Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5776: The Courage to Dream

“If you will it, it is not a dream”.

This is perhaps the most famous Jewish quotation of the 20th century. It was written by Theodore Herzl, Jewish visionary and founder of modern political Zionism. He was referring of course, to the ages long dream of the Jewish people that they would be one day restored to their ancestral land, the Land of Israel. It was a dream that was kept alive by religious Jews for two thousand years. The dream of return to Zion is a central theme in our prayers, the recitation of which three times a day helped keep this dream alive. Herzl was a secular Jew, and he took up the dream in a way never envisioned by his more traditional forbears. The return to Zion would be a political movement, born of political necessity, employing the tools of statecraft to achieve its ends. The dream remained intact – only the methods of achieving it had changed. According to Herzl, it would not be G-d who redeemed the Jewish people –the Jewish people would redeem themselves.

We are a religion of dreamers. In his book, The Gifts of the Jews, Thomas Cahill describes ancient Sumerian society, out of which Abraham and Sarah emerged, as one “in which life is seen…… part of an endless cycle of birth and death: time perceived as a wheel, spinning ceaselessly, never altering its course….”  These were societies in which fatalism was the operant philosophy and where the idea of human advancement was absent.  War, disease, despotic government all had to be endured because this was the Will of the gods and nothing would ever change. Cahill writes that the Jewish people brought to the world “a new vision of men and women with unique destinies – a vision”, he writes, “that thousands of years later will inspire the Declaration of Independence and our hopeful belief in progress and the sense that tomorrow could be better than today.”

That dream of progress, that dream that “things don’t always have to be the way they are”, is embodied in the Jewish idea of tikun ha-olam, our obligation to change the world for the better. It is embodied in our notion of Messianic times, a time where the entire world will be redeemed. The prophet Micah best articulated that dream when he wrote, “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore. But every person shall sit under their grapevine or fig tree with no one to disturb them.” Rabbi Harold Kushner recently called this dream of progress the theology of “not yet”.  The theology of “not yet” is the refusal to see what is wrong with the world as reflecting God’s will and the recognition that human action is required to do something about it.  In other words, it is not G-d’s will that hundreds of thousands of people be killed in war and millions displaced and seeking refuge, as we have recently witnessed. It is not G-d’s will that today a child dies every minute from malaria in sub-Saharan Africa. It is not G-d’s will that there are almost 15 million children living in Africa who have been orphaned due to AIDS. G-d doesn’t want that. G-d doesn’t desire that. G-d wants us to use our G-d given talents and intelligence to do something about that, though.

We are a religion of dreamers. It got me to thinking – does G-d dream?  I think so. G-d dreams of a world that is founded on justice and on righteousness, a world where the dignity and value of every person is upheld.  G-d then shared that dream with a nation at a mountain called Sinai. The Jewish people bought into that dream. That is called the covenant.  From that time on we would take up the dream, and work toward making the world a place where the painful gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be could be narrowed.  G-d and the Jewish people shared the dream that through human action humanity could work its way back, gradually, to live once again in peace and tranquility of the Garden of Eden.

Rosh Hashannah, the birthday of the world, would seem an appropriate time to review our dreams and ask, “How are we doing?” But I am not going to give a report card for world progress.  We have other kinds of dreams as well — the dreams we have for ourselves and for our children. It is those dreams I would like to focus on today. The humorist Erma Bombeck once wrote, “There are people who put their dreams in a little box and say, ‘Yes, I’ve got dreams, of course, I’ve got dreams’. Then they put the box away and bring it out once in a while to look at it, and yet, they’re still there. These are great dreams, but they never even get out of the box.”

This past year, I was recruiting people for our congregational trip to Israel. I approached a man I knew casually, who is not a member of our congregation, but who I know is Jewish. I asked him if he might be interested in traveling with us to Israel. “Rabbi,” he said, “I am so glad you asked. It has been a life-long dream of mine to visit Israel.” I was encouraged.  It was beginning to sound as if he was going to sign up for the trip. Then he added, “But I just can’t do it this year. You see, I can’t get away right now. Let me know when you take another trip.”

I was disappointed, but I tried not to show it. But I will tell you what I was thinking: “This man is no youngster. He is 75 years old if he is a day. He’s retired. He has the money. How many chances does he think he is going to get to fulfill this dream of a lifetime? What in the world is he waiting for? “

His response reminds me of a story I read recently. In the 1960s, President Eisenhower received the gift of a rare, white tiger named Mohini. For years, Mohini lived in the Washington Zoo and spent her days pacing back and forth in a 12-by-12 foot cage. Finally the zoo decided to build her a larger enclosure so Mohini could run, climb and explore. But when Mohini arrived at her new home, she didn’t rush out, eagerly to her new habitat. Rather, she marked off a 12-by-12 foot square for herself by the fence, and paced there until her death. Mohini was literally trapped in a box of her own making never enjoying the new opportunities available to her.

We are all a little bit like Mohini.  Just like her we create imaginary boundaries that we feel we cannot cross, even when the opportunity presents itself to do so. We set arbitrary limits upon ourselves.  In Biblical times, the call of the Shofar marked the beginning of the Jubilee Year, when all slaves were freed. The call of the shofar, then, should serve as a call to us to end our internal imprisonment, to break the fetters of our self-imposed chains, to move us out of our comfort zone, to call us to a life of greater freedom and renewed passion.

Unfortunately, we often underestimate ourselves and our capabilities. We build our own internal cages, and become fearful about what lies outside of it. There was once an 18th rabbi named Chaim ben Yitzchak of Volozhin who made that mistake. When he was young, he was not an ambitious student, and in fact one day told his parents he no longer wanted to study but would rather go to trade school and learn to be a shoe maker. He announced his decision to his parents who reluctantly acquiesced.

That night, the young man had a dream. In it he saw an angel holding a stack of beautiful books.  “Whose books are those?” he asked the angel. “They are yours,” was the answer, “if you have the courage to write them.” This dream changed the young man’s life, and Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin was on his way to discovering the scholar that he was meant to become.

One of the metaphors of these High Holidays is that G-d has a book before Him where he inscribes our fate for the coming year. It is true that some of what happens to us in the coming year and in the remaining years of our lives is in G-d’s hands. But it is also true that, to a great extent, we write the story of our own lives.  A medieval rabbi said: “Days are scrolls: write on them what you want to be remembered.” Our tradition teaches that we have the power to change our lives, to pursue our dreams, to control our own destinies.

Think of the next year as a book filled with blank pages. How do you want to fill them in? What do you want the book to say next year, when you read it?

—- I finally learned to read Hebrew this year.

—– This past year I made an effort to spend more time with my wife and children. It has meant setting some limits on my work, but it has really been worth it.

—   Last year I volunteered at the homeless shelter. It has opened my eyes to a world I barely knew existed.

What will be written on YOUR pages?

One thing we can continue to be proud of as Jews – despite our many setbacks, we have not been afraid to dream. We have not been afraid to articulate our dreams, to re-affirm them, even in the face of failure and disappointment. To be a Jew is to never lose hope, to always hold on to the dream. To be a Jew means to share a dream, if one dares say, with G-d, of a world where every human being is valued and the Divine presence is unmistakable. We transmit our dreams to our children, and pray that they will cherish them, even as one generation gives way to the next, seeing our dreams of a perfected world not yet realized. The Talmudic sage, Rabbi Tarfon says, “It is not upon you to complete the task, but you are not free to desist from it.” There is much work to be done in our lives, and in our world — many obstacles to overcome, many challenges to be met. We must boldly meet all these challenges with courage and with intelligence and with faith.

As it is with the dreams of the Jewish people, so it is with our own, personal dreams. Rosh Hashanah is the ideal time of year to take those dreams out of their box, examine them, put them on the line, and resolve to work toward fulfilling them in the years to come.  Progress may be slow, and success elusive. But as American philosopher Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours …..if you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now, put the foundations under them.”

To that we may all say, AMEN!