Our Jewish Funny Bone

We’re standing and davening with intense kavanah. We’re deep into the Yemei Hadin, the Days of Judgment, and the awesomeness of these days is not far from our thoughts. We know how sorry we should be feeling for all our past sins. We’re acutely aware of the feelings of sincere regret we should be experiencing and an iron determination never to repeat our aveiros again.

We did this aveirah, we’re thinking. We did that aveirah. We transgressed here. We were careless there.

On some level, we actually feel good about ourselves for feeling bad. At least we’re being properly sorry for our wrongdoings, we think.

While conversing with a choshuve yungerman, one of the dedicated avreichim at Bais Shalom here in Lakewood, I was treated to an original and most perceptive thought. Imagine, he ventured, a different type of “al cheit”: I’m sorry that I did not properly appreciate all the good that I was given this past year. I feel so terrible for not remaining calm when I was stuck in traffic that time; I should have realized it was the Will of Hashem. I’m sorry, Hashem, for not taking a moment every morning simply to thank You for having woken up healthy once again. I should have been doubly thankful that all of my family woke up healthy and came home healthy. Not everybody has that. I’m sorry not only for not crying by “Selach lanu,” but for not truly feeling appreciative every time I said “Modim.”

We can go on and on. The bottom line is that while no one would suggest that it’s easy to feel sorry for our aveiros on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is so much more difficult to feel sorry, truly sorry, for not properly appreciating what we did have.

Pachad! (Yawn…)

Every year, as this time of year comes along, our thoughts seem to turn almost automatically to guilt and discomfort. We know – every one of us – that we should be so much better than we are now. We know as well that we should be terrified of the upcoming judgment. How many times have we told ourselves that we will improve in this or that area, and how many times do we find ourselves almost exactly where we were last year? We know that the Yom Hadin is no joke. There is terrible suffering in the world and we all know people in unspeakably painful situations. How can we not be afraid and not begin to finally do some serious teshuvah?

Yet, if we will be brutally honest with ourselves, a great percentage of us will have to acknowledge that for some illogical, inexplicable reason, these thoughts – which should shake us out of our stupor – just don’t seem to work. We feel guilty that we aren’t feeling anything like the simple, raw pachad, the fear, that we read about in books and articles about our grandparents. We’re uncomfortable admitting that Elul, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, for all our true desire to make these days meaningful, just don’t seem to affect us deeply, inside, where it really counts. The facts, however, are difficult to ignore: For all that we should be truly shaken by how far we are from where we should be, we’re not shaken. Worse is that reading, hearing or studying more about the awe and fear that we should be experiencing still does not seem to penetrate.

It’s like we’re numb. Unreachable. Unshakeable.

We mean well. We truly do. We want to be shaken to improve. We want to be jolted to lift ourselves out of the cycle of emptiness and superficiality in which we are mired. We don’t want to be stuck where we are. Still, no matter how many frightening mussar thoughts we read or hear, nothing seems to affect us – at least not in the life-altering way it should.

What to do? Are we simply beyond hope? Are we just too low to be lifted anymore?

It’s Not Funny. Or Is It?

There is a fascinating vort I heard in the name of Rav Moshe Schapiro from Eretz Yisroel. We are living now in the times of ikvesa deMeshicha, the immediate days preceding our final geulah. Ikvesa deMeshicha is popularly translated as a time when we can already hear “the footsteps of Moshiach.”

The term “ikvesa,” however, is an interesting one. Its literal translation is “heel,” from the word “akeiv.” (Yaakov Avinu was called Yaakov after he was born with his hand grasping b’akeiv Eisav, the heel of Eisav.) Due to the connection of the heel with the foot, going “b’ikvei hatzon,” for example, or “b’ikvei” anything else, means following their “heels,” or, as we normally put it, following in their footsteps. As such, ikvesa deMeshicha are indeed the footsteps of Moshiach.

Why is it, though, that this time frame, these days preceding our geulah, are referred to by a term whose literal meaning means “heel”? There are no coincidences in Yiddishkeit. If the term for the times in which we are living literally connotes “heels,” then surely there is a deeper connection between the two.

Physically, our heels are one of the least sensory areas of our bodies. Compared to what we feel with our hands and soles, for example, our heels are far duller and less sensitive. What phenomenal chochmas haBorei, wisdom and chesed shown to us from Above, that the area that undergoes the most abuse – carrying our weight and trekking all over the place – is less sensitive than other areas, thus saving us much pain or discomfort.

When one touches, pushes, or even pinches his heel, he won’t feel it as much as he would elsewhere. It’s as if our heels are almost numb and unfeeling.

This, then, is the connection between heels and ikvesa deMeshicha. The times in which we are living are notable for the numbness of we who live in these times. During ikvesa deMeshicha, in the days preceding our geulah, the situation will be such that we won’t feel anymore. We’ll go through the motions, do the right things, say the right words, and read the right shmuessen, but we’re just not feeling it. We’re numb. Dulled. We see, we hear, but it just doesn’t enter. It takes a powerful blow, chas veshalom, just to get us to sit up and take notice.

One thing that a heel can feel, however, is a tickle. Given the unique way that a tickle stimulates the skin, even our almost-numb heels are receptive to tickling. They’ll feel a tickle faster than they’ll feel a regular touch or even a pinch. It’s a funny way to try and engage one’s senses – normally we’d just touch someone to get his attention – but it works. For numb areas, a tickle can work far better than a pinch.

This, says Rav Moshe Schapiro, is the secret to penetrating the near-numb and dulled senses of we who live in these times. We are indeed sickly. We are witness to events, both globally and in our immediate lives, that should shock us into waking up, into doing real teshuvah, into truly trying to become a lot better than we are today. We see it, we know it, yet we’re unreachable and virtually immovable. It’s a sad and sickly state we are in, so many years into our golus. We just don’t feel as we should – and we know it.

When all else fails, though, there still may be one last way. A tickle might work even where far more powerful means have hardly made a dent. It’s not normal, true, and it’s a sign of one whose senses are far from attuned and healthy. Still, it may just get the message across.

Leitzanusa d’avodah zorah, laughing at what is ridiculous in the things people do, laughing at what is ridiculous about the things we do, can sometimes hit home and penetrate even the numbest of senses. If your audience is jaded and uninterested, try “tickling their heels.” The effect may startle you.

So Funny, It’s Scary

Our hyper-sensitive generation is not generally fond of mussar. We don’t like hearing criticism, even when we know that it is well-deserved. Come Rosh Hashanah and everybody finds themselves looking for a “positive” way to discuss these days and to get the message across of our need to become better people. Woe to he who simply says it like it is, who reminds us that when our very lives are in the balance, we really should start taking our lives, our responsibilities, our Yiddishkeit, our tefillah, our tznius and our ehrlichkeit quite seriously.

Today we want to hear only positive messages. Nothing else.

It’s a sign of how numb we’ve become, how spiritually dulled our senses are. What should work does not, and what should awaken us hardly registers in our consciousness. We must work, however, with what we have, and if it takes a tickle, then perhaps that’s how we should do it. This does not mean that one shouldn’t cry, feel guilty and try to learn or hear words of mussar and rebuke during these awesome days. The fact that we are dulled is no excuse to stop trying, to stop aiming for at least some improvement, some feeling and resolve, no matter how minimal it may be. If we’re so benumbed, then we should try even harder.

Still, we must also try whatever other acceptable methods we have at our disposal, and a “tickle” may sometimes just do the trick.

Ultimately, it may be a positive message that will finally reach us. Or it might indeed be the stark recognition of the gravity of our careless lifestyle that eventually hits us. Perhaps, too, it will be a sidesplitting realization that the joke’s on us that will finally get us to sit up and take notice. If that’s the case, we’ll simply laugh all the way to the bank.

Kesivah vachasimah tovah to all.