Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Rosh Hashanah – Day 2 5780

Shanah Tovah! good new year to all of you. 

What does it mean that it is a new year in a religious tradition such as ours? I don’t know of any other culture that has such solemnity with a new year. In most cultures, a new year is associated with partying.  Drinking, fireworks, balls dropping.

You know that the Hebrew is not Shanah Sameach. It is not Happy New Year. Rather it is Shanah Tovah. 

We commemorate not with parties, not with festival fireworks, but with round challot, apples and honey! Big deal!  You know what the Chinese do for their New Year.  And we? Maybe a L’chayim and a brisket!  It’s different. There’s such a different feel to it. 

Of course, most of our celebration is not really a celebration. Rather it’s an observance.  A lot of other people celebrate; we observe the holiday! 

And our themes are heavy. They have to do with birth and death. Life and judgment. We blow the shofar as a major wake-up call, not to get somewhere, to get to something.  

We are to be self-reflective. As the machzor says, quoting the great Maimonides, examine your deeds. It is a time of self-reflection and a time to do “teshuvah”. That’s inner work and it’s about humbling ourselves, admitting some difficult things, facing our vulnerabilities. And, it means saying we’re sorry to those we hurt.  

I’m not trying to be the Jewish equivalent of Scrooge on Christmas. We do enjoy ourselves. We are together with family. We hear beautiful prayers and music recited.  And, we’re here together with friends. 

But let’s face it. This is the time of year we ask the “hard questions”. The central prayer of the day is “Unetaneh Tokef”. This prayer forces us to confront life’s fragility. It creates a metaphor where even the angels are trembling. We come before God with all of our deeds and the question that is asked is “Who shall live and who shall die?” 

I’ve learned it’s difficult to read life’s blueprint.  We don’t know what will be.  And that’s scary. I guess what’s happening here is that we are confronting the big questions about life. 

I often hear during times of suffering: “Rabbi, why is this happening to me?” I hear less frequently after a great event: “Rabbi, why did this happen to me?” 

I know that all of us question issues of reward and punishment. I know that. We look at what we did or didn’t do and expect some answers. Sometimes they don’t exist.

I’ve had profound confrontations with this.  I once walked away from a grave with the decedent’s son. He said: “I can’t complain. He was blessed with long- life.” Two weeks later he tragically lost his son in an accident. We all ask about suffering.

What kind of control do we have? Is it all random? Is there purpose? 

I think many of us were raised with some pretty primitive notions. Perhaps it is because we try to teach our kids to make good choices. If you do this, you get that. Or there is always “time out” or punishment for the kid who doesn’t listen. 

The Book of Deuteronomy seems to be pretty clear that if you live a certain type of life there will be rewards for our people. If not, the people suffer the consequences. 

What do you think? Is this day and does this tradition tell us that we make the difference or are there forces “out there” that are so great that we realize how dependent we are?  We either must be lucky or we have to be believers. Or is there some space in between?

A couple of years ago I was with this great couple in my office on a Sunday morning. They were going to get married in a few weeks. We had a lovely meeting and they left my office but forgot a book. They ran back in and then left. They drove out of the driveway of the synagogue and someone drove through the red light. I heard the crash from my office. The groom broke a few ribs, the bride broke her arm, but they walked away. 

For some reason, I was truly troubled by the timing of the whole thing. What if they hadn’t forgotten the book? 

You know I meet a lot of old people. Lately, I’ve been meeting people well into their nineties and often into their hundreds. I’ll ask them: So, what’s your secret? I never hear “good living.” I often hear a shot of bourbon, being active and most often: I guess I was lucky. 

So it happens with the major issues of life and death, accidents and health issues, people we meet on the job or even in an airplane. We could be late for an event and we missed someone important but it allowed us to make a different connection we never would have had.  Think about what brought you to the partner that you are with today. 

There are many occurrences in your life that have brought you to this moment. It may have been an accidental meeting or something else over which you had no control. 

There was a film in the late nineties called “Sliding Doors”. In it, a woman named Helen played by the great Gwyneth Paltrow is a London executive who is fired from her job. She rushes to catch a train to get home. Then the film presents two scenarios. In the first, she gets on the train, arrives home and finds her boyfriend in bed with another woman. In the second scenario, she misses the train by a second or two and arrives home after the woman has left. 

In the first scenario, she dumps the guy and she rebuilds her life with a new man and it is a very positive response. In the second scenario, she is suspicious of her man. Her suspicions, jealousies, and uncertainty drive her to a life that is miserable. 

I mention the film because it is a metaphor for the way events beyond us, can control us. How do we make sense of those things that happen which we don’t control? 

And what does Judaism try to teach us? 

Next week its Yom Hakippurim. Do you know what that means? It means the day like Purim! 

They couldn’t be more different. On one, we feast and the other we fast. On one we take off our masks, remove pretension. On the other we wear masks. So, what makes them similar?

Purim means lots. It represents a lottery. It’s saying to us: Life may be a crapshoot. On Purim, in the megillah there is no mention of God. 

Yom Hakippurim is a day like Purim because we really don’t know what will be. But as opposed to Purim, where we give it over to coincidences, here it is about what we do and how what we do is the basis of our relationship with God. 

I’m often asked if I believe in bashert, if I believe that it is all predetermined. I know many of you wonder about that also. 

It is like the joke of the guy who is crying to God because he hasn’t won the lottery. Week after week he prays to win until finally a voice comes from heaven which says: “Shlomo buy a ticket”! 

Very little comes to be without our presence and our actions … and yet. 

This idea of what we do and how much control we have on outcomes is important on these days.  And, this brings me back to the most challenging and delightful story and question that I received this entire year. 

It sort of made me feel like I was a rabbi in a Coen brothers movie. 

“Rabbi was this a coincidence? Or was it the presence of an angel – my wife who recently died? Was God in the room?” That was the question I was asked and here is the story: 

Shortly after the death of his wife, a man went to Las Vegas. There are two things you should know. 

The first is that the funeral was on a Wednesday and his friends called him on Friday to go to Vegas with them. This being so shortly after her death, he was ambivalent about going, feeling the pain of her parting. 

The wife of the couple who had invited him to Vegas claimed to have experiences – voices and visions of his dead wife – both when she was in hospice and also after she died. He really didn’t take her too seriously but to placate her, he told this woman, to tell his dead wife that he loved her. 

The second thing to know is that his late wife was a regular and serious card player: bridge, poker, canasta … you name it.   

They arrive at the fancy Vegas hotel and he has dinner and goes to his room. He can’t sleep. It is two days after his wife’s funeral. He’s feeling alone, perhaps lonely.  

He heads to the casino and plays “Texas Hold’em.” He is alone at a table and on the first hand he puts down a significant amount of money. (I don’t know the game! I have never played Texas Hold’em.) He is dealt the following hand: diamond straight royal flush! And he makes well over a hundred thousand dollars. Firsthand 

I had officiated at the funeral and a few weeks later I called him and asked to visit with him. He told me that story. “Rabbi,” he asks”, is that coincidence? Luck? Or was an angel, my wife there making it happen? Was I being given a message?” 

You be the rabbi!!! 

This is what I thought: It is you. It is me. It is each of us that gives life its meaning and purpose. But only if we give it such. 

One guy might experience this and just say: I’m a lucky guy! Another might walk away without a second thought, believing that he deserved this grace. One might say: My wife is telling me she will look after me. 

And yet another person might say: This was given to me for a purpose. 

That’s where I want to go with this conversation. I believe life has meaning and purpose. I believe there are coincidences and events which are way beyond our capacity to understand. Perhaps as we have become more knowledgeable and know more about life, genetics, and health and have more technological understanding we can explain more.

But we can’t explain everything. Even with rational knowledge there is also something more in this universe. There is something transcendent. There are unexplainable events, coincidences, tragedies and in this case – joy. 

I also believe that we are given free will and have the capacity to make a difference. We can define our own experiences. If we choose to walk with a sense of God’s presence, we will feel it. If we recall a parent or grandparent’s love, it stays within us. If we keep our hearts open to those who have died, I believe we feel them. 

But the bigger question is what do we do? And (you’ll excuse the metaphor) what do we do with the “hand we are dealt.” 

Some people experience tragedy and can’t recover, can never stop thinking about what happened to them. It is all about them. 

Others experience tragedy and turn its lessons and pain into doing good for others. It may be volunteering; it may be comforting others who have lost. 

Some of us are lucky, and we take that luck and become givers.  Others think it’s all theirs because of them. “It’s all about me.” 

So, the question is: Who are you in this world with seemingly random events. What meaning do you give? Are you willing to be of service to them?

We are all confronted by choices all the time. It is up to us, with the capacity to give meaning to events that determine the quality of our lives, and often the lives around us. 

When we do so with a sense of spirit and kindness, humility and trust, openness and love … then we take the question, “is it coincidence or not?” – bashert or punishment – and maybe we realize, it is not the right question. We cannot possibly answer that question. Rather we are challenged to find the meaning in it for ourselves and then see what the purpose is. What do we make of that situation? What do we hear? How do we move forward with what we have received? 

The right question is whether we want to live lives of meaning. The proper question is “what is your purpose?” 

I think that is what we’re called to think about as we realize that life is a gift, and yet, it is uncertain. There are blessings in this world and for that we are most thankful. But there are also great challenges and for those we need faith, and the strength and hope that faith can bring. 

I wish you all “Shanah Tovah”. A good year. A healthy year. A meaningful year. And yes, also a happy year, and a year with mazal and b’racha.