The story is told of two veteran fishermen who every year would make a trip out into the wilderness of northern Maine. Their favorite place was off in the back country, far away from any roads, and the only way to get there was by sea plane, a little piper cub equipped to land on water. So they hired a pilot to take them up. He landed on the lake, taxied over to the place where they would be camping, and before he left he said to them. "I'll be back to pick you up in three days, but remember this is a small plane. There's room only for the two of you, your gear, and one bag of fish. That's all we can carry."
With that he flew off. When he came back three days later he was dismayed to see that the fishermen were waiting for him, all ready to go, and that there with them were two huge bags of fish. "I can't take two bags of fish," he shouted. “We'll never be able to take off."
Well, they argued for a while. Finally the pilot gave in and they loaded the plane with the fishing gear, and the two big bags of fish. It was so tight in the cabin that the two men had to lie down with the fish on top of them. And it was so heavy that when they started their takeoff run across the water, the plane just barely made it into the air. As they struggled to gain altitude, the left wing of the plane clipped the top of an old tree and the plane slowly went down, finally settling in the middle of the forest.
When the dust settled and they climbed out of the wreckage, one of the fishermen turned to his buddy and said: "Where are we?" And the other man answered, "About 100 yards further than last year.”
And here we are on Erev Rosh Hashanah, about to spend ten days of our lives asking the same kind of questions: where are we, how far have we gotten this year, in what ways have I changed this year, in what ways have I learned from my experience? Rosh Hashanah provides us with a magnificent gift: the gift of perspective, to set aside time in which to examine our lives - and for each of us to ask in our own unique way, “Where am I in relation to last year?”
In the liturgy tomorrow morning, we will read "Hayom Harat Olam" which refers to Rosh Hashanah as the birthday of the world. It is the birthday of Adam, the birthday of the human being, our birthday. History does not begin until the human being enters the picture. There is no such thing as life or time without men and women here to give it recognition and meaning. Rosh Hashanah, like birthdays, anniversaries, yahrzeits, or even like our other designations of time - the secular new year, the academic year, the fiscal year - all provide the human being with marking points on the journey through life. Yet Rosh Hashanah is different than all the other occasions, because it is the new year of the human being, the day in which the calendar of humanity progresses another year.
Although “Hayom Harat Olam” is commonly translated as the birthday of the world, a more accurate translation is "this is the day the world was conceived." Conception means an all but unlimited potential. Conception is that magical moment when all seems possible, there are no definable limits, certainly no self-imposed limitations and no restrictions thrust upon us by the world. What Rosh Hashanah provides for us is a chance to reconsider who we are as human beings. It is a time to think of our ideals, a moment for us to come face-to-face with the history and the values we've received from parents, friends, and mentors - gifts which have propelled us through to this moment. In our tradition, Rosh Hashanah allows us to imagine who we would like to be. Judaism believes that human beings can change, that we have the ability to break our routines; that we can reshape the contours of how we have defined life, that we don't have to stay in the same place, that we can go out like Abraham on new journeys – embarking upon paths which can open us to new ideas, unique experiences and broader perspectives.
The story of the two fishermen serves as a poignant metaphor for how we measure the progress in our lives. One hundred yards further is definable, measurable, and concrete. However, the tools for measurement in Jewish life are not that concrete. Our measurements are not: did we earn more money this year, did we buy a bigger house, did we acquire more material possessions; but rather: did we interact with others honestly and, with integrity, did we find ways to be constructive, did we show more compassion, did we draw on our time and resources enthusiastically and generously for tzadakah, did we deepen our ties with our loved ones, did we visit the sick or aged in our midst, did we bring those who are alone or lonely into our homes and into our lives, did we offer the kind word to those in times of need, did we take responsibility for our actions, did we take an active role in making this world, this country, this city, our community, our congregation a more humane place for all? Did each of us do our part to merit our synagogue being known as truly a Bet Shalom – a house of peace?
I'm sure you have encountered, as I have, people who lament, "If I had my life to live over..." Or "If I only knew then what I know now." A while back I saw a film on video, "The Best of Times." It describes a man who was the end on his high school football team - now it is twenty five years after his graduation. The movie focuses on the former player reliving his final high school game. In the final play of that game, with victory on the line, the ball is thrown to him in the last second. It is a perfect pass right into his arms and he drops the ball. Now years later, every day he sits and watches the old footage of the game, still experiencing that moment, and each time envisioning a different outcome. Needless to say, there won't be a different outcome. You and I know he will not catch the pass this time. The game is over, finished. Just like many things in our life experiences. We can't go back and live them over again. Yet how many of us continue to rerun the reels of our lives, past mistakes, past opportunities missed, we rerun them over and over again in our minds. We play them so often, splicing together only the dropped passes and the unrealized goals, the painful or uncomfortable parts. Long after we have stopped gaining any new insights from this history, this focus goes on preventing us from wrestling effectively with the challenges we encounter in our present life. As the poet wrote:
"First I was dying to finish high school and start college.
And then I was dying to finish college and start working.
And then I was dying to succeed as an adult, in my work and in my personal life.
And then I was dying to retire.
And now, I am dying... And suddenly I realize I forgot to live."
Reassessing the meaning and the direction of our lives requires a determination to learn from our life experience and utilizing those insights to shape our future. When God cried out to Adam in the Garden of Eden, "Where are you?" It is a cry that rings true to each of us tonight. Where am I? Are my eyes open to the pain of others? Do I help to diminish the loneliness and alienation from which so many of my fellow human beings suffer? Am I willing to risk some of my own personal comfort in devoting time and energy to addressing a world so much in need of our attention?
What our tradition asks of us at this time of year is not perfection. All human beings fall short of the mark. We all have weaknesses, doubts, insecurities - that is in fact what makes us so very human. Judaism is not about perfection; rather it is about making life sacred. It is about the manner in which we grow, not just about how much we have grown. The teachings of our faith offer us a guide for how to make sense of life, of how not to view life as a mere series of days, weeks and months, but rather as moments filled with opportunity for sacred living, moments in which we feel alive and present, moments in which we can sense the grandeur in the world and can find something precious in every aspect of life. It's a gift the New Year offers us.
This gift of a new opportunity is one of the major themes of the High Holydays as expressed in the concept of teshuvah – repentance, turning in a new direction, changing, admitting our shortcomings. Real change necessitates vigilance in our commitment to live in a manner which reflects the best of Jewish ethical, social and personal values. Teshuvah is not easy, as it asks each of us to make our own inner assessment of how things are going: do I complain too much, do I never pick up the telephone myself but always gripe that others don't call me? Do I remember to say thank you? Do I think about the feelings of others and the loneliness or pain they might be feeling? Do I forget that other people also have powerful stories to tell and mine isn't the only interesting one? Do I dwell on the past and the misfortunes that have befallen me, or do I go on, realizing that other people are doing their own teshuvah, in their own way? Perhaps we should spend less time worrying about the shortcomings of others and how much they need to change and focus more on our personal shortcomings and the changes we each need to make. The High Holydays are the time to prepare the tax returns of our souls and hearts and actions. Thus, tonight, we gaze into the forest of a new year, as we look at our lives, we hear the fisherman's question, which is our own question. Where are we? Where am I?
Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver offers a great insight into our ability to change: "A person is not forever doomed to the error and the consequences of his past conduct... Repentance means the opportunity of a new start, the chance to correct what each of us has left crooked, to fill that which is wanting in one's life."
We can't change so many aspects of our lives. We can't bring back a loved one or wish away an illness. We can't stop the emergence of modern day Hamans. Yet we can strive to change ourselves, never to surrender our ideals, our hopes and how we can better live a life of human value.
As we enter this New Year 5773; may we cultivate the gardens of lives with memories to inspire us, with eyes to see not just the curses which abound but also the blessings which wait to be. May we ascend this year higher than ever before – seeing new vistas, making each day count so that next year when we gently land in the branches of the tree and look around us, and see the distance we have traveled, we will know how we have enhanced the quality and meaning of our lives.
As the psalmist said: “Teach us to number our days.” It is my prayer that we will teach ourselves to number them with hope, courage, perspective, as well as a passionate desire for growth. Let us soar into the New Year uplifted by those around us and inspired to embrace the precious life we have been granted.
Rabbi Lee Bycel, September 17, 2012