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Rosh Hashana I 5783        September 26, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

We begin our new year with our traditional greeting – L’Shana Tova U’metuka, may we be blessed with a happy and sweet new year.

In his book, Capturing the Moon, Rabbi Ed Feinstein tells the story of a kingdom that everyone considered to be paradise. It was not richer or more beautiful than any other kingdom, but it was a place where everyone cared for everyone else. A neighbor would help a neighbor in need without even being asked. If a friend needed something there was always someone who would be there to help. If a stranger was in need, there were plenty of people who would step forward to help with hospitality, generosity, and kindness. 

It was all because of the King. The people of the land treated each other with kindness because that is how the King treated them. He was always careful, attentive, and helpful. Even if he couldn’t help, he listened with concern to the people’s problems. 

Alas, in time the King grew old and died and his son, the Prince took over the realm. The Prince did not act like his father at all. If he heard that people were starving, the Prince would look at the food on his table and say, “I’m sorry, but it’s just not my problem. If the ministers came and said that a river had become poisoned and the people had no water to drink, the Prince would take a drink of water from his table and say, “I’m sorry, but it’s just not my problem.” No matter what the issue was, the Prince would only say, “I’m sorry but it’s just not my problem.” 

It didn't take long before everyone in the kingdom was acting like the Prince, refusing to help anyone, no matter if it was a friend or a stranger. This land was no longer Paradise and almost nobody remembered what the country was like when it was. Except Fisherman. Fisherman remembered the old King and he was hurt that everyone was now selfish like the young Prince. Fisherman wanted to remind the people about how much better things used to be, but he was not sure how. And then one day he thought up a solution. 

He took his fishing boat and started to fix it up into a beautiful yacht. He wanted it to be the most beautiful yacht in the harbor. He worked very hard. As the work progressed, people began to stop and stare at his creation, and they asked if they could go for a ride on the yacht when it was finished. “Sure” said the Fisherman, “Everyone will be invited.” 

About a year later the work was done and Fisherman put up a sign that everyone was invited for the yacht’s first voyage. Everyone came for a ride, including the Prince. Fisherman took them out to the middle of the lake, dropped anchor and told them all to have a good time. They took out picnic lunches, they started fishing from the sides and everyone had a great time. Later in the afternoon, however the wind began to pick up and the waves started to get a bit higher, and the people were ready to go back to the harbor. Fisherman said they would return to the harbor as soon as he finished one last task. He opened his toolbox, took out a hand drill and started to drill a hole in the bottom of the boat. 

“What are you doing?” asked the people. “I am drilling a hole,” replied Fisherman. “But why?” asked the people. “Because I feel like it,” replied Fisherman. The people begged and pleaded for him to stop but he said, “It is my boat. It is my drill. I am going to drill a hole.” Finally, the people went to get the Prince to make Fisherman stop. 

At first the Prince used his princely command voice to tell Fisherman to stop. But Fisherman just kept on drilling. “Why are you doing this?” asked the Prince getting a bit more worried. “Because I feel like it.” was Fisherman’s reply. “What gives you the right to do this?” asked the panicking Prince. “It is my boat, it is my drill, I am going to make a hole, now please stop blocking my light.” The Prince began to plead, “I don’t want to drown. I don’t want to get eaten by a fish. Please, Fisherman, Please, stop!” The Prince began to cry. Fisherman stopped drilling and looked at the Prince “You don’t want the ship to sink? You don’t want to drown?” he echoed the Prince’s pleas. He then repeated the terrible words that had ruined the kingdom, “Well, I’m sorry but it’s just not my problem!”

The prince began to plead, “What do you mean that it’s not your problem? Anyone can see that if I have a problem, you have a problem. And if you have a problem then I have a problem. If anyone has a problem, then everyone has a problem because we are all in the same boat. Anyone can see that!” 

“Yes,” said Fisherman, “anyone can see that.” He stopped drilling, put his drill away and sailed back to the harbor. As everyone got off the boat, they were all changed. Never again would anyone utter those terrible words. If anyone needed help, even from the Prince, the reply would always be, “Please let me help you. Because if you have a problem, I have a problem and if I have a problem, you have a problem and if anyone has a problem then everyone has a problem, you see, we are all in the same boat.”  And once again the Kingdom was Paradise.

I honestly have to say that I never believed in my almost 40 years as a Rabbi, I would have to tell this story on Rosh Hashana. It has always been a children’s story to be told to help children be less selfish. But as COVID begins to wane as a threat to our country, what remains seems to be a country that has become more and more selfish. 

Chapter 5 of Mishna Avot – also called Pirke Avot/Ethics of the Fathers/Ancestors, is a rather odd chapter. It is all about numbers. It starts by teaching how the number 10 factors into our religion. Then it teaches where the number 7 is important. Then it teaches how the world is divided into groups of 4. Then it teaches three, then it teaches two. This is one of the teachings about the number 4: “There are four character traits among people. Those who say ‘what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours’, these are average people (although some say this was characteristic of the people of Sodom);Those who say ‘What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine” – that person is a fool; Those who say ‘What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours’ – that person is a saint; Those who say ‘what is yours is mine and what is mine is mine’ That person is a scoundrel.

Note that it is the average person who says, “what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours” but some of the rabbis compare such a person to the people of Sodom who were so selfish they would let a stranger die of starvation in the street rather than share what was theirs. You don’t have anything to eat, I’m sorry, it’s just not my problem. 

I never dreamed that during a health emergency, that some people would refuse to wear a mask citing their right to do as they pleased with their life. We could argue all day about if the government has the right to require us to wear a mask or not, but in the end the moral of the story remains the same: “Anyone can see that if I have a problem, you have a problem. And if you have a problem then I have a problem. If anyone has a problem, then everyone has a problem because we are all in the same boat.” One would think that when it comes to healthcare and the spread of disease, we could work together to protect each other. Instead, all too many people responded with those terrible words, “I’m sorry, it’s just not my problem.”

It is not just health issues either. Who are you to tell me when I can carry a gun or not? Who are you to tell me what facts of history I can teach? Who are you to tell me to reduce my carbon footprint? Who are you to tell me where I can drill for oil or where I can graze my cattle? Who are you to tell me what books I can and can’t read? Who are you to tell me what my rights are? We hear this all day long. Everyone insists on their own rights without a concern for anyone else. But in the end the moral of the story is the same: “Anyone can see that if I have a problem, you have a problem. And if you have a problem then I have a problem. If anyone has a problem, then everyone has a problem because we are all in the same boat.”

Robert Putnum 25 years ago noted that this country was moving away from the idea of community. In his 1995 essay, ‘Bowling Alone” he noted that something as simple as bowling leagues, where people came together to challenge each other, were dying. And the people who did go bowling, would bowl alone. People were not joining groups and clubs that promote trust and cooperation.

I will set this out as clearly as I can. “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh et zeh – Every Jew is responsible for each other.” We are all created in the image of God. On this holiday where we commemorate the Creation of the world, we also affirm that we are responsible for the world. Not just for the other human beings but for every aspect of creation. Rabbi Feinstein notes that when we raise a glass and say, “L’chaim” we really are not saying, “To Life.” You see, the word is in its plural form, we say “To Lives!” It reflects our understanding of being human. No life should be lived alone, in isolation. Relationships are the very essence of life.”

Sebastian Junger, in his book, “Tribe, on Homecoming and Belonging” notes that tribal life depends on trust and cooperation. The idea that we could be self-made without any help from anyone one else defies our evolution. We human beings have evolved as social animals. In order to thrive we need each other, we need relationships, and most importantly, we need to be grateful. 

The essence of being selfish is not acknowledging that we stand on the shoulders of others who have lived before us and who have helped us along. Native Americans who lived in tribes, understood what it means to be grateful for the bounties of nature. They woke up each day and offered a prayer of gratitude to some 20 or so parts of nature to which they owed their existence. They viewed each part of nature as alive and distinct. Toddlers, who are first finding their way through the world, give life to every aspect of their world. The toys are alive, the trees are alive, everything they encounter they address as if it has life, much the same world view as Native Americans. 

In her book “Braiding Sweetgrass” Dr. Robin Kimmerer notes that in her native American language, everything is animate. And they don’t identify things with nouns; they name the world with verbs. You see an apple and ask, “Who is that being?” and the answer comes back, “Apple that being is.” There are two important similarities and lessons here for us Jews that we learn from Native American culture. The first is that while it initially seems odd for us to see nature as an animate lifeform, Judaism does not see this as odd at all. Torah demands that nature have its rest, that nature needs to have a Shabbat. Perhaps this is why our Judaism insists that land remain fallow every seven years and in the 50th year it all returns to its original owners. Judaism treats the land as alive. The second lesson we learn is that while Judaism is not an animist religion, we certainly don’t worship the different aspects of nature, we do have a God whose name is a verb. It is the name that we don’t pronounce. It is a form of the word, “to be.” God is the essence of being and we while we don’t have to say 20 or more prayers of gratitude to the different parts of nature, we do say 100 blessings a day, to offer thanks to God for all that we experience here in life. 

Dr. Kimmerer is a PhD in Botany. She is also a Native American struggling to reclaim her heritage. After two generations of attempts by the United States government to wipe out Native American languages as a way to destroy their heritage, Dr. Kimmerer is part of a growing movement working to reclaim their language and reclaim their heritage. We Jews are very much like her. We too can claim the highest education levels in our area of expertise, but our education came at a price; the price of knowing who we are. Jewish Heritage depends on our knowledge of Torah and Rabbinic texts, which also require us to reclaim Hebrew, the language of our culture. We are recipients of the finest secular education available, but we know very little of what our Judaism has to teach us. We can claim a great deal of knowledge, but can we claim wisdom? 

One of the purposes of Rosh Hashana is to help us see beyond ourselves. As nature begins her transition from being alive in the summer to her “death” in the winter, we use this time to remember that at this season, God created all of the nature that surrounds us. As nature prepares for winter, we need to learn her wisdom so we too can prepare for winter. In ancient times, winter may have been the “season for hunger.” We no longer have the anxiety of our ancestors worrying whether we have stored up enough food for the winter. We have learned from the story of the life of our patriarch Joseph, about the need for store cities to prevent the mass starvation of a famine. But we have lost the relationship we once had with nature when we cared for the plants as they were growing, and they provided for us in our time of need. The extraordinary wildfires of the west in this country are only partially due to the effects of climate change. It is also a consequence of us human beings not doing our part to help a forest with controlled burns during the wet season when there is little chance of fires getting out of control. 

Our creation story about Adam and Eve instructs us to be proper stewards of the land. From the very beginning of time they (and we) were commanded to live in the garden and tend to it. Human beings are part of the community of nature. Nature was not designed to operate without human activity. Our presence is an important part of the natural world. Just look at the State of Israel. For over 2000 years, without Jews to love the land, so much of the land was reduced to desert. 75 years ago, when Jews returned to our state, for the first time in history, humans were able to reclaim desert land and to make it fertile once again.

Native American harvesters always knew to never harvest the first plants they see. They knew that nature was bountiful, and they could rely on finding another bush to harvest berries or a tree to harvest nuts. Native Americans never harvested the last bush they found, leaving those berries for someone who may be more in need than they are. Judaism teaches farmers to not harvest from a tree for the first three years and in the fourth year, to bring the “first fruits” to the Temple as an offering of thanks to God. Only then, four years after planting, can the fruit be eaten or sold. Today we think of our Judaism as an urban culture, but we still have our connection to nature. In two weeks is the holiday of Sukkot. This year may be a good year to get outside and listen again to the sounds and music of nature. It has always been a part of our religion; we have just forgotten to stop and listen to the sounds. 

Too many of us have been robbed of our heritage; forgotten the foundational stories and ignored the practices that have guided our people for generations. We have pushed it all aside believing we are already doing enough with our Judaism. 

 “Rabbi, why are you bothering us with all this Jewish Stuff? We did our time in Hebrew School. We had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. We know about the Holocaust and Anti-Semitism. We support Israel. We are sitting here on Rosh Hashana saying all the correct prayers, if not in Hebrew, we say them in English. We don’t know what you are talking about. If Judaism is in trouble, if people don’t want to come and pray on Shabbat, if people don’t want to know more about Jewish history or Jewish culture, if Jewish holidays and rituals are being ignored, it’s just not my problem.” “It’s just not my problem.”   “It’s just not my problem.”

Anyone can see that if I have a problem, you have a problem. And if you have a problem then I have a problem. If anyone has a problem, then everyone has a problem because we are all in the same boat.”

If we are here looking for God to forgive us our sins, we are in luck. Our God ALWAYS forgives sins. It is God’s nature to forgive our sins. The Machzor is not a book of magical incantations that through some mystical process makes God forgive us. The music of this day will not ensure that we will be written in the book of life. God bless our Cantor, Michelle Rubenstein who makes this service so beautiful with her voice and her music. But sitting here all day and listening to her does not change anything. The highest success my sermon can have will be if anyone will hear something I have said and talk about it over lunch. I suspect by dinnertime; everyone will have moved on. God will forgive our sins; but are we ready to be forgiven?

I hear you: “Rabbi, what do you want from us? We are here, we want to change even though that is hard work, and we may not be successful. Why are we praying? Why are we singing? Why are we reciting words in a language we barely understand? We are really trying to make this work. What are we supposed to be doing?”

My friends, my students, and yes, you are my teachers too. Fellow Jews, fellow travelers in life, fellow searchers for God… All I am asking is to not look for forgiveness/ for life/ for God up here – My hope and prayer is that you will search for God in here, in your heart, in your soul. 

The people who wrote these prayers were not lawyers or professors. I have nothing against lawyers or professors; they do important work. Our Machzor is written by poets and artists who craft words and phrases that will speak to Jews in every century, in every age. Cantor Rubenstein sings her heart out on these holidays not just so we all can sing along. She sings with the hope and prayer that maybe, just maybe, one more candle in one more heart will be set ablaze. If hearts are moved, then that is a special blessing from God. “Who is that being? Prayer that being is.”

This book with its words is not an object; it is a presence. The letters are not ink on paper; they are friends who can guide you through the forest of life. We are all immigrants in this world. It is not just that we came to this country from somewhere else keeping one foot in the old world and one foot in the new world, wanting our new life to be similar to our old life. But as immigrants wanting to become residents, we need to hear what the natives are trying to teach. We need to understand the language of nature so we can learn to live, not apart from our world, but as an integral part of our world. We need to understand the language of our heritage, so we can fulfill our responsibilities and reach our potential.

 Today we commemorate the Creation of the world. Human beings were the last of God’s creations. We were inserted as immigrants in a world where trees, plants and animals were already living, and we need to learn wisdom from all that has come before us. We need to hear the music of nature and the poetry of prayer. 

My friend and our member Lew Segal and I speak rather frequently. He is constantly amazed how I can remain an optimist in the face of all that is going wrong in our country. We both know the list of things that have gone wrong is amazingly long. But I am always an optimist. I always believe that things will get better, that crime will be punished, and God’s world will eventually turn out alright. 

The first reason I am an optimist is because I believe that being a pessimist will not make me feel any better. I will not give in to the forces of darkness. I know there is a dark side, but I also know that light will always defeat the darkness and push it back into the shadows. I also learn my optimism from the world around me. Fire may blacken thousands of acres of trees, but the trees eventually come back. It may take a while, but they always come back. Nature also faces pandemics; there are tent worms, gypsy moths, bark beetles and blight but eventually nature rebalances, and the plants overcome the attack. Farmers often spend thousands of dollars fertilizing, spraying weed killer and insecticides and irrigating crops when nature has its own system to insure the optimal growth of plants. Any good farmer will tell you that you can spray all you want for bugs but the best way to get rid of insects is to own a flock of chickens. 

I see this optimism in human activity as well. I have seen communities rally together after a tornado to rebuild what has been torn apart. I have seen people line up around the block to donate blood after a terrorist attack. I have seen acts of compassion and bravery in front of the worst odds imaginable. I have seen, during these years of COVID people risking even death to hold the hand of someone who was sick or dying. I follow the news and know all the things that are going wrong, and I have my opinions on those things as well, but I never miss an opportunity to see the good in people. And even though I have many reasons to complain to God about what is going on in the world, I spend most of my time being grateful for the good and for the beautiful that surrounds me. 

Whether we know it or not, whether we fully understand it or not, we are part of a heritage that provided the foundation for all of western civilization. Being in this world is not just about living and then dying. It is an art form, waiting for us to bring our talent and our music to the symphony that daily surrounds us. We can focus only on the pain and suffering, or we can bring our own voice to help build the harmony of nature, the harmony of life. 

We will not find more meaning in our lives if we just sit here a little longer, arriving a little earlier and praying a little harder. The meaning of these hours, the meaning of this day, the meaning of this season and the meaning of life will not come if we spend all of our time focused on what is happening in our head. We need to open our hearts to the song of nature, the song of Torah and the song of life itself. The music and our paintbrush are only waiting for us to open our eyes and our hearts. God has spread the blank canvas of a new year in front of us. It is time for us to get painting. It is time for our hearts to sing.

May God fill our palettes with all the colors of the rainbow and enable us to see the beauty of the new year as we say … Amen and L’shana Tova

Mon, February 26 2024 17 Adar I 5784