Shaarei Shamayim

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SHEMOT 5778

SHEMOT 5778

2018 is finally upon us. Did you make any predictions about this New Year? What about last year? Did you predict at the beginning of last January what was to happen during 2017?

  • Last year a lot of people were predicting after the presidential election that 2017 would be the worst year ever. It wasn’t.
  • Did you predict that ISIS would fall in Iraq and Syria and that its caliphate would be utterly defeated?
  • Did you predict that Saudi Arabia—of all nations—would make nice with Israel as they are currently doing?
  • Did you predict that the Dow Jones in the stock market would reach over 25,000?

The future—as it turns out—is most unpredictable. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take hold of our destiny and try to build a new and better future—perhaps a future that no one would have predicted. 

Now, it seems, is the time for new beginnings. We’re beginning a new book of the Torah—Shemot or Exodus—telling the new story of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt. It’s also a new secular calendar year. Many of us use the secular calendar New Year to renew our lives and make positive resolutions for the coming year.

We make resolutions about getting more exercise. And so more people join health clubs in January than any other month. We resolve to go on a diet. So we are bombarded with commercials from Weight Watchers to Nutrisystem. Here’s someone’s recollection of their recent resolutions to lose weight:

2012: I will get my weight down below 180.

2013: I will watch my calories until I get below 190.

2014: I will follow my new diet religiously until I get below 200 pounds.

2015: I will try to develop a realistic attitude about my weight.

2016: I will work out 5 days a week.

2017: I will work out 3 days a week.

And now in 2018: I will try to drive past a gym at least once a week.

We resolve to eat healthier…to spend more time with our families…to take on a new skill…to write that book that’s always been inside us. But as Rabbi Yishmael (Mechilta de Rabbi Ishamel, HaHodesh 2) famously said: Kol hatchalot kashot (All beginnings are difficult).

The Torah (Exodus 1:8) tells us right at the opening of the Book of Exodus, at the beginning of the parsha: Vayakam melech chadash al Mitzrayim (There arose up a new king over Egypt). It was a new king with new possibilities. But, as it turns out, things went from bad to worse as he enslaved the Jews.

Soon Moses learns the difficulties of the new task he’s about to take on. Gd appears to him at the Burning Bush and commands him to go to Pharaoh to demand he set the Jewish people free. Moses then uses every excuse he can think of to try to avoid that task. He tells Gd he’s slow of speech and that the people will not believe him. But Moses has no choice. He must obey Gd and begin the task.

Reluctantly, Moses confronts Pharaoh and he immediately faces setbacks. By the end of the Torah portion, Pharaoh has made the slaves work even harder. He will no longer give them straw; they must collect their own. The slaves are now ready to rebel—not against Pharaoh, but against Moses! Moses must have felt like such a failure. The Exodus story is beginning, and as Rabbi Yishmael teaches: Kol hatchalot kashot (All beginnings are hard).

Moses had his failures. But perhaps his strength was that he didn’t allow those failures to discourage him. He kept going back to Pharaoh and trying again and again to let his people go. It took 10 terrible plagues, but in the end Moses succeeded. He brought the people from slavery to freedom. Later Moses would then have to lead them through the desert for 40 years. He often came close to giving up when he found the Jewish people extremely difficult. Surprise! But in the end, he brought the people within sight of the Promised Land. Perhaps the greatest strength of Moses was that he never gave up.

My friends, whenever we begin something new, whether it’s a new job, a new relationship or a life style change, there will be setbacks and failures. It’s so important not to give up. The British author Neil Gaiman famously wrote a piece called, “My New Year’s Wish” that has gotten a lot of attention. It’s worth quoting at length: I hope that in this year to come you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something. So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody's ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life. Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.

Yes, all beginnings are hard. In today’s Torah portion Moses begins an extremely hard task, but he persists until he succeeds. He makes mistakes and has setbacks. But he keeps going. As we begin this New Year of 2018 I hope that in the New Year you’ll begin a new project, a new life style change, a new task, a new challenge. And I hope you will persist through setbacks and failures. Rabbi Yishmael said: Kol hatchalot kashot (All beginnings are difficult). But perhaps far worse is to not begin at all. Amen!

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