I have learned over my years of working with a computer that sometimes the only solution to an annoying glitch is to restart the computer. More often than not, it solves the problem. In recent years we have heard this concept echoed in the realm of politics. We will hear a spokesman for the President declare that they are going to hit the reset button, on a certain issue or relationship. During the presidential primaries last year, the pundits had great fun with a quote from one of the candidates indicating that after the primaries the slate would be wiped clean, like an Etch-a -Sketch toy. While this may be a problematic concept for presidential campaigns, what a wonderful notion it is for all of us as we enter this new year of 5774. We can restart the computer, reset the program, wipe clean the Etch-a -Sketch. For indeed, the power and meaning of Rosh Hashanah and this entire holy day season is that we have the power to create a fresh beginning in our lives.
A 19th Century work, the Sefer HaHinuch” says this: “It is out of kindness toward His creatures that the Lord remembers them and reviews their deeds year after year on Rosh HaShanah, so that their sins may not grow too numerous.” God allows us to and restructure the accounting and reset the total. Isn’t that a relief. The Torah scrolls, and the clergy, are all decked out in white, symbolic of purity, to remind us that we can wipe clean the Etch-a-Sketch screen and start anew. Tomorrow afternoon many of us will gather at the brook on the corner of Jordt Street and engage in the Tachlich ritual, throwing breadcrumbs into the water symbolizing the casting away of our sins. We will recite together the verse from Ezekiel, “Cast away from yourselves all your transgressions, and create within yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.” That’s what we do on this holiday, we restart our heart and revive our spirit.
Rosh Hashanah is the ultimate restart button. It is the ultra-deluxe Etch-a-Sketch. I have to take a moment to thank my colleague Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt for sharing this vivid image. But how do we really do it? Do we have to push a straightened out paperclip into a little hole? Unfortunately, it is not quite that simple.
The prayers we read tonight and throughout this season all refer to this day as Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment. The Torah readings describe this as a day on which God remembers individuals – Sarah, Abraham, Hannah, Hagar. All the readings reinforce the notion that God takes note of the individual, not just the group, and that God wants each of us to look within ourselves. We are to examine our actions in the year past and consider what we need to improve.
We call that move toward improvement Teshuvah. This is a uniquely Jewish concept that means so much more than its simple translation of repentance. It implies turning, and returning. The image is of a road, a path, a way in life from which we have strayed, and now we are asked to consider how we may return to that path, to the foundational values of our faith, to our God and to our loved ones. The purpose of Teshuvah is to repair our relationships and to cause us to reorient our way of life such that it may become aligned with the teachings of our heritage. There is a passage in the Midrash that says that God created Teshuva before He created human beings. God knew that we would not be perfect and wanted us to have the means to make up for our shortcomings and repair the errors we would inevitably make.
What a great gift God gave us in the concept of Teshuva.
Sometimes, change requires radical readjustment of how we conduct our lives, but sometimes, it is just a matter of perspective.
A story is told about Yankele the water carrier who always complained about his burdens and the hardships he had to endure. When his rebbe asked him how things were going, he complained about how much his shoulders ached from shlepping so many containers of water for so many years. He grumbled about his children who never offered to help because they were too busy studying Torah. And that his wife was always after him to do chores in the house because she was busy cleaning and cooking, preparing for Shabbat and the holidays.
Sometime later, the rabbi again asked Yankele how he was doing. This time his answer was very different. “You know, I really can’t complain. My shoulders ache, but I can still carry water. Thank God, I can still do my job. My children are such fine students. They are so devoted to their Torah learning. I would never want them to take time from their holy work to help me. And my wonderful wife: she cooks such delicious Shabbat and Yom Tov meals. I wish I could be even more helpful around the house. Baruch Hashem. My life is so full of blessings.”
The rebbe’s students were astounded. What accounted for this transformation? What had changed in Yankele’s life? The rabbi explained that in fact nothing at all had changed in the man’s life, but his attitude. he had taken the rabbi’s advice to see his troubles as blessings. His life changed because he chose to change his perspective. In other words, and these were not the rebbe’s exact words, he hit the reset button.
That is our opportunity tonight and in the days to come.
Some members of my family observe their birthdays according to the Jewish calendar. My brother and I share an English birthday, May 15, but were born four years apart. My brother’s birthday falls each year on Yom Y’rushalim, the 28th of Iyyar, the date that would become celebrated when Jerusalem was reunited on the 28th of Iyyar in 1967. What a wonderful day on which to celebrate a birthday. This past May I became curious about what day on the Hebrew calendar I was born four years before my brother. Just because we have the same English birthday, that does not mean we will have the same birthday on the Hebrew calendar. I discovered that although my birthday was 14 days earlier on the Hebrew calendar, it too was a day of note. The 14th of Iyar may not ring an immediate bell for you, but it happens to be Pesach Sheni. Allow me to explain. In the days of the holy Temple in Jerusalem, when the Passover offering was the major observance of Pesach, a person away on a journey or in a state of ritual impurity could not offer up the Pascal lamb on the night of the 14 of Nisan. So, the Torah created a make-up date. One month later, the 14th of Iyar. It is sort of like an getting an extension on your taxes. In other words, an opportunity exists to make up for a previous omission. Our Rosh Hashanah holiday and the concept of Teshuva is much like that. It is not too late to hit the reset button and get a do-over.
I am sure you have heard the phrase, “Would’ve, could’ve, should’ve.” On Rosh HaShanah we can put that attitude aside and instead say, “This is a new year. This year I will do things differently.” Rabbi Brad Hirschfeld wrote, “Rather than naively wishing the past away, as many new age gurus would have us do, or holding onto stubborn self-righteousness which sees change as a sign of weakness, as so many others would have us do, Rosh HaShanah celebrates the possibility of endless second chances regarding the past.”
I want to conclude with a passage from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom. He explains Teshuva this way: “Teshuva tells us that our past does not determine our future. We can change. We can act differently next time than last. If anything, our future determines our past. Our determination to grow as human beings – our commitment to a more faithful, decent life in the year to come gives us the courage and honesty to face our past and admit its shortcomings. Our Teshuva and God’s forgiveness together mean that we are not prisoners of the past, held captive by it. In Judaism sin is what we do, not who we are.”
May this Rosh HaShanah be an opportunity for all of us. May this new year be the doorway to a new life of change and blessing. AMEN.