ROSH HASHANAH 1 5778
Sing Shlomo Carlebach’s Haneshama Lach v’haguf pa-alach; chusa al amalach (The soul is Yours and the body You have made. Have pity upon what You have fashioned).
Imagine you’re at home with the family and suddenly you hear a pounding on the front door: “Bang, bang, bang. Open up.” It’s the Nazis and you’re told you have a few minutes to pack a suitcase and get out. Can you imagine the fear and terror you would feel? You wouldn’t as yet know what your fate would be or where you were going. So what should you pack? What should you take with you? Irene Fogel Weiss—13 at the time—later wrote: I remember the night of the packing very well. Things went in the suitcase; things were taken out of the suitcase. In the end my mother filled it with food she had cooked and warm clothing and bedding. Then it was full. Plus we took a watch, some earrings, a wedding ring with us to exchange for food if necessary. Also a tallis and tefillin, a siddur and chumash.
We listen to such stories and it seems so long ago, so far removed from our lives. But is it really? Putting aside if we can, the utter terror of the Nazis’ systematic destruction of Jews, in just the past few weeks Jews in Houston and Florida—along with millions of others—were told to get out, evacuate without much notice. My son Joshua, in Miami Beach, had to pack up and leave. Earlier in the summer, people in California near wildfires were often told to evacuate immediately. If that—Gd forbid—would ever happen to you, what would you pack to take with you in your suitcase? What’s so important that you would never leave it behind? What’s truly valuable enough to take with you?
Other than the members of your family, you probably would take your jewelry, grab your passport, license, credit cards and money. Would you take your designer clothes or flat screen TVs? What about your photo albums—all those precious pictures so carefully saved over the years in albums before the advent of digital pictures? How about your daughter’s favorite doll or your son’s security blanket? How about a siddur and a chumash…or your tallis andtefillin…or your Chanukah menorah and Shabbos candlesticks? As Cheryl profoundly said as we watched the evacuations: “You can’t take your house with you, but you can take your home.” What you choose to take with you says a lot about who and what you are.
One of the lessons of hurricanes Harvey and Irma is that so much of the stuff we’ve been accumulating over the years is just not really important. Rabbi Abramowitz, originally from Houston, on his podcast show from Israel interviewed members of the Jewish community during the storm.
Michele Levy said: We swam over and got the blow-up boat and began rescuing neighbors on our street…My entire house and everything in it that I had just finished replacing from the last flood is destroyed. But we are alive and we’re safe and that’s what’s most important. And we’re coming together as a community to support each other.
Mindy Pollack said: Our home was flooded 3 times before this in 20 months. We had contracted to elevate our home to escape the damage of a storm. They were going to do it last Thursday, but because of the inclement weather, they put it off till this week [when Harvey showed up]! I had moved back everything into my home that we took out from the previous floods this week. We went to shul on Shabbos and the sun was out and we were all wondering why the city was closing down…Thank Gd our homes and contents are only things and maybe Hashem was trying to tell us that we don’t need all this stuff.
My dear friend and colleague, Rabbi Jory Lang, told me that his shul, Temple Beth Moshe of North Miami Beach, had significant flooding and destruction from Irma. He was told that they would not have electricity or be able to house services for Rosh Hashanah. Well, the good news is that the electricity was turned on a couple of days ago—just enough time for crews to get in and clean up.
Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah, is a time for introspection in preparation for the High Holy Days. This year we experienced so many natural disasters in this month that we can’t help but take note how shocking it all is.
- It all began with the total solar eclipse—August 21—on the eve of Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the month.
- 4 days later came Hurricane Harvey in Texas.
- 5 days after that, a deadly monsoon in Southeast Asia and India, killing over 1200, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.
- September 6thto the 11th of course was Hurricane Irma.
- September 8thMexico had an 8.4 earthquake—the strongest in over a century, killing 90 and generating a tsunami.
- September 9thHurricane Katia hit Mexico. Another earthquake followed this week.
- September 9thsaw an earthquake in Japan.
- September 10thsaw over 140 earthquakes shaking southeast Idaho where earthquakes are so rare.
What’s going on here? Is Gd trying to tell us something? Does he have a special message for us for this Rosh Hashanah as seen in the Unetaneh Tokefprayer which asks: “Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall perish by fire and who my water? Who by earthquake and who by plague?” Maimonides (Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Taanit 1:2-3) teaches, we must learn lessons from every event—especially calamities. What lessons can we learn from all these natural disasters? Perhaps it’s the lesson shared by Michele Levy and Mindy Pollack of Houston about what’s truly important.
It’s a lesson I learned from a story told to me by my mentor, Rabbi Benjamin Blech, that changed my life and gave me a profound insight into the message of Rosh Hashanah. My kids used to ask me after hearing me tell a powerful story, “Daddy is that a true story or is it a rabbi story?” This is a real story with a rabbinic message.
When Menachem Begin was Prime Minister, Israel was going through difficult economic times. People were struggling just to stay alive. There was a member of the Keneset, Shmuel Tamir, who was upset and particularly bothered that women were getting pregnant and couldn’t afford to raise their children. Rabbis were adamant that abortion was forbidden. Tamir went to Rav Arye Levin—the renowned Tzadik of Jerusalem—not so much to ask a question as much as to give the rabbi a piece of his mind. He began with the words I’ve heard many times: With all due respect. You rabbis don’t understand and aren’t sensitive to the problems people have. With all the things going on now we just can’t keep up with so many new children being born. If a woman comes to you and says she can’t handle it, you should find a way to permit her to have an abortion.
Rav Levin told him: It is fascinating that you come to me with this request. Many years ago a young couple came to me with a similar request. They already had a small child. Both mother and father were still in school and the woman became pregnant and they didn’t know how they could manage. They came to ask me if there was any legal way to terminate the pregnancy. I told them, “I feel your pain, but I must tell you ‘no.’…You have to have faith in Gd. Gd has many children and He has promised that he would support them. You have to trust in Gd that there will be a way. But the…most important reason is that child within you already has a neshama (a soul) and that soul was created for a purpose. This means that this soul was meant to live and accomplish something. If you terminate that pregnancy you do not know what you will do to the mission that this neshama was supposed to accomplish.”
Shmuel Tamir asked, “Well did they listen to you?”
“Yes they listened to me. They had the child.”
Tamir sarcastically said, “Did that child fulfill his mission?”
Rav Levin then said, “Only you can answer that. That couple who came to ask if they could have an abortion were your parents and you were the child that was subsequently born that might have been aborted!!!”
Now that’s a “wow!” Is it serendipity or the hand of Gd? Rabbi Blech teaches that this story speaks to every one of us on Rosh Hashanah with one of the most powerful ideas that Judaism gave the world, and that is: Gd created each one of us with a soul. Gd put each of us here on earth with a mission.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe was asked if it was permitted to celebrate a birthday, which—on the surface—seems like a secular celebration. His response was absolutely gorgeous. He said, “Of course one should celebrate a birthday because [and listen carefully to these words] your birthday is the day when Gd decided that the world can’t live without you.” [Repeat] You and your soul are needed because we believe that every person has a mission to fulfill during his/her lifetime. That’s why Gd brought your soul to this world. Wow! Isn’t that stunning? Never forget, my friends, that we are body and soul.
We Jews make a lot of blessings. There’s a bracha for everything—even, according to Fiddler on the Roof, a blessing for the Tsar and a sewing machine. It’s a way of living that constantly acknowledges and expresses gratitude for the many blessings Gd showers upon us. Only 2 of these blessings are commanded from the Torah: the Birkat Hamazon, the blessing after meals and Birkat HaTorah, the blessing for the study of Torah. Why just these 2?
The answer is because we are made up of 2 things: body and soul. Gd gives us physical food for the body and spiritual food for the soul—the Torah. Yehudah Halevy asked, “Why do Jews pray 3 times a day—Shacharit, Mincha and Maariv?” It’s simple. Just as your body needs food 3 times a day, your neshama needs spiritual food the same way. Your soul needs to be nourished just as your body does.
And as you do the things to nourish your soul, bring it to every part of your life. Rabbi Naomi Levy of California suggests: Bring soul to your relationships and you will learn the meaning of intimacy. Bring soul to your house and you will come to understand what home is. Bring soul into your heart and you’ll experience a depth of love you never knew was inside you—a love that will lead you to acts of kindness and selflessness. Bring soul to your fears and you will learn courage. Bring soul to your conscience and you will burn with a passion to help people you’ve never even met—even if they live in Houston or Florida. So yes, do the things you know you need to do to nourish your soul.
There are people walking around—they’re alive, but they’re not alive. They’re lacking a will to live, a reason to live, a purpose. More than pleasure, we need purpose. 70% of Americans take at least 2 prescriptions a day. Most of those are for coping with depression—the will to live. Something is wrong. We have so much. Whatever you want you can ask Alexa or Siri and have it delivered to your doorstep. But what is your goal in life? What is your mission, your purpose? Ask that of people and they don’t know. We need a purpose in our lives. Our souls are parched and thirsty and starving for meaning.
Harvey and Irma taught us that we don’t really need all the material things, the stuff we have. They’re nice, but not necessary. We can see them float away down the drain and still find meaning and purpose and have a good life.
What does it mean to have a good life? Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik taught that the 1st time a word is used in the Torah gives it its ultimate meaning. The word tov (good) is 1st used in the creation story Gd where refers to His creations—the sun, moon, earth, heavens, vegetation, the animals—as tov(good). In what way are they good? Gd saw that they fulfilled their mission. And when something fulfills its mission and purpose it is good. And therefore, when is our life good? When are we good? When we fulfill our mission and our purpose.
What is our mission and how do we know what that is? Our mission is defined by our talents. Our mission is defined by what gifts Gd gives us and also by what He doesn’t give us. Now Gd didn’t give me the gift of being an artist or being a professional ball player—except maybe this year I could play for the Braves. I can’t draw; I can’t play ball; I can’t do this and I can’t do that.
What can I do? Gd says to me, “You know how to teach Torah, so that’s what you’re supposed to do.” Every one of you here today was given a mission and your job on Rosh Hashanah is to say to yourself, “What can I do in this New Year to make a difference?” You don’t have to be a rabbi or in the public realm. Don’t settle for being a good father/mother, be a great father/mother. Be a great friend. Be someone who contributes to the community, who volunteers. Help in the shul and/or a hospital or a nursing home. Raise funds for the people who suffered the hurricanes of Irma and Harvey. Every one of you is good at something. Every one of you was created with a talent, a mission. Every one of you can make a difference—helping to perfect this world. And every one of you—for a moment in your lives—can do something to be there for someone in need.
If you say to me that you have no talents, I say to you that you have a talent for diminishing yourself. You’re dismissing Gd who thought you worthy enough to bring you into this world. As I am fond of telling you every year, Yom Kippur is mostly about confessing our sins and asking for forgiveness. Rosh Hashanah, on the other hand, is for us to consider who we could be, and what we can accomplish and with that to renew ourselves in the coming year.
At 32, Mark Zuckerberg is the youngest of the world’s 10 richest people, worth over the $60 billion. Is there anything he lacks? What is Zuckerberg praying for today on Rosh Hashanah? At a Harvard graduation ceremony we heard the answer. He emphasized the notion that life only has meaning when it’s filled with purpose. A purposeful life can be achieved without wealth; its foundation is built on the causes for which we exert our efforts. And to back that up, he has pledged to give away 99% of his fortune. “Every one of us has a purpose,” he said, “a way in which we can in some small measure change the world.”
“One of my favorite stories” Zuckerberg told the graduates, “is when John F Kennedy visited the NASA space center, he saw a janitor carrying a broom and he walked over and asked what he was doing. The janitor responded: Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”
“Every one of us,” Zuckerberg impressed upon the graduates, “has a purpose, a mission in life, a way in which we can in some small measure change the world and leave a lasting legacy.”
My friends, our souls are starving. We have the kind of things in our time that should make us joyously happy—things that were unimaginable in earlier times like air conditioning, cars, a year-round variety of foods, advance medicine, TVs, computers, etc. But we’re not as happy as we should be because our souls—with all that we have—are starving.
Ellen DeGeneres taught us the power of taking a selfie at the Oscars a few years ago. Rosh Hashanah teaches us the importance of taking what we could call a “soulfie,” where we take a good look—not so much as what is around us—but what is within us and how we are nurturing our souls. To that end ask yourself today on Rosh Hashanah 3 things:
- What has my soul been trying to say to me?
- What activities and experiences nourish my soul that I don’t do enough of?
- What does my soul want me to reach for?
The answers to these questions will deepen and enrich our year and our lives. If we can learn to take such a soulfie, it will transform our lives.
Let end by asking you again. If you only had a few minutes to pack a suitcase and evacuate, what would you take with you? One of the lessons of hurricanes Harvey and Irma is that so much of the stuff we’ve been accumulating is just not important. My advice? Take the things that feed your soul, strengthen your connection with Gd and help you fulfill your mission and purpose: your family pictures, the siddur you pray with, the chumash you learn Torah from, the candlesticks you make Shabbos with…you fill in the blanks, but make it purposeful.
We are the only people that don’t say “Happy New Year,” but Shana Tova, “Have a good year.” Happy is good, but good is better because it comes from fulfilling one’s mission and purpose and brings with it a genuine simcha—real happiness—that physical pleasure could never achieve. I wish all of you the ultimate happiness in the New Year as you discover your mission and fulfill your purpose. Amen!
Sing Shlomo Carlebach’s Haneshama Lach v’haguf pa-alach; chusa al amalach (The soul is Yours and the body You have made. Have pity upon what You have fashioned).