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Rosh Hashana I 5784        September 16, 2023

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom and L’shana Tova U’metuka – Shabbat Shalom and May we all be blessed with a Good and Sweet New Year

As a historian, I have always been fascinated by Time. Historians get to watch the wheels of time turn, as we humans repeat age after age the lessons of life we refuse to learn. Even when we learn our lessons, it takes only a generation or two to forget them and start the cycle all over again. We like to think of Historical Time as a straight line, but many Indigenous people see time as a circle; we are always circling back to where we have once been. 

As a rabbi I have had a weird connection to time. Rabbis don’t live in time like everyone else does. We live in the past, the present, and the future all at once. We talk about God who is beyond space and time and try to see the universe from God’s point of view. We have to make decisions about how to practice our Judaism taking the past, the present, and the future into account. Rabbis are both time bound and timeless all at the same time.

As I approach my retirement. I also have begun to see time differently. Those who are already retired know this kind of time very well. Those of us who still live in the world of work/life balance have no idea what retirement time looks like. I have spent much of the past two years trying to understand what time looks like when one has retired and the closest I have come is a comparison to the time I went off to college. All of life is stretching in front of you, full of possibilities and choices, and there is the challenge and the anxiety that comes from time when it is wide open like this. 

At the beginning of a year, a religious year or a secular year, we all have to confront time. I always smile when I see the caricatures of time as either an old man or a young baby. I understand the symbolism; the old year has made us old and grey, and the new year is full of excitement and possibilities. I often tell the story of two sages standing on a hilltop overlooking a harbor. There are two ships in that harbor, one setting sail and the other returning to port. For the outbound ship, there are celebrations on the wharf as the ship casts off its lines and leaves the harbor. For the inbound ship there are only a few dock hands to meet it and tie it securely to its berth. The sages on the hill, watching the scene unfold were puzzled by all the activity. All those people celebrating the voyage that is beginning and yet no one on that dock knows what dangers lie in wait for the ship once it leaves the safety of the harbor. And yet, here in the harbor is the ship that has successfully navigated all the dangers of the high seas and returned safely to port; that should be the reason to celebrate. 
While babies and New Years may be exciting, we need to take a close look at the year that is ending. We do need to examine what we learned in the past year and what we SHOULD have learned in the past year. Sometimes only by looking back can we understand how we can move forward. We should be sitting here wondering why, for the past four weeks, we have not been considering how much we have grown in the past year, not only taller or wider, but also how much we have matured. What do we know today that we did not know or pay attention to before? What have we learned in the past year? Did we read more books, did we take new courses, did we study new things? Did we learn from our mistakes? What about our sins in the past year? In synagogue we can think about not just mistakes but things we knew were wrong or should have known were wrong. What did we learn from our sins that might convince us to never go down that path again? These are all important considerations that take more than just a few hours on Rosh Hashana to contemplate. Jewish tradition gave us all last month to ponder these questions but if you missed that opportunity, fear not. We are permitted to examine our life every day so that we can live better lives. It is never too late for teshuva, never too late to turn our lives around. 

The questions we ask ourselves – actually - are the easy part of entering the new year. The difficulty comes in how we analyze the answers. What makes a “good decision?” What makes a decision “bad”? How can we know if we made a mistake or not? How do we measure what we learned or did not learn in the past year? What exactly constitutes a sin? How do we know that it is a sin? If a good life is learned only by tradition, how do we know that we received the tradition correctly, and that the lessons have not been corrupted over time.?

As Jews, we answer such questions using the 3000 years of experience that comes to us through Jewish history. We Jews have experienced over the millennia just about everything life could throw at us. We also have one other source of information, one that is not bound by time or space; the instructions that were given to us by God in the Torah. Unlike any other book that has ever been published, the Torah uses life itself to help guide us through the dangers of the world. Rabbi David Wolpe, the Rabbi Emeritus of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, reminded us in a recent interview that we should always look into the Torah, for all of life and all experiences can be found there.

I have been around for enough time to know that people today are not inclined to find the answers of life in the Torah, or for that matter, in religion at all. If we look to the right wing perspective of life, religious answers are set in fundamentalist stone, without any real connection to what life is all about today. in the left side perspective of life, religion is the reason for all the troubles that the world has endured. All of the great disasters of world history can be traced to belief in God and in religion. Each side claims that my understanding of God is right, and your understanding is not just wrong but harmful to the entire planet. It is better to kill others than to prevent the possible spread of heresy. 

We human beings are very clever animals. I know from my own experience what Rudyard Kipling was saying in his poem, “IF” when he wrote: “If you can bear to hear the words you’ve spoken, twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, and stoop to build ‘em up with worn out tools.”  There are people out there, wicked knaves who would twist the words of religion, the truth that it speaks, twisting them to make a trap so fools would think all of religion is invalid. I live in a world of interfaith where all religions speak the same language of compassion, justice, and peace. All of them, Islam (yes Islam), Christianity, and Judaism, as well as the eastern religions, are still standing to this very day because no matter how people may want to warp their teachings to expand their own personal power, the essence of faith stays firm and foundational. People can get along with each other through acts of kindness, understanding and seeing in each other the divine image of God. We can say that religion is old and out of date if we want. We can say that the Torah has not kept up with the times. But that is just our own wishful thinking. Just this year, the rules of travel on Shabbat were discussed in the age of electric cars. Rabbis contemplated what Shabbat might be like if it didn’t require burning fossil fuels.
Certainly, things and situations change in life. But to this Historian Rabbi, they don’t change as much as we would think that they change. There is much that is different in our world than the world of the medieval peasant, but there is even more that is the same. Farmers still farm, builders still build, hearts are still filled with love, and hearts still are broken. Children have to be raised, parents must be honored, the sick still need our care, and mourners need our comfort. Life does not need to be so hard if we can learn the lessons of the Bible, to love our neighbor like ourselves, to pursue Justice, to seek peace, and to show compassion and kindness to others. We still get married and divorced, we still go to work and wish for an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. We still want our justice, blind and our taxes fair. All of this is in the Bible, and it turns out that the Bible is not as out of date as one might think. 

That old man who represents the past year, he has a lot of wisdom that he carries. The old woman who shares her stories has knowledge of life she wants to pass on to the next generation, if only we would listen. Parents and teachers have unique understandings of our world, but we need to make the time, we need to take the time, to listen to the words they share. We don’t listen to this wisdom because the modern world demands our attention. The modern world wants us distracted by shiny new toys, so we can forget the past and repeat our mistakes, so that we can be scammed again and again. It is true that the Torah forbids us to worship idols. An idol, however, does not need to be made of clay or stone. Idolatry is when we worship something that is not God; when we chase after what is new instead of finding our purpose in the lessons of the past. We think that values are disposable and forget the morality that arises from our shared humanity. 

The late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britian, in his book on morality, recalled the experience of 9/11 and the terror it created. All planes were ordered from the sky on that dark day in our history. Thirty-eight planes, carrying almost seven thousand people from ninety- seven different nations, all were forced to land at Gander International Airport that day. The story of how that small town responded has been recorded in many books and in a musical play, “Come From Away.” Do you know their story? It was a major humanitarian effort by a small town in Canada. The passengers were exhausted; they had no idea what was going on. They sat on their planes for twenty-eight hours straight while all kinds of security checks were made on them and on their luggage. They had no idea where they were or how to get in touch with family. What they encountered was the good people of Gander, people of the town who had a feast prepared for them. Striking bus drivers gave up the strike to get the people to the shelters they needed. People opened their homes to strangers. They were given showers, fresh clothing, toiletries. Restaurants served free food. Formula was provided for the babies.  They were given free use of telephones to contact family all over the world. A map was posted so the people could see where they were. Televisions were set up so the passengers could see the news as it developed. For over a week, the passengers stranded in Gander not only got food and shelter, but they got psychological support and human warmth. Jim DeFede in his book, “The Day the World Came to Town” wrote, “For the better part of a week, nearly every man, woman, and child in Gander and the surrounding smaller towns stopped what they were doing so they could help. They placed their lives on hold for a group of strangers and asked for nothing in return. They affirmed the basic goodness of man at a time when it was easy to doubt such humanity still existed.”

In our time, pessimism is what sells advertising space on social media and cable news. A woman who hands out sandwiches to the victims of a fire in Maui is ignored, but a robbery is front page news. Politicians want us to be angry that the other side has not done enough for you in your life, but when something good happens, they put their name on it even if they voted against it. You might hear about fires and tragedies in New York City, but you have never heard of my daughter and her colleagues, who volunteer at the American Red Cross, even during the COVID pandemic, they hand out vouchers to those displaced by disaster to make sure they have a safe place to sleep. 

A couple of weeks ago this story appeared in my email as a “Jewel Of Elul,” a lesson to consider as we think about our life as a year comes to an end. Aoman Boum, wrote about “An Oasis Within.” This is part of what he wrote:

“A few years ago, I traveled, as I have done every year, to my natal oasis Lamhamid in Southern Morocco’s Anti-Atlas Mountains, accompanied by my second-grade daughter. Her childhood curiosity questioned the absence of homeless people in our poor village, in contrast to affluent Los Angeles where we currently reside. The desert nurtures community, I told her – we all need each other. Growing up, I experienced community as an ethic of care: families shared dates and tea while Muslims watched over the Jewish cemeteries of their erstwhile neighbors. As I left my oasis and moved across the world, I carried this ethic of care within, eventually making my professional calling the study of Jewish-Muslim relations.
We think our wealthy country is the best in the world, but a small oasis in the Moroccan desert can teach us that all of life is a desert and we need to watch out for each other in order for all of us to survive.”

What are we to do with all these lessons from our past? from the good people who acted with kindness, to the story of Abraham who welcomed strangers into his tent in the heat of the day? Our liturgy for these holy days teaches us how we are to understand our past and what we can do about it other than to feel guilty and be filled with regret. In just a few minutes more into our service, we will see how our faith helps us understand and live with our past. 

I had the opportunity to study with Rabbi Dr. Reuven Kimmelman, a professor who, over the years, has helped me see how deep a prayer can be. He taught, just a few weeks ago, a lesson in Unetane Tokef, one of the well-known central prayers of the High Holy Day liturgy. Dr. Kimmelman taught that he thinks the prayer was once an introduction to a later part of the Musaf prayers, the introduction to the Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofrot service because he sees elements of all three in the text. But it was moved to the beginning because of its message. It teaches that on Rosh Hashana it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. What is sealed? The decisions we made in the past year and the fate that those decisions will lead us to. The first five punishments are about life and death, long life or a life cut short, how our lives might come to an end. But the second five, God has to decide what might be appropriate. Who will be at peace and who troubled, who serene and who disturbed, who tranquil and who tormented, who impoverished and who will become wealthy, who will be brought low and who raised up? While the fate of the world lies in God’s hands, it is our decisions about how we lived our life that is being judged. But it turns out, other than life and death, which after all, are pretty final; the other five can be mitigated. How can we change our past/ The prayer goes on to tell us, “Teshuva, Tephilla and Tzedaka mitigate the pain of the judgement.

What is Teshuva? At this time of year, we all know what teshuva is; it is turning our life around and returning to the life we want to live. Our past decisions have taken us astray and we need to return to the proper path. Teshuva is all about change and it begins in the mind. We have to recognize that we are not where we want to be; we need to make up our mind to change, to do something different, to go back and repair the damage that we might have done, and then become determined to walk on the proper path. 

What is Tephilla? Tephilla is prayer. Making up our mind to be different is not enough. Recently a woman I know despaired that Yom Kippur would come, and she would find herself repenting for the same things she repented for last year, and the year before that as well. She tried to change, but here she was, back in the same place again for another year. I understand her plight. I have worked with addicts and alcoholics who know all about wanting to change but being unable to change. The first of the twelve steps to beating their addictions is to admit that they are powerless to change and that they will need God’s help to make a difference. They commit to giving their lives over to God to find the strength and the commitment to really change. This system applies to all of us. We can’t make the really important changes alone. We need God’s help. The best way to get God to help us is to ask for help. Years ago, I came across this prayer:
I Didn't Have Time, by Grace L. Naessens
I got up early one morning And rushed right into the day!
I had so much to accomplish That I didn't have time to pray.
Problems just tumbled about me, And heavier came each task.
"Why doesn't God help me?" I wondered. God answered, "You didn't ask!"
I tried to come into God's presence; I used all my keys at the lock.
God gently and lovingly chided, "Why, child, you didn't knock!"
I wanted to see joy and beauty, But the day toiled on, gray and bleak.
I wondered why God didn't show me. God said, "But you didn't seek."
I woke up early this morning, And paused before entering the day.
I had so much to accomplish That I had to take time to pray!

Tephilla is about words. The words we use to ask for help. The words we use to repair the feelings that have been broken. The words we need to use to find our way forward in the world. Sometimes just saying the words will make all the difference. Sometimes just hearing our own words can help us learn the real path to real change in our lives. Prayer is not about asking for miracles. Prayer is about God helping us understand our world better so we can live better lives within it. 

Finally, we can mitigate the pain of judgement with Tzedaka. What is Tzedaka? We like to think of it as charity, but that is only a simplistic explanation of what Tzedaka is all about. We can make up our mind to change and we can ask God to help us change, but the real change comes in our interactions with others. Human beings are social animals. This does NOT mean we need to spend more time on social networks. Social networks are neither social nor real networks. It is a way to spend more and more time alone, never really having to interact with anyone or anything besides a computer. Social networks are just a way of interacting without any filters. This is why the companies that bring you social networks fight so hard to keep the posts unfiltered. The more we are unfiltered, the more advertising they can sell. 

Real communication requires us to actually interact with each other. Tzedaka is more than just putting money or a sandwich into someone else’s hand. Tzedaka requires our hand and our heart. In this quote from our mahzor, it says tzedakah is what is required, but the Machzor really is referring to hesed, to get beyond money and to bring  kindness into all our interactions. We know this is the correct substitution because in the Talmud, Massechet Sukkot, 49b we learn: “Our Rabbis taught: Deeds of loving kindness (Hesed) are superior to plain Tzedaka in three respects. Tzedaka can be accomplished only with money; deeds of Hesed can be accomplished through personal involvement as well as with money. Tzedaka can be given only to the poor, Hesed can be done for both the rich and the poor. Tzedaka applies only to the living, Hesed applies to both the living and the dead.”  
We can’t turn our lives around alone. We need other people. We need the help of others, we need the support of others, we need the love of others to live a truly full life. The power of friendship is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. The connections we make with others make us better and stronger. I have met many cancer survivors who tell me that they never would have made it without their friends’ encouragement. I tell them that the only way to have a friend is to BE a friend. If we have good friends, in the end it is our own fault. No one can read our mind, and no one can know the relationship we have with God, but our reputation is built on the deeds we do with others. 

We stand on the edge of a new year. We can’t change our past. What is done, is done and it is part of our history. But we can learn the lessons of the past and through those lessons do better in the year ahead. These lessons teach us first of all not to repeat a mistake we have made. We are not doomed to repeat our history. We can regret our past only as a way to encourage ourselves to do better. People joke about Jewish guilt, but guilt will never help us be better. We can brood over past mistakes but feeling bad about the past will not change anything. It is only through Teshuva, Tephilla and Tzedaka, through mind, God, and deed that we can turn our lives around and turn our sins into blessings. This is the power of Rosh Hashana. This is the power of these Days of Awe. We learn from our time in synagogue that while God does judge us, God does not judge us with strict justice. God knows we are human, and God is merciful. 

May God give us this New Year, a year that can really make a difference, not only in our own lives but with our family, with friends, and with the entire world. May God help us see that we are more than just our past when we turn our sins into blessings and thus rise above who we were, to the heights of where we can be. 

May we all be blessed with a Shana Tova U’veracha, a good and blessed New Year as we say … Amen and L’shana Tova and Shabbat Shalom.
Mon, April 15 2024 7 Nisan 5784