Rosh HaShanah 5779
Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin
It is a legend you may have heard before. When Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol was on his deathbed, his students found him crying. They tried to comfort him,telling him that he was almost as wise as Moses, and almost as kind as Abraham, surely he was to be judged positively in the Heavenly Tribunal. He replied to them, “When I get to heaven, I will not be asked, why weren’t you more like Moses, or why weren’t you more like Abraham? They will ask, why weren’t you more like Zusya?”
Why weren’t you more like Zusya?
It’s an interesting question to ponder. What does it mean to be more like yourself? This is what we consider during this season. We ask ourselves: Who are we and how we can be the best that is in us? We have gathered, we have a special liturgy, we take time off of work and school to disrupt our routines so we can are assess our choices, take a look at our motives and our motivations. It is the point of this season to remind ourselves to be the people we want to be, and to make sure that we are living on purpose. That our actions say what we want them to say.
One could go even further to say that it is actually the point of Judaism, and of all religious traditions. Religion offers an ideology that paints a picture of the universe and our place within it in order that we understand what we are supposed to do with our lives. If, for instance, we believe in a God who controls nature and who will bring on rains and keep pestilence at bay as long as we offer regular animal sacrifices, then we know exactly what we have to do. If we imagine that God keeps a giant book and writes our every deed within it, and based on that tally decides if we merit another year of life, then we try to do the things that will get us on the list of the living. That’s what we are supposed to do.
However, for many of us, the image of the Book is an image, a metaphor, not a reality. Some of us are content with understanding the scientific explanations of what the universe is
and how it works. However, science doesn’t necessarily ask the question of “why” the world exists, or “why” we do. For those of us in this frame of mind, this season is actually even more important than those of us who believe in a literal book, because our “why” is not always as apparent. So, we have come together today to reassess our “why” and to decide on whether our choices reflect how we imagine our place in the universe. When our actions fulfill our sense of purpose, we are the best selves we can be. When our actions fulfill our sense of purpose, we are the best selves we can be.
Wrestling with the “why” of existence is not a modern phenomenon within Jewish tradition. The Tanach, our Hebrew bible, has a body of work known as “wisdom literature”. These are the texts that wrestle with the nature of life as well as how to live it, often based on human experiences rather than divine command. They do not take the more typical view that God is in control or that there is reward and punishment for our behavior. Rather, they question what our lives are supposed to mean.
Proverbs is one of the books in this collection. Though, ritually, we don’t read the entire book of Proverbs, you may recognize some excerpts from it, like “It is a tree of life to all who hold it fast,” or you may be familiar with eishet chayil, a woman of valor, that comprises the final chapter in the book. Proverbs is written from the perspective of a father writing a letter to his son, explaining what he has learned about how one should live. His understanding comes from his own experience of positive and negative human attributes he has encountered. He writes,
The purposes of the righteous are justice,
The schemes of the wicked are deceit...(12:5)
For the writer of Proverbs, a righteous life means making justice our purpose. Wickedness, the very opposite, we identify through schemes and lies and dishonesty. Out of Proverb’s wisdom, a piece of our “why” is to stand up for all causes of justice. We may not be punished if we don’t, but we may instead fall into wickedness. the juxtaposition of the two suggest,From Proverbs perspective,If we are not one, then we risk becoming the other.
Elsewhere, he talks about love.
One who seeks love overlooks faults
But one who harps on a matter alienates one’s friend (17:9)
When you go out into the world seeking love, he explains, you will find it. If you go out into the world seeing everything through the lens of compassion, you will feel that. And, if you go out in search of the flaws and the issues and the ugliness, you will find that, too. A negative perspective and attitude will make it that much harder to positively connect with other people. To love others, to see the best in others, this, too, is a part of the purpose that we may find in life. Not necessarily because we are commanded to live a certain way. Rather, from experience, Proverbs suggests it is a more fulfilling way to live.
Ecclesiastes is yet another text in the collection of wisdom literature. It is written from the perspective of a king who has approached life in a multitude of ways, trying to understand its purpose and meaning. His conclusion he states at the very beginning of the book, “Utter futility...utter futility, all is futile.” He goes on to explain that existence moves in cycles, generations come and go, but nothing ever actually changes. Do good, the earth keeps going, do bad, the sun will continue to rise and set. You may be familiar with the famous verses, “A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven, a time to be born and a time to die, a time for war and a time for peace…” Ecclesiastes explains that there is nothing new under the sun, and there is really nothing we can do to affect any of it. And if that weren’t enough, he continues, when this life is done, it is likely done, and only nothingness lies beyond. Now, this perspective has often gained Ecclesiastes the reputation of being the most depressing book in the canon, but, don’t let that keep you from understanding the wisdom of the text or of the perspective. He writes:
How sweet the light, what a delight for the eyes to behond the sun! Even if a person lives many years, let them enjoy themselves in all of them...The future is fleeting! (11:7-8)
From Ecclesiastes perspective, what is the purpose in life? It’s Joy. We are to find joy, to live in the moment, to see and experience the beauty, and enjoy it. Maybe there isn’t a grand plan. Maybe every motion we make forward will only lead to regression backward again. Maybe the universe is completely indifferent to our actions, to our contributions, to our gifts. Maybe, Ecclesiastes concludes, our lives don’t matter, except to us. Our lives matter to us. So, he urges us, live a life where we experience the beauty, where we recognize the magnificence of the sun, and the moon, and the company of others. If it doesn’t matter to the universe, make sure that it matters to us. Our purpose, the “why”, is to seek enjoyment and fulfillment in the time we have. To live a life that matters, not according to some grand scheme, but a life that matters and is meaningful to each one of us.
To pursue justice, to seek love, to find joy. These represent the purposes for which our forebears lived, and the wisdom they chose to share. What does that look like for us? Are we serving others and fighting for justice? Do we we approach the world looking for love and offering compassion? Do we live lives that matter? Would acting according to the path of justice, love and joy, have made Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol feel that he was more of himself? That his actions fulfilled his purpose? Would it make us more of who are and who we want to be?
The flow of this season enables us to glimpse what Zusya glimpsed only at the end of his life. There is a kind of clarity that comes when we reach the end of our lives. The regrets are clear, the wasted time is clear, the gratitude and the appreciation, all much more obvious when the journey is over. So, this season is constructed such that we live a microcosm of our lives in the hope of finding some of that clarity whilst we still live.
Think of it, today we talk about new beginnings, the birth of the world, a fresh start. Today, we are reborn and all of our potential, our opportunities, our promise lies before us. Between now and Yom Kippur, we are to consider the content of our lives. And, when we arrive on Yom Kippur, we are to consider our deaths. In many ways, we enact our deaths; we don’t eat, we don’t concern ourselves with our appearance or indulge in life’s comforts. Essentially, we don’t worry about the things that are for the living. We contemplate what it will be like when the service of our basic needs and the distractions are removed. What remains? What’s meaningful? What’s important? It is the answer to those questions that give us the “why” of our universe. More than even discerning a purpose, the answers to those questions should determine it.
Between now and Yom Kippur, try this exercise that might help the reflection process. Imagine we are in the future and there is an excerpt about you in a history book. What would it report was the focus of your life? Would your “why”, your purpose be clear? What would you want others to learn about life from you? And then, on Yom Kippur, be your own Heavenly Tribunal. How often are you the best of what you hope to be?
If discussion with others helps, you will have a chance to do so in a session led by the members of the chevra kadisha on Yom Kippur afternoon. This fall, the Cantor will be teaching a class on legacy letters and ethical wills. And, I will be teaching a day time session on the wisdom of Ecclesiastes.
We will also be holding a week of community conversations in congregants’ homes in October, as our congregational president, Sara Klein, mentioned last night. The point of these conversations is to talk about what is meaningful to us and to our community. What comes out of these conversations guides what we do in the greater community. Our work around housing and homelessness, for instance, comes from the discussions we’ve had in the past year. If you want to hear more about this project and get involved, we will be having a yom kippur afternoon discussion on that as well. Talking about these matters in community will help us reflect and gain clarity as individuals.
Live on purpose: work toward justice, love others, and live a life that matters to you. That’s why we are here, to remind ourselves what that means. We pray that we may learn the lessons of our ancestors, that we better articulate what is meaningful to us, and that we have the strength to keep what matters at the forefront of our minds as we make our life choices. May it be that at the end of each of our journeys, we do not ask why we weren’t more of what we could have been, but declare with gratitude and confidence that we did our best to fulfill the “why” of our existence. That we did our best, to be the best of who we are.
And let us say: Amen.