Rosh HaShanah Day 1 Sermon: Second Chances

If you had to come up with the musical soundtrack for your life, what songs would you select?  What melodies would capture the happy and sad moments?  What tunes would capture the things you wrestle with?  Would there be a theme to your soundtrack?

One of the first songs on my soundtrack would be “Cats In the Cradle” by Harry Chapin.  It is a song I remember singing in the back of my parents’ cars as I was growing up.

 

My child arrived just the other day

He came to the world in the usual way

But there were planes to catch and bills to pay

He learned to walk while I was away

And he was talkin’ ‘fore I knew it, and as he grew

He’d say “I’m gonna be like you dad

You know I’m gonna be like you”

 

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon

Little boy blue and the man on the moon

When you comin’ home dad?

I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then son

You know we’ll have a good time then

 

I’ve long since retired, my son’s moved away

I called him up just the other day

I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind”

He said, “I’d love to, Dad, if I can find the time

You see my new job’s a hassle and kids have the flu

But it’s sure nice talking to you, Dad

It’s been sure nice talking to you”

 

And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me

He’d grown up just like me

My boy was just like me

 

Whenever this song came on the radio, my father would get very emotional.  He would cry.  I used to tease him about it.  I never really understood what upset him so much about this song.  That is – until I became a father myself.

If we were to actually create a soundtrack of our life, we’d probably be amazed at how  songs we know so well have taken on new meaning as we grow and change.

I learned many important lessons from my father.  He was incredibly successful professionally.  His work ethic, commitment to his career, talents and intelligence were things I was blessed to have as part of my life growing up.  But, despite having these “things” of his in my life, I rarely had him.  He was, like many men of his generation, a self-professed work-a-holic, rarely around and when he was, he was busy working – advancing his career.  I now understand why the lyrics to Harry Chapin’s song got to him.  It is as if he knew his professional drive was interfering with his role as a father but he couldn’t change.

Today, I too get emotional when I hear Cats in the Cradle – particularly the line where the little boy says: “I’m gonna be like him…you know I’m gonna be like him.”  What little boy doesn’t want to be just like his dad?  And what grown man doesn’t find a lot of his father in him, especially when he himself becomes a father?

It is so easy to become just like your parents.  Sometimes this is a really good thing.  I like to think that I have my father’s work ethic and his professional commitment.  But, at the same time, many of us struggle not to behave like our parents did – because we lived the effects of such behavior.  I could easily be a workaholic.  But, I know the emptiness that a missing father can bring into his children’s lives.  And while I am far from perfect and in a career that can make being an involved parent a challenge, I am committed to taming my inner-workaholic so that I can be as involved in my children’s lives as possible.  I enjoy “Daddy camp” over the summer.  I take my kids to school, pick them up most afternoons.  Spend real, quality time with them.  I go biking with Abby and play ball with Jonah.  I am there for homework, class performances and just hang out time.

Harry Chapin’s lyrics get to me today because they remind me of the time I didn’t get to have with my father.  And they remind me how easily I could have become the little boy in the song and grown too busy to find time for my own kids.

 

________

We read this morning about Abraham – probably one of the most important characters in the Torah.  He is best known as the father of Judaism.  He was the first person to embrace monotheism – the belief in one G-d.  He was so committed to G-d, that he was willing to do things that make us scratch our head and say “really”!?

Abraham might be known and looked up to as the father of our faith – but as the father of his boys, Ishmael and Isaac, he was not exactly a role model.  He was more interested in pleasing G-d than he was in loving and protecting his sons.

For those of us who whine about having a father who was a work-a-holic – we had it easy compared to Ishmael and Isaac!  We read today how Abraham threw his first son, Ishmael, out of the house because Sarah, his wife, wanted Ishmael gone.  Abraham consults G-d on the matter.  G-d tells him to appease his wife.  So, Abraham, always willing to listen to G-d, evicts his child – sending him and his mother, Hagar, to wander alone in the desert.  Loyalty to G-d trumps commitment to son.

Tomorrow, we will read how Abraham destroys his relationship with his second son, Isaac.  Wanting again to listen to G-d and be G-d’s faithful servant, Abraham, without hesitation, heeds G-d’s request to sacrifice Isaac on the top of Mount Moriah.  We know how this story ends.  Isaac was not sacrificed – although it was close.  Abraham goes so far as to bind his son and lift the knife to slaughter him before G-d stops him.  Again, Abraham shows no concern for his child.  Instead, he places G-d before the life of his boy.

Isaac survives the ordeal – but, his relationship with his father does not.  The Torah teaches us that Isaac leaves Mt. Moriah, the scene of the almost-sacrifice, without his father and never speaks with him again.

Isaac might very well have grown up, married and, following in the footsteps of his own father, developed unhealthy relationships with his children.  If he did this and if they had self-help books in ancient times, Isaac would have learned that his poor parenting skills were a result of his abuse at his father’s hands.  And he could have played the “victim”, blaming his parents for his own personal flaws.

Isaac is often seen as a much weaker character than his father Abraham.  He is nowhere near as powerful and prominent as his father was.  Isaac’s relationship with G-d does not appear to be as deep as the relationship that Abraham had with G-d.  But, on the other hand, Isaac did not develop poor relationships with his sons.  He somehow learned that when it came to the parent-child relationship – as with many things in our lives – we get a second chance.  While Isaac’s relationship with this father might have been less than desirable – as a father himself, Isaac knew that he had second chance to create a good father-son relationship with his twin boys – and this is exactly what he tries to do.

Before his sons were born, G-d tells Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, that the younger twin would  mess with the logical order of things and wind up ruling over the older twin.  If Isaac was like his father, this divine prophecy would have set the stage for the way Isaac treated his boys.  Isaac might very well have kicked his older son, Esau, out of the house, just like Abraham did to his eldest son, Ishmael.  This is not what happens, however.

The Torah tells us that Isaac loved Esau and appreciated his talents and skills as a hunter and man of the fields.  Betrayal and trickery at the hands of Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, who wanted Jacob to be the more powerful son, would insure that the prophecy concerning her twins would come true.  Thanks to Rebekah’s conniving ways, Jacob, the younger twin, would receive his father’s blessing.  As a result, Jacob would “replace” Esau as the firstborn son and rule over his older brother.  But, after Isaac learned that he had been duped into giving his younger son the blessing meant for his older son and, ultimately making the prophecy a reality, Isaac acts with compassion and love by improvising a blessing for Esau.  He did not need to do this.  Remember, he could have just tossed Esau out of the house and said, “sorry, your brother got my blessing…you are out of luck kid!”  But, Isaac is not his father.  And, so, he manages to bless both sons.

G-d and Rebekah wanted Jacob to be the powerful son.  But, Isaac insures that their desires did not leave either son feeling betrayed or unloved by their father (Certainly Esau felt unloved and betrayed by his mother and brother – that is a whole different story!).  Isaac, unlike his father, was willing to stand up to the wishes of G-d and bless both of his sons.  In the end, Esau still gets the short end of the stick, but he was never thrown under the bus by his father, like Isaac was by Abraham.  As a father, Isaac goes out of his way to comfort his victimized son.  In doing so, Isaac rebuilds for himself and his sons the father-son relationship that failed to protect him as a child.  In doing so, Isaac teaches us about the power of second chances.

One of the reasons we read about Isaac on Rosh HaShanah is to teach us that this day – this new beginning – is a day for second chances.  It is not a day that allows us to step into a time machine and be transported to a previous time in our lives so that we get a “re-do”!   This is not the Jewish idea of a second chance.  In Judaism, we call a second chance – teshuvah.   Teshuvah means turn.  When we do teshuvah, we reach back into the past and turn the negative consequences of something that already took place into positive, life changing lessons.  The goal of teshuvah is to insure that the result of a previous action is better than what would have been had it not occurred.   Teshuvah is not about erasing the past but, rather allowing the past to transform our present in a meaningful way.

As a result of being the son of Abraham – a man who rejected his first son and almost killed his second son all because G-d told him to do so – Isaac knew firsthand how a father can crush the souls of his sons.  He learned from his experiences and transformed the past, insuring that he did not follow his father’s footsteps.  This is teshuvah!

The story of Isaac the father, despite the deception of Rebekah and Jacob and the animosity between the brothers, does contain an optimistic spark. Isaac reminds us that we have the ability to avail ourselves of a second chance. Our past experiences, fate, destiny, God – none of these are the final arbiter of what we do with our lives.  If we act, we can turn a bad or unfortunate situation into something good.

Today is a day for second chances.  Today is a day to commit to breaking old habits, unlearning bad lessons, dropping the victim mentality and embracing the role of survivor.  Today is a day to work on teshuvah.

_________

 

It was during a recent game of catch with Jonah that it hit me – when it comes to the parent-child relationship – I have been given a second chance.  As I tossed the ball to Jonah and he threw it back to me, I suddenly found myself feeling emotional – simultaneously happy and sad.  Sad, because I had no memories of playing ball with my father.  Happy because I was lucky enough to be creating such memories with my boy.

This mix of happiness and sadness is what teshuvah is all about.  Many people get stuck in the sadness.  Regret of what happened in the past can overtake us.  We can become all consumed with being the “victim” of some bad relationship or traumatic experience.  Some of us beat ourselves up endlessly for our failings. But, this is not the Jewish way.  Judaism tells us to acknowledge those moments and events in our lives that left us hurt.  We should “feel” the emotions associated with these moments and events.  We must learn from these emotions.  And we must ACT in a way that insures that we and the people we share our lives with don’t have to repeat history – with hard work and dedication these emotions can be a thing of the past.  When we act and grow from our past – we get a second chance and this second chance is what we Jews call teshuvah.

You can’t ignore your past.  To try to do so is foolish and unhealthy.  We all have our “issues” – bad relationships, personal struggles and failures – that have the potential to define us if we let them.   The story of Isaac “the good father” reminds us that we don’t have to become the little boy in the Harry Chapin song.  We can change.  We all have a second chance.  In order to take advantage of our second chance, we must embrace the past.  We must learn from it and grow from it.  Teshuvah reminds us that our past is something that is simply a platform on which we can build the rest of our lives.  We can choose to stop growing and live our life on that platform – or we can use our past experiences as lessons that allow us to grow in new and exciting ways – rising high, rising strong.

The sadness that I felt as I played ball with Jonah was part of my process of teshuvah – part of accepting the past – accepting the fact that I was and still am sad that my dad and I didn’t have moments like I now have with my own kids.  If I only felt the sadness of the past – that would not be good.  That would be a sign that I was stuck and unable to change. Fortunately, the overwhelming feeling I had while playing ball with Jonah was happiness.  Happy to have this time with my son.  Happy to have this time for myself – to redefine the parent-child relationship for me.  Happy to be able to give this time to my kid.  Happy to have this blessing – this second chance to create a bond between father and son.

Today, this new year, is your time to embrace your second chances.  Today is the day to ask yourself: what parts of my past leave me empty, confused, sad, frustrated, embarrassed?  What parts of my life do I wish never happened? Ah, you can’t change the past!  But you can learn from it.  What can you learn from the darker moments of your past?  Don’t waste time feeling sorry for yourself or feeling guilty about your personal history.  Instead, do teshuvah, embrace your second chance.  Do so by first, promising yourself not to repeat the bad times in your personal history (and get the help needed to live up to this promise).  Second, learn from your bad experiences and mistakes, discover the wisdom that they contain.  Third, live the wisdom of your past.  When you allow your past to make your present and future richer, better, brighter, you have done teshuvah.

Once you have done teshuvah, once your discover that the challenging moments in our past are often our best lessons – you discover the meaning of the lyrics of another song on my personal soundtrack, lyrics by Rascall Flatts: “This much I know is true, That God blessed the broken road, That led me straight to you.”

This year, embrace your broken road, for it contains the lessons that will help guide you to your most precious blessings.

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