A zen koan:
Lightning flashes, Sparks shower, In one blink of your eyes, You have missed seeing. - Zen Koan
Judaism teaches us to see. Abraham looked up to see the ram that he would sacrifice in place of his son, Isaac. Joseph had a fantastic dream and awoke, exclaiming, God was in this place and I did not know! the Psalmist writes, Esa Einai el ha harim - I lift my eyes to the mountain, from where is my help?
Our struggle is not the absence of miracles. Our struggle is our inability to recognize the miracles that surround us. But on this day of Rosh Hashanah, we rail against this perceptual blindness. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are our religious prescription lenses by which we look out and see the world.
And we are meant to see differently today: On other days, we may ask each other, How's life treating you? But today, Judaism asks us a different question: How are you treating life?
As we gather this evening and reflect on the past year, Each of us is weighed down by tragic and painful events that transpired. Israel & Gaza, Syria, Isis ... Our world is not what we pray for.
We also have experienced our own misfortunes and tragedies. Some of us have lost loved ones. Some of us have experienced physical pain and diagnoses without recourse to cure. And all of us have experienced bad luck, pain and unfairness.
There are so many things we can't control.
And this makes it harder to answer the question, How are you treating life? But we need to answer it even with our frustrations, our anxieties, our fears, our regrets, our tragedies, our sadness. Rosh Hashanah asks that we answer it. Life demands that we answer it.
Tonight, we are here to face our lives. We examine the totality of our lives and resoundingly respond with Hineni - I am here.
This is exactly the role of our High Holidays. They remind us to lift up our eyes and see.
During the next 10 days, we spend lots of time praying, hoping that our prayers transform into the world we so desperately yearn for. We pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life. We pray for a healthy year - a happy year. While we're at it, we can also toss in a prayer that next year, UGA's homecoming football game will not coincide with Yom Kippur. Our prayers help us to find hope, especially as we struggle to find meaning and comfort even amidst pain and misfortune.
Several times in our High Holiday liturgy, we recite this line: U'tsuvah u'tfillah u'tzedakah maarivin et roah hagzeirah - But repentance, prayer and charity can soften the evil decree.
Repentance, prayer and charity are the theological salve that helps mitigate against the cruelty in our lives - the 'severe decree.'
Maimoinides teaches us that the evil decree is not some kind of punishment meted out by God. God does not summon a divine spreadsheet and balance out your deeds, only then to decide whether or not you will live during the upcoming year. No, the evil decree is life itself. And so, going back to our question, How are you treating life, we have an answer: Repentance, prayer and charity help us to treat our lives.
And yet, there are no guarantees.
Raba said that length of life, children and sustenance depend not on merit, but on luck. Luck! This reminds us all to well that although we have a covenantal relationship with God, it rains on saint and sinner alike. Bad things do happen to good people. In fact, as Raba suggests, it is mazal, luck, that decides our matters of consequence; family, health, livelihood.
Mazal is an acronymn of three words: The mem stands for makom, meaning place. The zion stands for z'man, meaning time. And the last sound of the lamed stands for la'asot, referring to action. The combination of place, time and action is what accounts for most of our fortune, or misfortune.
I want to share a quote from Rabbi Soloveitchik. His words help us realize that although life may treat us harshly, we can still treat life beautifully.
Man is born as an object, dies an object, but it is within his capacity to live as a 'subject' - as a creator who impresses on his life his individual imprimatur and who lives autonomously. According to Judaism, man's mission in his world is to turn fate into destiny.
Our mission is to turn fate into destiny.
In college, a friend bought me a motivational poster that hung in my dorm room. Underneath a beautiful picture it read, Destiny is not a matter of chance - it is a matter of choice.
Rosh Hashanah is an opportunity for us of us to take the circumstances of life - the mazal of life - the cruel decree of life ... and turn it into destiny.
You may know that Judaism asks that each of us recite 100 blessings a day. There are a few dozen of them that are said during daily prayer. Beyond those, there are blessings we say when we see a rainbow, when we encounter a great scholar. There is a blessing for seeing the ocean for the first time in 30 days. Judaism provides ample opportunities for the blessing of what may erroneously seem like mundane experiences of life.
Often, a Jew practicing this tradition may have recited 80 or 90 blessings before the end of day, and so he/she must actively search for other blessings in order to get to 100.
And this is precisely the point. We don't rely on luck. As my favorite quote attests, Trust in God, but tie your camel. It is not up to God to do the work. It is up to us. It is up to me. It is up to you. Each of us has to find and create blessings for our lives. Each of us has to look up.
These 100 blessings serve as a perceptual catalyst. Because whereas we can easily focus on the difficult mazal of our lives, instead we can lift up our eyes. Instead of pain, we see hope. Instead of unfairness we see compassion. Instead of cruel fate we see destiny. These blessings do indeed temper judgement's severe decree.
Coincidentally, on Rosh Hashanah we traditionally hear 100 blasts of the shofar. One of the three blasts, Sh'varim, meaning broken, takes the sound of the Tekiah blast and breaks it into three shorter sounds.
Following other shofar calls, the shofar service climaxes with the resounding Tekiah G'dolah, the long unified blast of the shofar.
Tonight, I want us to think of the Sh'varim blasts as our fate. Brokenness enters our lives and is part of who we are. Tonight, we say Hineni to that brokenness. But as the divided blasts resonate with our fate, the Tekiah G'dolah can remind us of our destiny. The echoes of the loud blast help us to lift our eyes and see blessing, even amidst brokenness. Our lives can be the hopeful triumph of the Tekiah G'dolah.
I want to wish all of us not a happy new year, but a good new year. This is what L'shanah Tovah means. We do not say, L'shanah S'michah, Have a Happy Year. We say, Have a good year. As Soloveitchik suggests, each of us can take our fate and mold it into destiny. We do that not through circumstantial happiness, but through repentance, prayer, and charity. Actions do indeed temper judgement's severe decree. Actions lift up our eyes. Actions help us to see. Actions help us inscribe ourselves in the Book of Life, in which we will write our own destiny.
L'shanah Tovah. Have a year of goodness.