Rosh Hashanah Day 1, September 10, 2018
Rabbi Jaymee Alpert
A few years ago, I took a trapeze lesson, and it was amazing. Terrifying, but thrilling. The first thing I needed to do was climb a tall, narrow, rickety ladder – it was unnerving, but as long as I didn’t look down, it was okay. When I reached the top, I carefully stepped over the top rung onto a teeny-tiny platform, where an instructor was waiting. She coached me to reach out to grab the trapeze bar, which was much heavier than I expected. As I leaned three quarters of my body forward, away from the platform, I had butterflies in my stomach, but I still felt safe enough – I knew the instructor had me and that there was a net below. Leaning off the platform, 60 feet in the air, with the bar in my hand, I was told to jump off on the count of three.
I nodded that I was ready, and the instructor counted: one, two, three. And, nothing. My feet were as firmly planted as they possibly could be on a ten-inch plank of wood. I couldn’t do it. For several more counts of three. Each time, I thought I was ready, but each time I heard “three,” I froze. I wanted to do it – I wanted to jump off the platform and to soar, but I needed help.
Finally, I asked the instructor to push me off the platform. She did, and it was marvelous – flying through the air, flipping to hang upside down on the bar, landing a catch with another instructor, and letting go to let the net catch me. I loved being in the air. So I figured the next time would be easier. It wasn’t. I got up the ladder okay, but I still couldn’t jump off the platform. This time though, I knew what to do – ask the instructor for a shove.
My time on the trapeze has become a powerful metaphor for me – it is the act of stepping away from what we know, from what grounds us, from what feel safe, and it is really hard. Sometimes it is too hard for us to do alone – sometimes we need support or even a loving push from a friend, but hopefully, what comes next is exhilarating. That is how I feel being here with you – a bit nervous about what comes next, and very excited about the possibilities. I hope you are excited and open to what comes next too, even if it is unknown and maybe even a bit scary. Together we will step into the future – and I bet it will be exhilarating.
Rosh Hashanah invites us to reflect on what keeps us grounded and what pushes us forward – we need both of course, and while it is true that we could do this type of cheshbon nefesh – this deep soul-searching, at any point of the year, Rosh Hashanah and the entire High Holy Day season give us a set time for introspection, in case, we don’t set aside time regularly.
Maimonides, in his Hilchot Teshuvah (3:3), teaches that we ought to behave as though the scales are balanced, and that our performing one mitzvah or committing one sin will tip the scale one way or the other. It is a beautiful teaching, and I wish it were that simple. It is hard to stay present in every moment of every day. It is hard to walk the derech ha-yashar – the straight path down the middle, all of the time. And although we may strive to live as Maimonides suggests, I believe our tradition is wise to give us set times during the year to look inward.
I would like invite you to take a moment to think back to where you were one year ago – last Rosh Hashanah. Close your eyes, if you wish, get comfortable in your seat, and try to picture where you were, or better yet, who you were one year ago. Perhaps you were sitting in the very same seat, perhaps you were far away, like I was. Perhaps you were sitting next to a loved one who has since moved away, or passed away. Perhaps you had not yet met your bashert. Maybe your child or grandchild had not yet been born. Maybe you hadn’t yet celebrated becoming a Bar Mitzvah or a college graduate.
Change happens all the time, and if we don’t allow ourselves to take stock of it, we might not even notice. Sure, we would realize the big changes – a new job, a new home, a new grandchild, but what about the other changes that happen – the ones that are almost imperceptible unless we pay attention – a shift in attitude, a new sense of inner-strength, a different perspective.
Rosh Hashanah gives us an opportunity to contemplate change, particularly the change that occurred in the last year, and the change we wish to make in the year ahead.Rosh Hashanah is a time of new beginnings. It is the time on the Jewish calendar to reframe the past and to set goals for the future.
Change and new beginnings are especially resonant for me this year, having recently experienced a very big change – moving from the other side of the country to build my relationship with you.
Likewise, my starting here as Beth David’s Senior Rabbi is a big change for you too. We are just at the beginning of getting to know each other. I am different from what you’re used to. It is going to take time for us to establish our relationship. We are standing on a precipice with what we know behind us and taking a leap of faith that as we step forward we will land well.
On Rosh Hashanah, we proclaim HaYom Harat Olam – Today is the Birthday of the World – Rabbi Angela Buchdahl points out that this phrase is in the present tense. We not only acknowledge the anniversary of the world being born, but we celebrate that the world is also born today. Hayom Harat Olam. Today is the Birthday of the World. It is hopeful, and promising, and full of possibility.
Birthdays are meant to be celebrated – as kids we look forward to them. As adults many of us take the “getting older beats the alternative” approach, so we celebrate them. On a more serious note, birthdays are milestones – they are opportunities not only for cake, but for reflection. What have we experienced in the last year? What were our successes? How have we grown?
Of course, reflection, also requires examining the challenging moments – Where did we fall short? When did we miss the mark? What could we have done differently? Or better? What were our painful moments? And what will we do with the wisdom of the last year? How will we live differently now knowing what we know?
Rosh Hashanah, the world’s birthday gives us time and space to ask ourselves these questions. We must ask them of ourselves as individuals, as community members, and as global citizens. If we take the process of cheshbon nefesh, of soul-searching and contemplation seriously, it is difficult, and it should be – it is what makes for teshuvah. It is what makes for change, and change is hard. Even positive change. Even the change we choose.
Teshuva – what we too often translate as repentance, means turning and returning. It means changing. It means doing things differently from what we’re used to. It means examining our deeds and our relationships, evaluating our priorities, and figuring out how we can do things better in the future. It is hard enough to look in the mirror and to count our mess-ups. Harder still to admit them, but often times, the hardest part of the teshuva process is making significant change.
Rosh Hashana does not erase our past. It doesn’t give us a clean slate. Let’s be honest with ourselves; have you forgotten how a friend made you feel during a fight? A spouse? Your child? Your parent? You may well have forgiven them, but you might also remember their response the next time a similar issue comes up. By the way, others don’t forget how we treated them either. If we have hurt someone, we must do teshuva, and then it is up to the other person to forgive us or not, to trust us again or not. It takes time, it is a process. If we do it right, we learn to choose our words more carefully, we learn to act differently. This is change; this is teshuva, and it requires ongoing attention, because if we do not watch ourselves, we will likely say things we regret.
There is an anecdote in the Talmud, in Tractate Bava Metzia (84a) about Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish, who meet before Reish Lakish becomes a learned rabbi. He started life as a bandit and spent some time as a gladiator. It is Rabbi Yochanan who convinces Lakish to give up that life in favor of Torah study. In fact, Rabbi Yochanan even promises his sister to Lakish in marriage in order to sweeten the deal. Reish Lakish becomes Rabbi Yochanan’s disciple and brother-in-law. Reish Lakish changes his life – he gives up violence in favor of Torah study.
But then one day there is a dispute as to the time when different types of knives and weapons might be considered susceptible to ritual uncleanliness. Lakish and Yochanan’s opinions differ, and Rabbi Yochanan remarks, “A robber knows his own tools”. In so doing, Rabbi Yochanan alludes to Reish Lakish’s past life as a hooligan, in which a knowledge of sharp weapons would have been a matter of course. Reish Lakish responds by denying that he had benefited from Rabbi Yochanan’s tutelage; Reish Lakish retorts “When I was a bandit they called me ‘master’ – the other bandits listened to me and respected my opinion, and now they call me ‘master’ – as a rabbi and scholar.” In other words, what’s really changed? I had followers in my previous life and I have followers now. Rabbi Yochanan snaps back, saying that he had brought Reish Lakish under the wings of the Shekhinah, by bringing him to the beit midrash. The Talmud relates that due to Yochanan becoming so upset, Reish Lakish falls ill and dies.
I think about Resh Lakish – it must have been hard for him to change his ways so dramatically and successfully. Then, after years, he had it thrown back in his face by the person who should have been his ‘safety net’. Rabbi Yochanan, Reish Lakish’s own teacher, reminds him of who he had been.
It is hard to change the dynamic in our relationships – we tend to revert back to what we know, or what we once knew, even if it’s not healthy, or true anymore.
The same is true of ourselves. As human beings, we are prone to falling into patterns, and those patterns, even when they are destructive are hard to break. It takes an awareness of the pattern or habit, the desire to break it, ongoing commitment to change, and support, because we can’t always change ourselves by ourselves. Sometimes we need a loving push. If we don’t monitor ourselves, it is easy to backslide into who we once were.
It used to be believed that it took 21 days to form a new habit. That’s pretty good – stick to something for 3 weeks, and voila, you’ve changed a bad habit or formed a new one.
It is interesting that there are 3 weeks between Rosh Hashanah and Hoshana Rabbah. Even though we do most of our confessing and atoning on Yom Kippur, our tradition believes that the gates of repentance remain open through Hoshana Rabbah at the end of Sukkot. Perhaps the rabbis thought we would begin to change our ways after reflecting on Rosh Hashanah and that we would seal the deal on our new selves by Hoshana Rabbah.
I am sorry to say that more recent studies, including one from psychologytoday.com and the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick,” by Jeremy Dean, report that on average, changing a habit takes 66 days. That would just about take us to Hanukkah. The thing is, even after a new habit is formed, we have to be on-guard in order to stick with it. It is a lot easier to stop going to the gym than it is to start. And it is no surprise that gym memberships sky-rocket in January – after New Year’s resolutions are made, and plummet by February or early March, after New Year’s resolutions have been broken.
We resolve to become healthier, we sign up for the gym, we go once or twice, or even once or twice a week for a few weeks, and we wonder why we haven’t dropped ten pounds or become noticeably stronger, so we give up. Change takes time. It takes patience and dedication, and it does not happen all at once. A habit isn’t accomplished in 66 days, it is simply formed.
The Mekhilta, a halachic midrash on the book of Exodus teaches, “Kol hatchalot kashot – all beginnings are difficult.” This comment comes shortly after the Children of Israel have been freed from slavery in Egypt, and God is about to reveal Godself and offer them the Torah. Rabbi Yishmael in his comment, understands that at first, following God’s mitzvot and walking in God’s ways won’t be easy for the people, but the sooner they start, the easier it will become.
“Every beginning is difficult,” even for the Israelites, in large part because change means loss. It means shifting from a sense of control or at least comfort, into the unknown. Event he Israelites, who had a pretty miserable situation in Egypt, struggled with the steps to become free. They yearned for the “good old days” which of course, were not good for them. Better the devil you, I suppose. I don’t think the Israelites wanted to remain slaves; I think they were overwhelmed by their new life and missed the comfort of the familiar. Change means giving up what we once knew.
The Mekhilta goes on to say that we do have the power to form new habits: “If a person hearkens to one mitzvah, she is caused to hearken to many mitzvot. If he forgets one mitzvah however, he is caused to forget many mitzvot.” Good choices beget good choices, and bad choices beget bad ones. On a smaller scale than leaving Egypt but still challenging, if you go to the gym in the morning, chances are you’ll eat healthful foods during the day. If you skip your workout, you might be more inclined to eat the doughnut later, since you’re “given up,” and you rationalize that you can always start again tomorrow.
Beginnings are hard, steps forward can be scary, and results are never immediate. Going to the gym once won’t translate into losing 10 pounds; acknowledging, and even apologizing for our less than stellar behavior won’t instantaneously stop it from occurring again, unless we pay attention.
Kol hatchalot kashot – every beginning is difficult. Change is hard. The ancient rabbis knew it and we know it too.
The teshuvah we talk about during the High Holiday Season, the changes we want to make – we tend to frame them positively, within a ‘self-improvement,’ or ‘introspection’ lens. But the truth is, not all transformations are ones we would choose. Some of you had a really tough year last year – for many of you, the difficult circumstances were beyond your control – job loss, illness, the passing of a loved one – we wouldn’t choose this type of change. All we can do is choose how we will live going forward as a result of the experience, even it was and is devastating.
One of my colleagues from Rabbis without Borders, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, writes in her blog ‘The Velveteen Rabbi’:
“Many years ago my oldest brother sent me a card featuring a quote from the Japanese poet Mizuta Masahide: “My barn having burned down, I found I could see the moon.”
Here’s what that quote isn’t, for me. It isn’t a suggestion that loss is “good for us.” (Oh, your barn burned down, that’s great, now you can experience the gift of losing all of your possessions!) It isn’t a suggestion that change and loss happen because we did something bad. (Oh, your barn burned down, it must be because you didn’t take good enough care of your woodstove.)
What I love about the quote from Mizuta Masahide is the reminder that change has the capacity to open our hearts. Change can open us to recognizing new blessings, even if they come in unexpected guises. Change can open us to recognizing new facets of ourselves, even if we think we already know who we are.”
Change is a disruptor, even here in the Silicon Valley where change is a way of life. It shakes us from what we know. And, if we allow ourselves the chance, we can grow from it. We can discover places in our hearts we didn’t know existed. We might be surprised by our own inner-strength.
On these holidays, our liturgy is so much about God as judge or sovereign, but the holidays themselves are really about us.
How do we connect with our innermost selves? How do we connect with one another? What do we want to work on in the coming year? How can we allow ourselves to grow and change even when we are afraid? How can we allow others to grow? How can we support one another in that growth and evolution? How can we be open to learning from change even when it destabilizes us? Even when it shatters us? These are easy questions to ask – but really, really difficult to answer. There are no simple or immediate solutions.
When I was pushed off the trapeze, I knew there was one very important thing underneath me – a net. Something to catch me if I slipped and didn’t quite make the leap I intended. Yes, change is hard and scary, but it helps to know there is a net there when we need it.
Look around. This is our net. This is where we can turn when we need support to change ourselves; when we need a push, or when change has pushed us, with or without our permission. I have not been at Beth David very long, but what has been clear from the moment we met last March is that this community is strong and that this community is a family, here for each other at all times.
We must not take that for granted. Communities throughout the United States have been fraying over the past several years, and I spoke a bit about this last night. They have been damaged by political rhetoric, by not listening to each other, by making small slights larger ones – by forgetting that as a community, we have the ability to help someone who is having a tough time get through it a little easier. Change takes work. Being the net and supporting one another takes work, too.
I asked you earlier to think about where you were a year ago. I’d like to ask you to think about that again. What changes caused you to get here? And now, take a moment to ask yourself where you are presently. Finally, where or rather who do you want to be next Rosh Hashanah. What steps will you take to get there. How can we be your net? And how will you be part of the net for others?
I wish everyone a meaningful, introspective New Year. May it be filled with positive change, unexpected blessings, and plenty of support. Shana Tova.