Rosh Hashanah Morning 5772
Just about everyone I know loves lists: Some a Letterman top 10 list, some a shopping list and some lists of records and achievements. I love to keep a to do list so I can cross things out as I finish them. The feelings I get of taking my pen and drawing a line through something I’ve done, or decided not to do…
Each year, these ימים נוראים, these Days of Awe bring us the perfect opportunity to make our lists. The Hebrew word for list - רשימה literally means a recording. During these Days of Awe, we use the metaphor of our names being recorded in the Book of Life for the coming year. As children we picture God looking at that list and being perfect having no need to check it twice. We each keep our own lists of the highs and lows of our lives. Where we exceded, succeeded or failed.
Our texts and liturgy are replete with lists. Torah contains numerous lists: the 10 Commandments, Leviticus 19 - the holiness code which we will read on Yom Kippur, and let’s not forget the oh so exciting and endless genealogies! This morning we read the most awesome of lists in all our liturgy, the ונתנה טקף - who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by beast.
Doing my summer reading in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I came across two lists that intrigued me. I debated back and forth over which list to use as my theme for this morning until I settled on the list referred to me by Rabbi Hillel Cohn and composed by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain in his newly released מחזור - High Holy Day prayerbook. In the introduction to Rosh Hashanah he asks the questions: “What then does Rosh Hashanah say to us? Of what is it a reminder? How can it transform our lives?” In response he lists 9 ways Rosh Hashanah can transform us. Here they are with my take on them.
1. Life is short.
My teacher Rabbi Alvin Reines taught that the definition of religion is how we human beings react to being finite. Of all the ways we are finite, the limits of our life span is the most profound. The ונתנה טקף emphasizes the fragility of life. Infants and children die much too soon. Even those who survive the Psalm’s “threescore years and ten or by reason of strength fourscore years” or even more are felt to have died too soon. We lament those whose productive lives are cut short by the failure of their bodies or mind while they still breathe. We may feel their living goes on too long but if we had our druthers, we would love for them to have lived longer as we once knew them.
On the other hand, the finitude of our lives brings profound goodness. Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman wrote in 1946 as paraphrased in Gates of Prayer: “Mortality is the tax that we pay for the privilege of love, thought, creative work… Just because we are human, we are prisoners of the years. Yet that very prison is the room of discipline in which we, driven by the urgency of time, create.”
2. Life itself, each day, every breath we take, is the gift of God. Life is not something we may take for granted.
Because of the fragility of life we need to be appreciative of having it. Even when life presents us with the greatest of challenges, serious illness, the death of a loved one, the loss of self sufficiency, remembering the blessing of life itself helps us not only have hope, not only survive the pain or indignity, it leads us, even at our lowest moments, to dare to thrive.
3. We are free. Judaism is the religion of the free human being freely responding to the God of freedom.
Whether by nurture, nature or the intervention of other people, there are times when everyone feels restrained. Sometimes the shackles are literally forged from iron and at other times they are placed on our wrists and feet by our experiences and the impact those experiences have had upon our sense of self.
Yet God has given us the ultimate freedom - that of free will. While circumstance may impede the number of choices and chances before us, we freely choose how to respond to them. Joshua and Caleb stood against the other 10 spies sent into Canaan and insisted that our ancestors could prevail against all odds. The Jews of Spain, faced with the choice of conversion, death or exile left their homes and spread the beauty and depth of Sephardic culture through the rest of the Jewish world. In early America, colonists stood up to a king with the most powerful army in the world. In the ghettos and camps, at Sobibor and every other death camp in Europe, many maintained their humanity and some physically rebelled against the oppression. From the streets of Birmingham and Biloxi to Stonewall in New York City, the oppressed and victims of racism, hate and discrimination stood up and said “no more.”
They and so many others were infinitely more free than most of us in America who simply bemoan the state of our country and our world.
4. Life is meaningful. We are not mere accidents of matter, generated by a universe that came into being for no reason and will, for no reason, cease to be.
Each person’s life, no matter how long or how short, how blessed or how hard, has meaning and purpose. The challenge for us is to accept we may never know what that meaning and purpose may be. There are few Moses’ or Mandelas. For the rest of us the purpose and meaning of our life may lie in a simple glance at another person who needs acknowledgment or a caring word or touch that alleviates a measure of someone else’s pain.
5. Life is not easy. Judaism does not see the world through rose-tinted lenses. And
6.Life may be hard, but it can still be sweet.
Everyone’s life contains challenges: some existential, some practical, some just require hard work. The longer I live, the more I understand that every life contains challenges and every achievement requires hard work. Nothing is solely gained by luck. How many are born into privilege and still know pain and hardship? How many born into the most squalid of places or abusive of families worked their way up and out?
We cannot control what life throws at us, we can only choose how we face whatever life offers.
7. Our life is the single greatest work of art we will ever make.
The art of our lives is never finished. It is not to be sheltered away in a museum. With each action we add to the canvass of life the symphonic score that makes up the universe. Each action impacts and changes the world. The beauty or ugliness of our actions determines the kind of art we create.
One of the greatest artists of life I know has both physical challenges and Down’s Syndrome. One day he and his father were driving and he started screaming: “Stop the car! Stop the car!” His father quickly pulled over and before his father could stop him, the young man jumped out of the car, pulled of his coat and gloves and ran over to a homeless man and handed them to him. His father now carries extra coats and gloves in the car for his son to give away. Could there be more beautiful art?
8. We are what we are because of those who came before us.
Cantor Doug Cotler wrote these words:
I’m standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me
Today my life is full of choice
Because a young man raised his voice
Because a young girl took a chance
I am freedom’s choice inheritance
Years ago they crossed the sea
They made a life that’s come to me
So in the garden I’ll plant a seed
A tree of life for you to read
The fruit will ripen in the sun
The words will sound when I am gone
These are the things I pass along
The fruit, the Book and the song
I’m standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me
As Cantor Cotler rightly points out, not only were our lives shaped by the choices made by those who came before us, we need to remember that those who come after us stand on our shoulders, inheriting the world we leave them.
9. We are heirs to another kind of greatness too, that of the Torah itself and its high demands, its strenuous ideals, its panoply of mitzvot, its intellectual and existential challenges.
We live in a time when the rejection of obligation defines the generations. We see this in politics, in tzedakah, in affiliation rates with organizations of all kinds. Yet, rejection of obligation is antithetical to Judaism and Jewish ethics. Judaism demands and our covenant with God requires that we strive to meet head on the challenges that life and the world present to us. Why observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur if we do not feel the obligation to be a part of this community, if we do not feel the demand God puts upon us to move closer to the ideal of perfecting ourselves and the world?
Thus concludes Rabbi Sacks’ list. What is on your list that allows Rosh Hashanah to transform your life for the better?
In the Hebrew dictionary, רשימה - list falls between the Hebrew words רשות – permitted and רשע - evil. It is my prayer for all of us this year that we refer back to the רשימות lists we made for these Holy Days so that we may keep on track and balance between that which is - רשות, permitted and that which is - רשע evil so that this Rosh Hashanah has the power to transform our lives.