This is the 1st Shabbos in the month of Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah. It’s no small coincidence that we always read on the 1st Shabbos in Elul this Torah portion of Shoftim which begins (Deut. 16:18): Shoftim v’shotrim titeyn l’cha (Judges and police officers shall you appoint for yourself). The Sages note that the Hebrew word l’cha (for yourself) is written in the singular. Commentators like the Toldos Yaakov and the Sfas Emes learn from this that each of us should judge and police ourselves with the understanding that our actions have consequences. It’s a perfect teshuva repentance message as we prepare for Rosh Hashanah—the Day of Judgment.
Teshuva is the main theme these days leading up to the High Holy Days. If your life is not quite right…if life seems superficial, lacking in meaning or just plain confusing as to the direction it’s taking…then doing teshuva, reviewing your life and figuring out a way to do better is a must! To help us in this task I would like to share with you a powerful teshuva story. I had clipped it out of Newsweek a few years ago while it was still a regular magazine and before I cancelled my subscription for its anti-Israel bias. The story is from their “My Turn” column, called, “Changing My Name After 60 Years,” by a man whose name is now Tom Rosenberg:
My parents left Nazi Germany in l938, when I was 6, and my mother was pregnant with my sister. They arrived in America with a lot of baggage, guilt over deserting loved ones, anger over losing their home, business and a lifelong fear of anti-Semitism.
Shortly thereafter, whether out of fear, a desire to assimilate or a combination of both, they changed our family name from Rosenberg to Ross. My parents were different from the immigrants who landed on Ellis Island and had their names changed by an immigrant bureaucrat. My father and mother voluntarily gave up their identity and a measure of pride for an Anglicized name.
Growing up a German-Jewish kid in the Bronx in the 1940s, a time when Americans were dying in a war fought in part to save Jews from the Nazis, was difficult. Even my new name failed to protect me from bigotry. The neighborhood bullies knew a Jew when they saw one…I spent much of my youth denying my roots and vying for my peers’ acceptance as Tom Ross. Today I look back and wonder what kind of life I might have led if my parents had kept our family name.
In the 50s, I doubt if Tom Rosenberg would have been accepted, as I was, as a pledge by Theta Chi, which was a predominantly Christian fraternity at my college…Tom Rosenberg might have married a Jewish woman, stayed in the East and maintained closer ties to his Jewish family.
As it was, I moved west to San Francisco. Only after I married and became a father did I begin to acknowledge my Jewish heritage.
My first wife, a liberal Methodist, insisted that I stop running away from Judaism. For years, we attended both a Unitarian church and a Jewish Temple…As a family with 3 kids, we celebrated Christmas and also went to temple on the High Holidays. But even though my wife and I were careful to teach our kids tolerance, their exposure to either religion was minimal…
So last year, when I decided to tell my children that I was legally changing my name back to Rosenberg, I wondered how they would react…I explained that the kind of discrimination and stereotyping that still exist today had made me rethink the years that I’d spent denying my family’s history, years that I’d been ashamed to talk about with them. The present political climate, the initiatives attacking social services for immigrants, bilingual educative, and affirmative action, made me want to shout out, “Hey, I’m an immigrant too!” My children were silent for a moment before they smiled, leaned over and hugged me…
The rabbi at the synagogue to which I now belong with my 2nd wife suggested that I go one step further. “Have you ever thought of taking a Hebrew 1st name?” he asked.
He must have seen the shocked look on my face. I wondered, is he suggesting that I become more religious, more Jewish?…It took me a moment to grasp the significance of what the rabbi was proposing. He saw my name change…as an opportunity for me to renew my commitment to Jewish ideals. I realized it was also a way to give my kids the sense of pride in their heritage that they had missed out on as children.
A few months later, I stood at the pulpit, in front of an open, lighted ark, flanked by my wife and the rabbi. Before me stood my children, holding their children…And this is what I said. “Every time I step into a synagogue, I am reminded that Judaism has survived for…4,000 years. It has survived because it is a positive religion. My parents, your grandparents, changed their name, out of fear. I am changing it back, out of pride. I hereby choose the name, Tikvah, because it means hope.”
When I came to the last line of Tom Rosenberg’s essay, I felt a chill go right through me. Hatikva (The Hope) is the anthem of the Jewish people. Despite all the ample reasons for despair right now in Jewish communities throughout the world and Israel, Jews remain hopeful. Without tikvah (hope) we might as well give up.
Would anyone have predicted if they had met Tom Ross when he was growing up in the Bronx, or when he was writing his novel in San Francisco, or when he was intermarried and attending services at a Unitarian church, that he would someday become Tom Rosenberg once again, or that at the age of 68, he would choose a new Hebrew name, the name of Tikvah?
And yet it happened. And it happens over and over again in every generation. Theodore Herzl was almost out of Jewish life, and then came the shock of anti-Semitism at the Dreyfus trial he was covering as a journalist, and he came back in to become the father of modern Zionism.
Franz Rosensweig was at the door of a church, planning to convert. He decided to go to the 1st synagogue he could find to say farewell to Judaism. It just happened to be Yom Kippur …and something magical happened that day, inside that little shtieble of a synagogue. When he saw men and women praying with such devotion and tears, he realized that he didn’t have to convert from Judaism in order to find Gd…and that if he did not have to, then he must not.
The Midrash (Lekach Tov Devarim 26:5) asks, “Why was Israel redeemed from Egypt?” And one of the answers which it gives is: Shelo shinu et sh’mam, “That they did not change their names.” Mitzrayim (Egypt) literally means, “narrow places” from the word tzar (narrow), and it also means “trouble places” as in the expression tzuris (troubles). Will we be worthy of being redeemed from our own narrow places, our own places of trouble when life gets hard? Will we be worthy of being redeemed from an Egypt of materialism and the superficiality of the social media world…or the paganism of opioid abuse, sex abuse and violence? Perhaps we will be worthy of being redeemed when we reclaim our names and our heritage.
Stranger things have happened. Elul marks the beginning of the season for doing teshuva (repentance). The simplest definition of teshuva that I know is what I once saw on a billboard: “Gd permits U-turns.” Yes, Gd permits U-turns anyplace and anytime. That’s teshuva—coming back to where you’re supposed to be!
That’s what Tom Ross, whose name is now Tikvah Rosenberg did. May the tikva, the hope and pride he gave us inspire us to learn from his example this month of Elul as we approach the New Year. Amen!