Rosh Hashanah 5777 Eve : Letting Go of our Baggage

I’d like to begin my sermon this evening by telling you a story. The story takes place in the 1980’s, before the widespread use of personal computers, before smart phones, before ipads and fitbits and all of the technology that we now carry around in our pockets or wear on our wrists. The story begins when Shimon gets off the train in Union Station struggling with two heavy suitcases. As he wrestles his suitcases to the platform, a man he doesn’t know, let’s call him Reuven, comes up to him and asks for the time. Shimon pulls a watch out of his pocket, but instead of looking at the time, he speaks to the watch! “Could you tell me what time it is?” Shimon asks. The watch replies, “It’s four o’clock, pm, Central Time”. “Wow, that’s some watch you have there,” says Rueven. “Oh, that’s nothing,” Shimon says. Speaking to the watch again, the he asks, “What time is it in New York?” “Two O’clock pm,” the voice in the watch responds. “And in Barcelona?” “It is eleven O’clock pm in Barcelona,” answers the watch. Munich, Shanghai, Buenos Aires, the watch instantaneously provides the exact time in any city in the world.

“I am so impressed,” says Reuven. “I have never seen a watch that can do that!” “Oh, that’s nothing,” says Shimon. Speaking to the watch again, Shimon says, “Get me the Book of Genesis,” and immediately the story of Adam and Eve scrolls down the face of the watch. “That’s fantastic,” says Rueven. Seeing how engrossed Rueven is in this technological marvel, Shimon continues. “I’m able to carry around every volume of the Talmud in this little watch,” he says. “What would take up shelves upon shelves of space in my Rabbi’s office, I can carry around in the vest pocket of my suit jacket!”

“This is wonderful,” says Rueven, now beside himself with enthusiasm if not a little envy. “Look,” says Shimon, “My daughter recently had her bat mitzvah. Here’s a video of her chanting her Haftorah on Shabbes morning. We were so proud of her. And that appointment book that I’m pretty sure you carry in your briefcase. I have it right here on my watch, at the touch of a button.”

“Where did you get such a watch, I have to have one,” says Rueven. Shimon tells him that it’s not available in any stores. “I’ll give you ten thousand dollars for that watch,” Reuven says to Shimon. “Oh, I can’t sell it to you for ten thousand dollars,” says Shimon. “I’ll give you forty thousand dollars for that watch,” says Rueven. “I’m sorry, it’s not for sale,” says Shimon. But Rueven detects a hint of indecision in Shimon’s voice. “I will give you sixty thousand dollars for that watch,” Rueven proclaims, and he pulls out his check book and starts writing a check. Shimon thinks, well, sixty thousand dollars is a lot of money, and I can always make another watch for myself, so Shimon agrees to sell Rueven the watch for sixty thousand dollars. He hands Rueven the watch and Reuven walks away. Shimon yells after him, “Hey, wait a minute. “ Reuven turns around warily. Shimon points to the two suitcases he had been struggling to carry through the station, and says, “Don’t forget the batteries!”

How many times have we wanted something desperately only to find out once we actually got it that it did not bring us the satisfaction we had hoped? I think back to an early lesson I learned as a child about this. I don’t think boys still play with toy soldiers, as I did when I was a boy. Nowadays a child can just turn on a screen and land in the middle of a hyper-realistic, apocalyptic war zone, but when I was a lad one had to rely more on one’s imagination. I remember desperately wanting a set of two hundred revolutionary war toy soldiers advertised on the back of the comic books I was reading. The illustration accompanying the ad, depicting Redcoats and Patriots engaged in fierce battle, made the toy soldiers look so exciting! I imagined setting a hundred Brits up against a hundred Yankees and re-creating the Battles of Lexington and Concord right there on my bedroom floor. I saved up my money, collected my box tops and sent for the soldiers. Each day I eagerly awaited the mailman. Yet, when those toy soldiers actually arrived they were nothing like they looked in the advertisement! They were ¾ of an inch tall and a millimeter wide and no sooner did I stand them up for battle than then they all fell over. What a disappointment. Often, that’s the way it is in life. Those things that are told will bring us joy or change our lives for the good often don’t deliver on their promise. Later on it was the automobile that we just had to have that would make us so popular with the girls, the college that we had to get into that would lead to success, the marriage that would complete us, the dream house that would finally bring us happiness. Then we discover that yes, sometimes these things bring us a measure of satisfaction and sometimes they even make us feel whole. Sometimes, however, they become baggage that weighs us down or traps us because they are not what we hoped for or expected after all.

Like the man in the story who could not enjoy what he had purchased because of the baggage that came with it, we too are unable to fully enjoy the blessings of our lives because of what we bring along with us from the past.

Tomorrow morning we will read the story from the Torah about G-d’s call to Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. It is, of course, not the first time that G-d has called Abraham. Abraham’s story begins with G-d’s words as recorded in the Torah — “Leave your land, your birthplace, the home of your parents, to the land that I will show you.” Did you ever notice that there was something unusual in that call to Abraham?

Usually, the emphasis, when giving directions, is on the DESTINATION! After all, a person already knows where they are –they need to know where they are going! In G-d’s charge to Abraham, however, it is the opposite! G-d never identifies the destination to Abraham. The emphasis in G-d’s charge to Abraham is not where he is going. The emphasis in G-d’s charge to Abraham is on where he leaving — his land, his birthplace, the home of his parents. THAT is what is unusual.

According to Chassidic thought, the Torah is telling us that as we journey through life, we must leave some things behind in order to reach our potential. Abraham had to leave his country, his city, and his home in order to fulfill his destiny. In a similar way, in order to become who we were meant to be, to achieve our personal destinies, to live healthy and productive and loving lives, we may need to abandon some of the values and beliefs that we learned in our homes, our communities, and our country. We may need to examine and reassess those social conventions that we have taken for granted. Many of us grew up believing, for example, that men don’t cry, or that women are the “weaker sex”. Many of us grew up being taught that homosexuality was a sickness, or that certain ethnic or racial groups were prone to violence, or laziness, or dishonesty. We were taught what constitutes beauty in a woman, and what is the measure of success in a man, and as adults we strive to live up to what we learned, often causing a lot of pain, alienation and conflict along the way. Some of us were taught to always put the needs of others first, to the extent that one’s own legitimate needs are ignored or denied. We run ourselves ragged taking care of others, while neglecting our own emotional, spiritual and physical health. Sometimes we must identify and let go of what we were taught as to how to think about ourselves and others. Trying to conform to society’s ideas about who we ought to be can prevent us from becoming who we were meant to be. We need to be able to identify patterns that we repeat — those which bring us back time and time again to familiar but hurtful ways of acting. And we must figure out how we can break those patterns, shed the baggage, that is pulling us back, dragging us down, and making our efforts to recognize and embrace our blessings self-defeating. That’s why the emphasis is on the place where Abraham was leaving. The Torah is teaching us that we need to pay attention to where we come from and what wetake with us, if we are to be successful on our journey to who we want to be, and how we would like to be thought of by others.

There are two kinds of burdens we carry with us through life. There is the baggage we know we are carrying around, but choose to ignore. Perhaps that baggage consists of resentment over a slight we experienced in the past. Perhaps we were treated unfairly in a relationship, and this left scars on us that we carry to this day. Perhaps an employer did not give us the promotion that we felt we deserved, or our partner cheated us in business. Perhaps when you were growing up your rabbi made an unkind or hurtful comment, and made it difficult for you to want to embrace Judaism or feel a part of the Jewish community. Then there is the “hidden baggage” we carry, the baggage we are not as aware of — a devastating loss that we thought we overcame, a life altering illness that we thought left no scars, a difficult childhood that we thought we outgrew. As parents we want to do right by our children, but we too carry baggage into our marriages and into the families that we create. At times we unknowingly transfer our baggage onto the shoulders of our children who don’t ever realize that they have taken on the baggage of their parents and are carrying it into a new generation.

We carry these loads around for so long that they become a part of us. We don’t even know they are there until we examine our lives, we identify our grievances, we label our resentments, and we name our pain. That is part of the task of Rosh Hashanah, what we call “Chesbon Ha-Nefesh” taking an account of ourselves. Only when we do this are we able to unload the weight we strain under and begin to walk a little lighter.

The man who unloaded his baggage at the train station to a wide-eyed passerby found an easy way to get rid of an unwanted weight that was a burden to him. For us, it is never that easy. Let’s begin by using this holiday season to acknowledge that we all carry baggage around with us. Let us resolve this Rosh Hashanah to at least make a start at shedding our unnecessary burdens from the past. Let’s examine our priorities and stop striving for goals that bring neither fulfillment nor true happiness to us or our loved ones. Let us cast away our stubbornness, our bad habits, and our unwillingness to recognize when we need to change. Let’s dispose of our selfishness and our self- centeredness, and free ourselves to share more of ourselves with others.

May we carry a lighter load with us into the New Year. May we begin our New Year full of hope and confidence, of optimism and of humility, of self-scrutiny and of spiritual renewal.