Rosh Hashanah Day 5777 : A Fresh Start

One of the themes of Rosh Hashanah is birth and renewal. We proclaim on this day, Hayom Harat Olam, “Today is the Birthday of the World”. Our tradition holds that the world was created 5777 years ago. Of course, nothing in Judaism is without controversy. In fact there is a debate in the Talmud between two sages as to precisely when the world was created. According to Rabbi Eliezer, the world was created in the fall, in the month of Tishre. According to Rabbi Yehoshua, the world was created in the spring, in the month of Nisan! Each sage cites the exact same biblical verse to support his claim, yet they each interpret it differently. Their reasoning is….. Talmudic, which means mysterious, long, and complex — I will therefor spare you the details.

Since the matter was not settled in the Talmud, later Rabbis took up the argument. The medieval Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, of Navarro, Spain, supports the position of Rabbi Eliezer, that the world was created on Rosh Hashanah, in Tishre, in the fall. As proof, Ibn Ezra notes that the Torah commands us to sound the Shofar on Yom Kippur to mark the beginning of the Jubilee year, the year in which all slaves are freed, all debts forgiven, and all land returned to its original owners. It makes sense, he reasons, that the beginning of Jubilee Year would start very close to the beginning of the true New Year, Rosh Hashanah. Not so fast, say other Rabbis, who bring evidence that the world was in fact created in the spring, according to the position of Rabbi Yohoshua. Every 28 years, they point out, we recite the birchat hachama. This is a blessing recited when the sun returns to the same position in the heavens that it was in when it was created on the fourth day. Some of us may recall gathering together in the synagogue courtyard on April 8, 2009 to recite this blessing. It was on a Wednesday morning, the fourth day of the week. This blessing is always recited in the spring, in Nisan. It stands to reason, therefore, that the world itself was created in the spring.

Two well thought out positions, two valid arguments – but we are no further in determining the truth of when the world was created than were the Rabbis in the Talmud. Rabbeinu Tam, a grandson of the illustrious Rashi who lived in twelfth century France, broke the deadlock this way – you guessed it – they’re BOTH RIGHT. According to Rabeinu Tam, G-d thoughtof creating the world in the fall, on the day we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, but G-d did not physically create the world until the spring, in the month of Nissan. Since G-d’s thought is identical to G-d’s action – both positions are right! As the Torah explains in the Book of Numbers:

“God is not man to be capricious/or mortal to change His mind/ would he speak and not act/promise and not fulfill?”

If G-d is not man, then man is not G-d, and following through on our best intentions is precisely the challenge we face on Rosh Hashanah. Every now and then we have an idea or an inspiration, and we expect it to change us, but we don’t doanything about it! We may intend to carry through on it, but we never get around to taking concrete action. We make promises to ourselves, but never fulfill them. We are inspired to change, but can’t motivate ourselves to take the first step. Thus, many worthy thoughts that should be acted upon remain stuck in our heads, and never realized.

In the Book of Deuteronomy, the Israelites are poised to enter the land of Canaan. Moses instructs them on how to establish a just and fair society when they settle the land. Moses tells the People of Israel to “appoint judges and officers at your gates”. On the face of it this means simply that they must set up a judicial branch of government. The sages see something deeper. They note that the Hebrew word for “gates”– shaar – is the same word as for “considerations”, “reckonings”, “thoughts”, “calculations” and “deliberations” in Hebrew. Accordingly, this verse can also be read, “Appoint judges and officers for your personal deliberations, your internal considerations, your calculations for the future.” We should appoint internal “judges” to carefully weigh the consequences of putting our thoughts into action, the effect they will have on us, the impact they will have on our loved ones, the ramifications they will have for our community. After we have given careful thought to our plans and and deemed them to be good for us, we should implement them! This is the point at which many of us falter. Many of us have difficulty bringing our plans to fruition.

Therefore, as the Torah says, we should also appoint internal “officers”, who will insure that our worthy plans are carried out. How many potentially life changing resolutions go unfulfilled because of an absence of will, a failure to follow through? Our metaphorical officers are tasked with the enforcement of our good intentions so that we will actually CHANGE.

Rabbi Kalman Packouz poses five questions to think about while we are here in synagogue or to discuss at our Rosh Hashanah meals:
1. When do I most feel that my life is meaningful?
2. If I could change only one thing about myself, what would that be?
3. If I could change one thing about my spiritual life, what would it be?
4. Are there any ideals I would be willing to die for?
5. If I could live my life over, would I change anything?

Rosh Hashanah is a time of reflection, of hope and of renewal. Rosh Hashanah should wake us up, spark us to look at our lives, inspire in us the belief that it is never too late to grow and to change. In the autumn nature is preparing for her long winter sleep. Along comes the Shofar to warn usnot to do the same. The Shofar cries out to us, “Awake ye sleepers from your slumber; rouse yourselves from your lethargy.”

We cannot allow blind habit and deadening routine to rule our lives. This is why our sages, while ordaining a fixed order and a fixed time for prayer, insist that we must add something new in our prayers. They feared that our prayers would become empty recitations of memorized words. Such prayers have neither the power to reach upward to move Heaven nor inward to touch our deepest selves. A central prayer in our siddur reminds us that G-d renews creation each day. G-d did not wind up the clock of creation in the Beginning and then let it run. G-d is continually involved in the process of creation of the world. In the same way, we too need to be continually involved in the creation of our lives, lest our lives, too, become dull and empty.

Mindless routine is the enemy of spiritual growth and renewal. Much of our day is spent going perfunctorily through set patterns of behaviors – the time we awaken in the morning, what we have for breakfast, the route we take to work, the regularity of our work-a-day lives, our bed-time rituals, the chores we perform week in and week out. Without some modicum of routine we would find it difficult to get much accomplished at all. But to sleepwalk through our spiritual life is to court our spiritual decline, to lose touch with the Divine Source that animates our lives.

The Chasidic Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev notes that the Hebrew word for soul –“neshamah”– is related to the Hebrew word for breath — “neshimah”. He teaches that, with each breath out, it is as if our soul departs from our body. Were it not for the power of G-d to restore our breath each time we exhale, our soul would leave us permanently, and we would die. Just as creation is renewed each day, so, G-d restores our soul at every moment. We are continuously being renewed and reborn.

The story is told of an angry reader once stormed into a newspaper office waving the day’s paper, asking to see the editor of the obituary column. He showed him his name in the obituary listing. “You see,” he said, “I am very much alive. I demand a retraction!” The editor replied, “I never retract a story. But I’ll tell you what I’ll do; I’ll put you in the birth column and give you a fresh start!”

With each breath we take in we are new and are given a fresh start.

At the beginning of this sermon I told you about the debate between Rabbi Eliezer, who thought the world was created in the fall, and Rabbi Yehoshua, who thought that the world was created in the spring. We, of course, follow Rabbi Eliezer, and celebrate the “Creation of the World” in the fall. But is the fall really the season of birth and renewal? The fall brings to mind the term “The Autumn of our Lives”, a saying that denotes that we are past our peak — that we are winding down that we have more days behind us than we have ahead of us. However many days we may have ahead, it is incumbent upon us to determine, at this time of year, whether we have lived the life that is true to ourselves. If we have not – if we have long considered the need for a change in direction, a course correction, then let us make this year the year that we put our thoughts into action and renew our lives for the better. With that thought in mind, I leave you with a poem written in 1934 by American writer and musician Dale Wimbrow, which I have adapted:

When you get what you want in your struggle for self
And the world gives you accolades,
Just go to a mirror and look at yourself,
And see what that person says.
For it isn’t your father or mother or spouse,
Whose judgement upon you must pass;
The person whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the one staring back from the glass.
That’s who you must please, never mind all the rest.
That’s who you live with to the end,
And you’ve passed the most dangerous, difficult test
If the one in the glass is your friend.
You may fool the whole world down the pathway of years.
And get pats on the back as you pass,
But your final reward will be the heartaches and tears
If you’ve cheated the one in the glass.