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Restoring Faith In Ourselves

04/12/2019 09:21:05 AM


The visuals we surround ourselves with are very powerful. A lot of creative talent and money is spent on visual branding.

The same goes with our centers of worship and spiritual development. What we see influences how we feel and behave.

There's an ancient custom to hang visual messaging above the Aron Hakodesh. The Aron Hakodesh is the centerpiece of any Synagogue. It stands at the front of the room and houses the holy Torah scrolls.

At some point in history, a practice emerged to hang the words דע לפני מי אתה עומד - Know before Whom you are standing.

The origin of this phrase is in the Talmud Berachot 28b. The story goes: "When Rabbi Eliezer fell very ill, his students surrounded his death bed. "Rebbe," they pleaded, "please teach us the secret to a fulfilling life, so that we may merit to enter Olam Habba." Rabbi Eliezer responded, "Be sure to always respect each other; protect your children from ideas which may sway their faith; and when you pray, know before Whom you stand."

Essentially, he was instructing them to be mindful during their prayers. To know that there is a G-d, and to turn to Him with sincerity and devotion.

Apparently, this became the obvious and suitable phrase to hang at the front of a Synagogue. After all, who doesn't need a reminder from time to time.

In my various travels around the world, I have noticed different phrases hanging in different Synagogues. It seems that in recent times Synagogues use this opportunity to communicate to its congregants the central message that defines them.

Recently the idea arose to hang messaging on top of our Aron Hakodesh. At first, I was reluctant, because I was reminded of the following story:

In the Synagogue of the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (the first Chabad Rebbe, 1745-1812), there wasn't any messaging on top of the Aron Hakodesh. Once, one of his students approached him and asked why his Shul didn’t follow the common practice to hang דע לפני מי אתה עומד.

He answered, "We believe that these words ought to be etched on one's heart, not hanging on the wall."

This is a very powerful teaching. We can all fall into the trap of advertising what we believe in, though in our heart of hearts we haven't internalized the belief.

But afterwards I realized that for us simple folk, visual messaging is a very necessary tool. It is used in meditation and many other spiritual practices. I became persuaded that it would be a positive thing. But what message should we hang? Following are my thoughts:

Centuries ago, Theology and questions about the existence of G-d was a hotly debated issue. There were many who believed in polytheism, paganism, atheism, and many other things. Reinforcing our belief in monotheism was of paramount importance to our Rabbis. It seems that the widely accepted custom of what to hang on the Aron Hakodesh reflected this effort. When you entered a Synagogue, you were immediately inundated with the bold message 'Know before Whom you stand.'

But times have changed. In most homes, debates on Theology are no longer typical table-talk discussion. Instead, a more pressing issue weighs heavily on people's minds - issues of psychology. Whilst many of us are now certain about the truth of G-d's existence, we struggle to affirm to ourselves the truth about the value of our own existence. We live with existential doubt and anguish, we lack confidence and pride, and we live our days shying away from our true potential and destiny.

This is a very serious plague which is affecting many of us today more than ever. When I counsel people, most of the time the dilemmas are not about faith in G-d, but rather about faith in themselves.

This lack of belief in our self-worth is affecting society on many levels. More than ever, youths are being prescribed anti-depressants, young adults are having difficulty dating, couples struggle with relationships, and people are having a hard time succeeding professionally.

This lack of belief in our self-worth is also a primary cause in our society's divisiveness. If I can't love and respect myself, I surely can't love and respect anyone else. If I am feeling unsure about my value, then everyone else becomes a threat to my existence.

So, what's the cure to this plague? Well, reminding ourselves of the truth is a good place to start. And the truth is, that G-d created us all out of love. Not one of us are born by mistake. Our presence in this world is the result of deliberate design by our Creator. G-d loves us, G-d needs us. When we awake each morning, we are being summoned by G-d to perform our own unique role in this universe. Each one of us are indispensable.

Discovering and internalizing this truth will have a profound healing effect on us. It will enable us to be loved, and to love. The realization that we are important and special will empower us to respect and value ourselves, and in turn to respect and value everyone else.

Our great teacher and prophet Moses expressed this best when he said, בנים אתם לה' אלקיכם - You are all the children of G-d. A parent has naturally an unconditional love for their child. No matter their looks, personality or skillset, no matter their successes or failures, no matter if they lived up to their parent's dreams or not, a parent always loves their child. When a child realizes this, how does it make them feel about themselves? Well that's exactly how each of us should feel about ourselves.

True, like any parent, G-d has many expectations from us. He gave us the Torah and trusts that we will dedicate our lives towards its fulfillment. But He doesn't love us because we succeeded in obeying the Torah - it's the other way round. Because He loves us so much, therefore He gave us the Torah.

This is the central message of our community. When Jews of all backgrounds and lifestyles enter our Synagogue, we want them to appreciate how much G-d loves them and how special they are. We want them to feel how much power and influence they have on the world. This affirmation will give them confidence in their own self-worth, and a deep appreciation for everyone else.

Thus, I decided to hang on top of our Aron Hakodesh: בנים אתם לה' אלקיכם - We Are All G-d's Children.

I hope that this message will serve as a catalyst to help us create an even holier space for faith, love, respect, unity, commitment and happiness. I hope that our sacred space will be even more welcoming to the stranger, especially to the person who never found a loving spiritual home. And I hope that our community will continue to serve as a shining light for all who need.

Fri, April 19 2024 11 Nisan 5784