Rosh Hashanah is a time to celebrate life, opportunity
By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel
CHULA VISTA, California — Attitude is everything.
But in hard times, it’s a lot easier to sit and complain rather than do something about bettering our life circumstances and attitudes.
I am reminded of an old story I came across almost 10 years ago, which I filed away for a rainy day.
Marty visits Dr. Saul, the veterinarian, and says, “My dog has a problem.” Dr. Saul says, “So, tell me about the dog and the problem.”
Marty said, “You see, Doc, it’s a Jewish dog, and his name is Hershel; in fact, he can even talk!”
Dr. Saul exclaims, “A talking dog? Impossible.” ‘Watch this!’ Marty points to the dog and commands: ‘ Hershel, ‘Fetch!’
Hershel, the dog, begins to walk toward the door, then turns around and says, “Nu. Why are you talking to me like that? You always order me around like I’m nothing. And you only call me when you want something. And then you make me sleep on the floor, with my arthritis. You give me this lousy food with all the salt and fat, and you tell me it’s a special diet. It tastes like dreck! YOU should eat it yourself! And do you ever take me for a decent walk? NO, it’s out of the house, a short whiz, and right back home. Maybe if I could stretch out a little, the sciatica wouldn’t kill me so much! But what do you care?!’
Dr. Saul is amazed and says, “This is remarkable! I never saw a dog like this in my life! So, what’s the problem?” Morty says, “He has a hearing problem! I said ‘Fetch,’ not ‘Kvetch.’”
Rosh Hashana teaches us that we need to leave our kvetching behind. Tonight begins a year of infinite possibilities.
But what is the antidote to the pessimism and complaining that have often become the touchstone of modern life? What does Jewish tradition teach us that can help us get past this chronic feeling of negativity and despair?
One of the customs of Rosh Hashanah involves dipping our hallah bread in honey and as well as apples.
Apples, in Western tradition, often symbolize enlightenment and knowledge. What does bread symbolize? For one thing, it represents sustenance and food; in American slang, it also represents money and livelihood. The ancient Hebrews conceived of bread in similar terms.
Bread is לֶחֶם (leḥem) the staple of our life; but bread is often the source of considerable conflict. Moses in his wisdom recognized how the Hebrew words for bread and war מִלְחָמָה (milḥāmâ) are profoundly intertwined. Throughout recorded history, nations have gone to war over coveted resources and still do.
In our own day, the quest for bread has become an onerous challenge for over 15 million Americans who are currently out of work.
When people are suffering it is so hard for people to believe that there might be a light at the end of the tunnel—but I am here to remind you that Rosh HaShanah offers each of us a new opportunity to celebrate life as individuals and as a community. We feel as if we are in a war fighting for our lives. Survival has become a major struggle in every way.
The one constant in the universe is change; nothing stays stationary in the universe–how we deal with change is the real challenge. For many of us experiencing the loss of a spouse, or the loss of a home, or job,—Rosh HaShanah can help each of us to reinvent ourselves and our lives. We may have no choice for the events that happen in our lives, but we always have a choice how we respond. We can look at life’s cup as half-full, or see it as half-empty; it all depends how we frame these events. The Chinese say that the same pictogram for crisis can also mean opportunity. This is the challenge God has places before us. Although change often comes as an intruder, it also acts as the catalyst for moral growth. Change affords us the opportunity to reinvent ourselves, but to do so requires a great deal of imagination, focus, determination, work, and hope.
Change requires insight; insight comes from knowledge–the kind of wisdom that we find in our tradition.
One of the meanings of Lashana Tovah can mean, “A good year for study!” Our devotion and love toward one another and to Torah offers a proud and defiant message to the world around you —namely, we will eat our bread, share our bread in gladness and show there is nothing in the world that can destroy the goodness and spirit that we have.
Rav Nachman of Bratzlav was a famous Hassidic rabbi, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov; he was a man who, by modern psychoanalytical terms, happened to be a manic-depressive. Yet, one of the most important lessons he stresses in his writings, is the importance of seeing the good that is always present in our lives. Here are some practical suggestions he makes, “The world is like a narrow bridge; but the main thing for you to always be clear: Never give in to the voice of fear.” Nachman is not denying the existence of fear in our lives, but we do not have to let fear dominate and micromanage daily our existence.
Optimism, hope and renewal hold the key to experiencing a wonderful New Year. In other words, you cannot serve God with a heavy heart; God did not create us to be mere creatures dedicated to consumption; our purpose in this world is to learn and love. With a positive attitude like that, we will emerge with our spirits intact. Although we cannot change the external circumstances that affect our lives, we can change our inner attitude–and with a positive disposition, we can brings considerable light with a smile and amicable personality that defies gravity and the financial entropy of our world.
But to do that, we need to occupy ourselves with activities that will raise our troubled spirits to God—such as communal prayer, Shabbat celebration, and study. When we break through the walls that isolate ourselves from each other and from our inner strength, we will discover a New Year of infinite possibilities.
To all my readers, may you all be blessed with a New Year of sweetness and blessing for all!
Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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