Erev Rosh Hashanahsermon delivered by Rabbi Eli Freedman
In his new Netflix movie, Between Two Ferns, Zach Galifianakis asks Paul Rudd if he is a ‘practicing Jew.’ Without missing a beat, Rudd responds, “I’m not a practicing Jew… I perfected it!”
Funny, but not true. None of us have perfected it. This is the central message of the High Holy Days – none of us are perfect and we all have the opportunity to discover our best selves.
I got an early start to this soul searching while working at our Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Harlam. There, they use unique mindfulness tools rooted in the teachings of mussar to help each camper and staff find the path to their best selves.
Mussar is a concrete practice that gives instructions on how to live a meaningful and ethical life that arose under the leadership of Rabbi Israel Salanter in 19th-century Lithuania. Salanter believed that through prayer and meditation, study, journaling, and group conversations, we all hold the power to better ourselves. Using these traditional teachings and updated practices, Rabbi Maderer will be leading a mussarcohort this year.
At camp, they practice mussar by giving out tikkun middot bracelets. Tikkun, which many know from the phrase Tikkun Olam, means repair. And middot, are character traits. Tikkun middot is the spiritual practice of inward turning and intentionality in order to better ourselves.
Using classic positive reinforcement pedagogy, staff and counselors give out bracelets to the campers when they see them exhibiting a positive character trait, a middah. The whole community is transformed by these bracelets. Campers are excited to be their best selves and get bracelets. At the same time, counselors are pushed to be more mindful – they have to look for and notice when campers are living out the middot.
The camp leadership chose specific middotfor the staff and campers to focus on over the course of summer. The seven middot at Camp Harlam are: Simchah/Finding Joy, Acharayut/Thinking About Others, Nitzachon/Perseverance, Rachamim/Compassion, Bitachon/Confidence, Tiferet/Finding Inner Beauty, and Binah/Seeking Meaning.
Tonight I want to focus on three of these middot: rachamim, nitzachon, and binah.
It was the 9th inning. The Lehigh Valley IronPigs were getting absolutely pummelled by the visiting Pawtucket Red Sox. The only people still at the game were a handful of loyal fans and about 150 kids from camp.
A foul ball came flying into the campers section and they all ran to try to catch it. A young man reached up and plucked the ball out of the air with little effort. It happened to be one of our campers birthday that day, and the campers made this known. They began chanting for the man to give the ball to the birthday boy:
IT’S HIS BIRTHDAY! GIVE HIM THE BALL! IT’S HIS BIRTHDAY! GIVE HIM THE BALL!
And so, with little fanfare, that’s what the young man did. He gave the boy the ball. And then, only a few minutes later, another foul came careening into the section. And as easily as before, the young man caught this one as well. Of course, a whole crew of kids ran over again, with puppy dog eyes, and the man didn’t hesitate, unprompted by any chanting, to give away his second caught foul ball.
My colleague, Rabbi Keren Gorban, saw all of this and within earshot of our campers, approached the man. She said, “At camp, we have a tradition of giving away these special bracelets when we see people acting with intention. You showed a lot of compassion just now and so I’d like to give you this ‘rachamim’ bracelet.”
The man smiled and thanked her and everyone went on their way. As the campers were leaving the ballpark, they noticed the young man, and they were overjoyed to see that he was wearing his bracelet!
This first middah, rachamim, which our foul ball catching mentsch exhibited so perfectly, is often translated as compassion. Like many of the middot, rachamim, is also a middah of God. On the High Holy Days, when we take the Torah from the ark, we sing the words, “Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum, v’Chanun…” El Rachum– God of Compassion. As we are created in the image of God,b’tzelem Elohim, we seek to emulate God’s rachamim, God’s compassion.
One of my favorite texts in the Talmud posits the hypothetical question, “What does God pray on Yom Kippur?” The sages answer, that God says, “May it be My will that my attribute of rachamim/compassion outweigh My attribute of din/justice.” In this beautiful metaphor, the rabbis of the Talmud understood the power of compassion, and prayed for the hope that we, like God, could be merciful towards ourselves and others.Rachamimis giving people the benefit of the doubt. It is choosing compassion over being right.
How can we be like God and live with more rachamim this next year? We all want to be better. We all want to be compassionate like the guy from the baseball game. But in our busy, hectic lives, we sometimes forget. At camp, this is why they have the bracelets. They are a mindfulness tool to help us be more intentional in our actions.
Mindfulness, intentionality, or kavana as we call it in Hebrew is at the core of our Jewish tradition. Throughout our High Holy Day liturgy, we come across the word, “zochreinu,” remember us, be mindful of us. In a special insertion in the amidah tonight, we asked God to remember us for a life of blessing. In this New Year, zochreinu, may we be mindful of ourselves and work to show more rachamim.
Our next middahis nitzachon/perseverance. I’ll begin with another story from camp. Shabbat is a big deal at camp. Each unit at camp is responsible for helping to lead services throughout the summer. Some campers make decorations for the chapel. Others write introductions to the prayers, while some read Torah.
One camper, Rachel, decided that she wanted to help lead some of the prayers on her guitar. I will be blunt; she was not very good at guitar. It took her a few minutes to find each chord and to change between them. The counselors working with her were incredibly patient but she was getting increasingly frustrated. Rachel couldn’t keep up with the tempo of the prayer and was ready to quit. I could see it in her face, she was flustered, angry, and exhausted. She threw down the guitar and said, “I can’t do it!” But then, to my surprise, she took a moment to herself, picked the guitar back up, and said, “OK, let’s try that Oseh Shalomagain!”
I went up to her after the session and gave her a nitzachon/perseverance bracelet. Rachel’s face lit up – I could see her confidence growing.
We find role models of nitzachon throughout our tradition. Abraham and Sarah persevered through years of infertility before having a child, the Israelites persevered through 400 years of Egyptian slavery before returning to the Promised Land, and the Jewish people have persevered in the face of anti-Semitism for the past 2,000 years.
We read in the Talmud (Menahot 53B), “Just as the olive yields oil only when it is pounded, so too our greatest potentials are yielded only under the pressure of adversity.” Or put more simply by Albert Einstein, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”
Living a life of nitzachon means staying with our problems longer. It means pushing through until we reach the finish line. In our frenetic, highly distracting world, it is so easy to quickly move on to the next task without seeing something through. Nitzachon means being truly present in the moment and focusing on the task at hand until we reach the conclusion.
Looking back on your year, when did you exhibit nitzachon? Try to think about a specific time when you pushed through a challenge. How did you feel at that moment?
And now, look forward. How can we be better at nitzachon this next year? We all know the joy and satisfaction that comes with having accomplished something, we just need to be mindful, to zochreinu– remember for ourselves, in that moment of frustration or distraction that perseverance is worth it. In this New Year, zochreinu, may we be mindful of ourselves and work to show more nitzachon.
Our final middah is binah – seeking meaning. In the rabbinic book Pirkei Avot (4:1), Rabbi Ben Zoma writes, “Aizeh Hu Chacham? Who is wise? Halomed micol adam. One who learns from all people.”
In today’s highly polarized, social-media bubble world, it is so easy to write someone off because of their political beliefs, assuming that they have nothing to offer. However, Ben Zoma reminds us that quest for binah requires that we learn from all people and seek to understand all sides of a particular debate.
There is a story in the Talmud (Baba Metziah 84a) of two rabbis, Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan who were chevurta, study partners. Sadly, Reish Lakish passes away and Rabbi Yochanan is left with a new study partner, Rabbi Elazar. Whenever Rabbi Yochanan presented a point, Rabbi Elazar would agree, saying here are 24 reasons why you are correct. Rabbi Yochanan became enraged and stormed off. Running after him, perplexed, Rabbi Elazar asked, “What did I do wrong?” Rabbi Yochana responds, “I don’t need you to tell me why I’m correct. What I loved about Reish Lakish was that for every point I raised, he would tell me 24 reasons why I’m wrong.”
The rabbis of the Talmud are the perfect example of binah.They challenge one another to see different perspectives. In this New Year, zochreinu, may we be mindful of ourselves and work to show more binah.
I’ll end with one last story. I was leading a session at camp on Israel. At the end of the program, I asked for feedback. Brendan, who normally did not speak up much, immediately raised his hand. He said, “I don’t normally pay much attention but I did today and I learned a lot.”
I gave Brendan a binah/seeking meaning, bracelet. His response was priceless; as I was walking away, I heard him say to his friend, in excitement, “this is the hardest one to get!”
I thought to myself, “I guess that really depends, Brendan.” For some, showing compassion, rachamin, may be the hardest bracelet to get. For others, nitzachon, perseverance, may be their stumbling block. Clearly for Brendan, a lively 13 year old, who has a hard time paying attention during formal instruction, binah – seeking meaning, was his greatest challenge.
Take a moment and think to yourself; if you had to choose from these three middot: rachamim (compassion), nitzachon (perseverance), or binah (seeking meaning), which would be your greatest challenge? Which middah needs the most attention, the most improvement in your life? If you choose to work one of these in the coming year, which would it be?
So here’s my New Years challenge to all of us. In the camp model, the bracelets are given out in a form of positive reinforcement. For our purposes, I want us to think about these middotas aspirational challenges. Tonight, Erev Rosh Hashanah makes the beginning of the Yamim Noraim– the Ten Days of Awe – a period to look inward, reflect on the past year, and contemplate how we want to improve in the coming year. I want all of us to choose one of these middot– rachamim (compassion), nitzachon (perseverance), or binah (seeking meaning) – to work on over the next ten days and beyond.
As Rabbi Maderer likes to joke when teaching mussar, it’s much more fun figuring out which one of these middot your friends need to work on, but this work is personal and introspective – how do you want to be a better person in this coming year?
We have a gift for each of you to help with this inner soul work. So I totally wanted to pull an Oprah joke and be like:
EVERYONE LOOK UNDER YOUR SEATS!
YOU GET A BRACELET! YOU GET A BRACELET!
But then I realized that as fun as that would be, there is a major flaw in the Oprah method. We shouldn’t all get the same bracelets because we each need to decide for ourselves which middah we need to work on; that’s half the work. So instead, as you leave the sanctuary tonight, you will see bins filled with bracelets for you take with you. There are three bracelets for you to choose from: rachamim (compassion), nitzachon (perseverance), or binah (seeking meaning).
The choice is up to you. Although there are various middot we can all work on every day of the year, commit to working on one of these middot over the next 10 days. We can all, always, strive to be better people. What are you going to work on this year?
My hope is that these bracelets act like a string tied around your finger; a little reminder over the next ten days and beyond to seek meaning, to persevere, or to show compassion.
In a few moments when we rise for Avinu Malkeinu, we will once again ask God tozochreinu– remember us, be mindful of us. Just as God is mindful of us, so too, zochreinu, may we be mindful of ourselves in this New Year.
Ken Y’hi Ratzon/May this be God’s Will. Shanah Tovah.