Rabbi Yossi Feintuch
Congregation Beth Shalom
Two rabbinic masters in the Talmudic period, R. Joshua and R. Eliezer disputed when the New Year actually begins. R. Joshua claimed that the world was created in Nisan -- the month of spring -- when we celebrate Pesah and nature that springs back to life in a myriad of shades of green from the dreariness of winter.
R. Eliezer disagreed. The world, he claimed, was created in Tishrei -- the month that begins tonight -- that marks the onset of fall. It is the time when "the leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange", a time of fading blooms and dying leaves.
As Rabbi Harvey Meirovich puts it: "Logic seems to dictate starting the New Year when nature erupts with fresh energy. Yet, here Jewish wisdom defies logic, casting a decisive vote for autumn. We are summoned to renewal precisely when autumn skies cast their lengthening shadows upon us, when nature's decay encompasses us."
Indeed, Judaism sided with R. Eliezer's view; new beginnings should emerge "when the spirit of death stalks the byways." Life can and must "start afresh even when standing on the threshold of decay."
Tragically, the catastrophe that befell America less than a week ago with the murderous destruction of thousands of lives of our fellow Americans, will catapult this nation to unity and camaraderie, and to the restoration of security and peace in our land and beyond.
From the smoking ruins and ashes in New York and our nation's capital, a new America that is determined to lead the free world to victory over the forces of evil shall emerge. America will manifest its resolve to choose life for itself and all nations that cherish the divine sanctity of life.
As Rabbi Harvey Meirovich puts it: "Faith is to trust not when all goes well, but particularly in the autumns and winters of our journeys, when shadows fall and feelings tend to sink".
Think of what happened a short time after the creation of Adam and Eve. What happened? Disaster struck. Can you imagine what it must have been for Adam and Eve to abide in Paradise and be expelled from it forever?
Rather than sink into an utter despair about their terrific loss, our first biblical ancestors chose to create a new existence for them. Far from despondency, Adam and Eve were determined to carry on with their changed-for-ever-new life.
For it is in their post-Paradise new environment that Adam and Eve created new life by giving birth to a new generation, Cain and Abel. Life could still be worthwhile living even outside Eden -- albeit life with challenges and hardships.
Alas, a second catastrophe would soon befall them as Cain killed Abel. Forced to become a fugitive for the rest of his life, Cain 'd never return back home.
Even in the face of this repeated disaster -- losing in a single day both of their children -- the symbols of their renewed life, Adam and Eve continued to hope and to believe in better days to come. In giving birth to Shet, their third child, they proclaiming to us in the words of
Israel's national anthem: OD LO AVDAH TIKVATENOO -- "Our hope is not yet lost".
In OPTing for life they invented OPTimism -- a signature characteristic of Israel's heritage, so poignantly evinced in the act of re-creating life especially in Europe's Displaced Persons' camps after the Shoah.
Did you know that there in those camps of Jews who survived Auschwitz and its likes, and who had no place to return or go to, the second highest birth rate in the world was registered?
The Jew's unique ability to resurrect himself and spring back into meaningful and constructive life was seen also after the Devastation that befell us with the two separate destruction of our people's Temple in Jerusalem, first by the Babylonians and five centuries later by the Romans.
It's not that our ancestors had only lost the very site where they could -- through the rituals of bringing offerings -- commune with God. In both instances when the Holy Temple was set to fire, our ancestors were also forced out of their land.
And just like Adam and Eve, the people Israel responded again and again to these and other monumental calamities, with a reaffirmation of Jewish
faith and hope as the study of Torah and doing mitzvot replaced the Temple's offerings of meat and grain.
Similarly, the message of hope in better and more peaceful days to come is evident in the significantly high birth in Europe's D.P.'s camps at the end of World War II.
The same goes for the reopening last week of the Jerusalem Sbarro Pizzeria that was destroyed only a few weeks ago by a suicide bomber (and his collaborators) inflicting a heavy death toll on innocent people.
Lance Armstrong, the American cyclist who has won the last three races of the Tour de France, the single most grueling sporting event on the face of the earth, is also a paragon example of what choosing life is all about.
For Armstrong first had to conquer an advanced testicular cancer before he could wear the highly prestigious yellow jersey of this cycling contest.
The road to healing and victory began for Armstrong when he resolved upon being diagnosed with cancer that "a slow death is not for me". Pondering his situation, he went through a serious introspection -- not unlike our own quest for being written in the Book of Life on these High
Holy Days -- and asked himself: "If I live, who is it that I intend to be? I found that I had a lot of growing to do as a man."
In his book: It's not about the Bike, My journey back to life Armstrong writes that to be a winner -- be it over a life-threatening disease or in a cycling race -- "You don't fly up a hill; you struggle slowly and painfully up a hill."
Yet, to translate this mindset into action proved to be formidable for him. The vigorous and intensive chemo treatment he had received did take a horrendous toll on his physical and mental capacities.
In a would-be comeback race Lance was trailing badly, fighting strong wind and cold rain. "All of a sudden, [he] lifted [his] hands to the tops of the handlebars . . . [and] pulled over."
L. Armstrong reflects on his abandonment of this race: "I didn't care if my teammates understood or not. I said goodbye and took off. I just didn't want to be there. I evaded my responsibility."
Armstrong's problem was that he saw himself as a victim -- as one who could not return to what he was before, or to who he had wanted to become.
What ultimately convinced Armstrong that he had to come back and take on the Tour De France race were the piercing words of his agent. When Armstrong seemed to have quit competitive cycling once and for all: "You are alive again, and now you need to get back to living."
But in order to make it happen, Armstrong understood that "the trick was not to climb mountains every once in a while but to climb repeatedly."
Also, to go and cycle again the all too familiar beaten roads that he had ridden before he became sick was not going to do it for him. He understood that in order to restore himself successfully he'd have to ride new roads where he had never been before.
The deal was to always find a new road, some place he hadn't been before. "I couldn't stand to ride the same road twice." "You need newness" -- he writes -- "even if half the time you end up on a bad piece of road, or get lost."
Friends, what does all this has to do with us, and with this first night of the New Year? I think quite a lot. If we want to restore ourselves, we will not be able to do it by climbing mountains every once in while.
And in the wake of the catastrophic disaster of this past year's last week, we are behooved to ask ourselves how we can choose life not only for ourselves and for our loved ones, but for our fellowmen and women as we begin this New Year.
Many of us have donated already blood and rushed our checks with much of our recent tax relief rebate back to where relief is sorely needed -- New York City with its thousands upon thousands of new widows, widowers and orphans. These bereaved folks did not only lose dear and near ones, they have also lost their main source of income.
If we cannot, however, comfort the frightened in New York, we could do so in OUR neck of the woods. Just expand the definition of who's frightened to include the sick, the needy, the new comer whose face you do not recognize, and those who are distressed over personal difficulties. It's much easier to spot and comfort such people in need than what it has been for the rescuers in down town Manhattan last week.
We choose life when we resolve to drive more courteously, and when we communicate with others more patiently. We choose life when we offer thanks and appreciation for help or service in our behalf, and when we volunteer more frequently where such help is in premium.
And we choose life when we do something good and nice to help someone -- tutor a kid at the library, or volunteer at a food bank. There are a million things you can choose from: such actions must not be temporal but life-long and life-sustaining practices. In short, we choose life when we strive for a higher level of mentshlichkeit -- Yidish for kindheartedness and gentleness.
When engaging ourselves in such work we block despair and depression from taking root in our hearts. In fact, folks who are engaged consistently in helping others generally live considerably longer. That's not wishful thinking. That's a medical fact.
By the same token, feeling and living Jewishly cannot be successful for us and for our children, if we do it only seldom, that is to say, once a year. To be successful in Jewish living -- a life that is meaningful, fulfilling and joyous -- we need to climb our mountains repeatedly. And we need new and renewing ways where we have not been in the past to make our practice productive and rewarding.
There are many ways to live Jewishly, all emanate and relate to Torah. But how many of us are worthy in earnest of being called -- that which others have called us: "The People of the Book"? And how would we know Torah if we shun our weekly Torah readings, or neglect to open the Bible or any other relevant book at home, at least on Shabbat?
How would we renew ourselves if we deprive our children AT HOME of a direct association between parental love and Jewish living? Is paying for tennis or piano more indicative of parental love? I hope not.
How would we find new ways for creating a new living if we travel without a road map? How would we know, for example, that our Bible forbids us to rejoice when our enemy, let alone a rival, falls, and that
Torah bids us to honor the elderly? In short, how would we know what is ethical or holy, if we do not even try to learn?
Jewish feelings alone are insufficient, and we all know where good intentions, devoid of a proper compass, might lead. Jewish feelings are good -- but they are nothing without Jewish doing. And we need to be an integral and an active part of a community, not only for the sake of the community, but for our own. As Lance Armstrong tells us, there's no winning in a race like Tour De France unless you have a reliable and dedicated team to support you.
Teammates are critical in cycling. They help each other and particularly the one with most prospects to win to conserve his strength on a severe climb. Teammates will chase down a rival sprinter by sitting on his wheel to slow him down, allow him to draft, and will protect their lead guy from crashes with other riders.
For the cyclist the team is called a peloton, for the Jew it is a minyan, a congregation, a people, humanity and creation. For America -- facing today THE threat of this new century to its and the Free World's way of life -- it is a global coalition that is resolved to eradicate the menace of worldwide radical and militant so-called Islam.
Any sport team must have a critical number of players without which it cannot play and win. When, as a player you're penalized and removed from the field, you hurt your team. And conversely, when a teammate wins, the victory belongs to all.
Sergei Khrushchev, (the son of Nikita, a prominent leader of the Soviet Union in the thick of the Cold War), explained similarly his recent decision to become a U.S. citizen. "I could have just stayed here with a green card, but my wife and I decided to be responsible -- to live here, to vote, not just to consume."
Friends, when we consume the High Holy Days services or an occasional Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony - but would not offer our time to needs within the community during the rest of the year -- we shirk one of our basic responsibilities as Jews.
When parents do not help their children evolve Jewishly by saying the Sh'ma with them twice a day, nor would they read or discuss with them a Jewish book, they deprive their child of critical team support.
The same hold true if parents do not take their children to the synagogue, or engage them in home rituals and tsedakah giving, or in other acts of loving-kindness.
When we allow the small core of volunteers in our Jewish community to shoulder alone again and again the onus of a task we neglect the duty of a teammate. And by neglecting to join regularly this community's services, we will miss hearing not only God's word, but we miss communal prayers for the sick; we miss standing with the bereaved in our midst.
Being a member of the people Israel commits us to be a teammate. Being an interested and active member of this community, however, is just the beginning of our Jewish identity and commitment.
There are national and world Jewish organizations that need our support even as we need their services and concern for various causes that affect us in this way or another. Resolve during these High Holy Days to join or support an additional Jewish organization and to subscribe to another Jewish periodical.
"Al tifrosh min Ha-tsiboor" -- Do not walk out on the community -- taught Rabbi Hillel. To be a responsible Jew is to be and live within a
community that supports you in a time of need, even as you support other fellows in their hour of need. Life is such that it compels us to help others at time, and others to help us when our cup has emptied out. This no different from the coalition of a global community that our Government seeks to unite these days in a war to uproot worldwide terrorism.
The questions we ought to ask and answer during these Ten Days Of Awe are whether we are in the peloton -- in the playing team -- of the Jewish community here in town? Are we true members of American and world Jewry? Have we advocated and supported in earnest the urgent vital needs of the State of Israel, our beleaguered and bleeding homeland?
Alas, our Israeli brethren who have faced brutal terrorism for most of Israel's fifty-three years of independence feel strongly that American Jewry seems to behave as if it is much, much farther than just 6,000 miles away from Israel. And that very few Jewish Americans seem to care. During last year, the year of intifada and misery for the people of Israel, our Israeli brethren felt very much alone. And we thought naively that radical Islamic terrorism had only to do with the particular situation of Israel alone, rather than seeing it as a mere tip of the iceberg.
You know, the human monsters who masterminded and perpetrated last week's heartless devastating assaults on the innocent in New York, outside Washington and in the skies of Pennsylvania believe (or believed) that they were the good guys -- the holy ones -- in contrast to their victims.
But we, who are assembled here tonight know that we are a people that is commanded to be holy, to aspire to holiness. We know, however -- and that's why we are here tonight -- that we are NOT perfect -- that we have quite a bit of mending to do; that OUR road to holiness is ALWAYS under construction.
As R. Ismar Schorsch reminds us: "We learn most from our failures. No other religion is quite so self-critical. Our Bible goes out of its way to record the flaws and errors of our people's loftiest leaders."
If King David admitted his egregious religious fumbling, should we be exempt from doing that? And if we had thought that we were beyond improving our day-to-day way of interacting with people about us, and beyond pushing forward our potential to better ourselves, we would have not come here to immerse ourselves in the annual High Holy Days experience.
Here's an interesting fact from our aviation history that might help you understand my point here. When American top pilots first attempted unsuccessfully to break the so-called "sound barrier"; many gutsy test pilots succumbed to the terrific air pressure in the cockpit as they approached Mach 1. Their planes disintegrated, and they fell to earth.
It was Chuck Yager, however, who had figured out that despite the almost unbearable shaking of the jet, once you hit and surpass the first mach, the turbulence ceases. It was Chuck Yager who discovered that, in fact, there is NO sound barrier, and that there is life beyond the seemingly unbearable travails that precede a breakthrough.
And Judaism, too, has survived and thrived in the aftermath of its own calamities bequeathing to us the belief in a world whose present troubles shall be overcome with our steadfast efforts.
So has Lance Armstrong demonstrated that new life can and must emerge from the 'falls' of our lives. And it is our own bruised and bleeding country today that believes and inspires others that it is imperative and possible to bring about better and more peaceful days than at the present. Though the task will be enormous it will be done.
My friends, this must be our challenge too. Our very being here tonight at the beginning of autumn attests also to our religious fall; a time when we take note of our yellowed Jewish commitments, a time when we become aware of our languished Jewish practices and fallen ideals -- a time when our inner peace is deeply shaken. And we, too, understand that such a state of our affairs must change.
Like the anguished Adam and Eve upon their expulsion from the Garden, like our devastated Rabbis upon the demise of the Temple, and like Lance Armstrong -- enfeebled and dispirited following his chemotherapy and like the diminished New York and Washington -- we too can and must begin once again. We will choose a renewed life.
Our rebirth can come, but it will come only through force of will! God has called upon us to finish the work of our own and then the world's creation. In the words of R. Eric Yoffie on September 11, 2001: "We are tragically reminded that the human capacity for evil will not die. We have the perpetual task of proving that the human capacity for good will be at least as resilient."
Let us hope and pray that the New Year will lead us to the will and ability to cull from our personal inventories of disappointments, failures and sorrows the wherewithal to be born again into more enriched and rewarding living.
For if we believe and trust in the ultimate triumph of good over evil, then we must do more and more to tap persistently into the reserves of the potential good in us, and put them to frequent use guided by the light of Torah.
As we answer this challenge with renewed and strengthened resolve, we will once again feel the joy of knowing that OUR road to choosing life is always under construction.