Rosh HaShanah 5772

Rosh HaShanah 5772
Living Life in 3-D
Rosh HaShanah 1st Day
B’nai Jeshurun Congregation
Rabbi Hal Rudin-Luria

Avatar was James Cameron’s film designed to change the movie going experience. Shot in the most advanced 3 Dimensional technology, the movie seemed to come to life on the screen. With 3D movies, televisions, phones and medical imaging, we can nearly catch a Colt McCoy football pass, scuba dive in the barrier reef, avoid a mobster’s gunfire or perform intricate surgery. Before there was 3D, we suffered with 2 dimensional views of sports games and movies, viewing only a screen’s length and width- a flat perspective. And then the stereoscope was invented projecting an image that was more solid. Remember those old paper fold-out red and blue 3D glasses, they helped to bring a new perspective on the screen, on paper and most importantly on life. Three dimensional movies and television add a third dimension, depth, transforming flat images into something amazing. The same can be said of our own lives, adding a new dimension, not only improves our image quality but adds depth and meaning.

There are many stories and teachings of the Talmudic rabbi known simply as Hillel- a leader of the Jewish people two thousand years ago, known for his patience, kindness, wisdom, attentive listening, hospitality and humility. In Pirkei Avot, Teachings of the Sages found in the Mishnah, Hillel presents three key lines of advice meant to enhance our lives. Famous for answering questions on one-foot, Hillel gives us his three-fold practical guide for living a life with purpose- or better, teaching us how to live in 3-D.

אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי
If I am not for myself, who am I?
וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי.
If I am only for myself, what am I?
וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי
If not now, when?


אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי
If I am not for myself, who am I?

Fitness trainers focus on strengthening one’s core, creating exercises specifically designed to enhance core strength in order to improve one’s entire flexibility and vigor. Hillel, our Rosh HaShanah trainer, advises us to start with the core, our core, ourselves. On Rosh HaShana, we can ask ourselves, who am I? and find the means for self-improvement. The Torah teaches “Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” we must first begin by loving ourselves and only then can we love someone else. Think about the safety announcement on an airplane before takeoff- in case of emergency, oxygen masks will drop down in front of you. Please put the mask on over face. If you are traveling with small children, please put your mask on before assisting any other passengers. Before we can help anyone else, we must help ourselves.
Rashi explains Hillel’s teaching in this way, “If I do not care for myself, why should anyone else help me?” We cannot rely on others to “fix” us or make us right, step one is to focus effort into improving our character and making us better. Like the two dimensional flat television, our goal this year is to elevate and enhance our lives and actions.

During Rosh HaShana and the ten days of repentance, we are advised to look at our own qualities and focus on our traits that need improvement. Impatience, excessive pride, anger, dishonesty, overspending, poor time management, each of these traits need core training to enhance and turn them into personal strengths like patience, humility, calmness, honesty and being well organized. Celebrating Shabbat, making Havdallah on Saturday night, studying the weekly Torah portion, going to Israel, keeping kosher- Jewish rituals and traditions train us to find spiritual fulfillment. This is a time for strengthening our core, self-discovery, growth and transformation. What will be your new Jewish dimension this year?

The Chafetz Chayim, a leading rabbi in the late 1800s, was asked how he was able to have such an impact making the world a better place. He answered, “I set out to try to change the world but I failed. So I decided to scale back my efforts and only try to influence the Jewish community of Poland, but I failed there, too. So I targeted the community in my hometown of Radin, but achieved no greater success. Then I gave all my effort to changing my own family, and failed at that as well. Finally, I decided to change myself and that’s how I had such an impact on the Jewish world.”

If I am not for myself, who am I? If I do not keep the commandments and follow higher ethical values, then who else will do these for me? The Talmud teaches, Save one life and you save an entire world. If we transform ourselves this new year maybe we will be just one step closer to saving an entire world.

וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי.
If I am only for myself, what am I?

Maimonides suggests that we understand this as a personal challenge. Since it is within my power to perform good deeds, why have I not done more? What kind of person am I? I prefer the interpretation that most rabbis take, seeing this second dimension of Hillel’s teaching as looking out to others, our community and world. If I think only about my own self-worth and elevation, “how great am I really?” Meiri restates the lines as, If I am only living for myself and not for others, what am I, nothing more than a beast and not worthy of being called a human being.

There was once a king who was visiting a town. In preparation for the king’s visit, the town decided to fill a giant barrel with wine and present it to the king upon his arrival. Where were they going to get so much wine to fill the giant barrel? They came up with a brilliant idea; each family of the town would bring one flask filled with wine and pour it into the giant barrel and this way the barrel would fill with wine. They placed a Giant barrel in the center of the town with a ladder reaching to the top, and every day people lined up to pour their flask of wine into the barrel.

The day finally arrived and the king visited the town. The people were so excited to present the king with this wonderful gift. The king was shown the barrel and was given a special goblet. They filled his goblet from the giant barrel. The towns people were shocked by the look on the king’s face as he drank the wine, the king was obviously very unhappy. When asked why he was so unhappy he responded, “It’s just plain water”.

How could it be that the wine barrel was filled with water? Each person thought to themselves surely no one will notice if there is just one flask of water among all that wine. Everyone in the town made the same decision that their contribution to society was not valuable or crucial. When they climbed the tall ladder to fill the barrel, every single member of the town poured in water. Every single member of the community was relying on someone else to make the proper choice. Not one soul felt a sense of responsibility.

In our synagogue, community and world, everyone’s contribution is vital. Whether it is vocal support for Israel, donations to Jewish Federation and the synagogue’s machar campaign or volunteering in the library or kitchen, we need “u” to make us a community. How can you help fill our barrel with wine? Our Chesed social action programs including many of the Tikkun Olam programs from Congregation Bethaynu require the contributions of many of you to cook and deliver food to families dealing with health and financial crises, volunteer with Chesed at the Cleveland Food Bank, join our Tovim program and regularly helping to make a minyan or participate in the many groups within the synagogue. These are just a few barrels in which you can pour your nourishing support. I challenge you to find your barrel to help fill in the community.

Midrash Shmuel comments on Hillel’s second dimension, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” by focusing on the word “for myself l’atzmi” and connecting it with the word otzem which means strength. He restates the teaching to say I must have my own strength and also bring my strengths to others. The first dimension teaches that we have an obligation to be good. This second dimension adds that we must make others good too. When I have fixed and transformed myself, have I truly fulfilled my obligations? The only way to move to the third dimension is to go out and help others and to transform their lives. In the language of spiritual ethics or mussar we call this bearing the burden of our neighbor, when we reach out to share responsibilities or share burdens, we have lightened the load when it is carried by more than one person.

וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי
If not now, when?

Hillel’s third and final teaching can be likened to a television infomercial which constantly echoes, “Hurry, offer ends soon so don’t delay as operators are standing by.” In our instantaneous on-line and on-demand world, we live in the now. Time is precious, a moment wasted is a moment lost. Rebbe Yona ben Avraham comments, “Let no one say, ‘Today I am busy with work; tomorrow I will turn to the task of perfecting myself.’ Perhaps, the opportunity will never present itself. And even if it does, that today has vanished and an opportunity lost; it can never again be recovered.”

Living a three dimensional life means living in the Present- achshav- right now. The word “Hayom” or “Today” reverberates throughout the High Holiday prayerbook, most especially in the closing prayer of the Amidah- Hayom T’amzeinu- today, God strengthen us so that we may live in the now and make this new year like no other filled with blessings transforming ourselves and our community.

Living in the now is not always easy because too often we are stuck in yesterday’s past or have our mind focused on tomorrow’s future. Our past enriches us, guides us to avoid prior mistakes and history teaches us our place. Living in the now does not mean forgetting the past but rather using those experiences to more fully experience life in the moment. The future is a great motivation to make the best choices today for tomorrow. A truly satisfied and full life means constantly creating opportunities for a better future. Yet another secret of living in 3-D is the ability to live in the three dimensions of time: past, present and future.

Today, our Ba’al Tekiah sounds three different shofar notes reminding us of Hillel’s three dimensions to living a full life. Teruah, the short, piercing, staccato individual notes reminiscent of crying remind us that we are in the end responsible for ourselves and must work on our own improvements. Teruah notes are broken and shattered teaching us to look inside our brokenness to mend our ways. It is important to note that the rabbis require that the entire teruah be sounded in one breath with no pause alluding to the fact that though we may be individuals, we can only be whole when we join one another. Shevarim, the three longer notes though still broken, remind us that we have to bring our community and world together as one. Maimonides teaches shevarim resembles the deep sigh of one who is distressed leading us to action for others. Shevarim is actually a special type of teruah note and teruah is related to the word “re’ut” which means friendship, the connections we make with others as we reach out our hands to build community. Tekiah, the long whole note which is the beginning and final shofar call, is our alarm clock reminding us that it is the time for action. Tekiah means to thrust, that we should jump up and live fully in the moment. Hillel says, If we do not take advantage of every available moment in our lives to advance, develop and progress, then when will we be able to save our souls?

Centuries ago in the shtetl, Rabbi Israel Salanter once saw a shoemaker working late into the night by the light of a flickering candle. When the rabbi asked him why he did not stop working and go to sleep, the shoemaker responded, “As long as the candle is burning, it’s possible to mend.” You do not need James Cameron’s Avatar to show you real-life in 3-dimensions- just open your eyes, your heart and your soul with Hillel’s threefold advice- to work on ourselves, our world, hayom- today. May we all be inscribed in the book of life for a happy, sweet and healthy three-dimensional year.

Shana Tova U’Metukah