencumbered by the trappings of this world, having spent most of the day in deep prayer and song?  Shouldn’t we say Baruch sheim out loud just after Yom Kippur instead of at its very beginning?


Rav Avigdor Neventzal explains so beautifully that being an angel is not about celebrating what you have just done, what you finished.   Rather, being angelic means making a pledge and promise for what we are about to do, starting out on a noble and holy journey.  True, on Motzei Yom Kippur we have completed something extraordinary, but it is over, we have finished.  Kol Nidrei night, we are just getting started, we are at the very beginning, but we are about to execute and implement a commitment, and that is when we are on the level to say baruch sheim out loud.  


Sukkos is not a celebration of what we have accomplished, it is not the relief that the Yamim Noraim are over.  The joy of Sukkos comes from what we are about to achieve.  It is a focused opportunity to implement all that we had promised, to follow up on everything we committed to do.  It is the beginning, not the end.  It is prospective, not retrospective.  When we sit in our sukkah and host others, when we have meaningful conversations, spend quality time, when we continue to implement the promises and resolutions we made just a few days ago, we feel the greatest simcha, the highest joy.  


The happiness of Sukkos, the v’samachta b’chagecha is not from the relief of being finished, of having persevered or survived, but rather it is the satisfaction of pushing ourselves further, of knowing we aren’t done, of believing that our best—our best at being a spouse, our best parenting, our best learning, our best davening, our best volunteering, our best in our profession—it is yet to come.  


One of the most amazing parts of the story of Eliud Kipchoge breaking the record was the description of what happened towards the end of the marathon.  When it got particularly tough, when he had to push himself to beat his own record, he started to smile.  The greatest simcha comes not from reflecting on what we have already done, but from the authentic satisfaction of pushing ourselves to fulfill what we have pledged to yet do.  


On Hoshana Rabba we will resume the Yamim Noraim nusach, the chazzan will wear a kittel.  While Neilah may have felt like the finish line, it was only the halfway mark. The verdict on our aspirations and efforts comes not from how we behaved when standing in shul all day davening, but from who we are and how we use our time over the week of Sukkos.  Are the changes we made permanent or were they just a fleeting fad?  The minimum measure of a sukkah is big enough to hold rosho v’rubo, your head and most of your body.  The Sefas Emes explains homiletically, we have to get our rosho b’rubo in the Sukkah, we have to get our head into what we are doing, to be present, to fully experience this Yom Tov.


Like Kipchoge, we don’t know where our limits are, how much Torah can we learn, how must kindness can we show, how much better can we be.  But like Kipchoge, let’s be driven to go there and find out.  We may just find ourselves smiling during the toughest parts.