September 16, 2012

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, AZ

L’Shanah Tovah.  It’s wonderful to see you all here tonight, sharing the beginning of a New Year.  Rosh HaShanah is a time for a fresh start, but it also Yom haZikaron, the Day of Remembrance, when we look back at the past year’s successes—and failures.

This May and June we led the third Temple Emanu-El Pilgrimage Trip to Israel, this time an Interfaith Mission that we shared with St. Philip’s in the Hills, and as those of you who followed my accounts from emails and the Temple Emanu-El website and our Facebook posts, we had a fabulous journey.  Please start planning to join us a year and a half from now when we will go on our fourth pilgrimage trip to Israel in May of 2014… Nothing like beginning a New Year by planning ahead for the following New Year, I always say.  Everyone should see Israel, as many times as possible, and going this way was especially fulfilling and enjoyable.

In any case, amidst all the great religious, cultural, spiritual, and historic experiences we had was the required visit to the top of Masada, site of the last Jewish military resistance to the Romans in the Great Revolt that ended with the destruction of the 2nd Temple.  Of note, it was at Masada that our guide, Muki Jankelovitch, a South African Israeli who also guided our first Temple Emanu-El Israel Pilgrimage seven years ago, told us of the two dumbest comments he had ever heard in 25 years of leading tourists through Israel. 

The first comment came when he was explaining that the great archeologist of the mountaintop desert fortress, Yigal Yadin, had left a still very visible white line on the rock walls of Masada when he concluded his work.  That line clearly shows just what had originally been there on the mountaintop when Yadin began excavating, and what portion was reconstruction that his archeological team rebuilt.  And a tourist looked at the line and asked, innocently, “So I’m having trouble keeping this straight.  Is the reconstructed part above or below the white line?”

Above or below the line, indeed.  Naturally, Muki told us the tourist was an American…

In the past 12 months have you ever said anything as dumb as that? 

And then our guide shared what he thought was an even dumber comment.  His group continued on that same tour of Masada, and he brought them to the spectacular Southern edge of the fortress, which overlooks a huge chasm with another mountain ledge across on the other side.  And he had them shout out, “Mitzada lo tipol od, Masada will not fall again!” in Hebrew, as the Israeli army used to do; and sure enough, bouncing back across the chasm was a ghostly version of that same phrase, “Masada will not fall again.”  And according to Muki, the same tourist said, at that point in the tour, “That’s remarkable!  Are those people always there at this time of day to shout back to you?” 

So Muki, flabbergasted for a moment, answered, “Yes, every single day.”

Yep—certainly two of the dumbest things anyone has ever said.  And that’s including politicians—and actors.

So, on that theme, I have a question for you: what is the dumbest thing you said or did in the past year?  Was it quite as dumb as that?  If not, give yourself some credit.  If so, perhaps part of your teshuvah this year might be becoming more aware of your words…

But then I began to think about these lame comments as metaphors for the High Holy Day season: after all, the Hebrew word for sin, Cheit, simply means to miss the mark.  And more tellingly, the word for transgression is the ubiquitous Aveirah, which is the opposite of a Mitzvah and is usually also translated as sin.  It comes from the Hebrew word Avar, which simply means to cross over, as in crossing a line.  Maybe what we are thinking about on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is just whether or not we can reconstruct what we have damaged by crossing the line and committing errors and sins in the past year.  The question is whether we will build above or below the line, construct something new and better on the foundation that exists—or just keep digging down...

I’m reminded of one of my children who has a propensity, at this age, to say things that are sort of inappropriate.  That child shall remain nameless, but in my family we say that instead of a solid line of “say it or not” he or she has a dotted line…  a very dotted line.  The High Holy Days are a time to redraw that line, and try to keep it clear, so that we can know what we have accomplished in the coming year, what we are constructing with our words and what we are destroying.

And that echo effect on Masada?  Maybe we need not to take for granted when our own words echo back to us.  How often have you heard words that you said in the last year reflected back by children, parents, friends, co-workers, students?  How often have you regretted things you said or wrote or texted in the past 12 months that came back to haunt you? 

Rosh HaShanah is the time when we begin a new, fresh, clean year—but it is also Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment, when we examine our conduct over the past year and seek to improve.  Which means we have to own up to whatever we did wrong in 5772, and admit our mistakes. 

So even if you are not currently running for office, I’ll wager you said a few things—or emailed a few things—or texted a few things—or even posted a few things—that you regret in the last 12 months.  And now is the time to think about them, and figure out just what it was you said wrong.

Because over these holidays you have the chance—we all have the chance—to commit to making your words in this coming year, words that build and reconstruct, and words that you will be proud of hearing echoed back to you.

May your work, and your words, over these Ten Days of Repentance, Prayer, and Tzedakah help bring you a year of goodness, blessing, and holiness.


L’Shana Tova Tikateivu v’Teichateimu.


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