My 2019/5780 Rosh HaShanah Day 1 Sermon

On Rosh Hashanah it is written and revealed, and on Yom Kippur, the course of every life is sealed!

How many pass on, how many shall thrive,
Who shall live on, and who shall die,
Whose death is timely, and whose is not…
Who dwells in peace, and who is uprooted,
Who shall live safely, and who shall be harmed,
Whose life is tranquil, and whose is tormented…

But repentance, prayer, and righteous living make easier what life holds in store.

The haunting words of Unetaneh Tokef which we chanted earlier. I’ve never liked this prayer.  It’s focus on our mortality and what awful things might happen to us scare the heck out of me.

Granted, it suggests that we can make these awful things less severe by repenting, praying and being good people. 

But, we know that doing these things isn’t a guarantee that we’ll be spared this new year. In the year that has come to a close, how many good people have we lost? How many good people have suffered? And how many bad people have had a great time!? All these folks, good and bad, are proof that repentance, prayer and moral living can’t be relied upon to keep the bad stuff away.

This being said, I’m a rabbi. I’m in the business of making sure that spirituality and morality are part of everyone’s daily practice. And I do believe that spirituality and good morals make our lives better. I don’t, however, believe that repentance, prayer or being a good person give us magical powers that protect us from the curve balls life throws our way. When we encourage folks to believe in these magical powers, we do a disservice to religion and to God.  We set people up to be let down, disappointed, devastated when the scary things we can’t control come sneaking into our lives, unannounced and unwelcomed.

Last year was a particularly hard year for me.

A blood test that came back funky which later turned out to be nothing to be concerned about but did force me to confront my own mortality.

  • The death of a colleague – a guy younger than me – we knew each other before we both entered the rabbinate, before we were married and became dads. We weren’t close at the time of his passing – but, still, his death rattled me.
  • Cantor Natalie’s illness. Again, we’re not in regular contact with each other – but for seven years she stood up here with me. She’s loved by so many of us. We were deeply affected by her diagnosis and, grateful for her recovery.
  • Many of you – you’ve struggled with your own illnesses and other challenges. You’ve trusted me – and I’ve been honored to be part of your journey. There are so many of you. There have been times this year that I just felt helpless, wanting to do more to help you. There have been times I’ve felt angry, questioning why bad things have to happen to good people like you. There have been times I’ve felt frightened, wondering when my luck will run out and I’ll have to face some of the overwhelming things you’re facing.
  • And then there were all the funerals last year – including the funeral of one of our own members’ child, sister and aunt. She was so young, so vibrant, so full of life. Her death was beyond tragic and left me – and so many others – just stunned.

Death and illness were all consuming last year. I’m not sure things were worse than in previous years. I do know that it all affected me more. Maybe because I’m getting older.

On a regular basis this past year, I heard the haunting words of Unetaneh Tokef playing in my head like a loop. Overtime, the words transformed, becoming personal – almost taunting me: Will you live or will you die this year? And if you live, will it be peacefully? And if you die, how? But your actions, Andrew, your actions can keep whatever is coming your way from being too harsh. What are you going to do, Andrew, to alleviate the harsh decree?

As these questions reverberated over and over again in my head, I found myself feeling the need to do everything I could think of to ensure that I was safe.

I became preoccupied with my own health, so worried that my own demise might be imminent, visiting my doctors to make certain that I was “okay,” Googling various symptoms and ailments, desperately trying to feel that I was in total control of my health, my well-being, my life. 

In Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), we read how the great King Solomon wrestles with the desire to control his life. As he wrestles, however, he comes to terms with the fact that it’s just not possible to gain this coveted control:  We “cannot guess the events that occur under the sun,” says King Solomon,  “for one tries strenuously, but fails to guess them; and even if a sage should think to discover them he would not be able to guess them.” (Kohelet 8:7 – all citations are from Kohelet) No matter how hard we try, King Solomon says, we “can’t know what will happen” to us. (10:14)

We should do what we can to take care of ourselves. But, we need to accept that nothing we do or don’t do can guarantee that something bad isn’t around the corner. I know this upsets my fellow control freaks. Trust me, I tried so hard this past year to ignore the fact that we just can’t control every aspect of our lives.

But, this lack of control, I’ve come to accept the fact that it’s reality. Things will happen when they happen, as King Solomon wrote:

A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven:

A time for being born and a time for dying…
A time for tearing down and a time for building up,
A time for weeping and a time for laughing,
A time for wailing and a time for dancing…
A time for seeking and a time for losing…(3:1-9)

For centuries, we human beings have tried to control time and the events that come along with time. King Solomon teaches that some of us do so by immersing ourselves in knowledge, thinking that the more we know, the more wisdom we have, the more control we have. I did this by obsessively investigating every health concern that popped into my head. Some of us seek control by praying as hard as we can or embracing a life of high morals and values, hoping beyond hope that these spiritual endeavors will keep us safe. Some of us do so, King Solomon teaches, by acquiring wealth and the stuff that wealth buys, stuff that gives us a sense of power. No matter how we attempt to bring a sense of control into our lives, King Solomon says we’re just like fish that “are enmeshed in a fatal net, and…birds (that) are trapped in a snare.” We are, King Solomon tells us, caught off guard when one of life’s curve balls comes hurdling toward us without warning (9:11-12) No matter how much wealth, power, knowledge, spirituality or morality surround us, King Solomon tell us “God made us plain; we’ve engaged in too much reasoning” and foolishly, we think we can control it all – or at least avoid the bad stuff.  But, we can’t. (7:29)

This stinks.

As I struggled with so much death and illness this past year, this realization that I lacked control made the struggle so much worse. I found myself asking, if I can’t control what happens to me, what happens to the people I care for, what’s the point? What’s the purpose of life? We invest so much into our lives and, poof, it could all be gone tomorrow! What do we do with this?

These questions put me in quite a funk in the year that has now come to a close – a funk that forced me down an uncomfortable but very precious pathway that led me to this moment.

On this pathway, I found so much insight in the words of King Solomon, who clearly wrestled like me and so many of you with finding meaning and purpose in a life we can’t fully control. “Thus I realized,” teaches the King, that we have one real purpose here during our lifetime: to enjoy ourselves. And, the King adds, to do what is good while we enjoy ourselves (3:12) We worry, we stress, we focus on the worst-case scenarios. We turn to Dr. Google. We spend hours trying to make more, gain prestige, build a reputation. We try to lose weight. We stress and gain more weight. We nip. We tuck. We drink. We indulge in other ways – all in an attempt to control the stress or avoid the stress altogether. We rush here. We rush there. And, inevitably, we worry some more. All of this, King Solomon says, is “utter futility” and equivalent to what he calls “pursuing wind.”

“Enjoy yourself,” pleads King Solomon. “Eat and drink,” not in a gluttonous, unhealthy way, but in a way that allows joy into your life. (2:24) Let yourself experience happiness!

Do this, the King tells us by surrounding yourself with good people, with friends and family who love you. “Two are better off than one,” he says, “for should they fall, one can raise the other.” (4:7-10)

Be kind. “Keep your mouth from being rash,” the King says. (5:1)

Be practical, he insists, “for much dreaming leads to futility and to superfluous talk.” (5:6) “A little folly,” the king teaches, “outweighs massive wisdom.” (10:1)

Work hard he explains: “a worker’s sleep is sweet,” but don’t stress yourself out as “the rich man’s abundance doesn’t let him sleep.” (5:11)

Give as much as you can to those in need the King says, “for you cannot know what misfortune may occur on earth.” (11:2)

Seek joy, do good and, at the same time, stop trying to gain control and make sense of this world:  “In my own brief span of life,” King Solomon teaches, “I have seen both these things: Sometimes a good man perishes in spite of his goodness…” in spite of his repentance, prayer. righteous ways, wisdom or power. And, as the King witnessed, “sometimes a wicked man endures in spite of his wickedness.” Don’t think that anything will allow you to navigate life with complete certainty, warns the King.  If you do, he says, “you may be dumfounded.” (7:16-17) “If one watches the wind,” King Solomon explains, “he will never sow; and if one observes the clouds, he will never reap.” (11:4) Get your head out of the clouds pleads King Solomon. Live in the real world. Accept that we can’t control it all. And, do what you need to do to enjoy the heck out of your life.

And… this is really important: whenever you do get the opportunity to enjoy life – even for a moment – never, ever forget that this moment “is a gift of God,” a Higher Power, the Universe – whatever you want to call it. (3:12-13) Whenever you’re given an opportunity to be joyful, the King insists, be grateful! “Better,” he insists, “is a handful of gratification Than two fistfuls of labor which is pursuit of wind.” (4:6)

On Rosh Hashanah it is written and revealed, and on Yom Kippur, the course of every life is sealed!

How many pass on, how many shall thrive,
Who shall live on, and who shall die,
Whose death is timely, and whose is not…
Who dwells in peace, and who is uprooted,
Who shall live safely, and who shall be harmed,
Whose life is tranquil, and whose is tormented…

But repentance, prayer, and righteous living make easier what life holds in store.

After wrestling this past year and coming to terms with my inability to control every aspect of my life, I have a newfound appreciation for Unetaneh Tokef. It makes so much sense. Look, the prayer says, we’re starting a new year.  Stuff will happen this year. Hopefully good stuff – a lot of good stuff. But, you know what? Bad stuff is going to happen too. Bad stuff that we won’t be able to control. It might affect us. It might affect those we love. It might have no impact on us whatsoever. We don’t know for sure. We can and should do our best to be good people because this makes the world a better place. It doesn’t, however, guarantee that we’ll be immune to the harshness of life. It does, perhaps make the harshness a bit easier to take.

This we do know for certain: that making room in our life for joy, cherishing the joy and sharing the joyful moments with others, this is what life is all about.  This is what brings sweetness to our days. This is what makes it all worthwhile. Living this joy, this is our purpose.

Several years ago, my frustration with Unetaneh Tokef pushed me to rewrite the prayer and share it with you on Rosh HaShanah. I’m not rewriting it this year. I don’t need to because I get it now. But, if I were to edit it just slightly, I would add this:

Repentance, prayer and righteous living make easier what life holds in store… and embracing joy lets us discover the purpose of life.

May we all be sealed in the Book of Life. May we all strive to be the best people we can be this year while appreciating that our attempts to control life can be a waste of precious energy. And, most importantly, may this year be the year we discover the incredible, joyful purpose of the lives we have been given.

Shanah Tovah!

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