So, here we return once again. Rosh Hashanah — the beginning of the year. What difference does it make that one day falls into a year and a number changes from the previous year? Today, we have seen that arbitrary movement of a “6” changing to a “7”, and here we are in the hundreds gathered to celebrate 5777 together.
Though this is the day of God’s Judgment. God reviews our deeds to perceive whether our sins are not too numerous. And yet, we are to feel joyous under such prosecutorial scrutiny.
Erev Rosh Hashanah
Perhaps the joy comes from being accompanied by family or friends. Some arrived alone this year. And for you, I hope you find a welcoming experience as we join for this annual gathering. But do look around you. Now is your opportunity to take that moment I mentioned in the New Light. Look around you — in front and in back — there are new people and there are familiar friends. The children who once sat with their parents are off to college (in shul tonight, they hope). Some of our single adults are now partnered and some of our partnered adults have entered alone, cleaved by death or divorce. Some heads are crowned with silver more so than last year. Some have less hair entirely. There are changes, but look, we join together once again. Take a look at this wonderful congregation! Here we sit in the holiness we have created each year here at the JCC.
My hope is that when you leave after my sermon has ended, you do not remark as one of my colleagues did, who used to visit other synagogues and usually described them as “a beautiful sanctuary, which sleeps 500.” I hope that in the next few minutes I don’t bring you to snooze through the beginning hours of the New Year.
For thousands of years, Jews have been called together as we are tonight:
“In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, shall be a solemn rest for you, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns, a holy gathering” (Leviticus 23:23-25).
In ancient Israel, in every generation the children of Israel who lived in the cities and those who lived in the country came to a singular open place. Ezra, the priest who brought the people home from their Babylonian exile, on this day stood upon a pulpit of wood and opened the book in the sight of all the people. On Rosh Hashanah he blessed the great God. And all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ and the people fell down on their faces before the Lord, their faces on the ground. And Nehemiah, the prophet, would say to the people:
“This day is holy unto your God. Do not mourn, nor weep. Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet and send portions to the poor. This is the holy day of the Lord, do not be grieved; for joy of God is your strength” (Neh 8:1-11).
We seek strength so that we might achieve more and overcome adversity better, perhaps, than we did last year. And yet, for so many, the adversity we feel today seems too big a challenge for us to feel joyful. Many of us wonder with anxiety, apprehension, and yes, fear, about what sad news will be revealed at the rising of the sun tomorrow.
The world is in turmoil. The information from our devices reveals at almost every moment more violence, another storm, and another errant response by a political candidate. Not only do we wonder whether our children will be financially better off than their parents. We wonder if we can financially support our families with what we have.
Each New Year ought to be one of plenty and promise. Each New Year should offer a new light of wisdom and hope. Each New Year should be our entry into our Promised Land.
So instead of joyously and energetically entering into the New Year, as Joshua victoriously led the Israelites into the Promised Land, this year our thought is to relive instead, the events of the spies sent to reconnoiter the Promised Land and report back to Moses what they have discovered.
“We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit (grapes, pomegranates and figs)” (Leviticus13:27).
And certainly as we enter the New Year, there is good news and positive trends:
- Latin America’s longest-running armed conflict is over. The 52-year conflict between the FARC rebels and the Columbian government is now over. There are now no wars on our continent.
- Two days ago, the EU nations approved ratification of the Paris climate change pact to curb greenhouse gases that are warming our planet.
- US consumer confidence rose for the first time in 9 years.
- 200 million fewer people in our world live in extreme poverty than they did in 2012 (less than $2/day).
However, there was evil in the report from the spies as well:
“… the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large, we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Leviticus 28:32-33).
For ourselves, despite good news about our future, we also hear this:
- The years between 2011-2015 have been the warmest five-year period on record on our planet. 2015 was the hottest.
- In 2012, the Black Lives Matters movement was created after Trayvon Martin’s killing and the killings of other Black people. It is a reminder that we have not yet achieved the goal of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.: to hold dear the content of one’s character rather than the color of one’s skin. We recall also the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and the killing of nine African-Americans at Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina in June 2015.
- Blue Lives Matter: We are witness to vigilantes who have police officers in their sights: On July 7, Micah Xavier Johnson ambushed and killed five officers in Dallas. A troubled drifter, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, fatally shot NYC police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in December 2014.
- There seems to be no movement for improvement in the Middle East – Syria, Iraq, Israel.
- Mass shootings by people with automatic weapons.
- Republicans who express disgust about the Democratic candidate and Democrats who have the same disgust directed toward the Republican nominee.
The children of Israel are terrified by the report of the majority of the spies, as are we by the onslaught of this negative news.
The main cause of panic for the Israelites was that Moses would die, to be succeeded by Joshua. The people couldn’t imagine that they would be able to conquer the giants and the fortified cities without the leadership of Moses. So how did Caleb and Joshua attempt to reassure the people? They told them that it would be an error to think that only Moses was able to perform miracles. Joshua said,
“Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, ki yachol nuchal lah, for we shall surely overcome it.”
What Joshua was telling the people, and telling all of us tonight, is that despite how bad we might perceive our future to be, we possess the qualities that make us worthy of miracles and overcoming obstacles. We will not allow circumstances to pressure us away from choices we wish to make. Nor will we allow them to define us.
Rashi writes an interesting commentary on the verse, “We can indeed go up” — even if the land were in heaven and if Moses were to say: “Make ladders and go up there.” Based on Rashi’s commentary on the verse, we can indeed go up, and regarding his story of Moses telling the people to build ladders and go up, the Rabbi of Ostrowicze interprets this story to mean that we need not climb up to heaven all at once. It is enough to go step by step, as the rungs on a ladder, until we arrive at the highest levels of holiness.
Often we are overwhelmed by a task set before us. All too often, we seem to be fighting an uphill battle. We need to reframe the problem: Break it down piece by piece. By doing so, it becomes more manageable. When we do not, we feel besieged; we just want to throw up our hands and give up.
Allow me to share a story by Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking.
One day I was walking down the street, when I saw my friend George approaching. It was evident from his downtrodden look that he wasn’t overflowing with the ecstasy and exuberance of human existence, which is a high-class way of saying George was dragging bottom. Naturally I asked him, “How are you, George?” While that was meant to be a routine inquiry, George took me very seriously, and for 15 minutes he enlightened me on how bad he felt.
And the more he talked, the worse I felt. Finally, I said to him, “Well, George, I’m sorry to see you in such a depressed state. How did you get this way?”
That really set him off. “It’s my problems,” he said. “Problems — nothing but problems. I’m fed up with problems. If you could get rid of all my problems, I would contribute $5,000 to your favorite charity.”
Well now, I am never one to turn a deaf ear to such an offer, and so I meditated, ruminated and cogitated on the proposition and came up with an answer that I thought was pretty good. I said, “Yesterday I went to a place where thousands of people reside. As far as I could determine, not one of them has any problems. Would you like to go there?”
“When can we leave? That sounds like my kind of place,” answered George.
“If that’s the case, George,” I said, “I’ll be happy to take you tomorrow to Woodlawn Cemetery, because the only people I know who don’t have any problems are dead.”
Listen, my friends, I understand. We live in a world of great uncertainty. We are in fear where our next step will take us. It does not help that the world around us “seems” to be disintegrating: Our economy does not seem to be going anywhere, gainful employment is not easy to find, ISIS seems to be behind yet another terrorist attack, we worry over semi-automatic weapons in the hands of crazy people, the rise in anti-Semitism everywhere, no solution to finding peace in Israel….
The Promised Land — however we measure it — seems out of reach. One reason for it being out of reach is our own shattered confidence in human nature. We find it difficult to trust our neighbors, our leaders, and our candidates for President. There seems to be no virtue. No one has integrity. We only graft goodness onto selfishness from time to time. Honesty is wishful thinking. Those who go astray, blame others. These are the “giants” of our despair. And they are what defends the borders and prevents us from entering the Promised Land we seek.
My teaching for all of you this evening is not to be deceived by any of those giants. Beyond the particular observances and prayers of our religion, more than a creed or an acceptance of a theological doctrine, we have stories like the one I have shared with you. Our religious stories motivate and inspire us, and rejuvenate our spirits and strengthen our souls. You do not have to believe they are true; nevertheless, they have truth.
We have the luxury to read the story of the mistake the Israelites made in turning away from their destiny and their God to wander and die in the desert for the next 40 years. But our Judaism, through this story, demands we confront that madness and realize that each of us has two lives.
Your second life begins when you realize that you only have one.
And with that one life, we are not going to wander away from adversity or bad news like our ancestors did. And we are not going to allow hardship to define or frighten us away from our responsibilities. Instead, ki yachol nuchal lah — “we shall overcome it.” When we doubt ourselves — our ability, our fortitude, our resolve, our moral certainty — as did the majority of spies who reported to Moses and Aaron, there is only one result: a fear that leads to defeat.
- Let us not be defeated this year by fear or by circumstances.
- Let us not be overwhelmed this year by news that depresses us.
- Do not believe this year that circumstance is more powerful than your will.
We, students of Torah, know that our values can be the driving force in our lives. The archetype for us is our matriarchs and patriarchs, who lived by the values of Torah and are called “the chariot of the Lord” (Gen. R 47). We, too, can follow their model for living by incorporating divine values to perform the will of our God to bring order into our world.
This year, let us choose Joshua to lead us into the Promised Land. It may be a battle, but we will wage a war against the vulgar, and against the glorification of the absurd.
May this year, 5777, be more than the number 6 changing to the number 7. May we be inspired to face every adversity with character and know that ki yachol nuchal lah, we will overcome that which overwhelms others. We will not blame our circumstance on others and if the effort seems too great, we will commit to taking one rung of the ladder at a time in order to improve and grow and find the joy we seek each day. Amen.