Rosh HaShanah 5771
Pump Your Brakes
Rabbi Hal Rudin-Luria
Have you ever wondered why these days are called the High Holidays? Are we climbing to new heights this year to get a new perspective on our life? I must admit that I have a horrible fear of heights- so I am glad that ladders and parachutes are not part of our High Holiday rituals. The Hebrew name for these days is yamim nora’im- the days of awe and trepidation- so maybe it is OK that I approach the subject of heights with quite a bit of fear. Several years ago, during a cross-country trip we visited Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs. Anyone who has visited Israel will remember their trip to the top of Masada at sunrise and the difficult climb up the curving snake path. Now imagine driving up a mountain with no guardrails, where the last few miles at the skinny tip is unpaved and filled with hairpin turns- where there is not enough room to legally call it a two lane road but somehow cars, vans and buses are driving up and down that narrow road simultaneously. Thankfully, we made it to the top of the mountain without much fanfare- sharing stunning views- looking out for miles- more than 14,000 feet high at the peak- our breath was taken away by the shear beauty of nature and God’s majesty. Standing at its peak felt like being on top of the world. After buying the requisite souvenirs stating, I survived the climb up Pikes Peak- the adventure had only just begun.
We now had to begin the hour long 13 mile drive down circling around the curves of the mountain- again with no guard rail to protect us as we drove literally through the clouds and the sky back to earth. Big signs warned me as a driver not to pump my brakes during the descent for fear that the brakes would overheat and become unusable- unable to stop a cars plummet down the mountain. With great trepidation and fear, especially for a person deathly afraid of heights, we began our drive down the mountain and its 156 curves. Gripping the wheel tightly, sweat pouring down my forehead- driving slowly and surely with great patience and care not to step too hard or often on my brakes, we made it to the half-way checkpoint. There, park rangers literally got under our car to check the temperature of our brakes- if they were too hot- we would have to pull over and wait until they cooled down. After the thorough check of our brakes, the park ranger gave us the thumbs up- we had not pumped our brakes too much- they were in good shape to keep our drive slow and stop us if necessary. So we continued our descent to the bottom of the mountain, still carefully watching how often to step on the brake and watch the sides so as not to veer too far off the narrow gravel road. Thankfully, we finally made it to the bottom of the mountain, a bit frazzled and exhausted, simply grateful to be back on solid ground. Although we took this trip more than ten years ago, I still remember it clearly- especially that warning at the top of the mountain- do not pump your brakes.
With technological advances and new anti-lock brakes, drivers are advised no longer to pump the brakes- but to simply press down and let the brakes work on their own. Today’s car manuals teach us to avoid pumping our brakes in times of trouble in order to gain control of our vehicles. However, when I learned how to drive, my mother taught me to pump my brakes to prevent the wheels from locking in bad weather. When conditions got rough, I was advised to pump those brakes to gain control of the situation.
Rosh HaShanah, our new year, truly is a time to pump our brakes- to slow down and gain better traction and control of our lives- whether we are veering out of control off the road, sliding down the side of a tall mountain, dealing with joys and oys of life- illness, loss, milestone birthdays or the birth of a child or grandchild, sending off a child to college or simply pausing in the midst of our joyous celebration of the new year together as a congregation. Slowing down allows us stop and take a look at ourselves- we can look back at the year that was to gain better insight, recognizing how we have grown over the past year, measuring our successes and achievements and our failures, and we can rightfully acknowledge the challenges we have worked through and those we still need to approach.
How does it feel to ride in a car when someone is pumping their brakes? We get nauseous for it feels very uncomfortable, not smooth, more like a bucking bronco. This process of slowing down and becoming more aware of what we are able to control in our lives is difficult. It can be unsettling and even make us nauseous. However, it teaches us to live more in the moment and to act with intention. The Hebrew word for a conscious action is kavana. To describe kavanah, the rabbis use the metaphor of an archer- who must have deep concentration while shooting an arrow at the bullseye. Slow and steady, the archer lines up, lets go of the arrow and hits the mark. When one misses the mark and goes off target, the rabbis call this “chet” or sin- and then it is necessary to realign oneself with total concentration to find the proper path to the target. Standing atop the mountain of the new year today and slowing down, we can gain better awareness of our lives. One way in our own family that we attempt to teach intentional living to our children is that our dinner table each evening, we do not to rush through dinner or stare at the television. We attempt to spend quality time, talking and go around the table allowing everyone to reflect on their day and share two good deeds they performed. We hope to instill a greater sense of awareness and intention into our children and ourselves.
During the holidays, we often use the thirteen Divine Attributes of God as a model to follow for our own lives- among them are the qualities to be forgiving, loving, compassionate and patient. Patience in Hebrew is savlanut- and I remember my first time in Israel- driving around in the sherut- the shared taxi cab from the airport to my hotel- stuck in traffic in Jerusalem- and all the drivers yelling the words savlanut to each other. Every single driver in Israel seemed to be advising my taxi driver and myself- to be patient- to pump the brakes- slow down- to not let life pass by- but to switch lanes, open my eyes with kavanah and enjoy the amazing sights of Jerusalem. Patience helps us to avoid getting all worked up when life does not seem to go the way we would like it to. Savlanut, patience, reminds us that even though there are many things in life that we cannot control- there are also so many things that are within our control to change and make for the better.
The Talmud shares this story about savlanut, patience. Rav Preida had a student that needed to be taught a lesson four hundred times before he could grasp the teaching. One day, while Rav Preida was teaching this student, someone interrupted their studies and told the rabbi that they needed his help after he was done teaching. After he finally completed the four hundredth repetition of the teaching, Rav Preida asked his student if he understood the lesson. The student replied no. The Rabbi asked why and the student explained that from the moment they were interrupted he was distracted and lost concentration, worried that soon his teacher would have to leave before he fully understood the lesson. The rabbi could have left at that moment, for he did teach the same lesson four hundred times already to his student. However, the rabbi relied on his patience and intention to properly impart his knowledge onto his student. And so the rabbi replied, “Well if that is so, then let me teach you the lesson again.” The rabbi repeated the teaching four hundred more times. When he finished a voice called out from Heaven, “Rabbi, you have acted well- what reward would you like, four hundred more years added to your life or that your entire generation will be received in the most beautiful place in Heaven.” He chose that his generation should receive a special place in Heaven. The Heavenly voice answered, “Give him both.” For the rabbi’s great patience, an entire generation was rewarded with peace and long life.
Living a life of patience does not mean that we should be living a passive life- letting life pass us by as we sit motionless on the shoulder of the road. Maimonides teaches that we should strive to live in the middle path- the middle lane- to avoid extremes- like driving down the middle of that single lane road down Pikes Peak. With regard to the trait of patience, one should not bring one’s life to a stand still being so hesitant and slow, unable to act or move throughout the day, similarly, we should not be totally impulsive and impatient. We cannot race through life at break-neck speed missing those moments to be with family, to help those in need and to simply enjoy life. Simon and Garfunkel advise us in their classic song, “Slow down, you move too fast. You got to make the morning last. Just kicking down the cobble stones. Looking for fun and feelin' groovy.”
This year at B’nai Jeshurun we offer many opportunities for you to pump your brakes, slow down and feel groovy. You can join us for learning in our Thursday morning or evening classes, featuring a new Weingold Forum lecture series on ethics and current events each week this fall. Our three daily minyan services offer a brief time each day to connect with God, to pray the words of our heart and to find our some daily sense of peace. Our chesed group continues to offer experiences to give of your time to help those in need and we need your help to plan for this winter’s Mitzvah Day. Many of our members are now in nursing homes, assisted living or homebound- we would like to create a sunshine committee to reach out those members that may have more difficulty making it to the synagogue as often as they used to and bring B’nai Jeshurun to them. Finally, there is nothing like Shabbat- the ultimate weekly pump your brakes moment. Whether celebrating with us at services or at your home Friday night by lighting candles and sitting down to dinner with challah and wine, turning off the blackberry and not answering calls or email or spending Saturday studying the parshah, praying or playing board games with the family- Shabbat gives us all a chance to slow down in order to wake up and truly experience life with intention.
While driving a few weeks ago, I passed a street sign which read “Do not engage engine brakes within these city limits.” I almost pulled over to stare in disbelief at this sign. Was the sign advising me not to slow down or stop at a red light or not to stop if there is a car or pedestrian in the road in front of me? And what about when life seems to be barreling downhill or following its own weary course- should I not be pumping my brakes to get on to the proper path? After a little bit of research, I learned that this sign was intended for truck drivers and a truck’s special engine brake which makes a loud noise when it is engaged. You’ve probably heard when a large bus or truck lets out a huge burst of steam in a loud blast as it comes to a quick stop. The street sign cautions drivers to avoid using those distracting brake noises that would literally stop traffic and wake up the neighbors.
Rosh HaShanah is the day to engage those brakes- to stop traffic and wake up the neighbors. Today is the day when we must let out our steam or at least the shofar blower can share some of his hot air. Like the Mack Truck’s loud engine brakes- the shofar stops traffic and everyone listens to its call. Rosh HaShanah is known in the Torah as Yom Teruah- the day of shofar blasts- for on this day- the shofar blasts are meant to awaken us to repent and return to the proper path- in the words of Maimonides- the shofar is saying, “Awake, O you sleepers, awake from your sleep and slumber!” In Biblical times, the Shofar blast was associated with a call to war and defense, the assembly of the people and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai- but for us today, the shofar tells us to pump our brakes- to slow down and look inside ourselves to live a life filled with intention. The rabbis say that if the shofar is blown in a city and its citizens do not tremble and repent- it is as if the shofar was never sounded. There are of course different shofar notes- framed by the strong and firm tekiah- the shevarim and teruah are the middle notes- they are both broken- evoking the groaning and wailing one is supposed to express on this day. It implies that we are shaken, approaching the patient process of soul-searching with great trepidation, almost fear, whereas the tekiah is more of a note of fanfare announcing that the king, God, has decreed that our lives may be blessed for a year of health, happiness and peace. Rosh HaShanah is not called Yom Tekiah but rather Yom Teruah- reflecting that our hearts should be broken as we look back on the past year- did everything go exactly as we had planned- did we fulfill all those promises we made- did we always make the best choices or say the kindest words?
On Rosh HaShanah, the obligation is not to blow the shofar but rather to hear the shofar notes. It does not matter if the shofar calls are strong and piercing or weak and hesitant, what matters is that we hear them and that we listen to their plea to pump our brakes- to slow down and change lanes. Interestingly, the closing blessing for the Shofarot section of the special Mussaf prayer of Rosh HaShanah reads- baruch atah Hashem shome’a kol teruat amo yisrael berachamim- Praised are You God who listens with compassion to the sounds of the teruah of Your people Israel. In essence, the prayer ends with the firm belief that God will respond to our heartfelt cries and soul-searching- our reactions to hearing the shofar blasts- the notes that we hit when we pump our brakes and seek out the ways to improve ourselves for the coming year through sincere teshuvah- seeking forgiveness, when we acknowledge all the good in our lives and slow down to live with kavana.
May we all pump our brakes and learn to be a little more patient this coming year. May we like the rabbi of the Talmud be blessed by being inscribed for a year of peace, patience, love, health and happiness. Shana Tova.
Rosh HaShanah 5771