Rosh Ha-Shanah Morning – 5775

SEPTEMBER 25 & 26, 2014

A few weeks ago I read an article in the most recent edition of “The CCAR Journal:  The Reform Jewish Quarterly” [Vol. LXI, No. 4, Fall 2014] entitled “At the Turning:  Reflections on My Life.”  The title intrigued me:  the idea of turning is central to the High Holy Days period and the month of Elul which precedes it.  I became even more intrigued when I saw that it was written by Dr. David Ellenson, who served as president of my alma mater, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, from 2001 through the end of this past year.

In looking back over his life, Dr. Ellenson noted that “The forces that have animated my life and work cannot be understood without recourse to my family and my past as a Jewish boy growing up in the South during the 1950s and 1960s and the multi-layered world I experienced.”  He shares some remembrances of growing up in a small Jewish community in Newport News, Virginia.  Many of these memories are positive and yet, he states, “…I was…a Jew and that was ‘the rub.’  I never felt I fully belonged.  My being a Jew in a Christian world made me an outsider and different from the time I was a small boy, an observer even as I was an eager participant in the larger world.  It left me feeling alienated even as I was overwhelmingly social and active.” [p. 98]

Rabbi Ellenson describes several professors during his undergraduate, graduate, and rabbinic studies who deeply affected his lifelong course of study as well as how he lives his life as a Jew. 

His journey reminded me of the journey of our ancestors, as depicted in our Torah.  They, too, were outsiders, enslaved because they were outsiders and were perceived as being different.  Freed from Egyptian slavery after hundreds of years, our ancestors journeyed for forty years in the wilderness.  As recorded in the 33rd chapter of the Book of Numbers, they encamped in 42 places.  Although this seems like a lot of places in a forty-year timeframe, Rashi, the eleventh century French commentator, tells us that only during the first and last years were the Israelites constantly on the move; during the remaining 38 years, they encamped at 20 places. “The list of place-names reminds us that during most of the 40 years in the wilderness, the Israelites were living normally at one oasis or another for years at a time.” [Etz Hayim, pp. 954-955]

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, the associate dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, noted in her commentary to this section that

Rabbi Meir Loeb ben Yechi’el Michael Malbim (1809-1879, Eastern Europe)…asked why…the Torah enumerate[s] all the different stops…  He says that while the Jews lived in Egypt they were surrounded by reminders of their time in Egypt, and at each stop they made in the desert, they were immersed in experiences — some of their own making and some as a result of the enslavement and persecution [by] the Egyptians — of defilement, disappointment, degradation, and obstinacy.  The purpose, Malbim says, of the long journey was to rid the Jews of exactly those contagious and dangerous elements that could threaten their fulfillment in the land of Israel.  At every stop they discarded, as it were, another part of their defilement.

[Rabbi Peretz continues:] …only after going out of Egypt and leaving pieces of it behind in each subsequent stop can the Exodus ultimately be complete and the Israelites move forward into the Land of Israel.  Likewise, in our individual journeys, each of us has those places (physical, emotional, and spiritual) that we have been.  And, like our ancestors in the desert, some of those places have left us with our own anger, fears, resentment, disappointment and challenges.  But, also like our ancestors of so many years ago, unless and until we look to where we have been and face ourselves honestly and humbly, we cannot possibly let go that which blocks us from growing and experiencing our own journey’s promise. [Shabbat Parashat Matot-Ma’ase, 28 Tammuz 5764, “Journey Back Into the Future,”]

Today is Rosh Ha-Shanah, the New Year, the beginning of our Ten Days of Repentance, the Ten Days of Awe.  This is the time set for us each year to look back upon the past year to see where we went wrong and to make amends.  It is also the time for us to see where we were correct, to see where our behavior was positive, where we helped others, where we did mitzvot. 

I’d also like to suggest that this High Holy Days season is a time for us to look back not just on this past year, but upon our entire lives, as Rabbi Ellenson did – to see who influenced us and to note experiences which made us who we are today.  As I look back upon my own life, I know that my family greatly influenced me.  I know that there were certain teachers and professors who influenced me.  I note with great affection the rabbis at my home congregation who taught me through word and deed what it means to be a rabbi.  I see relationships – people! – and professional experiences which affected me in ways too innumerable to count.  Even my recent fall on the ice and subsequent experiences with recuperating and learning how to walk again, all make me who I am today.

Do I ever wonder what life would be like if I had made different decisions or if different circumstances had taken place? Of course!  And I’m sure that each of you has asked yourself this same question.  It’s impossible not to look back at earlier parts of our lives and wonder “what if?”  At the same time, I do not regret one decision I made or one thing that happened to me.  The circumstances weren’t always easy – and, indeed, some of them were downright difficult and painful (physically and / or emotionally) – but I don’t regret them.  Those experiences made me who I am today.

At this New Year I not only look back to see the past, but I also look forward – with hope and prayer for this coming year.  I am anxious to see how it turns out.  And so, as we begin this new year of 5775, my wish for you is that the New Year will be a good one for you, a time to move forward, a time to cherish each and every day, a time to appreciate the people in your lives, a time to enjoy life.

And so I wish each of you a shanah tovah u’m’tukah — A good and sweet new year!