As the longest serving rabbi in Minnesota, Rav Moshe Feller is among the senior shluchim of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. As a young man, Rabbi Feller was a talmid at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, but was drawn by his spiritual curiosity toward the openness mission and ideals taught in Lubavitch. After experiencing his first farbrengen in July of 1955, young Moshe’s attention was piqued when the Rebbe addressed an initiative geared toward yeshiva students his age.
Merkos Shlichus was, and is, a program that dispatches rabbinic students to smaller, often outlying Jewish communities to strengthen Yiddishkeit by teaching Torah and reaching out to empower and engage local Jews during the summer and holidays. At the farbrengen, the Lubavitcher Rebbe was sharing words of chizuk for Merkos and support to the rabbinic students. At one point, the Rebbe reacted to feedback from participants in Merkos Shlichus who had traveled to a small town, but who perceived themselves as being unsuccessful and were disappointed that they did not see results commensurate with their efforts.
“What they didn’t realize,” said the Rebbe, “was that there was a young girl sitting by the window in that small town who turned to her grandfather and said, ‘Look at those strange-looking fellows on the street … Who are they? What are they doing here?’ When the older Yid looked out the window and saw the young Chasidic yeshiva students, he was reminded of his roots back in Europe and the life of tradition and observance that he had left behind. That feeling of spiritual awakening,” explained the Rebbe, “was worth the whole trip.”
“אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי ה׳ אֱלֹקיכֶם …”
“You are all standing this day before Hashem …”
The Baal Shem Tov taught that here the word “ha-yom —this day,” is a reference to Rosh Hashanah, the day on which we all “stand” in judgment before Hashem. Therefore, each year, Parshas Nitzavim precedes Rosh Hashanah, and at this critical moment, it transmits to us the words of reproach, encouragement and mussar. The parsha urges us to remember that no matter the perceived deficiencies in our service of God, we are to believe in our connection with Hashem and to know that we can always repair what we have damaged:
כִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם לֹא נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ וְלֹא רְחֹקָה הִוא. לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא ... וְלֹא-מֵעֵבֶר לַיָּם הִוא ... כִּי קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד, בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשׂתוֹ.
“For this commandment (teshuva) … is not concealed from you, nor is it far away.
It is not in Heaven … Nor is it beyond the sea … Rather, it is very close to you;
it is in your mouth and in your heart, so you can fulfill it!” (30:11-14)
Changing the course of our lives and improving ourselves spiritually is, indeed, a goal that is “very close.” We can change the trajectory of our lives in a moment. Even one sincere hirhur teshuva, one inspirational feeling to turn and stand “לִפְנֵי ה׳ — before Hashem,” can be the spiritual awakening that shifts our focus and direction.
Rebbe Yissachar Dov Rokeach, shlit”a, the current Belzer Rebbe, points out that the mincha prayer of erev Rosh Hashanah — the last Amidah of the year — has the very same nusach or wording as every weekday mincha. It has the same blessing of: “Barech aleinu es ha-shanah ha-zos —Bless us this year (with prosperity and wellbeing).” With moments before the closing of the year and at the cusp of a new beginning, we affirm our belief and confidence that the Ribbono Shel Olam can make that entire year a revealed blessing. In one moment, with an intention of teshuva in our hearts, we can change the trajectory and focus of our lives and see a turnabout for the better …
Yeshuas Hashem k’heref ayin — God saves in the blink of an eye.
(Midrash Lekach Tov, Esther, 4:17)
Internalizing the Rebbe’s message, the young Moshe Feller decided — then and there — to dedicate his life to sharing the light of Yiddishkeit with others. May we be open to hearing the positive messages that are being broadcast our way. May we make the most of every moment of inspiration and prayer, and allow ourselves to be guided toward a year of good health, growth and happiness, in the service of others.
Rav Judah Mischel is executive director of Camp HASC, the Hebrew Academy for Special Children. He is the mashpiah of OU-NCSY, founder of Tzama Nafshi and the author of “Baderech: Along the Path of Teshuva.” Rav Judah lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh with his wife Ora and their family.