02 Jun Stop and Smell the Roses
We finally resumed minyanim at BRS this week, albeit outdoors. As I wrote about last week in anticipation, I indeed missed the sanctity of the sanctuary and the comfort of the air conditioning. Unexpectedly, however, through davening outdoors I experienced something special I wouldn’t have if we had resumed minyan indoors. The first Mincha back at shul came after an afternoon of lightning, thunder, and torrential downpours. The storm passed just in time for us to convene outside BRS, and it gifted us a beautiful rainbow, a magnificent cloud formation shaded orange and red by the setting sun, accompanied by a gentle breeze. The silence of our private, outdoor Amidah was broken by the chirping of birds which, rather than distract, only seemed to enhance our kavanah. To be clear, I would still much rather be back indoors, in front of the holy Aron Kodesh and in the physical and emotional comfort being where we belong. But there is something special, something meaningful about connecting to Hashem specifically outdoors, more exposed to and aware of nature and natural phenomena that surround us. It is not a coincidence that the Torah begins, as does the relationship between man and his Creator, in a garden. We associate Shavuos with the receiving of the Torah and commemorate it with added learning, but the Torah presents Shavuos in an agricultural context and as part of an agrarian cycle. The Torah does not refer to Shavuos as the anniversary of our receiving the Torah; it is called Chag HaKatzir, the holiday of harvesting, of literally reaping the fruit of our outdoor labor. It is also known as Chag HaBikkurim, the day of bringing our first fruits of the seven beautiful species to the Beis HaMikdash. Shavuos is marked indoors, by finding Hashem through studying His word. But it is also about finding Hashem through His creation, seeing Him through His world, something that must necessarily bring us outdoors. This week, I was reminded of the opportunity and invitation the world gives us to discover Hashem daily. My beloved cousin, Missy (Melissa) Stein, lost her battle with cancer. First diagnosed nineteen years ago when only 35 years old, Missy courageously endured treatment and thought the horrible illness was gone, but it came back. Four times she was diagnosed and four times she vowed to valiantly fight. She pledged that she would do anything possible to make sure her five children wouldn’t grow up without their mother. With her youngest now in college, and after almost 20 years of relentless, tenacious battling, Missy finally lost the war. Hashem took her neshama this week at only 54 years old. Missy was one of the strongest people I have ever met. She endured what would have crushed so many others, but even more impressive than her physical strength was her strength of character. She simply never complained, never pitied herself, never saw herself as a victim. She was courageous, resolute, creative, resourceful, and always the life of the party. Missy had boundless energy, much more than people not battling illness or undergoing treatment. Her love and enthusiasm for life were contagious. She was soulful, spiritual, and thoughtful. She demonstrated profound faith mixed with a healthy dose of humor and laughter. She loved fiercely and what she loved most she wanted others to love, too, be it people, things, or her convictions. Missy motivated countless people to find meaning in their Judaism, including many women who began to use the mikvah due to her teaching and inspiration. I share about my extraordinary cousin because she deserves for her story to be told and like so many others, this terrible pandemic has robbed our greater family of the ability to be together and to grieve properly. But more specifically, I tell you her story, because there is something particular about her life that should inspire our Shavuos and hopefully move us to emulate her. At Missy’s funeral, her daughter Gavriella described that she and her siblings were regularly late for school, not because of their mother’s lack of promptness or punctuality, but because of their mother’s heightened spiritual perceptiveness. Missy kept a digital camera under the armrest of her car. Gavi described that often, on the way to school, Missy would notice a beautiful flower or a running stream. Something others would never notice would catch Missy’s eye and she would literally stop to smell the roses. She would pull over, grab her camera, get out of the car and whether it was a magnificent flowers or fascinating fauna, whether it was a sweet breeze or the warmth of the sun, the children knew she was about to let out a deep breath and proclaim, modeh ani lefanecha, Melech chai v’kayam, I am so grateful to you Hashem, everlasting King who created this all. Only after fully taking in Hashem’s beautiful world could they continue on their way and make it to school. In describing the monumental moment of Har Sinai, the Torah tells us, v’chol ha’am ro’im es ha’kolos, the whole nation saw the sounds. Many explanations have been offered as to what it means to “see sounds” but it seems to me the simplest understanding is that in that moment, all their senses were heightened. They didn’t experience the world in black and white; they were living in high definition color. Sometimes we just hear words, other times they come alive as images, vibrant, dynamic, and explosive. Missy did everything with gusto. Every conversation was accompanied by sound effects, hand gestures, and facial expressions. She experienced life with all her senses and it is no coincidence that she had the ability to see Hashem everywhere. This Shavuos, don’t only find Hashem indoors and in His books, go for a walk and also find Him outside, in His world. See the sounds, hear the images, experience Hashem and His world with all your senses. And when you do, pause to declare modeh ani, Hashem I am so grateful to you, I won’t take anything for granted, I will appreciate every moment you give me as a gift.