Rosh Ha-Shanah Mornings

SEPTEMBER 14 & 15, 2015

A story is told about Yankele the water carrier who always complained about the burden not just of the water he carried but also of the hardships he endured.  When asked by his Rebbe how things were going, he complained how much his shoulders ached from so much schlepping over the years.  None of his children ever helped, he kvetched, as they were too busy studying Torah, and his wife was always after him to do so many chores when he got home.

Sometime later the Rebbe again asked Yankele how he was doing and the Rebbe got a very different response.  This time Yankele said, “You know, I really can’t complain.  My shoulders ache, but they haven’t given out.  Thank God I can still work.  My children are bright and doing well in their studies.  And as for my wife, if she didn’t ask me to help her do things around the house, I wouldn’t know how much she needed me.  So, thank God, I am blessed and doing well.”

The Rebbe’s students were amazed by the transformation and asked the rabbi what had changed in Yankele’s life to make things so much better.

The rabbi explained to his disciples that nothing had changed, but that Yankele had taken his advice and come to see his tsuris – his troubles – as a blessing.  The story of his life had changed for him because he chose to view things differently.

Rosh HaShanah is our chance to change how we do things or, at the very least, how we look at our life.

I wouldn’t be the first rabbi to acknowledge that the new year is a type of “reset” button.  It’s a “start over.”  It’s a time to clean the slate.  Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, the rabbi of the Conservative congregation North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, Illinois, has put it this way:

As we all know, in electronics and technology a reset button is a button that can reset a device.  On our personal computers it clears the memory and reboots the machine forcibly.  It allows us to start over.  We are given another chance.  But in order to do so, we must first recognize our mistakes and then act to clear the slate. Then, and only then, can we reboot and start over again, hopefully, this time, to do the right thing.

Many times I love the reset button for it allows me to literally start from the very beginning without my previous mistakes being present. Other times, it bothers me that when I press that reset button I lose everything and must start from the very beginning once more having lost some memory data. From a Jewish perspective, the reset button, Teshuva, the act of repentance, allows us to recognize the past without it being totally wiped out and, at that same time, to begin again with a clean slate. If we take it seriously it is the best of reset buttons. [“Teshuva,” Rosh HaShanah sermon, 5774 / September 4, 2013]

Conservative Rabbi Richard Plavin of Beth Sholom B’nai Israel in Manchester, Connecticut, pointed out to his congregants that

The prayers we read tonight and throughout this season all refer to this day as Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment.  The [traditional] Torah readings describe this as a day on which God remembers individuals – Sarah, Abraham, Hannah, [and] Hagar.  All the readings reinforce the notion that God takes note of the individual, not just the group, and that God wants each of us to look within ourselves.  We are to examine our actions in the year past and consider what we need to improve.

We call that move toward improvement Teshuvah.  This is a uniquely Jewish concept that means so much more than its simple translation of repentance.  It implies turning, and returning.  The image is of a road, a path, a way in life from which we have strayed, and now we are asked to consider how we may return to that path, to the foundational values of our faith, to our God and to our loved ones.  The purpose of Teshuvah is to repair our relationships and to cause us to reorient our way of life such that it may become aligned with the teachings of our heritage.  There is a passage in the Midrash that says that God created Teshuvah before [God] created human beings.  God knew that we would not be perfect and wanted us to have the means to make up for our shortcomings and repair the errors we would inevitably make.

What a great gift God gave us in the concept of Teshuvah. [“Hitting the Reset Button,” Rosh Hashanah sermon, September 4, 2013, emphasis added]

The new year is our opportunity to have another chance.  We get to look back over the past year and get a chance to do better this year.  We get to hit the reset button!  We get a “do over”! 

This doesn’t mean that we can do whatever we want each year with the understanding that we can atone at the High Holy Days and start fresh.  Not at all!  Indeed, our tradition notes that we must genuinely repent.  “What is genuine repentance?  When an opportunity for transgression occurs and we resist it, not out of fear or weakness, but because we have repented.” [Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:1]  But if we do make mistakes again this year – and we probably will – we’re human after all! – we can hit the reset button again next year.

What a wonderful gift we have:  Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.  Throughout these ten days, we look inside and ask ourselves “Am I the type of person I want to be?  Am I the type of person I should be?”

I will conclude this morning with the wise words of Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, an Orthodox rabbi, author, and president of CLAL — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership:

Rosh HaShanah offers an important alternative to the dominant culture’s common responses to past events we wish we could have handled differently or seen to a better conclusion.  Rather than naively wishing the past away, as many new age gurus would have us do, or holding onto stubborn self-righteousness which sees change as a sign of weakness, as so many others would have us do, Rosh HaShanah celebrates the possibility of endless second chances without pretense regarding the past.

We can all add a new page in the book of our lives — one which like the addition of a new page in any book, neither erases or undoes what came before it, but one which can transcend those earlier pages and the stories they contain.  Each of us gets a second chance — a chance to return to the person we most want to be and a chance to live the life we most deeply desire…  [“Celebrating Second Chances on Rosh HaShanah,”, September 11, 2012, emphasis added]

May the new pages we add to our books this year be ones of sweetness and goodness, filled with good actions, good health, and much happiness.

Shanah tovah u’m’tukah!
      Wishing you and your loved ones a good and sweet year!