Rosh HaShana: Hats, Elephants, and God, by Rabbi Chaim Strauchler

What is this?

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Those who have not read The Little Prince will answer that it is a hat. However, the author of this children’s classic wants us to see more within our world. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry encourages us to allow our imaginations to see hidden things. In fact, argues his narrator, the picture above is not a hat but a boa constrictor that has swallowed an elephant. This might help you see what he means.

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We imagine that we see the world, as it is. Yet, much lies hidden below the surface. This is true not only of children’s drawings – but also of our internal pains, joys, and hopes. These pains, joys, and hopes are the elephant and boa constrictor to the possessions and appearances that are the hat. We are not what we own or what the mirror shows; we are how we dream and how we love.

We work during the High Holiday season to get below the surface. We attempt to transcend the incessant buzzing of our devices and to get beneath the pressing hum of work and social commitments. We try to more clearly see our truest pains, joys, and hopes. We seek a fuller appreciation of what the world really is and who we really are. We aspire to a heightened sense of God and ultimate meaning. This is what we desire from these days. Now, how do we do it?

Our tradition has provided us with a tool box for exactly this purpose. The customs of this season are the hammers, wrenches, and screwdrivers of an introspective craft. Hearing the shofar, fasting on Yom Kippur, and singing the machzor’s beautiful prayers – cumulatively construct an imaginative passageway to see our lives differently. Teshuva, teffilahu’tzedakah – repentance, prayer and charity expose our pains, joys, and hopes before God and before ourselves.

Yet, there is an elephant and boa constrictor within the hat that is the High Holidays.

On the Fast of Gedaliah, we will read the words of Yeshayahu chapter 55, “Seek out the Lord when He can be found; call Him when he is near.” Our goals in synagogue and life are not simply to better see our lives – rather, we should seek God. We have the opportunity to become friends – as it were – with our creator.

Here, I return to the Little Prince and his meetings with a friendly fox.

The fox gazed at the little prince, for a long time. “Please – tame me!” he said.

“I want to, very much,” the little prince replied. “But I have not much time. I have friends to discover, and a great many things to understand.”

“One only understands the things that one tames,” said the fox. “Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me…”

We create friendships by taming, not by buying. What is true for human friendships is also true of a relationship with Hashem. We cannot bribe someone to love us; nor can we purchase Hashem’s friendship, as the prophet Michah (6:7) says, “Will God find favor in thousands of rams….” There is no better time to tame and be tamed than the High Holidays. But, what does it mean to tame? That’s exactly what the Little Prince wanted to know.

“What must I do, to tame you?” asked the little prince.

“You must be very patient,” replied the fox. “First you will sit down at a little distance from me – like that – in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me, every day…”

The work of taming is slow. Relationships require time. Every day, we can move a little closer, but if we move close too quickly, our fox will run away. The High Holidays are similar. We cannot simply open our hearts on Yom Kippur without first slowly approaching in the days of Elul. In the world of the spirit, words can lead to misunderstanding. It is actions – sincere, slow and repeated – that matter most. Taming is getting close. Taming is being a presence in the life of another. It is now when we can make God a part of our world; as we make ourselves part of God’s world.

The next day the little prince came back.

“It would have been better to come back at the same hour,” said the fox. “If, for example, you come at four o’clock in the afternoon, then at three o’clock I shall begin to be happy. I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances. At four o’clock, I shall already be worrying and jumping about. I shall show you how happy I am! But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you… One must observe the proper rites…”

“What is a rite?” asked the little prince.

“Those also are actions too often neglected,” said the fox. “They are what make one day different from other days, one hour from other hours.” 

The rites and rituals of the Torah work in a similar way. They are the currency of friendship. When we live a life of mitzvot, we condition our hearts to jump about. We do this for ourselves, and – in some way – for God as well.

As we approach this “taming” season, let us seek out a friendship. Let us make use of our rites. Let us take upon ourselves, to approach God more frequently in advance of Yom Kippur – every day arriving at the same time – every morning moving just a little closer. May we each merit to see inside the hat.

 

Rabbi Chaim Strauchler has served as rabbi of Shaarei Shomayim Congregation, since 2008. He received his ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University. Rabbi Strauchler earned a Diploma in Theology and a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He also holds a Master’s Degree in Biblical Studies from Bernard Revel Graduate School, and is a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alumnus.  As a student, Rabbi Strauchler founded the literary journal, Mima’amakim.  Before joining Shaarei Shomayim, Rabbi Strauchler served as rabbi at Beit Chaverim Synagogue in Westport, Connecticut.  Rabbi Strauchler is currently a member of the executive of the Rabbinical Council of America and the Rabbinical Vaad HaKashruth of COR.

Rabbi Strauchler is married to Avital. They have five children: Tehilla, Adir, Atara, Zvi and Freda. 

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