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Getting Our Priorities Straight, Erev Rosh Hashanah 2009

In his book, To Heal a Fractured World, Sir. Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth tells a story of the Second Lubavitcher Rebbe, the “Mitteler Rebbe,” who was so intent on his studies that he failed to hear the cry of his baby son.  His father, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, heard the crying and went down and took the baby in his arms until he went back to sleep.  Then he went in to his son, still intent on his books, and said, “My son, I do not know what you are studying, but it is not the study of Torah if it makes you deaf to the cry of a child.” (As told to me by Rabbi Jennifer Feldman)

The “Mitteler Rebbe” got it backwards. First he was to attend to his crying child and then to the study of Torah. He had his priorities backwards and because of this, he missed point entirely. Rosh Hashanah is all about learning how to get our priorities straight; discovering what demands our attention first and foremost and what can wait. We often think about Rosh Hashanah as a holiday of reflection leading to improving our relationships with others. A holiday in which teshuva is defined in terms of repentance and forgiveness. But on Rosh Hashanah we also say: Hayom Harat Olam, Today is the birthday of the world. Today is the day when we celebrate God’s creation. And what was God’s creation all about? Bringing order to the world.
Rabbi Pressman has often pointed out that if we look back at the creation narrative in Genesis we see that Creation Story is all about making order out of chaos. The second verse in the Torah tells us that the earth was Tohu Va Vohu, literally a land of “desert waste” and goes onto explain the way in which God ordered and organized the world out of that Chaos. In that sense Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of order out of chaos and reminds us that as we attempt to create our own lives anew, one of our primary responsibilities is striving to ensure that our priorities are in order. Are we living our lives in accordance with our values and our beliefs? How have our priorities changed over the past year and how have they stayed the same? This is how we recognize our purpose in life. This is how we understand the meaning of our own creation. These are the types of questions that Rosh Hashanah invites us to explore.

But we cannot answer these types of questions unless we first have an understanding of ourselves, and of where we are in our lives.

Abraham Joshua Heschel told the following story:

There was a school boy who was forgetful. He was always losing things. So he worked out a system. Before he went to sleep at night he made out a list of all the things he would need the next day. He wrote: My suit is on the chair. My hat is in the closet. My books are on the desk. My shoes are under the chair. And I am in the bed.
He woke up the next morning and started to collect his things. They were all in the right places. The suit was on the chair. The books were on the desk. The shoes were under the chair. Then he came to the last Item on his list. He went to look for himself in the bed but the search was in vain. He wasn’t there.
Where am I?” he asked. (Rabbi Jack Riemer, World of the High Holidays)

Where are you? Where am I?  This is also a question about creation- and in fact, it is the first question that is asked in the Torah. After the creation of the world, when God is looking for Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, God calls out to Adam: “Ayeka?” Where are you?  Where are you? That is the first question of the creation story. We engage in teshuvah, to literally turn inwards as we attempt to first get a glimpse of our true selves, and then turn outwards to get a glimpse at how we are living our lives.

To put it slightly differently, Rosh Hashanah is about managing our lives. According to Steven Covey’s book,  The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, effective management means “putting first things first-” and that takes discipline. Covey further explains that:
Discipline derives from disciple- disciple to a philosophy, disciple to a set of principles, a set of values, disciple to an overriding purpose (Covey, 148)….
In other words discipline requires that we understand our purpose in life, who we are, what we believe, what we value. Only then can we manage our lives.
Understanding who we are is no small task, especially in this day and age. Rabbi Hayim Herring writes that the twenty first century has brought with it a renewed sense of urgency over questions of meaning in our lives. It is these types of questions that we must grapple with as we seek to understand who we are and who we would like to become- questions such as:
•    If I life in an age when I can get whatever I want, how do I decide what is ultimately important?
•    If I can choose to be a part of any community, which one is more desirable for me to join?
•    If I live in a world that is always “on,” how can I ensure that I do not lose my soul?
•    If I live in a world where I can keep taking, do I have a responsibility to give something back?
And for those who may not have grappled with these questions before, I imagine the political, economic, and global crises of the past year have pushed us all to reconsider and reevaluate many areas of our lives.
Individuals and organizations have had to make painful yet important decisions about their priorities. People ask themselves: Can we afford to go out to dinner? Can we afford to go on vacation? Can we afford sending our children to a particular college? Can we afford to give the same amount of tzedakah? These are all questions centered around our values and our priorities. The budget conversations that we had here at Beth David were also all about priorities. And the California budget crisis has been a reminder that when times are difficult and resources are scarce- priorities must be evaluated and re evaluated.
Questions about priorities are not new to Judaism, they were not created in the twenty first century, nor were they meant to exist solely in times of economic crisis. These types of questions have been around for thousands of years. They are the questions of Rosh Hashanah— the questions necessary to celebrate the creation of the world, and explore the creation of ourselves.
And the answers to these questions are meant to stay with us throughout the year.

Rabbi Menahem Mendle of Kotzk once put this question to his students: What was the hardest part of the Akedah for Abraham? Was it the initial call, the long walk to Moriah, or the binding? His answer: the hardest part was coming down the mountain.

Rabbi David Wolpe comment: the hardest part of the High Holiday experience comes: …two months later, when we are supposed to live by the promises we made. And reminds us that: We should treasure the summit of inspiration, but not live by it. Here below, once we have come down the mountain, our task awaits ( Rabbi David Wolpe, Elkins, RH Readings).

On Rosh Hashanah we must ask ourselves whether or not we are living out our deepest held convictions and values. We must explore whether or not our priorities are in the proper order. That is how we celebrate the creation of God’s world, and get in touch with the parts of ourselves that are made betzelem elohim, in God’s image. And then, once Rosh Hashanah is over and we have come down the mountain, we must continually work to ensure that we are living up to our self discovery, always remembering that the work of creating our own selves is a life-long endeavor.