Sermon: Rosh Hashanah 5772 by Rabbi Joe Blair

Rosh Hashanah 5772

Rabbi Joe Blair
The Hope of the Year

Shalom, and Gut Yontif. I am pleased to be here with all of you tonight/today, gathered as a community to welcome the new year together.
We have lived through another full year, a year complete with both good and bad, happy and sad, successe and failures, and I am both pleased and comforted to be able to say that we have been there for each other as a community. In some ways 5771 was a difficult year, though there were good things that took place. Nonetheless, that year is now over, used up, and done.
Tonight/Today we are gathered to look forward, bidding that spent year farewell, turning our thoughts and attention to the year that is now before us – a fresh, clean year, and an opportunity to begin anew to write the story of our lives.
Just as, when we were children, we began each new school year with a new empty notebook, ready, waiting, and calling for us to write in it, today/tonight we are poised with our pencils sharpened, looking at the first page which is still blank, clean and gleaming white, and waiting for us to lower the pencil to the page and to begin.
This is seen as a time of hope, of promise, and opportunity. A time for renewal, and for new beginnings, a shining moment, unsullied and fresh – brand new start! What a gift it seems!
Like a child with a new toy we have longed for, we sit and look at it in wonder and joy, just taking it in. But soon, all too soon, we will succumb to the urgent desire to play with that toy, or we will be pushed into opening it by someone well-meaning…. And then we will open the packaging and take it out with anticipation and pleasure, and perhaps, some of us, even with great care. It is new and shiny and perfect - we don’t want to mar it, or dirty it, or (G-d forbid!) break it!
So we handle it gingerly, not wanting to spoil it…. And yet….. no matter what we may want to do, we cannot leave it in the wrapper unopened, untouched. We will open it, and handle it, and even as we use it, grow close to it and love it.
Inevitably, it will become dirty and scuffed, and perhaps a little damaged, or even broken. And then at one moment on a day soon enough we will see that it is no longer new and shiny and clean and perfect – and we may feel a bit sad that the perfection has been marred, and feel that we failed to protect and preserve it.
But that is not something to regret, nor a failure! Instead, those are the marks of living – showing that we engage with and use that ‘toy’, and in our using it, it becomes marked and scratched and dented and dirty – because it has become our favorite toy, one we cannot live without. Those marks are the sign that we are alive and engaged. They are a sign of the efforts, the failures and successes, and the hope for the future in our lives. An unsullied toy bespeaks a denial of life – of leaving it in the wrapper and not engaging with it.
But the secret is that this holiday season is not about getting a shiny new toy. The real message of the holiday is not that we become someone else or are magically transformed into someone else, someone who has never made a mistake or who has only made good decisions and acted justly; not that we are made over and as if just born, nor that our lives begin anew. Unlike the idea of receiving a new toy, our lives are not replaced by something else that has just come from the factory or the store. Our lives continue, accumulating more dents, and scratches, and scuffs, and marks as we go forward.
No, instead it is a time that we are given an even greater gift than a shiny new toy; we are given hope.
Rosh Hashanah, the Yamim Nora’im, and Yom Kippur are collectively a time when we can pause and take stock, evaluate our ‘old toy’, and decide how to use it going forward. It is a time to pause, consider and reflect, and to redirect ourselves for the future – to appreciate our ‘toy’ and to determine how we will use it from here on.
The hope we are given is not in a fresh clean start, but in our ability to choose going forward. The gift of choice is what frees us. By exercising our free will, we can ‘play with our toys’ in ways that will bring out the best in them (and in us).
These holidays bring with them a call to conciousness, as we say in the Shofar service, to ‘awake, you sleepers!’ We must be awake, aware, and conscious to be able to see that we are confronted by a choice. When we know that we have a choice, we can also know that how we choose will shape not only that moment and the immediate events, but potentially, all of our coming year; our relationships, our sense of who we are - now and who we can become - and therefore, our future and our entire life.
How do we know that this is what we are to do? We read it just last week, in Parashat Nitzavim, Dev. 30:11-14, 19-20.
“Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too difficult/baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life – if you and your offspring would live – by loving the Eternal your God, heeding God’s commands, and holding fast to [God]. For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that the Eternal swore to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to them.”
“Choose Life!” It couldn’t be any clearer.
So we see that we are not only given the option, we are commanded to choose, stated in an imperative form!
What that says to me is that G-d wants us to choose. It is up to us to do so, and we determine what we choose. If we choose well, we choose for life and blessing. And the holidays are given us to call us to make a choice.
But make no mistake: we don’t get to make one choice and all is determined forever. No, instead, it is a constant process, a series of choices, one after the other, cascading out through the year. Lots of choices, small and large. And one of the things that gives me great hope, and the courage to make choices, is that in most cases, no single choice is likely to determine everything that follows. Even if I blow it at one moment, it is likely that I can recover and continue to move forward in future choices. It is not ‘all or nothing’. As a fallible human being, that is among the most comforting things I can imagine. I know that I have made many errors in my life, and it is likely that I will make many more. However, so long as I can learn from them, and choose to avoid the same mistakes again, I am moving forward, although it may be by fits and starts. That is the hope that is renewed at this time of year, the promise of the holiday season.
May we each have the ability to look at ourselves and see what needs to be improved in our life, find the courage to make choices that will lead to those improvements, and have the strength to carry out the choices that we make. May this process bring each of us renewed hope and many blessings in the year to come.
Ken Yehi Ratzon – may it be so. And let us say, Amen.