Shanah Tovah u’metukah. I wish you each a happy and sweet New Year.
Do you like creamy peanut butter or crunchy? That was always the debate in my house growing up. My mother was big on creamy JIF peanut butter. You remember. Choosy mothers choose JIF? She was big on the dreaded Concord grape jelly. To this day I will not eat grape jelly nor will my sister. That was the only kind of jelly my mom would buy.
Same with the peanut butter. Only creamy. I wanted chunky and I dreamed of having Skippy peanut butter. Today I don’t eat that at all preferring healthier natural almond butters or cashew butters. Without those homogenized trans fats but the battle between creamy peanut butter and chunky peanut butter was epic in my family’s home! But I think my mother liked the tag line. She was being choosy. Meaning she had the power to make the decision for our family. . In this case it was about peanut butter. But symbolically being a choosy mother was much much more. And it relates to his season of the Jewish year. Laid before us each are many choices about our lives.
Tonight is Rosh Hashanah. The old year is behind us and we give thanks that we are here to celebrate the rebirth of the world! We made it another year. We give thanks that for the next 10 days of this holy season that we will rebirth our souls and ourselves. But this is also a time of choosing. Of choosing to become the person you have always wanted to be. Of choosing to face your faults and errors. Of choosing to confront the sins and choosing to make teshuvah and choosing to grow and change
It is not as simple as choosy mothers choose JIF but it is the time of year when we pray, reflect, confess, and forgive others, and ourselves for failing to choose to do our best. This is the time of year when we stand before God and our own vulnerabilities to choose life and to give life to our greatest selves.
It takes 9 months for a fetus to grow into a child and for a human mother to give birth. It is still one of the planet’s holiest miracles. In the ideal from an act of love and intimacy a new human being comes into this world 9 months later. But it takes a lifetime to give birth to the person you are to become. It takes a lifetime of experiences, of growth, learning, and development to gain wisdom. It takes a lifetime to be you; for we are always growing, changing, learning, unlearning, and developing throughout the course of our lives until the last breath we shall take. But each and every day we face many choices.
Even as we grow into adulthood and get settled in our ways of being, the human challenge, the spiritual and religious challenge is to pay attention to whom you have become and to turn from our moral failures and our character flaws. Our challenge is to become the best you; the better you. Our challenge is be born anew. We choose on this New Year to enter into this 10 day of repentance chamber. That begins with Rosh Hashanah tonight and ends with the last blast of the shofar on Yom Kippur day.
That is why the Shofar sounds so plaintively on Rosh Hashanah. That is why we usher in this New Year. The Jewish people long ago recognized that to truly live b’tzelem Elohim; to truly live in the image of God- and to be in the image of God – to find the Divine in you-you must recognize your capacity to change the way you do things, to change your mind. One of the great gifts of humanity is that we can choose to change!
God’s mind changes a number of times. It is one of the great ideas of Judaism. That God is influenced by human action and words. So Moses can plead with God to not exterminate the Israelites after they sin at the Golden Calf. And the prophet Jeremiah reminds us that God can be influenced by repentance and of course that is one of points of the story of Jonah that we will read on Yom Kippur afternoon, that the people of Nineveh can repent from their sins and God will save the city from doom!
My friends, this is a profound and amazing idea—to be created and live in the image of God-b’tzelem Elohim – our human task is to be able to change our selves and change our world for better. We can not only change our minds, we can change the way we do things. We can make a repair in the world at large and the world of our interior. This is tikkun. – Repair. This is Tikkun olam. Repairing our holy world inside and out.
This Holy Sacred Season of Awe – from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur is to mark the birth of the world and the rebirth of you. A chance to repair our inner world so that we can repair the outter world we live in. We are God’s hands, God’s feet in this Tikkun HaOlam- in this Repair of the world and the repair of you.
From the wisdom of our Sages and ancestors- It only takes ten days-to cleanse your soul, make teshuvah, and be reborn for the New Year- spiritually pure and with all the potential for doing things right this year. But let’s be honest sometimes it takes longer. Sometimes it can take years to forgive others and forgive ourselves. But during this 10 days- we can dedicate it to making atonement. Offering up or regrets, our sins, so that when the Gates of Repentance close at the end of Neilah—we have put ourselves back on the path toward wholeness and holiness.
From now until the final sounding of the Shofar on at the end of Yom Kippur –we Jews are tasked with re-aligning our spirits, a tune-up for our intentions, a yearly spiritual examination of our words and deeds and our time together will include some of the prescriptions needed to lead a healthier life, a moral life, a stronger ethical existence, a deepening of your Jewish heritage. This is what we do together as a community.
Because the truth is we are not monks, living an acetic life. We Jews have always lived in the world.
Recently in the New York Times there was an article about the monks of Shaolin in China. This group of Chinese Buddhist Monks is famous for their dedication to Buddhism and the Martial Arts. This group of ascetics, teach their famous acrobatic warfare from teacher to disciple and they live a life of celibacy, vegetarianism and martial arts. These monks throughout Chinese history have despite Buddhism’s emphasis on non-violence been some of China’s fiercest warriors, defending different princes and dynasties, as well as fighting outside invaders at times. Depending on the century and the dynasty, the monks thrived or were almost destroyed but they kept their traditions alive passed from generation to generation. The Shaolin monks exist today as a strong bearer of Chinese culture. The monks who mostly live in the Song Mountains of China, at the Shaolin Temple lead an ascetic life focused on their Buddhism and Martial Arts. They have received much criticism of late because their leader- has marketed the Shaolin way to the world. He has franchised the name and their brand of martial arts. He has created a tourist site in China for the curious to visit and other sites in China to learn the martial arts of the Shaolin. He has licensed the name for movie making and even tried to offer stock in the monastery. The leader of the monks-who once led simple lives drives a fleet of fancy cars and has evidently taken lovers who he supports in Australia. I believe that the temptations of the world for this group of ascetics have overwhelmed their ideals because they withdrew so much from the world. They lacked balance.
But for us Jews, we are of the world. We don’t have monasteries to escape to, or ashrams of silence; we have synagogues abuzz with sound. We have a Beit Knesset, a house of gathering where we come together not only to give voice to our hopes and dreams, not only to study and pass on our traditions, but to gather as a Jewish people. Our history has shown that we have balanced our communal needs as Jews. We Jews build a Jewish community while engaging with the world. Even in Medieval times or earlier during Roman times, going way back in our history, we Jews balanced our engagement with our own and the outer world.
The danger for all of us now and the elixir of our time is that we are too much in the world. We as a people are losing our balance. We leave behind the synagogue, our ancestral place of gathering because it isn’t enough of the world. It seems too parochial. It seems to no longer speak the language we can relate to; religion seems increasingly superfluous in these days and times. And of course if you have no faith only a rational view of the world, and only see the world and life in black and white-then hope is dead along with God. So why bother to tie yourself regularly to the Jewish community, the synagogue?
But the great friend of the Jewish people, Pope Francis wrote profound words: Faith is not a light, which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. During these next 10 days, faith in God and faith in our tradition as Jews will help carry you and cleanse you on this holy journey.
So this time of year is our ingathering- our journey. Rosh Hashanah is our time of rebalancing our worldliness and our Jewish teachings, the pressures of earning a living and the sweetness of the Torah. This day that we celebrate, Yom Harat Olam, the birth of the world- is our time of reconnecting as Jews- and at a time more than ever before when we –the Jewish people come together- to heal ourselves of the hurts, disappointments in ourselves and the world around us and to try and turn to a more holistic way of being in the world than the year before. We don’t choose to simply turn inward. We turn around. We do teshuvah.
Because after the ten days of Awe we will go back out into the world and have to manage and grow and deal with our homes, our families, our children, our businesses, our studies, our successes, our failures with the possibilities that we can with the help of our Jewish community and family and OUR congregation, overcome our past transgressions to reveal a new strengthened voice together.
Rabbi Albert Lewis, z’l who headed Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles for many many years- shared the following story.
During his lunch break at work, Joe took a seat on a bench next to a fellow worker and began rummaging in his brown paper sack. He pulled out a sandwich, examined it and again muttered in disgust, “Ugh, peanut butter!” He opened the next sandwich, examined it and again muttered in disgust, “Ugh, peanut butter!”
Joe left both sandwiches uneaten. His buddy, who was greatly enjoying a cheese sandwich, sympathetically asked, “ If you don’t like peanut butter sandwiches why don’t you ask your wife to fix you some other kind?”
Joe frowned at him and said, “Wife? I packed these lunches myself!”
Like Joe, many of us are constantly complaining about problems and conditions that we have packed into our own lives, And like Joe, many of us are just not willing to face up to the fact that we ourselves made the sandwich. If we are upset about our spouse, or if our children seem to be inconsiderate, or if we are angry with another person, we regard them as the cause of our problems. Right?
The answer is sometimes “wrong!” It is true that there are some areas of our lives over which we have little or no control. But many of us have fallen into a routine, a habit, a way of living that is our doing not someone else’s. Every day we as it were pack our own sandwiches and then complain that we don’t like them.
It is this season of the year that reminds us that we can change the pattern. We can if we are so inclined, choose and change the contents of our sandwich to something more tasty, more meaty, more healthy, more enjoyable, more moral, more ethical, more spiritual. Or we can end the year complaining “Yich! Another peanut butter sandwich!” and then start the New Year over again with the same menu. That’s fine if you are satisfied with only peanut butter. But then accept that you like being stuck in your ways.
This is our eternal challenge. How can we use this New Year season to become the person you have always wanted to be? Our history, our heritage asks of us to take a deep look at the recesses of our existence. Even the places we would rather ignore. And you know what they are. Even if you would rather live in denial deep down you know what you must confront. This is the time to do so, this is the season. This is when we Jews seek to rebalance our inner and outer lives. When we are called by God to change for the better. When we make teshuvah by examining our spiritual selves and trying to renew our faith in ourselves and in God.
Rosh Hashanah, Yom Harat Olam, the day of the world’s birth, humanity’s birth, your rebirth, gives each of us the opportunity to start afresh, to acquire new tastes, new ways of living and to Choose to be different and it teaches us that, more often than we are willing to admit, we pack our own lunches in this world. (Rabbi Albert Lewis, The World of the High Holy Days, Jack Reimer, ed. Vol 1. P. 37 adapted).
May this New Year be the year of being choosy for you and your family. Choosing the best Jewish practices so that these ten Days, the Yaamim Noraim, these ten day of awe will be the time and the year that you really choose and commit to and act upon the changes that will bring you the positive outcomes and the moral reboot that you have needed and have wanted. May this be a year you choose and commit to balancing your Jewish life and the life of the world around you. May this be the year you will bring you outer world and inner world into harmony and balance. That is what we do here together seeking peace and harmony in our world and ourselves.And choosing to change. I am glad you are here for the next ten days of the holy journey choosing to move toward a harmonious and balanced you! Ken yehi ration so may it be God’s will.
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