Erev Rosh Hashanah 2017

The Questions We Need To Ask For A New Year

Ron Wolfson, a Jewish educator, wrote a book called The 7 Questions you are asked in Heaven: Reviewing and Renewing Your Life on Earth. Wolfson takes the time to share with the readers 7 questions that the Rabbis of the Talmud and Chasidic times have imagined that we might be asked when we enter heaven.

Before he even gets to the questions however, he sets the stage for the reader. He reminds us of the film Defending your Life where Albert Brooks’ character has to answer questions about how he lived his life in order to get into the next stage. Then Wolfson refers to Bob Dylan’s song, Knockin on Heaven’s door, to give us the image-what would the door look like? What will we find when we open it? What would someone say to us when the open the door-would they say come in? Would they ask us how we got there? Or, most telling, would they ask us something about ourselves and how we lived before letting us in.

It is as if, this is an exit interview before leaving a job, and there are certain questions that we need to answer.

These different images should all be rather palpable to us as we begin the High Holidays together, as we confront and explore the themes, the liturgy, and the ideas of this season. As we sit as individuals, in this communal setting, we begin to confront our own mortality, our place on this earth in the year that has gone by, and how we will act in the year to come. Essentially, the high holidays are an opportunity for each of us to do an annual performance review-an idea I will return to in a few moments.

So, this High holiday season, I want to explore what some of these questions might be that we could be asked as the doors are open, because it is how we might answer those questions then, that will help us live now. So, what are they and what do we do with them?

What do you think? What could some of them be? LEAVE TIME

There are so many that we could come up with-like, when were you proud of yourself? Did you appreciate God’s creation? Were you successful? Were you a believer? Were you famous? Did you use your time well? Did you exercise? Did you answer all your emails?

As Wolfson said, when he asked an irreverent good friend what he would be asked when he got to heaven-he did not hesitate with his answer: He said, that’s easy. Someone would look at me and say “what the hell are you doing here?”

According to Wolfson, there are 7 questions, ranging from our interactions with others, ourselves, and God.

The 1st question is: did you deal honestly with people in your business practice? What does this means-were you honest, faithful, and did you act with integrity.

Question # 2: Did you busy yourself with procreation-taken a bit more broadly, what is your legacy.

Question #3: Did you set times for Torah? Did you in fact-continue to learn and understand your tradition?

Moving ahead to #4: Did you hope for deliverance? Wow, an amazing question that in fact most of us rarely think about, even though the idea of hope can be found throughout our tradition and liturgy.

Question 5 is in fact stated in 2 parts: Did you seek wisdom and did you understand one thing from another? You might be wondering-what is the difference between this and did you set times for Torah? Well in fact, while there might be overlapping answers, there is still a difference as one is a question of did you study, and the second is a question of How did you study? How did you learn, grow, and challenge yourself-how did you use the tradition, the relationships you built, and the experiences you have had to make the right choices?

The 6th question is asked a bit differently-We are asked, Were there earthly pleasures permitted to you that you DID NOT enjoy? –did we forget to appreciate our spouse? Did we not look at the sun setting-did we waste time with our children? Did we forget to go for a walk? What didn’t we do, that we should have done?

And finally, the question of all questions that are necessary for this season, were you the best you, you could be? Not someone else, but you.

As you see, these questions each could be explored in much more depth and in fact, I encourage you to think about them because if we wait to answer them when we get to heaven, our answers might not be what we want them to be.

People choose to take the time on the HH to do an annual review for their own behavior. Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg offers an explanation as to why this is so. He teaches, that knowing that we can pass before God gives us the idea that at such moments there may come upon us a simultaneous realization of both our smallness and our greatness. Our smallness lies in the awareness that life and its beauty remain while we will pass away. Our greatness lies in the appreciation that we are nevertheless not entirely ignorant, that we are given the opportunity to be conscious and albeit to a very limited degree, comprehending part of that infinite life. And as we pass before God each Rosh Hashanah, we think about the God who not only creates and inspires but who judges, searches, and knows.

Therefore, as we think about them tonight I want us to use Rosh Hashanah as the opportunity to really check in b/c we are taught that on each Rosh Hashanah, each year we each pass before God. It is as if we each get a preview of the questions, an opportunity to self-evaluate, before anyone else has the chance to-in essence, Rosh Hashanah is our own, annual review.

And yet, the question is, is this annual review effective. Does it really make us change our behavior? In the business world there has been a debate as to whether performance reviews really work. As Jeffrey Pfeffer wrote in a business week article (,

Some years ago a human resources manager at a Silicon Valley computer company offered managers free tickets to San Francisco Giants games if they completed their subordinates’ performance reviews on time. When David Russo headed up human resources for software maker SAS Institute, he earned employee cheers for a bonfire celebration that burned appraisal forms and ended annual reviews.

These two examples reflect a broader reality: People don’t enjoy these reviews and some argue, they don’t work. So the question is why, a question which Pfeffer will explore, and then a question for us, is, if annual reviews don’t always work, what do we do about RH? Should we all just go home or is there in fact merit in how our tradition gives us the opportunity to review, and think about many of the questions that Wolfson poses in his book?

Rosh Hashanah is that it is up to us to work on our relationship with God, the ultimate manager, if you will. God hired each of us to be agents on this work to perfect the world and we each have equal access to God and the opportunity to do better.

A specific issue that Pfeffer raises is that reviews occur too infrequently to provide meaningful feedback. In return for getting rid of the appraisal form, managers were taught to provide more regular, ongoing feedback through frequent conversations with their people. Once-a-year reviews suffer from short-term memory loss: If you are serious about feedback and helping people improve, do it all the time.” Our Jewish tradition speaks to this very clearly. Although these ten days are the high holidays, the ultimate review, we know that there are multiple times throughout the year that we should take stock. Whether it is the 40 days of repentance or in fact, each day, since we are taught “Repent each day before your death,” with the obvious knowledge being, we don’t know when we will die. You see, while the Rosh Hashanah review is important, it can’t be the only time you think about these questions that you might be asked at a review.

A third hurdle to productive reviews is the peer comparisons often required. Ranking someone against their colleagues creates competition and, consequently, a reluctance to offer help or collaborate—a big problem when so much of the way we work is interdependent. The lesson? If you’re going to do performance assessments, at least don’t force comparisons among people on some curve. Our tradition speaks to this as well because each review is self-tailored. It is up to each of us to do serious introspection, to do teshuva, and to begin to account for our own behaviors. We don’t need to be concerned with others behaviors and they don’t need to be concerned with ours. Yes, we pray in a communal voice for the sake of supporting one another, but not to be competitive. I am sure that we can all say that we hope that our friends, loved ones, colleagues, and neighbors all get the highest mark each RH and get written into the book of life. The reason the RH review can be powerful is because everyone is judged on his or her own merit. As Wolfson said, the 7th question come from the story of the Chasidic rabbi, Reb Zusya, who, when he arrived in heaven thought that God would ask, why weren’t you more like Moses and Zusya was afraid that he couldn’t answer. But of course, that wasn’t the question that God asked. God asked, why weren’t you more like Zusya?

So how do we know how we appear? We are taught that God holds up a mirror to ourselves and therefore we must see ourselves as the people that we are, not the person we perceive ourselves to be, and so when we hold up that mirror, when we do this annual review, when we think about these questions, we start to realize that these are questions that we might like to answer differently in this coming year as we think about our lives.

Over the next several days, we are going to spend a lot of time together answering questions:

We will contemplate:

What kind of world do we want to live in?

Where do we want to live, spiritually?

What are our dreams for Israel?

How do we live after loss?

We will pray together, think together, sing together. We will share the emotions of the liturgy and the experiences of the holidays. When we blow the shofar at the end of Yom Kippur, I hope that we are not the same people as we are tonight. I hope that we can use this time to enter into serious introspection, to think about the questions that our tradition tells us we will be asked, and then ask new ones.

In 10 days we will talk about the gates closing. Over these next 10 days I hope you will begin to ask and answer some of these questions so that as you begin your own, effective annual review, you will be ready for the new year to begin. And when we greet each other this evening and say “may you be inscribed in the book of life,” may we use that as a motivation not just for the idea of living for another year, but really being alive in a refreshed and renewed way. Shana Tova.