Sutton Place Synagogue > Erev Rosh Hashanah 2018: Daring, Failing, and Rebuilding-The Tools in our Jewish Toolbox

Erev Rosh Hashanah 2018: Daring, Failing, and Rebuilding-The Tools in our Jewish Toolbox

Daring, Failing, and Rebuilding-The Tools in our Jewish Toolbox

Shana Tova. Hasidic Master, Reb Nachman of Bratzlav once taught the following:

A certain king sent his son far away to study. The son eventually returned to the king’s palace fully versed in all the arts and sciences. One day the king told his son to take a particular stone that was as big as a millstone and bring it up to the top floor of the palace. But the stone was so heavy that the prince could not lift it. He was very upset that he could not fulfill his father’s wish. Eventually the king said to his son, “Did you really imagine that I meant you to do the impossible and carry the stone, just as it is, all the way to the top? Even with all your wisdom, how were you supposed to do such a thing? That was not what I meant. I wanted you to take a big hammer and smash the stone into little pieces. That is how you will be able to bring it up to the top floor.” In the same way, God commands us to “lift our heart with our hands up to God in the heavens” (Lamentations 3:41). Our heart is a “heart of stone” (Ezekiel 36:26), a very heavy stone. There is no possible way to raise it to God except by taking a hammer and breaking and smashing the heart of stone.

The hard work of the High Holidays, which we begin this evening, is figuring out which stones we must lift, smash, and rebuild.

It is hard to smash our hearts, but we need to begin to assess why we must do this.

First, we need to show our vulnerability because sometimes, we need to be broken in order to become whole; we might be scared of what is inside and it takes incredible bravery and strength to open up…but that is our only option…; a hammer is painful-sometimes it hurts-but then we rebuild

So let’s think about the truth of the power in being vulnerable. And…when we let our vulnerability in and change what we need to change, let’s respond with what judaism has given us to rebuild that which is broken.  

What is the power in being broken and allowing our vulnerability to show?


What an incredible idea. We take a piece of pottery and we fix it not by making it perfect again with no scars, but perfection lies in the scars that shine through. We came together on Selichot and watched a beautiful movie about a young boy that had become blind in a terrorist attack in Haifa. What we learned in that movie is that his scars were not ones he wanted, but with those scars he could see, even through his blindness. He could persevere, despite his brokenness.

This concept that we are like broken vessels makes perfect sense on Rosh Hashanah. For we are taught that ceramic vessels, klei cheres, can only be purified through their breaking. So too, given that we are like pottery in the hands of a creator we can only perfect ourselves, we we allow ourselves to be re-formed.

Dr. Brene Brown has written a number of incredible books-this summer I read Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms th Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Though it wasn’t written for a High Holiday sermon, it might as well have been. Throughout the book she speaks about the themes of the holidays, especially this concept of needing to understand our brokenness, in order to become whole. She wrote ‘If we are going to put ourselves out there and love with our whole hearts, we are going to experience heartbreak. If we are going to try new, innovative things, we are going to fail. If we are going to risk caring and engaging, we are going to experience disappointment. It doesn’t matter if our hurt is caused by a painful breakup or we are struggling with something smaller like an offhand comment by a colleague or an argument with an in-law. If we can learn how to feel our way through these experiences and our own stories of struggle, we can write our brave own ending. WHen we own our stories, we avoid being trapped as characters in stories someone else is telling. In Theodore Roosevelt’s powerful quote from his 1910 ‘Man in the Arena’ speech, he said ‘it is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly. Who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least failed while daring greatly. “

Consider the following:

At age 23, Oprah was fired from her first reporting job.

At age 27, Vincent Van Gogh failed as a missionary and decided to go to art school.

Julia Child released her first cookbook at age 39, and got her own cooking show at age 51.

Vera Wang failed to make the Olympic figure skating team, didn’t get the Editor-in-Chief position at Vogue, and designed her first dress at age 40.

Stan Lee didn’t release his first big comic book until he was 40.

Whatever your dream is, it is never too late to achieve it.

Never tell yourself you’re too old to make it.

Never tell yourself you missed your chance.

Never tell yourself that you aren’t good enough.

You can do it. Whatever it is.”

We come together on Rosh Hashanah to be written into the book of life. But this doesn’t mean to just be physically living, it means to be truly alive. To be in the arena. To be the authors of our own stories. To know there will be peaks and there will be valleys but we need to be willing to be broken into order to be rebuilt.

There is a midrash that teaches that  the broken tablets that Moses broke because of the Golden calf,  were placed in the Ark, and the new tablets were placed on top of them. Both sets of tablets were then placed in the ark and carried by the people.  The idea that we carry the brokenness with us, and build upon it, demonstrates that we don’t get rid of the sorrow, we work through it and are stronger when we come out of it.

Over the next several days together I will be reflecting on moments of difficulty and moments of loss. Simultaneously I hope to provide ways of understanding how we can get up from those moments, get up from that arena so that we can see our future.

How lucky we are that each of us can get ready to go on this journey, not only over these 10 day of repentance but everyday, since Judaism gives us the tools to begin again.

Tonight, on Rosh hashanah, Jewish tradition offers us the spiritual gps [aka, our own Jew PS] we are looking for. During our services this week we will recall that teshuvah (reconciliation), tefillah (the engagement in prayer), and tzedakah (the search for justice in community) will avert an evil decree. Now, does that mean that if we do all three things on a checklist that our lives will be perfect-probably not, that is not how the world works. Let me share with you a way of understanding these three pieces, as we see how they can be our guide for spiritual growth in this new year.

The first is teshuvah, reconciliation. Teshuvah is a process by which we reconcile our past actions with ourselves, with God, and with others, and pledge to change. Teshuvah, which literally means turning around, is the first part of our guide that points us in a new direction as we strengthen our own spiritual lives and souls. We have opened the gates now that this new year has begun and we are taking the tens days of teshuvah to actively engage in this process, and we must trust that this will help ground ourselves.

Which brings us to the next step.

After we have committed ourselves to teshuvah, we need to use another tool that we have for redirection-the mahzor during the holidays and the siddur throughout the year-takes us to tefillah, prayer, on our journey towards a greater spiritual selves.

When we think about having a prayer life, many of us might get queasy. We don’t understand the words, and even if we do understand the words, we are not sure that we agree with them all. But, this must not be a barrier to creating a prayer life, because the structure, the rhythm, and the poetry of our prayers can really help center ourselves and give us the direction that we need. For example, so many of our morning prayers thank God for the renewal of our body and our soul since each time we go to bed, we experience what the rabbis would call, a mini death, and when we wake up, we can appreciate the life that we are able to live that day. And as we search for a more grounded spiritual life, I believe it is the prayer book that can act as the road map on which we can continue to travel, after we have gone through the process of teshuvah, to search out what we are looking for. Engaging in tefillah, is a step on our Jewish journeys as we think about how to pray and how to engage in Jewish ritual. But, our spiritual journey doesn’t end with prayer, at least not for us as Jews, because we are taught, Al tifrosh min ha’tzibur. Don’t disconnect ourselves from the community, and that is where our third element, tzedakah comes in.

Now, generally, people translate tzedakah loosely as charity, but let us look at its root word, justice, to understand that to seek out justice, and to understand what justice means . It means to work with and for a community. To be engaged in our community, not apart from it.  What will be we doing this year to engage in justice? At SPS we will continue what we have been doing and we will add new elements as well. We are in the midst of Operation of Isaiah, our food collection during this time of year. Why do we do this? Because as our prophets teach us, what good are our fasts if we don’t change our behaviors? If we don’t help those in the community that need our help. If we aren’t an answer to their prayers. Second, we will continue to work with the larger Jewish community. We will volunteer our time and our resources with places like Dorot, an organization that helps homebound elderly. But we must also look at issues outside of SPS. This past year over a dozen members of SPS traveled with me to the south-to Atlanta, Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham to confront the past injustices of the civil rights era in our country and to see what still needs to be done. One of the most moving places we went was the Equal Justice Initiative, where we learned about the disparity in the justice system for different races. Though our Torah teaches that poor and rich shall be judged the same, and Israelite and Non-Israelite should be judged the same. But friends, this isn’t always the case. We learned how it was only recently that life in prison w/o the chance of parole was a valid sentence, even if a child. We learned about the injustices of the legal system by reading Bryan Stevenson’s moving book, Just Mercy. What we took away from the trip is that there are still ways of doing tzedakah-and while money is a piece of it, it can’t be the only piece. And it is why I am so thrilled that we will be hosting Ian Manuel, a man who had been previously incarcerated, but due to the hard work of the Equal Justice Initiative, has been able to turn his life around, and he will be speaking to us on Saturday, Jan 19, during Martin Luther King Day weekend.

Our journey isn’t easy. Either as an individual or as a community. In 1853 an abolitionist minister Theodore Parker who studied at Harvard Divinity School and eventually became an influential transcendentalist and minister in the Unitarian church gave a sermon where he said “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”

To me this is the true definition of faith in the year ahead, but it isn’t pre-destined. It is hopeful. But to get it towards justice takes work. To understand that something needs to be perfect, first means to understand the idea that it isn’t yet perfect.

None of us are perfect. If we were, we wouldn’t be here. But that’s ok. We aren’t striving for perfection, but we are striving towards excellence. And to do that we might need to go into our toolbox, take Rav Nahman’s hammer, to break ourselves up first, and then rebuild ourselves, with teshuva, tefillah, and tzedaka, in order that we may enter this New Year, yes, a little more scarred, but also more complete.

Shana Tova and good luck on the journey ahead as you try to be more aware of your brokenness, a little each day.