Finding Meaning, Finding My Path Sermon by Rabbi Joe Blair Rosh Hashanah 5775 (September 2014)

Gut Yontiff!

I am glad to be here with you today to share the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of a new year in the Jewish calendar cycle.

It is a time, we are told, of awe at the immensity of the divine and our own smallness in comparison, and of what is translated as ‘fear’ at the sense that we are observed and seen and evaluated by that divine being. And yet, it is also a time of looking forward with happy anticipation. Each year when we reach this holiday we are given the gift of another opportunity at a reset, a sense of openings, and a fresh start.

Of course, in order to experience that blessed sense of hopefulness, we have to invest in our self. We are required to do the hard work of self-examination and self-evaluation; to see honestly what we have been and done, and to measure it against the yardstick of our self-expectations and the image of our ideal self.

It is a truism that two things are necessary. First, if you don’t know where you are and where you have been, you can have no idea about how to move to another place. Second, if you have no direction and don’t know where you are headed, it doesn’t matter what path you take or what choices you make.

Only when we know where we are now, and where we are headed, can we map out the path and choose those things to work on that will help us along the way.

So at this point, I hope that you have had a productive period of self-examination and self-evaluation – that which we call a Cheshbon Hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. With the information and self-knowledge you gained in that process, you are prepared to look forward and strive to be your best self.

Armed with that information, it seems to me that we are prepared to address three questions that together may help us to seek to answer a larger question.

To frame this conversation, I would like to remind you of the Torah story that we read for this holiday. It is the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. In it, G-d decides to test Abraham, and tells him to bring his beloved son Isaac to a place G-d will indicate for a sacrifice, and offer him up. Abraham does this, bringing Isaac, who asks at one moment what will be sacrificed, and is given an ambiguous answer. The two (and the two servants) walk on together, Abraham and Isaac as one, arriving at this place, and then Abraham proceeds to prepare to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham is stopped by an angel (a malach or messenger), and directed to offer instead a ram caught in a thicket. Then, we read, Abraham returns home. No mention of Isaac. ….

Turning to the questions raised here.

1. What makes life worth living for you? In other words, what gives purpose and meaning to what you do?

What is it that motivates you? What is it that you value? How do you measure success and self-worth? For some it is all about money, or acclaim and fame. For many it is respect and acknowledgement of their worth. I would suggest that for most of us it is love and belonging – belonging to family, to community, and sometimes to larger things or groups.

What is it that gets you moving each day, that motivates you to get out of bed and start? Looking at yourself, what did you find or decide is your motivation?

Looking at the story we read, we are told, and can see that Abraham loved G-d and sought to serve G-d with his whole heart and being, and all that he had. He ‘didn’t withhold’ anything – even his precious son, the link to the future and his legacy.

Isaac loved his father, perhaps even to the point of trusting him and turning over his own life to Abraham. It seems that both Abraham and Isaac are spurred by wishing to serve that which they love – they value G-d, or their parent, or the relationship with them.  

For both, we might consider the link between love and what is sometimes identified as awe, other times as fear. We are told both to love G-d and to fear G-d. G-d is described as awesome – which can mean really cool, in today’s language, but can also mean something that is terrifying and/or incomprehensible. How you can love that which you fear, and how remain in awe of what you love, is a conversation for another time.

For today, for our self, we need to know what it is that gives our life direction and motivates us to arise and carry on each day. 

2. What do you strive for or seek?

Some people seek fame, others fortune, yet others love. Many of us seek comfort, or familiarity, while a few seek challenges and to test themselves. Most of us seek recognition and acknowledgement, validation and support. A very few will seek the inverse if they feel they cannot get what they want, so they may prefer to be hated rather than ignored when they are not loved, or  seek infamy or notoriety when they cannot achieve fame or approval.

In the Torah, Abraham, it would seem to me, sought approval, acknowledgement, and acceptance from G-d – and perhaps even love, though I am not really sure what it would mean to seek love on a human scale from something beyond human understanding. He starts out doing all of this in exchange for a promise of family and descendants. He wants love and acceptance from G-d, and to touch the future and leave a legacy.

He did not seek fame, though G-d refers later on to all nations being blessed through Abraham and that all will know of him. He did not seek anything from others; on the contrary, in this instance he had to know that his actions would be rejected, by Sarah at least, and we are told that he left the two servants behind at the end, presumably so they could not interfere or be part of the event. This was all about Abraham and G-d – and maybe Isaac. If Abraham had not sought the approval of G-d, this story would not have been possible. It is that which Abraham strove for that made him act as he did.

As for Isaac, it is a little less clear. The rabbis struggle with his motivation, because we do not know much about him. It is not even clear how old he was at this time, or how much he truly understood about what was happening. All we can infer is that Isaac sought the love of his father, and that brought him to serve G-d as he was asked by his father.

In your Cheshbon Hanefesh, could you identify that which motivates you? Could you pick out what it is that you are seeking and working for, that which you have set as your goal? This is not a trivial question because this goal is what has driven and gotten you to where you are at this moment. To a large degree that which you seek and strive for defines you.

3. What has meaning for you? How do you measure the worth of your life?

Both of the questions so far feed into this one. Once you have identified what makes life worth living and motivates you, and what you are striving for, you have a good leg up on knowing what it is that has meaning and that gives meaning to life for you. For example, if what you value is money, and your efforts are directed towards acquiring wealth, then wealth is what both gives your life meaning and what has meaning for you. That is the thing that will direct you and drive you; it will be the factor that determines what choices and actions you make and take.

For Abraham, what gave his life meaning and what was meaningful to him was the service of G-d. That, above all else:  at the cost of his relationships with those most near and dear - to the point of costing their lives; and even to the degree that he would abandon his own fondest and most deeply held desire for progeny to live after himself.

For Isaac, it would seem that it was the love and approval of his father, perhaps even to the point of agreeing to the sacrifice his own life.

As a side note, I have to observe that this is the most dangerous place for us as humans. It is the point at which we can cross the threshold and enter into idolatry. It need not be figures, statues, or representations – we can worship things, possessions, ideas, beliefs, people, money, art, power, love, or even ourselves.

It is very easy to slip into worship of that which we hold most dear and meaningful – but it is at a terrible cost. We have all seen it in those who are driven by the pursuit of money to the exclusion of all else, those who become workaholics to the point that their families do not even recognize them, those who are so self-centered and narcissistic that no one and nothing else matters, or those who become addicts of a myriad of other things or behaviors that become the center of their existence, and drive out all else.

If we were to meet a modern day Abraham, we would almost certainly see him as a religious fanatic, and an unbalanced lunatic who had to be restrained – because we would not understand the weight given to what he valued and in which he found meaning. The question of how to view Abraham is still open, and worthy of deep consideration – but again, that is for another day.

The first two questions, relating to what motivates you and makes life worth living, and what you strive for, define your past and who you are today. The third question about meaning asks you to define how you would wish to be seen and how you would live an ideal life.

Taking these three answers, we are ready now to turn to the much larger and more important question. Consider now, what is it that is more important than what you value, what you strive for, or what gives meaning for you. We have one meta-question, an issue that these three questions help to define, and which in truth is existential. This matter is so large, so central, and so core that I will raise it, and leave it with you, for your consideration.  

At this moment in time, in light of your answers to the three questions posed, and given the themes of this time of year on the Jewish calendar, the key question could be phrased as: who are you, and who will you become?

You now have determined who you were, and what made you that person. We come to the nub of the matter: are you defined by your circumstances, or are you a free agent, able to shape your own destiny? Who are you today, and who will you be tomorrow and in a year?

Referencing Sigmund Freud’s discussion of the repetition compulsion, and recalling the more common definition of insanity as doing what you have always done and expecting different results, I invite you to consider - in light of what you found in your Cheshbon Hanefesh:

-      Are you happy with where and who you are today?

If not, do you need to re-evaluate what you think is valuable and important, and perhaps revise what motivates you?

-     Are you on the path towards what you wish to become?

If not, do you need to rethink your priorities and redefine what you will strive for to align more closely with what you think is meaningful?

-      Have you fallen into the trap of idolatry, elevating that which is not core to your self-definition?

And finally, with the answers to these questions in mind, we come to the most significant of all the questions:

-      What must you do to focus and act in a way that will bring you more in line with where and who you wish to be?

Let me be perfectly clear: these questions, when taken seriously, are not fodder for casual perusal or light consideration. They ask you to really take out your soul and examine it, to see yourself as you are and as others might see you, and to compare yourself now to a more ideal self. The last one asks you to determine what changes you wish to make, and how to actualize those changes.

Change is hard. I know it, and you do, too.

Still, as hard as this process is, it is worth the attempt. When you undertake such an evaluation, and seek to make (at least some of) the changes you wish to see manifested in your life, you are making progress and moving on the path towards the higher self you can be. And that is perhaps the most hopeful and positive thing possible for us as human beings, creatures formed in the divine image.

The possibility of change and improvement does exist, if we will it. And as the well-known song tells us, Im tirtzu ayn zo aggadah – if you will it, it is no dream.

May we come to know our best and highest self, and recognize that we are becoming that person. May we all be granted the strength and will to act in accord with our best self. May our actions and efforts in the world result in a better world each day of our lives. May THIS be the hope, the hope that is real.

Leshanah tovah umetukah. May you be inscribed for a good and sweet year of many blessings.