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Rosh Hashanah Talk 2023 Dean Draznin

Shana tova, everyone. Let’s get right to it. From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “We are part of a story that began long before we were born and will continue long after we are no longer here, and the question for all of us is: will we continue the story? The hopes of a hundred generations of our ancestors rest on our willingness to do so. Deep in our collective memory the words of Moses continue to resonate. ‘It is not with you alone…….. that I am making this sworn covenant, but with . . . whoever is not here with us today.’ We are part of that story. We can live it. We can abandon it. But it is a choice we cannot avoid, and it has immense consequences. The future of the covenant rests with us.”

Now, I think it’s time for a joke: A woman lost her beloved grandmother and was inconsolable so she sought the services of a popular fortune teller who could communicate with the dead. “Of course, I can connect you with your Bubbe,” she promised. And the woman hastily paid the fee and the soothsayer fell into a deep trance. Ooooohhhh ooooh ooooh, she intoned. And then came a voice from the great beyond: “Hello, my dear granddaughter! It is I, your beloved Bubbe!” “Grandma, is it really you?” the woman exclaimed. “Yes, my child, it is I.” “Oy gevalt, Bubbe—it’s you! But, tell me—when did you learn to speak English?”

Apropos of grandparents, in my office, on the wall behind my desk is a blackboard with the name of my paternal great-grandfather, Yehuda Naftali, printed in bold letters. He was the lamplighter and the local melamed who taught the Aleph Bet to the boys in his tiny shtetl of Skidl in Grodno Gubernia, White Russia. His name, which I initially wrote down so I wouldn’t forget it, has become an ever-present reminder of my personal heritage, as well as our collective Jewish dharma. Note to self: We are NOT the independent, free-wheeling miracles of creation we may have thought ourselves to be in our younger days. We ARE the latest in a thousands-year-old chain of ancestors who came before us—L’dor vador, generation after generation. Tradition is the precious guardrail of time…and I would add, the guardrail of purpose, evolution, and seichel—common sense and sanity. Only three generations ago, it’s safe to say that without exception, our great-grandparents and the countless generations before them were observant Jews. Jewish customs and law, halacha, were the life breath that provided purpose, direction, meaning, and community.

Today, the world’s core Jewish population numbers 16 million, or 0.2 percent of the earth’s 8 billion people. I won’t belabor the disproportionate percentage of Nobel Prize winners who are Jewish—20 percent out of the 900 individuals awarded—100x what it should be according to our tiny numbers, certainly a point of pride—but that’s not my point. My point is that the chance of being born a Jew is infinitesimally small, bordering on impossibility.  How do you end up being born a Jew (or converting)—if not by an incalculable stroke of destiny with a capital D? Unless you believe in the randomness of a meaningless universe—with so many influential people being born Jewish, you’ve got to figure that something HUGE and INTELLIGENT beyond measure, is at work behind the scenes. Being a Jew is not a roll of the dice. No offense, my friends, but we all are freaks of nature, an odds-maker’s nightmare.

In truth, there’s a special destiny connected with being a Yid. It’s not happenstance or coincidence—but Divine Providence, what our tradition calls Hashgacha Pratit. The hand of God is involved in everything everywhere all at once. And being born a Jew is a supremely important and purposeful gift, which comes with a critical role. We are a kingdom of priests and a holy nation set apart—as the word for holy, “kadosh” implies. We agreed to this deal, this one-of-a-kind covenant, at Mount Sinai and the contract effective date is forever.

As B’nai Israel, we are here to make a difference. Being “chosen” means that we have an indispensable role to play as partners with the Divine. We’re here to be G-d’s emissaries in creating a suitable place for Hashem to reside—Heaven on Earth. As part of the deal, our eternal responsibility is Tikkun Olam—repairing the world. In the tradition of our father Isaac, who re-dug Abraham’s wells in Gerar after they were plugged up by the Philistines following his death, let us continue to be custodians of the deep wells and living waters of the past.

True story: There’s a wealthy real estate mogul in Monsey, NY, named Elliot Lasky, who in a former life was a roadie for the Rolling Stones. His roommate in 1973 was the famous Chip Monck, lighting designer for the Stones and the MC at Woodstock. Long story short….Lasky grew up frum and spoke Yiddish as his first language; yet had fallen away from Judaism for a life that in his own words was “less than spiritual.” In the 70s, he met a Zen Buddhist practitioner who posed existential questions to which Lasky couldn’t find satisfactory answers. Seeking advice from his local rabbi, he was guided to visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe at Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn on a bitter cold January day in 1973. As he tells it, he spoke with the Rebbe as he was getting out of his car and the conversation that ensued utterly transformed his life. Face-to-face with the Rebbe, Lasky asked, “Vu iz Got–Where is God?” The Rebbe answered “Umentum, in altz” in everything in every place. “Yes, I know, but where?” he persisted. “In a boym, in a tree; in a shtayn, in a stone. “Yes, but where?” “In dein hartz, in your heart, if this is how you’re asking.”

Lasky continued: “Isn’t it when we say Shema Israel Hashem Eloheinu, Hashem Echad…that whether you are a Jew or a black man, or an Indian, that there’s only one God for all of us?” The Rebbe’s answer blew him away: “The essence of the black man is what he is as a black man. The essence of the Indian is what he is as an Indian. The essence of the Jew, however, is tied to Hashem Yisberach—God Almighty—through Torah and Mitzvos.” This statement was sufficient to awaken the slumbering pintele yid at the core of his soul. His life was forever changed.

The Buddhists may have koans but the Chassidim have Cohens and their enlightening allegories—Jewish Mahavakyas, so to speak. They say that we are children of the King—princes and princesses of Ribono Shel Olam—Master of the Universe. And although we’ve forgotten our true identity, the light of Torah leads us step by step out of amnesia into remembering who we really are. In another allegory, the treasure chest that was seen in a dream and sent the seeker searching hundreds of miles away, in the end was not to be found in a far-off place, but beneath the floorboards of his very own home—the holy spot upon which he was standing. Holiness is within our grasp—and in fact it’s our birthright. We just have to reach out and take hold of it. Torah guides us on how to find it and live it in all we do, wherever we are—transforming linear time and mundane events into something Divine.

Here’s how it’s intimately framed in Parsha Devarim 30:

“Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will climb to heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and let us hear it so that we may obey it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.”

“Behold, I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil, inasmuch as I command you this day to love the Lord, your God, to walk in His ways, and to observe His commandments, His statutes, and His ordinances, so that you will live and increase, and the Lord, your God, will bless you in the land to which you are coming to take possession of it. This day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses [that I have warned] you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live….”

Our long history is one of the perennial tension between Exile and Redemption, Galut and Geulah…. It’s the swing of Jewish karma. We each have our personal Mitzrayim, our Egypt, in which we’re stuck in boundaries. But ultimately, the light of Torah—once accessed—leads us to Redemption.

Which brings the next point—Rosh Hashana is a holy day with many names: Yom Harat Olam—Day of the Birthday of the World, Yom Hadin—Day of Judgment, Yom Teruah—Day of Sounding the Shofar, and Yom HaZikaron—Day of Remembrance. Conventionally, on this day and for the following 10, we pray that Hashem remembers us and the merit of our forebears, and grants us another year of life, health, and prosperity. But I would challenge this notion. I think we need to pray that we remember who God is, and our holy role for serving Him. Reb Zalman Schachter brilliantly described the state of Jews in our unique American bardo of exile. He said that Jews here have Protestant bodies and Jewish Neshamas (souls).  We’ve lost touch with our Jewish muscle memory. We’ve lost our Smriti, our connection to who we really are and our connection to The One and to His Torah of Truth. Without Torah, we’re trapped in a psychic ghetto from which there is no escape. A perpetual state of mistaken intellect, pragya paradha.

“Torah” comes from hora’ah—meaning teaching, and also orah, which means light. The Lubavitcher Rebbe said that Torah is not an arcane storybook, although it’s filled with stories and history of our ancestors long ago. It’s also an instruction manual on how to live every moment of life today—a roadmap on the path of G-d. You read it right now, later today, tomorrow, next week, and there’s always a personal takeaway—an intimate teaching—that pertains to you right now to guide your life. Torah is not attached to the world. It precedes and transcends the world—what the Vedic Tradition calls Apaurusheya. It is the blueprint of Creation, the same as the Veda. According to the Zohar, “The Holy One, blessed be He, looked into the Torah and created the world.” [as in the Bhagavad Gita 9:8, Prakritim swam avastabhya vishrijami punah punah]. This is the Torah that Hashem has given the Jewish people. “Etz chaim hee l’machazikim bah—She is a tree of life to those who grasp her; her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.”

Now, let’s talk tachlis: Friends, we cannot be remembered as the ignominious generation that let our precious heritage slip away out of disengagement and apathy, rendering Judaism a tiny footnote in history along with the Canaanites, the Hittites, and the Amorites. Let us embrace our story and our mission as a people—regardless of the changing moods of the world around us and, for that matter, our own changing moods. We must tell that story again every day, every week, and every year, so that we and our future generations know who we are and the role we’ve been chosen to fulfill. There’s a line in the Shabbat Mincha that says: “May He open our hearts to His Torah, inspiring us to love and revere Him, wholeheartedly to serve Him. Thus, shall we not labor in vain, nor shall our children suffer confusion.” Torah is the antidote to the confusion and ignorance of our world spinning blindly in chaos, or “tohu vovohu,” as it’s called in Genesis. The bright light of Torah is the hope and lifeline for our generation and for all Jewish generations to come. Now is the time to step up to the task as the elders of our Jewish community.

Please join me now in Reb Shlomo Carlebach’s rendition of Psalm 118: 19, which sums up our collective aspirations for the High Holidays…and feel the merit, the zkhut avot, of our ancestors who hoped and prayed fervently for Moshiach and the descent of heaven on earth in their lifetimes. Even in the face of the most dire circumstances—they never gave up their faith. May Hashem open the gates of righteousness for us and the hidden portals of Yiddishkeit within our hearts. May this year be the one in which we fully awaken our Jewish connection to the Divine.

Pitchu li sha’arei Tzedek

Avo vam odeh Yah.  פִּתְחוּ-לִי שַׁעֲרֵי-צֶדֶק אָבֹא בָם אוֹדֶה יָהּ

Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter them and thank God.

Shana Tovah Umetukah