Rosh Hashanah Evening 5774/2013

A Good Year

Good evening. Once again, on behalf of the Cantor and myself, I want to welcome you to our High Holiday services.  Some of us have been together greeting the New Year for some time now – others have joined us this year for the very first time. To all of you, I say “Shana Tova Tika-te-vu” – May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life and Prosperity in the coming year. Those words, “Shana Tova” are, of course, the traditional New Year’s words of greeting. They are said in Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people, the original language of the Bible, the language of the rabbis, the language of Jewish prayer, the language of modern Israel.  It is not however, the language of most of us here. Unless we graduated from a Jewish High School or spent a significant amount of time in Israel, the chances are most of us cannot understand much Hebrew. Even if we can understand Hebrew, most likely it is not a language we can fluently speak.  Yet, much of our prayer throughout the holidays, and throughout the year, is in Hebrew. The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism, says that even though a person may not know the meaning of the words when they pray, their prayers ascend to G-d and pierce the heavens. For the sacred words of the Torah and prayer contain a superior sanctity, he teaches, and when issued from the heart, reach to the highest realms of the heavens. Rabbi Ann Brener offers a psychological understanding of prayer in Hebrew. She writes that when we don’t know what the words really mean, they may resonate in a deeper, more primitive way. They may affect us on preverbal and sensory levels. We may be so moved by their sound, tune, and cadence that we rock or sway to them as we recite them. This movement, which is often seen among Jews in deep prayer, has been the movement of prayer for one generation after another around the globe. Prayer in Hebrew has the power to connect us with one another and with our ancestors who also worshipped in the holy tongue. This evening, I want to suggest that we not be so concerned about what the Hebrew words of our prayers mean. Allow the beautiful music of our service to convey the meaning of our worship to you. Don’t be worried about the translation. Rabbi Simcha Bunim, a Hassidic master, used to complain of debilitating headaches after he prayed. He went to his teacher, who diagnosed the problem. “You are praying too much with your head, and not enough with your heart.” After that, Rabbi Simcha never suffered from post-prayer headaches again. May we open up our hearts these holidays and let our prayers touch us deep within, in the places that are beyond words.  I am reminded of the response to the question, “Rabbi, where can G-d be found?” The answer, “G-d can be found wherever you let him in!” May we let G-d into our hearts these Yamim Noraim. Let us not put up barriers. Let us not lock G-d out of our lives. On this Erev Rosh Hashanah I do want to talk about one Hebrew word in particular. I believe most of us think we know the meaning of this word. The word is “Shana, as in “Rosh Ha-Shana”.  We know that the word “Shana” means year, yet, like many Hebrew words, it can carry a multitude of meanings. Tonight, I want to talk about one of those other meanings in particular. The word “shana” can also mean “to be different, to change.” A form of this word is used in a sentence that everyone knows – Ma NISHTANA Ha-Laila Ha-Zeh Mi-kol Ha-Lailot – Why is this night DIFFERENT from all other nights?  This is the time of the year when we resolve to make changes in our lives – to live differently. Please! Please! Do not be like this man when you resolve to make changes. He and his wife had fought for years over the fact that he never remembered to put the top back on the tube of toothpaste. It drove his wife crazy! Finally, one Holiday season he decided to change his ways. After all, he had been hearing for years that on Rosh Hashannah people are supposed to repent and change their bad habits. So one day, without saying a word to his wife, he put the top back on the tube. Then he did it the second day, then the third. He was feeling very proud of himself. After doing this every day for a week, his wife said to him, “Dear, why have you stopped brushing your teeth?” Truthfully, it is not so easy to change, as we all know. Perhaps, summoning up ones greatest will power, one can muster the strength to replace the top on the tube of toothpaste seven days in a row.  Most change takes much longer to accomplish. We resolve to change, but find ourselves repeating our mistakes. We find ourselves in similar circumstances, and do not act any differently. Our addictions, our compulsions, our bad habits, our vulnerability, our weaknesses are too great to overcome in the moment.  To those of us here tonight who feel discouraged, defeated, and hopeless about our ability to change, I offer this true story. Sir Edmund Hillary was the first man to conquer Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world, in 1953. Yet he failed to reach the summit on his first try the previous year. Speaking to the Science Academy in England after his first unsuccessful climb, he stopped in the middle, paused a pregnant pause, turned toward the large mural of Everest which was on the wall before him, and declared: “Next time I will succeed – for I am still growing, and you have stopped growing!” We must ask ourselves — Have I grown this year? Am I a better person this year than I was the last?  Have I grown spiritually, have I grown in my relation to G-d, do I know more about Judaism this year than I did last year?  Have I grown in relationship to others – in my home, in my school, in my shop, and in my office? Have I grown in relation to my husband, to my wife, to my children?  If we cannot answer that affirmatively, or if we have gone backwards, then we can take this holiday season to reflect on what might be keeping us stuck.  What can we do differently in the coming year to overcome the obstacles which are getting in the way of growth? A shanah tovah, a good year, is a year of shana, of change, of growth, of doing things differently and doing things better. May this be a year of spiritual, intellectual, and emotional growth. May we grow in prosperity and enjoy much happiness in the coming New Year. Shanah Tova