Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Rosh Hashanah

One can't help but feel uncomfortable during many parts of the Rosh Hashanah davening. I am not simply referring to the parts of davening that describe our existence as a fleeting cloud or dust in the wind. Nor of those that install fear in each of us as do the prayers that discuss the various tragic deaths that one might face. These certainly cause anxiety-like feelings and vivid images that hope to awake us from our sleep. I am referring to the parts of davening, which proclaim Hashem as merciful, slow to anger, as one who does not wish the death of even those deserving of it. As well as the prayers that describe the All Mighty as one who knows the innermost thoughts of man, which is to do what is good. We describe the Sacrifice of Yitzchak in great detail as if to say "Hashem, Don’t forget your promise." One can't help but feel that we are trying to, as if it were possible, swindle Hashem or pull the wool over his eyes and perhaps manipulate the judgment in our favor as one might do with a mortal judge.

Are we likening ourselves to a 6 year old in the principles office?

As one grows older, the Rosh Hashanah experience changes dramatically. The realization of our lives hanging in balance becomes more real with each passing year. It starts with the prospect of dating, then entering into a marriage, getting a job, having children and raising them, preparing them for the challenges that will confront them. We increasingly exposed to sickness, death, tragedy and countless other situations.

As we grow older prayers such as Unesaneh Tokkef take on new meaning.
When we were younger, it felt like all we needed was a backpack, a one-way ticket to Europe and a friendly youth hostel. Life changes so quickly to the point where we can no longer live on $100 a month and eat cold pizza for breakfast. People rely on us. Our responsibilities increase and intensify. Carefree days have been replaced with great dependencies and responsibilities.

When we were young, death was something that happened to soldiers, the elderly and distant relatives. For most of us it had no reality in our lives and has made the words of our Tefillos seem to have little meaning in reality. But while we have gained in our experience of the realities of life, we have lost as well. Young people have an inner energy, they cling to inspiration, believe that things change and that people change. Young people believe that we can make the world a better place. All we need is the determination and resolve to do it.

There is a story I was told about a meeting that took place amongst the great gedolim, perhaps the Moetzes. While I do not know the particular issue being discussed, it may have been to stop the spread of Loshen Hara. A younger Rosh HaYeshiva, who was a relatively new member of the group, stood up and began to describe in an animated way and in an excited voice ideas about what could be done. “We have to go around and get people and tell them and send letters and petitions.” An elderly Rosh HaYeshiva, who was an experienced member of the group, sat in his seat and without saying a word, simply motioned his hand that the younger fellow should sit down.

If only it were that simple to change the world.

But year after year we tell ourselves that we will drastically change, that next year we will not be the person we are today. Within time, we come to the conclusion, that basically I am the same person that I was a year ago and the year before that and so on.
We lose the determination to change and simply plead for our lives that Hashem, in his infinite mercy, should grant us another year.

So it seems that when we were young, we were optimistic and inspired but lacked the realization of the significance of what is at stake. When we are old, we are forever aware of our dependence on Hashem but we've lost our resolve to change.

In school, the focus is on passing. All the way from first grade until graduate school and beyond, you’ll hear one student ask the other "Did you pass?" Students will look at the questions that they got wrong, but has anyone ever witnessed a student, after the test looking up the right answers to the questions he got wrong? Parents will ask their children,” Did you pass?” The Grandparents ask the same question. Teachers will give you a grade but little matters more than "Did you pass?"

This is not true of all parents. There is a joke about a student who returned from his first semester at college and excitedly told his father that he was placed second in his class. His father asked “Nu, Why weren’t you first?” The student returned to school and tirelessly worked to come in first, hoping to win his fathers pride. When he returned from his second semester, the boy ran to his father and exclaimed,” Dad, I came in first! I was the head of the class!” His father thought for a moment and said “So, you cam in first. You were the best kid in the class.” The father paused for a moment and said, “Well, if you came in first, it must not be much of a school.”

Another oddity about the prayers of the day is how we seem to be praising Hashem for things he already knows. But more than that, in some cases, things which seem to hurt our case, at least potentially. Hashem never forgets. Everything is written down, both good and bad.
Perhaps the tefillos in Rosh Hashana Machzor are not so much about us reminding Hashem, as it is about us reminding ourselves. Perhaps, it is reminding ourselves that every action is significant, that every deed has consequence, that deep inside of us we want to do our best. Hashem is merciful, he will help you along. That nothing is forgotten. Perhaps the tefillah is not made to persuade Hashem, but its' purpose is to persuade ourselves. Its’ purpose is to convince ourselves who the king is and what our responsibilities are. Rosh Hashana is less about getting caught and trying to get out of being punished and more about being aware and learning from our mistakes.

The saddest part of Rosh Hashana is that it's been so long since we've done a cheshbon hanefesh that we shock ourselves at where we are. The proof that we'd never truly make an honest assessment of where we stand, if the holiday of Rosh Hashana did not exist, is that Rosh Hashana is the only time when we actually do a cheshbon hanefesh. We need to take advantage of the opportunity to realize our dependence on Hashem, how much he gives to us. We need to appreciate it and use it as springboards to inspire ourselves like we did when were young, but we need to be more focused and realistic. We need to be aware of what we need to change and work on changing one step at a time. It doesn't take a year to make changes, it takes 365 days. One day at a time.

Discover where you are lacking and work on it bit by bit. People have their own weakness. Set goals for yourself, it can't hurt to have 2 sets of goals, realistic and thinking big at the same time. Don't be satisfied that you passed or you "made it" thru the year, work on yourself, so that the next year you may not be a totally different person but you are much improved in some of those areas that were a problem for you the previous year. You will be a better "you." So when you say the tefillos not just on Rosh Hashana but everyday, let them pierce you heart, reach down to your innermost soul, because deep down all of us want to do good, with some syata dyshmaya, we just need to push ourselves to get there.


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