Sermon by Rabbi Mark Melamut on Rosh Hashanah
There was once a King who had an only child, the apple of his eye. The King wanted his child to master different fields of knowledge and to experience various cultures, so he sent the child off into the world to do some traveling, supplied with a generous quantity of silver and gold. Far, far away from home, the child squandered all the money until nothing was left. In distress the child resolved to return to his Father’s home and after much difficulty managed to arrive at the gate of the courtyard of the palace. Given the passage of time he had forgotten the language of the native country and was unable to identify himself to the guards. In utter despair the child cried out in a loud voice and though much time had passed the King recognized his voice. The King left the throne to be reunited with his dear one. Bringing his child back home, he held onto him tightly, hugging and kissing him with all of his heart. (“Cry of the Prince” by the Baal Shem Tov) Tears of reunion and happiness streamed from their eyes, as the King whispered, “Welcome home my child. Welcome home.”
We are the children of a divine mother/father/holy one, and each of us is literally the apple of G-d’s eye. If you haven’t thought of yourself in this way, then know that on Rosh Hashanah it is true. Perhaps it’s even a secret reason behind eating apples and honey rather than any other fruit. G-d wants us to experience the world, to become knowledgeable about it, its diverse cultures and people, as well as about science, literature, nature, and every other subject. The world is our laboratory and every single thing in it is of importance. Ok, it also helps to have a little jingle of silver and gold in our pocket, some parnassah, or honored way to simply make a living, too. As the apple of G-d’s eye, we’ve been gone for a year, wondering and wandering around, perhaps lost in mission or purpose, having strayed from goals we set, or remaining too firmly on paths of habits that made us stray farther and farther from home. In the story nothing is left to the child having depleted his resources. I think we refer to this today as the boomerang generation. This is when we first hear the word, perhaps the most important word for this time of year, the word “return.”
The child, as do we, begins to return, to make the journey back, back to G-d, back to our family, back to our friends, back to ourselves. On Rosh Hashanah we arrive at the gate or the courtyard, sitting in our seats here in the sanctuary, having gone through another year of experience on this earth. We may be elated or sad, depleted or full, richer or poorer, loved or isolated, full of fear or swelling with courage, or some combination of all of the above. Like the child we may have forgotten the language – of prayer, of love, of Jewish life and ritual – and our identities may be in need of dusting off or polishing up. And so, we all cry out, in song and in prayer and then even more over the next couple of days with the wail of the shofar. No matter what and where we’ve been, and what we’ve done, we begin to fall into the embrace of a deep hug, not a one shoulder open hug, but a full hearted bear hug, with a kiss and an intimate embrace from Hakadosh Baruch Hu, You Know Who, the Holy One who is Blessed! G-d recognizes each and every one of our voices, gets up out of that Holy Seat on High, opens the door, and says, “Welcome home.” And, so, the New Year is a time to celebrate!
As we open the Book of Life together this Rosh Hashanah, I begin with a simple question. Isn’t it true that life is essentially a story that each of us lives out chapter by chapter? We hope no one judges us by our covers, and we do our best to make for interesting reading and hopefully a nice ending. Some of our lives are real page turners and some are a little slower with very deliberate plot lines. Some are more fiction-like, more or less funny or serious, and some like a fascinating biography. Regardless, we each begin a new chapter in our lives this evening as we welcome in the New Year. Though our prayer books are filled with words written by others, we stare this evening at the blank page that is waiting to be filled in as we begin this new chapter of our lives. If we pause for a moment, what chapter title can you think of for this, your next and newest chapter?
As we begin this new chapter we settle in with a special and prescribed nosh. This is not a salty bag of chips or even a nice chocolate bar, though those would be nice. Rather, we begin with a round challah and the sweet/tart combination of crunchy apples and golden honey. While we keep food away from our books, our Kindles and our computers, we go ahead and get a little messy with these New Year treats, as if to acknowledge that, of course, life is also tart and sweet, sticky, and messy. Beyond the savory/sweet dichotomy of the rest of the year, Rosh Hashanah’s celebration and themes transport us to the core, to the center of life’s core, and to what really matters.
With our lives an open book, our hands sticky and gooey, our mouths full, and our hearts full from a year past, what else can we say, other than, Welcome! Welcome everyone.
Beyond celebration, the New Year is also a time to reflect, refine, retool, and renew our commitment to better living! Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the bookends to the Aseret y’maei tshuva, the ten days of returning and turning, realigning and reorienting ourselves. At Rosh Hashana we begin to make a turn and these couple of days put the brakes on in our daily lives in order to allow us to successfully make the turn. Rosh Hashanah puts us in the position to make a change but it doesn’t just happen on its own. Rather, it empowers us to, how does the saying go, to be the change we want to be, or as Andrew put it so well for us last year, “Stretch; don’t kvetch.”
There are buckets full of ways to do this. I’m guessing many of us may try new techniques here and there and likely return to ones that are either more or less helpful based on our life experience. Change is not a “one size fits all” and has to be individualized and sized right. For me, the more front and center I place the changes I want to make in my daily life, the more likely I’ll at least think about the behavior modification that I’m aiming for. Doing it, of course, is another story.
This brings us to the one word I’d like to highlight this evening, “Buckets.” It’s a wonderful word with lots of associations – there’s the game kick the bucket, or the phrase kick the bucket down the road, symbolizing our putting things off and procrastinating. Of course there’s kick the bucket in the sense of “thank G-d I’m still here and didn’t kick the bucket yet!” There’s making a bucket list, signifying the things we still want to do in our life that we haven’t yet done. Rosh Hashanah can be a good time to create, update, and even meditate upon this list.
But, I’m actually thinking of two other specific buckets, two images and ideas which represent different approaches to allowing this Rosh Hashanah to be a real touchstone or catalyst for bettering ourselves in the New Year. Here’s the first bucket. You’ll remember I’m sure this phenomenon from last summer, the Ice Bucket Challenge. It’s been picked up again this year with the hashtag #EVERYAUGUSTUNTILACURE. It is of course sponsored by the ALS Association, which raises funds to fight amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), known also as Lou Gehrig’s disease. I recently watched the “how to” take the ice bucket challenge video and was entertained and inspired. Whether or not we give to ALS, it is the idea of the challenge and some of the wording which got me thinking of its application for us at Rosh Hashanah. Giving to a good cause of your choice is of course a meaningful way to begin the New Year, but I was intrigued by the video’s instructions for taking the challenge. Perhaps they are also instructive and relevant as a Rosh Hashanah message.
Written in a kind of Jewish way the title of the video is: So you want to take the ALS ice bucket challenge – a helpful how to guide for the ice bucket challenged.
The how to video includes 4 easy steps which I’ve adapted for this evening’s purpose:
1. ACCEPT: Accept the challenge; you will need frozen water, liquid water, a bucket and of course, courage.
2. RECORD: Take a video of yourself dumping a bucket of ice water over your head to increase awareness of ALS; you may also wish to gather family and friends so they can laugh at you in person.
An addition is included for those sensitive to the current environmental challenge. What if I live in a drought area, should I still take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge? Yes! Here are some ideas for how you can still participate in the #ALSIceBucketChallenge if you live in a drought area: Take the challenge in an existing body of water (lake or ocean, for example); be creative and fill your bucket with an alternate substance like spare buttons, kale or good karma; or, bypass the first few steps of the challenge and just make a donation to support the ALS community.
3. UPLOAD: Upload your video to social media, tagging/challenging at least three of your friends to take the challenge
4. Finally, if no one has challenged you yet, then consider yourself challenged.
The video ends with the question, “What are you waiting for?”
Here’s my application to this eve – Rosh Hashanah is the great ice bucket challenge that occurs every year into perpetuity, hashtag #EVERYYEARUNTILWELLUNTILFOREVER. What are the challenges facing us this year? What was dumped on us last year and what will be dumped on us this year? Do we accept the challenges of the year to come? As the saying goes “it is what it is” but, whatever it is going to be, we’ll need buckets of patience, love, and of course, as noted, courage. Just like the actual dumping is recorded, all that we do is said to be recorded in the great book of life, in the Rosh Hashanah ledger if you will. And, like in the challenge, it is essential that we gather friends, family and community for the purpose of laughter and support. Rosh Hashanah, literally “the head of the year” is like the bucket being dumped on our heads, in order to wake us up to life and to raise awareness about better living. So, as in the final step, consider yourself challenged. “What are we waiting for?” Rosh Hashanah’s message is that we can’t wait. Tomorrow and the next day and the next may be too late.
As for the second and aforementioned bucket, it’s not one full of frozen water to be dumped over our heads, but rather an imaginative platform for us to use as we relate to our friends and family, ourselves, and all of those whom we encounter on a day to day basis as human beings. Here we encounter a different question. Not what are we waiting for, but how full is your bucket? Here’s how it works. Put together by Tom Rath and Donald Clifton in their book “How Full is Your Bucket?” and applicable to personal, business and really all relationships. The theory is that each of us has our own personal and invisible bucket that floats above our head. Go ahead and take a moment to see if you can picture your bucket and then take a look around to picture your neighbor’s bucket. And now imagine the whole sanctuary full of these buckets.
When our buckets are full we feel great and when they are depleted we feel badly. Each time we don’t act in accord with kindness, sensitivity, or positive thoughts, drops slowly drip from our buckets and from those with whom we relate. And the opposite holds true as well. When we treat others well drops of water plink into our buckets and the buckets of those with whom we interact. You know how it goes, some days our buckets feel more empty and some days they’re more full. This week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and further into the year, the challenge is to think and act in a way that works to fill all of our buckets rather than depleting them. Whether it’s mitzvot like tzedaka, welcoming visitors, tikkun olam, comforting the sick or participating in prayer and ritual life, we can all benefit from considering on a daily basis how to fill our buckets and the buckets of those around us. What better time of year than now to ask ourselves, “How full is our bucket?”
In closing, we are all now well equipped to walk into the year with two buckets. One is full of ice water, virtually dumped upon us at the rosh, the head of the year, while the other floats invisibly above our rosh, above our heads. I invite us to not wait any longer, to commit to taking the Rosh Hashanah challenge for life betterment. To spend some time considering how full our buckets really are. To ask what it is that we can do or say and how we can behave in order to keep our collective buckets as full as possible. This leaves us then with just one question.
“Are you ready to take the challenge?”