September 26, 2012

Rabbi Baruch J. Cohon, Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, AZ

G’mar Chatimah Tovah – Complete your good seal in the Book of Life.  My friends, this is the 13th time that I have the privilege and pleasure to celebrate the New Year with you.  Happily and gratefully I come to wish you shana tovah um’tukah -- a year that will be good and sweet.  Beyond that, what message can I bring you that will be any different?  Well, let’s start with a personal anecdote. 

One day last year, a young lady brought me a story.  It was a true story from her own growing up years, and it included some famous people and some well-known places.  I liked the story and I asked her what she was planning to do with it.

“I don’t know,” she said.  “Maybe I’ll write it as a novel, and maybe as a stage play or a motion picture.  I didn’t decide yet.  I guess you’d call it a work in progress.”

That was last year.  This year I saw her again, and I asked her about her story.

“Well, it’s about the same.  No bites on it yet.  Still a work in progress.”

“Did you write it?”

“No, not really.”

I said: “Still a work in progress eh?  You know, there’s something you have to remember about a work in progress.  No work – no progress.”

We might well say the same about ourselves.  Each of us is a work in progress.  Each of us has a human character to build.  And if we think we are finished – we are!

Did we make any progress on it since last year?  Yom Kippur asks us that question.  Our prayers ask that question today.  Here we are repeating the words we said last year.  Did we mean them?  Why do we say the same words again anyway?

One reason is, that the words might not change, but we change.  In that sense, even our Torah is a work in progress. We re-read it every year. No word changes, no letter changes, no cantillation changes – but even our Torah is a work in progress for us.  Because it gets rediscovered every year.  A new scholar comes along and writes a new commentary.  The process is going on for centuries.  Talmudic academies in Babylonia, Kabalist mystics in Spain, Hasidic Rebbes in Russia, Reform scholars in Cincinnati – all added insights to those ancient words.   Learning Torah today means more than just reviewing the original text.  It means absorbing some of the wisdom of centuries.  That wisdom is still growing, developing our understanding of life – a work in progress.

Our prayers are also in that category.  A principal paragraph in every service is called Avot, because it mentions our patriarchs.  You know the words:  Elokey Avrohom Elokey Yitzkhok Veylokey Yaakov, literally “G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac and G-d of Jacob.”  Why is it phrased that way?  Why not just say “G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?”  Aren’t we talking about the same G-d?  Of course we are.  But each generation had to discover the Divine for themselves.  And so do we.  So our prayerbook is a work in progress.

Torah and t’filah – study and prayer – are vital tools that we can use to build that other work in progress: ourselves.  Both of those tools are right here.  In fact, the text we read from the Torah this morning reminds us of that fact: “This mitzvah is not far away from you,” says Moses. “It is not in Heaven, that you should say ‘who will go up to Heaven and bring it down to us?’”  The astronauts and cosmonauts did not find it, did they?  Not even the Curiosity robot on Mars came up with it.  But we’re still trying.  No, said Moses, “It is not overseas, that you should say ‘who will cross the ocean for us and bring it to us so that we can do it?’”  Some people climb mountains in Tibet looking for it.  Others telephone to call centers in India, and that really doesn’t work.  Or we can fly to Jerusalem and place notes in the Wall.  Still we don’t find it.  “No,” says Moses, “the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.”  In your mouth and in your heart.  What we say, what we eat, how we feel – all add up to raise us or lower us as individuals.  Moses applied those truths to our relationship to Torah, to its values and to its commandments, its mitzvos.

How many times do you hear people say “Oh, my mother used to make a special Shabos dinner every Friday night and the whole family would come, and we’d talk to each other around the table, and sing songs and say the brochos.  Can’t do that any more.”  Can’t?  Why not?  Would it interfere with the kids texting?  Would it require shutting off the political propaganda on TV?  Try it.  Maybe you heard about the Un-plug movement: shutting off the i-pads and the electronic gadgets for 1 day and enjoying a real day of rest.  Worth a try?  A man whose bio recently got some publicity was named Howie Cohen, a highly successful ad-man from New York who coined the phrase “Try it, you’ll like it!”  Shabos – Shabat – the Seventh Day – could be a very useful tool in building your work in progress.  Try it.  You might like it, and it might also mean you like YOU better.  It made enough difference to Senator Joe Lieberman that he wrote a book about it.

Here in your congregation you have many opportunities for progress like that.  Just surveying your Adult Education program convinces me that you are provided with great raw material for progress.  The prophet Isaiah said that it is G-d’s desire to make the Torah great and glorious.  Yagdil torah v’ya’dir.  Being partners with G-d in the work of creation, we are also involved in cultivating Torah.  As a student you too can ask an inspired question and motivate a creative response, because Torah is our work in progress.

Now wait a minute, you say; let’s look at reality.   Learning takes time.  Observing Sabbaths and holidays takes time.  But helping the kids with homework takes time.  Holding down a job takes more time than anything else.  When do we work on our personal development?

Far be it from me to recommend any particular schedule for anyone.  I have enough trouble with my own schedule.  All we need to set up is our priorities.  All we need is to convince ourselves that, just maybe, a regular learning session is important enough to put it ahead of a shopping spree.  Or that building your Succah this week might come ahead of a golf game.  Tonight when we blow the shofar and break the fast to end this Yom Kippur day, all we need to take home with us is the conviction that here I am, here are the tools, now is the time to use them.

How does Torah give me the tools to improve my life, to raise the level of my interaction with other human beings?  I’ll go to class and find out.  Maybe I will find out some every-day principles about sholom bayis, getting along with my family. One recommendation to achieve good relations at home concerns buying clothes, and it goes like this: “A man should spend less than he can afford to clothe himself; as much as he can afford to clothe his children; and more than he can afford to clothe his wife.”

Or maybe I will relearn some long-forgotten guidelines on taking sympathy and turning it into help, as the Torah says: “The poor will not cease out of the land.  Therefore I command you to open your hand to your poor brother.”  Never mind any high-sounding redistribution programs.  Your poor brother still needs you.

While I’m at it, I might also learn the rules for building a Succah.  After all, that comes up next week.  Why should I build a Succah?  How does celebrating Succot spread joy and satisfaction to family and friends?  Well, I’ll just build one, and invite the folks to dinner in our succah, and we’ll find out. 

And above all, what do the High Holidays provide for me?  They provide a goal.  A deadline, if you will, to achieve another step in my humble climb.  By next Yom Kippur, this one poor Jew can show a change on his work in progress.  Do some work…make some progress.

Sermons frequently conclude with the words ken y’hi ratzon – May this be G-d’s will.  Today I would like to add ken y’hi r’tzoneynu – May this be our will.

G’mar chatimah tovah.

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