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The Hebrew Word for Year Also Means Change – Yom Kippur

September 23, 2015

Donald Trump?


This is not going to be a post-debate analysis. There are wiser heads than mine to do that, and there is not enough Excedrin in the world for me to try, but there is a theme that occurred to me coming out of all the preening, put-downs and pontificating that I saw on the recent debate – or was it a scrum? – that featured contenders vying to be the GOP standard-bearer in the quest to become our country’s next President.

What is missing is humility, and I realize that saying this makes me seem like a waif in the woods.

Believe me, I understand that such debates – Republican and Democrat alike – are designed to sell: to sell ideas, but mainly ‘self.’

It is all about self-promotion, and so each candidate extols what he or she has accomplished, while politely or pointedly denigrating what others have done or failed to achieve, or giving the faintest praise possible to a rival so as to appear, what I would call, ‘marginally gracious.’

The debates are defined, in large part, by interruptions, clarifications, charges and denials, and the latter are numerous enough to warrant ‘fact checkers’ whose copious notes fill the airwaves that evening and newspapers the next day.

Sounding convincing doesn’t make you correct, and it reminds me of an anecdote I heard when I was in rabbinic school.

On the High Holy Days, a rabbi was giving a fiery sermon when his colleague quietly arrived at his side and slid a piece of paper next to him. Pausing for breath, the speaker glanced at the sheet and saw this written on it: “Argument weak, shout louder.”

We were subjected to shouting, sarcasm and sound-bites. Yes, every so often we heard a policy statement and plan of action, but it was so infrequent that I was a bit startled when it occurred.

I suppose it is naïve to expect much humility in that setting, but it would be nice if it were more present in our daily lives. I’m not speaking about those moments when friends share the simcha of achievements richly earned or honors deservedly bestowed because we rejoice for them and are inspired by them, but we are also quite aware of chatter at meetings and social gatherings where people preen like peacocks, boasting of their latest deals and famous or well-placed people they met.

We can learn the importance of humility from our tradition. The Torah begins with the words b’reysheet bara Eloheem/”In the beginning created God” {1} and the rabbis drew a lesson from the order of the words, saying that the theme is the creative process – the verb bara/”created” sets everything in motion – and only then is God’s name mentioned. They urge us to draw a lesson from this: just as God’s name follows the word “created,” so too should we let our works speak for us. Don’t be so quick, they caution, to claim credit for what you do, whether it is what you write, paint, fashion or shape. Let what you create be the source of whatever praise might come your way: don’t rush to sign your name on it. Be humble.

Moses is described in the Book of Numbers as “a very humble leader, more so than any other person on earth” {2}.

The prophet, Micah, told us “do justly, love mercy and walk humbly” {3}.

In Pirkei Avote – ”The Chapters [of the teachings] of Our Ancestors” – we read, “Be very, very humble in spirit” {4}. The teaching does not read, “Be humble in spirit” or “Be very humble in spirit,” but “Be very, very humble in spirit”: an intensified appeal for humility. What a refreshing thought in a society where “Look what I did!” and “Look who I’m with!” is the calling card of far too many people.

The other topic that I think is important to consider as we move into the New Year is the need to be open to change. Change is inevitable. It is the rule, not the exception.

In America, in 1900, the average life span was 47 years, and now it is approaching 80. We are ageing into higher digits. In our tradition, when we wish someone a long life, we say, “May you live to be 120!”

A story is told about a rabbi, new to the congregation, who was at a reception to be introduced to the members. As the rabbi made the rounds meeting people, Mr. Schwartz said, “Rabbi, I’m going to be 85 years old next week!” and the rabbi responded, “May you live to be 120!” A little bit later, Mrs. Cohen approached the rabbi and said, “Tomorrow is my 97th birthday,” and the rabbi replied, “May you live to be 120!” Then the rabbi was introduced Mr. Goldberg, who proudly said, “Rabbi, I am 120 years old today!” The rabbi paused, and then said, “Well, have a good day!”

Advances in science, medical technology and health care mean that more of us are going to live to be ages defined by three-digits, and so perhaps we will need to find new references to wish people long, healthy and happy lives.

The Book of Genesis tells us that Abraham lived to be 175 {5}, and that same book informs us that Methuselah, Noah’s grandfather, lived to be 969 {6}. Of course, it is not how long you live, but how well you live. While there is much that we cannot control, we can control how we meet and greet change, most of it unanticipated.

“Repentance” means change: changing direction, reorienting ourselves. The Hebrew word for “year”/shanah, at its core, can mean “change,” and it sometimes arrives without warning: a sudden illness; the death of a loved one; a job that once was and no longer is, and it can all be very unsettling. Sometimes we are aware that change is coming. How do we prepare for it?

Imagine that you are Abraham and Sarah. God said to them, Lech lecha/”Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your [parents’] house, to the land that I will show you” {7} and they did! God did not specify where the land was, or how long it would take to get there, or what they would find when they arrived. Whether by choice or under duress, our journeys through life are similar. We decide to move or are required to do so. We prepare for changes or they descend upon us.

Earthquakes are great examples of sudden changes that shake us to our core, but it is the aftershocks that offer us the real storylines. We know that because while initial reports are about the magnitude of earthquakes on the Richter Scale and the destruction wrought by shifting platelets, it is the stories about how people react and respond to each other that move us.

One of the most defining moments in our People’s history occurred as the result of being shaken to our core. This is what we read: “On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain…and all the people trembled…Mount Sinai was surrounded by smoke…that rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the entire mountain trembled” {8}. In the midst of thunder, lightning, shaking and trembling, Moses ascended the mountain and returned with the Tablets of the Covenant that would bind us to God and each other. But while all that was going on, the Golden Calf was being built. One step up, two steps down.

The first set of tablets was shattered, their fragments bouncing off the base of the mountain, rolling to the feet of the people who stood in stunned silence. No tablets, no covenant, no hope.

Then a remarkable thing happened. Rabbinic literature makes the claim that the day that God magnanimously gave us a second set of tablets to replace those that had been smashed was… Yom Kippur. A new set of tablets replaced the first. Covenant reclaimed, hope rekindled. Hope is the ability to see a path to a better future.

We live in a time when it is sometimes difficult to manifest hope. What we read and what we hear makes it difficult for us to hope. We worry about our children and grandchildren, and the kind of world we are giving them. We have concerns about what is happening in America and overseas.

One of the teachings in our tradition – found in a collection called Pirkei Avote – ‘Chapters [of the Ethical Teachings of our] Ancestors’ – reads, “The [best] way to live is with a good eye and a good heart.” We need to train our eyes to see correctly, and I don’t mean on a chart filled with letters in different sizes. We need to focus on aspects of hope that surround us, and I know that is not always an easy thing to do. It becomes easier when you realize that we nurture hope by helping others.

I recently read a book called The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. His message is that we need to strengthen and widen our relationships because that is ultimately where we derive hope: through social contacts, faith and practice. The ‘faith’ part is the belief that by bonding with other like-minded, inspired people, we can make things better through tikun olam. The ‘practice’ piece is the repetitive effort of connecting with others that leads to cooperative endeavors – g’milut chasadim. Helping others is a way to deter negativity and reinforce hope. We can change the way we see the world by what we do to change it.

You know, in decades past, the mantra in America was the drive to “keep up with the Joneses” or, if you like, “the Goldbergs”: the drive to acquire things. The phrase was popularized through a comic strip of the same name – ‘Keeping Up With the Joneses’ – that began in 1913 and was published in American newspapers for 26 years. The title referred to neighbors of the comic strip’s main characters: neighbors who were unseen but often spoken about, and the “keeping up” is what in later decades came to be called “conspicuous consumption.”

By contrast, today’s younger generation is showing a decided inclination to spend money on experiences, not things, emphasizing connection with people, places, and travel rather than things. Why? Things break. Memories endure and are handed down to the next generation as signposts to the future. Spend time with the people you love.

When our sons were young, I took each one away in rotating years on a surprise three day trip. Jonathan one year, David the next year, and Josh the following year, and then the cycle would repeat itself. The destinations were determined by each son’s interests – music, sports, entertainment – and I would pick up him from school or leave from home, having pre-packed his bag, thrown it in my car’s trunk, and off we would go on a date that I had chosen, unbeknownst to him. The first time, before it became a happy habit, he thought we were going out for sushi or to Best Buy to purchase him something hi-tech, and it wasn’t until we got to the airport’s departure gate that he realized where we were going.

One year, it was to Cleveland’s “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum” and a baseball game; another year to Chicago for its “On the Lakes Tour,” a baseball game, and wandering the ‘Miracle Mile’; the following year to Washington DC and the National Archives, the Smithsonian, the International Spy Museum, and then on to Baltimore for a baseball game; another year it was to Las Vegas, not to gamble, but to see Cirque d’Soleil and Penn-and-Teller, and hang out together. My hope is that my sons will replicate these experiences with their children. Experiences, not things. Practice creating joy until it becomes a natural response. Nurture hope for yourself and the next generation.

Take pride in what you do and be humble, a delicate balance perhaps, but a worthwhile endeavor.

I leave you with this thought, the result of an experience that Susan and I had this summer. We had arrived in Santorini, Greece and took a tender from our ship to a very small port at the base of a mountain, and then took a bus that ascended 1800 feet up, with 10 hairpin turns along a narrow road. The hairpins were tight enough that the driver had to stop a few bus lengths below the turns to allow cars, trucks or buses descending the road to make the turn since there was not enough room for two vehicles to do so at the same time. It was not a road for people who have anxiety about height with sheer drop-offs on one side.

When we arrived at the top, our guide told us about heaven and Saint Peter, since Greece is a Greek Orthodox enclave, but I’m going to tweak what she said in the context of where we are today.

A rabbi and a bus driver die and ascend to heaven – when we heard this joke, it was actually about a pastor and a bus driver, and I had some reservations about using the word “rabbi” instead of “pastor” lest what follows sound self-serving, but it works better here if I say “rabbi” – and upon arriving they were greeted by one of God’s Divine messengers. The angel welcomed them and told them that heaven was full, and that only one soul would be allowed to enter. So the angel asked the rabbi and the bus driver to talk about their lives and what they did on earth.

The rabbi began by extolling his virtues: “I preached the word of God and brought people to faith,” he said, “I tried to make the words of Torah meaningful and to treat people with kindness.”

The angel then turned to the bus driver who said, “Well, I drove a bus. I was a safe driver. I greeted all my passengers by name, and I always pulled to the curb to make it easy for people to get on and get off.”

The angel mulled all this over and then said, “Alright, now tell me something about yourself that you are not very proud of.”

The rabbi thought about this and finally said, “I really cannot think of anything. I led a good life, I was respected, and no one said a bad thing about me…not that I heard, anyway.”

An even longer silence ensued before the bus driver replied, “I am ashamed to admit that there was a time in my life when I drank too much, smoked, and stayed out too late instead of coming home to my wife and children.”

The angel thought for a while about what it had heard and then said, “You can enter heaven,” motioning to the bus driver to do so.

The rabbi was stunned! Recovering from the shock of what had just occurred, he said to the angel, “I don’t understand! I’m a rabbi! He’s a bus driver! By what merit did he enter heaven?”

The angel replied, “When you speak, people sleep. When he drives, people pray.”

{Wake up!}

So humility is a good thing, and remember this as well: you drive the bus. Bring along the people who mean the most to you on your journeys through life; acquire experiences, not things; and the winds of change will be easier to endure in the embrace of those who care about you the most.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin

{1} Genesis 1:1

{2} Numbers 12:3

{3} Micah 6:8

{4} Pirkei Avot 4.4

{5} Genesis 25:7

{6} Genesis 5:27

{7} Genesis 12:1

{8} Exodus 19:16-18}