Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Relativity of Time - Yom Kippur 5769

Inspired by a sermon by Rabbi Gerald L. Zelizer, Congregation Neve Shalom, Metuchen, New Jersey, and the teachings of Rabbi Harold Kushner and Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik z”l

Remember being 6 or 7 or 8 years old and you are playing a game? You shoot the ball, miss and cry out those immortal “Do over!”?

Just like when we were young, every now and then we find ourselves in that same place: “Do over!” The difference between then and now: we know that calling out “Do over!” not only does not work, it does not go over very well, except perhaps on the golf course.

Rabbi Harold Kushner teaches that this year, at 2 a.m. on Sunday November 2nd, we do get a kind of do over. Daylight savings time comes to an end and we reset our clocks back to 1 a.m.. Once a year, every year, it is as if we get to relive one hour! I remember as a child wanting to stay up with the television on and the TV Guide open to see what would happen as 2 a.m. magically became 1 a.m.. Would they begin a movie over again? Would they replay the 1 a.m. show a second time? Unfortunately, each year I would fall asleep long before time reversed itself. Now, year after year, I tell myself that I can “catch up on my sleep” with this magical extra hour, but of course, I just stay up later.

Most of us sleep through this so called extra hour, this do over time and yet don’t most of us have some time, an hour in our lives that we would like to do over? A word spoken in anger? A stranger in need passed by when we could have stopped and helped? A note of kindness or of friendship or of condolence or of thanks not sent? Yet each year we sleep through this blessed extra hour.

A lesson taught to me by Rabbi Gerald L. Zelizer of Congregation Neve Shalom, Metuchen, New Jersey. He writes:
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik was for many years the Dean of modern Orthodox Judaism. In one of his essays he explains Teshuvah this way: In all other civilizations time flows from yesterday to today to tomorrow. The past shapes the present, and the present shapes the future. Cause and effect. Something happened yesterday or last year or ten years ago and because of that something will happen today, and that something today will cause something to happen tomorrow. The past determines the future.

But in Judaism instructs Rabbi Soloveitchik, it is the future that redefines the meaning of the past. Was something a tragedy, or was it a spur to growth? Was something a mistake or was it a learning experience? We cannot answer these questions today by examining what happened in the past. The answer does not only depend on what happened in the past. The answer is impacted by what we choose tomorrow and even today. Sigmund Freud taught us that we are shaped by the past, by our childhood experiences. Rabbi Soloveitchik teaches the opposite. The past is reshaped by our choices now and tomorrow.
In this observation by Rabbi Soloveitchik as taught by Rabbi Zelizer we see the essence of Yom Kippur, the essence of our season of repentance. In reality, no one gets a “do over”, as it were. Only in science fiction can we go back in time and actually change our past. In how many episodes of Star Trek did we learn the lesson, change the past, change the present, change the future? How Jewish is that!
Yet, while we cannot actually change the past from the present, what we do with the past is reshaped by what we do THIS day. The ability to reshape the past my friends, what we take from this time of teshuvah, this time of repentance, enables us to bring immensely positive changes to our world, or to diminish the world and all that dwell therein. As it we read in the u’netaneh tokef - “Let us declare the sacred power of this day: it is awesom and full of dread.

Those of us who remember 31 years ago, November 19, 1977 to be precise, understand this power. On that day we held our breath as Anwar Sadat taught us a great lesson when his plane landed in Israel. We held our breath that no harm would befall him. We held our breath to hear his words. Would his message be one of an outstretched hand of peace or would it be an outstretched hand of empty promises? In one of the bravest acts of Teshuvah, Sadat brought his message. He said:
I come to you today on solid ground to shape a new life and to establish peace....
No one could have ever conceived that the president of the biggest Arab state, which bears the heaviest burden and the main responsibility pertaining to the cause of war and peace in the Middle East, should declare his readiness to go to the land of the adversary while we were still in a state of war.
We all still bear the consequences of four fierce wars waged within 30 years. All this at the time when the families of the 1973 October war are still mourning under the cruel pain of bereavement of father, son, husband and brother.
But to be absolutely frank with you, I took this decision after long thought, knowing that it constitutes a great risk, for God Almighty has made it my fate to assume responsibility on behalf of the Egyptian people, to share in the responsibility of the Arab nation, the main duty of which, dictated by responsibility, is to exploit all and every means in a bid to save my Egyptian Arab people and the pan-Arab nation from the horrors of new suffering and destructive wars, the dimensions of which are foreseen only by God Himself.
After long thinking, I was convinced that the obligation of responsibility before God and before the people make it incumbent upon me that I should go to the far corners of the world, even to Jerusalem to address members of the Knesset and acquaint them with all the facts surging in me, then I would let you decide for yourselves....
Sadat’s coming to Israel embodied Soloveichik’s teaching. Sadat chose to reshape a past filled with war, hate, pain and death into a possibile future of peace. One year, 11 months later, those who instead of being willing to choose a different future chose to remain in the pain of the past. They murdered Sadat. But it was too late. A vision of Egyptian-Israeli peace, with all its promise and problems, became the new reality of the present.

We face this same choice each year on Yom Kippur and in fact everyday. Our choice most certainly does not hold the fate of peoples as did Sadat’s. Yet for us, each opportunity for Teshuvah, for reshaping the past, contains the seeds of healing our piece of the world.

Returning to un’taneh tokef, could it be that when it says: “who shall live and who shall die” its deeper meaning is: who will stay dead by living in a world shaped by the past or who will awaken to a new life by reshaping the past by choosing to create a new reality of the future? As we examine our past on this day, do we look at our past to dwell on the pain we inflicted on us or the pain we inflicted on others, or do we look at the past and ask the questions Rabbi Soloveichik posed: “Was something a tragedy, or was it a spur to growth? Was something a mistake or was it a learning experience?” On Yom Kippur Teshuvah means seeing the past as a spur to growth and a learning experience AND THEN committing to do the work to change ourselves, and to change our world for the better.

Each fall, we move our clocks back, a symbol hope for we are blessed with the opportunity to look back, seeing the past with fresh eyes and choosing an understanding of the future that leads to both personal and momentous change. Each spring, daylight savings time returns and we move our clocks ahead an hour and say that we lose an hour. It strikes me as odd that we lose an hour to save time. To me, losing that hour symbolizes giving up the hope for positive change. It saves time to skip the hour of reflection, the reviewing of the past, the reshaping of our tragedy into a lesson and commitment to choose to grow. Losing an hour to save time limits us, reinforcing the belief that our past shapes us and our actions into the present, dictates our future and keeps us stuck holding onto the pain we caused and the pain we received.

My choice, and I hope yours too, treasure this extra hour of reflection, choose to reshape the past through our Teshuvah today. Choose to commitment to a better world for tomorrow.

Kein y’hi ratzon.

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