Rosh Hashanah - 5774
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis
The story is told of a mother who called up the stairs to her son: “Get up! It’s time to go to shule.”
The son said, “Aw, Mom, I don’t want to go to shule. The people there all make fun of me. They don’t really like me. Nobody there ever listens to what I say. I’d rather stay home in bed.”
The mother said, “But son, you’ve got to go.”
The son said, “Give me 2 good reasons.”
The mother replied, “Well for one thing it’s Rosh Hashanah; and, for another, you’re the rabbi!”
Well, it’s Rosh Hashanah and I’m here and so are you! There’s something extra special about this Rosh Hashanah, however, and this New Year. It’s the earliest Rosh Hashanah can ever be. I have a 200-year Jewish calendar book and I looked it up. The last time Rosh Hashanah was as early as September 5th was 1899!! I couldn’t find a year in the future when it might occur again. The great Talmudic commentary, “Google,” seems to indicate that it will never happen—at least not in our lifetime!
Our machzor, our High Holy Day prayer book, today declares when we blow the shofar: Hayom harat olam, “Today the world is born.” Notice, it doesn’t say, “Today the world was born,” but, “Today is the world is born.” It’s phrased in the present tense because on Rosh Hashanah of each year, creation is completely renewed all over again. This means, that no matter what has happened before, in this New Year new things will happen, new things will be created that we’ve never seen. Hopefully, for our tumultuous world, it will mean a path to peace and prosperity. Tomorrow I will comment more on what the New Year bodes for the world and for Israel.
Today—the 1st day of Rosh Hashanah—our focus should be on our personal lives. What will this New Year mean for you and for me? Well, the other night, while flipping through the TV channels and contemplating the mystery of having hundreds of channels but not finding one thing interesting to watch, I came across a Christian minister speaking. Usually I would just continue on to the next channel, but I heard him say something that caught my attention. So I rewound it and wrote it down. He said: “Gd is about to do something in your life that you’ve never seen. Gd is about to take you where you could not go on your own. Gd is about to show you favor in ways that you never imagined. It’s going to be unprecedented—out of the norm, unlike anything that you’ve seen.”
Wow! Now that’s a message for me! I’m not saying that this minister is well versed in the Codes of Jewish law, but it occurred to me that this is really a Rosh Hashanah message. According to Rabbi Yosef Caro (Beyt Yosef 584) who wrote the Shulchan Aruch, Rosh Hashanah is not a time to confess our sins—that’s for Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah—as seen in the Avinu Malkeynu prayer (ibid)—is a time to express our aspirations. It’s a time to believe in ourselves again—something that’s ironically far more challenging for many than believing in Gd. It’s a time to envision what our lives would be like if the desires or our hearts came to fruition.
And so, every Rosh Hashanah—and particularly today on this special Rosh Hashanah—I ask you to envision anew your aspirations. The child you’re praying for, see her life turned around. The troubled relationship you’re experiencing, see it turned around. The business that’s slow, see it successful. In this special New Year that begins today, open yourself up to receive Gd’s Rosh Hashanah blessings.
The most important question we can ask today is: What does Gd want from me? How does He expect me to behave with my spouse, my children, my parents, my co-workers and my community? Which of His mitzvot does he expect me to be more careful to do? If we open ourselves to receiving the answer to that question, then we trust in Gd to give us the strength to perform His Will.
Rosh Hashanah is a very personal holiday. It’s about the relationship between me and the One Above. Today, I sign a contract with Him and say, “Hashem, what do you want from me?” And over the course of these 2 days, through intense prayer, we hopefully will receive the answer. Although this isn’t easy, unfortunately it’s not even the hard part.
Because now comes the contract. I say to Gd, “Ok now I understand what you want from me. You want me to come to shule more often. You want me to learn Torah. You want me to be more careful how I talk to people or about people. You want me to always treat my spouse with chesed, kindness. Each of us, I pray, is going to find the answer. But now we must act on it. And so here is the inscription now write in my personal Book of Life:
“Gd, I will leave this Rosh Hashanah determined to act like You want me to act—to perform the mitzvot you want me to perform; to only say the things you want me to say; to refrain from saying the things I shouldn’t say. But it’s a 2-way street Gd. You must give me the koach, the strength, to be the person you want me to be. Today I stand before you and declare that what you want from me is what I want from me. With your help, I can become the ideal me, the Gdly me.”
This is the essence of Rosh Hashanah. Everything else is just commentary. And if we open ourselves to making this covenant with the One Above, Gd will take you this year to places where you could not go on your own.
Some of you think that you’ve reached your limits. That you’ve gone as far as you can go. The medical report doesn’t look good and you’ve made peace with it. You’ve been single a long time and you don’t think you’ll ever meet the right person. Or you took a leap of faith but the business, the project didn’t make it. Now you don’t see how you can accomplish your dream. But even when you think it’s impossible, this may be the year that Gd comes looking for you to show you His chesed—kindness like you’ve never seen.
Our tradition teaches that Gd has a plan for our lives and that there are set times when certain things will happen. You don’t have to give into doubt thinking, “I’m never going to get well. I’m never going to accomplish my dream, never going to get married.” No those moments of Gd’s chesed, His kindnesses, are already established in your future. If you’ll just keep doing your best to live a Jewish life—maybe even do one or 2 mitzvot more than you’ve done last year—you may suddenly come into one of your set times this New Year.
I have been fortunate in that during the course of my life Gd has sent special mentors to help me and to teach me. One of those mentors is Rabbi Mordecai Goldstein of the Diaspora Yeshiva on Mt. Zion in the Old City of Jerusalem. I remember once he was making a wedding for his daughter. He had booked a hotel in Jerusalem and sent out invitations to hundreds of people and scholars. However, since his institutions were always scraping for money, he had no idea how he was going to pay for the wedding. But this holy man had such faith!
The week before the wedding he kept a stiff upper lip and seemingly out of the blue, someone knocked on the door of his office. He had been going through one of the small museums Rabbi Goldstein had on Mt. Zion—this one with artifacts from the time of the Crusaders who had built those ancient buildings 800 years ago. He offered to buy the artifact. Rabbi Goldstein didn’t think it was worth very much but he asked the man how much he was willing to pay. The man said, “$25,000.” Precisely the cost of the wedding!
Now you don’t have to be such a holy man like Rabbi Goldstein to have this kind of experience. I read about a couple who had lost both lost their jobs. They were about to lose their house. They started selling off their possessions. They got so desperate they put everything they had on eBay with pictures. Somehow word got out that the reason they were selling was that they were trying to pay their mortgage and save their house. A woman in another state bid $20,000 and her bid, by far, was the highest. When they went to make arrangements to have the furniture shipped, the woman said, “I don’t want your furniture. This is a gift so you can keep your house.” They had never met this woman, never seen her and never talked to her before. That was such a chesed moment.
You may be facing situations where you don’t know how it’s going to turn out, how you could accomplish your dreams. That’s ok, Gd has it figured out. Remember this well and life will be much easier for you. You don’t write the script of your life, you just play your part! (Repeat) In our individual scripts Gd has already lined up the right people, the right opportunities and the right solutions to our problems. Just like with Rabbi Goldstein and this couple, at the right time you’re going to come in to your moment of chesed—Gd’s kindness.
We believe that a good deal, if not all, of what will transpire during the coming year—both on a personal level and on a national level—is determined by Gd in the period from today till Yom Kippur. The prophet Isaiah (55:6) teaches: Dirshu Hashem b’himatzo, karuhu biyoto karov, “Seek out Gd when He is to be found, call out to Him when he is near.” Gd is nearer and more receptive now than at any other time of the year and our prayers, therefore, can be so much more effective. So I urge you to take advantage of this and ask Gd now for help in every area of your lives that needs improving. This is also the time to be on our best behavior as a Jews—doing more than we’ve done to come closer to Gd. And who knows, after 10 days of living like this you just may find it worthwhile to always be on your best behavior as a Jew.
Each one of us has certain expectations about our lives. Maybe it’s to get out of debt or to be healthy again, to meet the right person or to start our own business or career. But we don’t see any sign that it’s happening. No matter what we do, nothing seems to change. The mistake we make too often is that we start to talk ourselves out of it saying: “I don’t think I can get out of debt; business is too slow; I can never accomplish my dreams; I’m too old; I missed my opportunity.”
When we started our shule, we expected to build a new shule building within a few years. We even started building, but it was not to be. So many things got in the way. It’s been several years and we don’t see any sign of a new home. Everything looks like it did last year and the year before. Even attendance at services has dropped a bit. I’ve overheard people say that it will never happen, that we’ll never be able to accomplish our dream. We’re too small; people don’t really know what Traditional Judaism is; we’re not wealthy enough.
Let me tell you today, on Rosh Hashanah, that things are happening. It’s likely that we are very close to a solution, but because of all our past disappointments, the board has decided that it may be best not to talk about it until it’s a done deal ready for your approval. I’m confident that you’ll hear more real soon.
Let me warn you, though, about speaking negatively. We don’t realize that our words have power. Our words can even keep something from coming to pass. If you talk like you’re defeated, you just may be, because your words allow it to become a reality. You can’t stop negative thoughts from coming into your head. The key is not to verbalize the negative. If you’re not going to say anything good about your health, your finances, your children, your future, the shule, do yourself a favor, zip it up! Be positive or be quiet. What did you mother teach you? “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
Mishley, the Book of Proverbs (6:2), teaches, Nokashta v’imri ficha, “You are ensnared by the words of your mouth.” This verse teaches us to be careful of what comes out of our mouths because it can create new realities. Did you know that you can talk yourself out of being healed? Studies show that negative feelings about one’s health can contribute to deteriorating health. Negative feelings ranging from stress, depression and even artificially induced feelings in laboratory studies have frequently been shown to have negative effects on the body’s resistance to disease.
The problem is, we Jews are masters at kvetching. While the Bible has but one word for snow, the Eskimos have 15 different words. But no one comes close to us when it comes to Kvetching. We Jews have more expressions than any other culture-—Kvetch, Nudge, Nudnick, and even Phudnick. What’s a Phudnick? A Nudnick with a Ph.D. Someone who complains is a Grindge, a Ferkrimte Ponim, or an Azus Ponim. There are some who define a Jew as one who always sees a cloud behind the silver lining.
Remember Sally Field in her role as the poor Southern factory worker, Norma Rae. Norma Rae had never met a Jew, until she worked with a Jewish union organizer from up north. She’s quite taken with him and at one point in the movie they have a fight, and he begins picking on all the little things she did wrong. Furious, Norma Rae turns to him and yells in her best southern accent, “Ka-vetch, Ka-vetch, Ka-vetch!”
Rebbe Nachman (1772-1810) taught: By Gut, is alles meglach, “By Gd everything is possible.” The only thing that can block the dreams Gd puts in us, teaches Rebbe Nachman, is our negativity—when we quit believing our dreams are going to happen and express those doubts again and again. Although it may seem impossible, Gd can make a way even when it looks like there is no way! Yes, Gd can make a way even when it looks like there is no way! So stop your negative talk.
Learn to turn it around. Say instead, “Gd I know that you have me in the palm of Your hand. You’ve already picked out the right solution for my circumstances. There may only be a small chance that I’ll get exactly what I’m asking for, but I know there’s 100% chance I’ll get what I need, to be where I need to be and I thank You for that.”
It’s much better than going around saying, “All the odds are against me. It doesn’t look good. I don’t see how it’s going to happen.” No, zip that up. If you can’t be positive, at least be quiet. You are prophesying your future if you say, “I’ll never get what I’m working for.” If you say, “this problem will sink me,” then it will sink you. You’re being ensnared by the words of your mouth.
Today we read in the Torah about the birth of Isaac. Isaac was a very special child in that he was born to parents who were well beyond child-bearing age—Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90. 3 chapters earlier when Sarah overhead an angel telling Abraham they would have a child next year, the Torah tells us she laughed saying, “Now that I am worn out shall I have my heart’s desire? My husband is old!”
Gd then immediately put a stop to this negative talk by asking, “Why did Sarah laugh…is there anything too wondrous for Gd? At the appointed time…next year Sarah will have a son.” Sarah, out of fear, denies that she laughed, but she got the point.
It’s easy to talk about the problems. How bad everything is. How it’s never going to work out. But in those tough times, when you feel like complaining and you’ve got good reason to be sour—you lost a job, a friend did you wrong, you’re not feeling well—that’s when you have to dig your heels in and be careful what you say. You may start saying, “I don’t think I’m ever going to get well. I’ve had this sickness for 3 years.” No, don’t be ensnared by your words by prophesying defeat. If you’re going to say anything, say what the Psalmist (118:17) says: Lo amut ki echyeh, “I will not die for I will live!” I will live out the number of my days.
That’s what Valerie Harper did. In March, Valerie Harper—the former Rhoda Morgenstern from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Rhoda”—announced that she had a rare incurable brain cancer and that the doctors gave her 3 months to live. But Valerie didn’t speak negatively crying, “Woe is me. I’ll never be ok again.” Gd knows, everyone would understand if she did. But no, she’s fighting back with chemotherapy and with faith. She said, “I’m not dying until I do. I’m hopeful—more than hopeful. I have an intention to live each moment fully!” Her husband Tony Cacciotti said on the “Today” show, “We’re living our lives, and we’re extremely happy.”
Now 5 months later she hasn’t just defied medicine by staying alive, last week it was announced that she’s signed on to be part the fall season of the physically demanding reality dance competition, “Dancing with the Stars!” Wow!
My friends, Gd can resurrect dead dreams. He can resurrect a dead marriage. He can resurrect a business that’s failing. When you find a way to come closer to Gd, that’s when the most powerful force in the universe goes to work. For some of you, Gd will begin to release promises that have been delayed. What you’ve been praying for—breaking that addiction, meeting the right person, getting healthy again—suddenly things are going to fall into place.
So don’t talk about how great your problem is, talk about how great Gd is. Gd gave a child to Abraham and Sarah in their old age, He can turn your situation around as well. Don’t let your negative words stop what Gd wants to do for you in this New Year.
So, nu? You have a choice. You can say, “My future is going to be great…or I’m never going to get that promotion. The person I married will love me…or I will never get married because no one wants to marry me.” You can be like Valerie Harper and smile in the face of death and live every second of your life and leave this world as a victor, or you can wallow in self-pity and let it consume you. Gd is telling on Rosh Hashanah that your blessings are just around the corner. Gd has already written the script for this year, but how do we play our part? It’s your choice.
So, my beautiful friends, are we going to kvetch and complain about what is not going well in our lives? Or are we going to spiritually sign that contract with Gd. You show me the way Hashem, and I will strive to follow it. Today Gd is telling us that if we choose the latter then our blessings are around the corner.
In the Unetaneh Tokef prayer we will soon recite, we say utshuva utfila utzedaka maavirin et roa hag’zeyra, “Repentance [or turning to Gd], prayer and charity averts the evil decree.” They can change the script of our lives this year for our good. So let’s do Teshuva—turn around that attitude. Tefilah—quit kvetching and pleading to Gd and pray positively! Tzedaka—and give with a generous spirit with an attitude of gratitude.
On this special Rosh Hashanah, let’s daven extra hard for all of our dreams and aspirations to come true. Do this exercise with me now. Close your eyes for just a moment: The child you’re praying for, see her life turned around. The troubled relationship you’re experiencing, see it turned around. The business that’s slow, see it successful. The addiction you’ve been fighting, see it gone. The health issue you’ve been battling see it healed. Now let’s ask Gd for help. Say with me, “Hashem help me!” Say it louder, “Hashem help me!” Say it from your heart, “Hashem help me!” Say it from your soul, “Hashem help me!” Again, “Hashem help me!” Once more, “Hashem help me.” Open your eyes.
I say to you: Gd is about to do something in your life this New Year that you’ve never seen. Gd is about to take you to where you could not go on your own. Gd is about to show you favor in ways that you never imagined. Gd is about to shower you with sweetness and goodness—as an apple at a Rosh Hashanah dinner—sweetened with honey. Don’t focus on the negativity. Be open to receive Gd’s blessings and they will come. And to that let us all say, “Amen!”
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis
Rosh Hashanah - 5774