Making The New Year More Meaningful

What follows below is a very slightly edited version of the sermon I delivered on the first day of Rosh Hashanah in my own synagogue. It was as much a personal statement about my own quest to invest life with meaning as it was a conventional sermon, but upon reflection… if that isn't legitimate fodder for a sermon, I'm not sure what is.
I hope that you find it meaningful, and I wish you all a G'mar Hatima Tovah-
Hayom Harat Olam! Today is the birthday of the world!

Were the New York Times to write an article about the essential message of Rosh Hashanah, these three words, which we recited only a few moments ago during the shofar service,would be, if you will, the lead. To be a Jew is to celebrate the fact that today is, indeed, the birthday of the world. It is a time of beginning anew in a new year, as we cleanse ourselves of the stains of the one just ended; a time of starting over, of believing that God wants to forgive us our shortcomings as badly as we want to be and feel forgiven, and of believing that forgiveness rooted in genuine penitence is possible. It is a time rife with spiritual possibilities, an opportunity waiting to be seized, of personal growth just waiting to happen. It is a time of endings, and a time of beginnings…

If you will indulge me, a personal note on the subject of endings and beginnings…

Many of you who are here today in shul have known my wife Robin and me since we came to Forest Hills in 1981, and a very few of you knew us before that. You have watched us grow from a young couple to a family of six, with a few children-in-law and now two grandchilden added along the way. As we enter into this particular Rosh Hashanah- this new beginning- we are, for the first time in twenty-eight years, looking at what will be, just a short few weeks from now, an empty nest- a definite ending. Hillel and Sharon have moved to Florida where he is practicing the rabbinate, literally and figuratively; Rabbi Yoni and Leora will be leaving soon so that Lieutenant Warren can begin a two-year Navy chaplaincy posting in Okinawa; Matan left just a few weeks ago for a gap year program in Israel with NATIV; and Talya is living at Barnard, but most probably studying abroad this coming spring at an as yet unspecified location.

Of course, everyone who has children goes through this transition, and it has been, through the ages, the stuff of poetry, songs, and prose. We are hardly unique, and we know it. To have and raise children is to eventually know the pain of separation.

But in the metaphorical book of one’s life- like the Sefer Hazichronot, the Book of Remembrances which we will invoke later in Unetane Tokef- it is relatively rare to have such a clean break between one chapter of your life and another. Most often, the chapters end towards the bottom of the page if they end cleanly and definitively at all, and you don’t necessarily realize that you’ve reached a new chapter until you turn the page and see the new chapter heading, or it hits you over the head, usually at an inopportune moment.

For us, the chapter on the almost three decades of child-raising years seems to have ended abruptly, at the top of its last page. There’s no avoiding it. Everyone is either leaving home or the immediate geographical area all at once, and at the same time. The idea of getting everyone together for even a special occasion has gone from being a daunting project to a complete impossibility. I know what you veteran parents are thinking- wait, they move back home! Yes, I know. But this is not about that. This is about clearly and unambiguously witnessing the end of one chapter of life, and the beginning of another.

I share these very personal musings with you this morning not for sympathy- as I said, every parent has to deal with this- but rather precisely because it is Yom Harat Olam. This is the season of transition, of endings but also of beginnings. Our children are leaving, and at the same time, new members of the family are being born. Perhaps more than ever before, this year I feel personally challenged by Rosh Hashanah. It feels as if God is saying to me “OK, stop crying in your beer. That chapter is over, and it was a darned good one. You’ve been incredibly blessed, and lucky. But now what are you going to do with yourself? Where does your life go from here now that it will no longer be defined by your children and what they are doing?”

The challenge that I have articulated is a familial one, rooted in deep relationships, and even the most superficial reader of the Rosh Hashanah Torah readings will know that, for as long as there have been families, there have been challenging family issues. The chronicle of Abraham and Sarah’s family and its descendants is the stuff of which our national narrative is made. Not by accident do we read it on Rosh Hashanah. Family wasn’t easy then, and it isn’t easy now. And surely, saying goodbye is rarely easy or kind, whether it is Abraham, thousands of years ago, sending Hagar and Yishmael out into the desert, or you or me today sending our children out to the four corners of the world.

But I would like to suggest this morning that the challenge of Hayom Harat Olam is about much more than purely family issues- it is about life itself, and how we live it. The imperative of tshuvah, which compels us to contemplate our past and use the fruits of that effort to craft a better present and future, encompasses a much broader assessment of the lives we lead. On this Yom Harat Olam– this birthday of the world, this season of new beginnings- we are obliged to ask ourselves: what we are doing to justify the gift of life? How are we using our time to merit the precious gifts of family and community? What about our lives sings out as special, what would God look at and say “The world I created is a better place because you, fill in the blank with your name, are in it!” And what about your life merely manifests a desperate desire merely to survive from day to day?

The recent tenth anniversary commemoration of September 11, 2001 served to clarify these questions for me even more. As we gathered together to mark that occasion and re-visit those painful memories, we were reminded once again of what a keen appreciation of life feels like. The sheer horrific power of what happened that terrible day stripped us bare of all the defenses we use to excuse the emptiness and pettiness we allow into our lives by default. For a few distilled moments, we were gifted with clarity of vision, and certainty of insight. We knew what mattered. Life mattered. Decency mattered. America mattered. Freedom mattered. And yes, Israel mattered. And none of the artificial differences that we ordinarily use to obscure those basic truths mattered at all. We were as one with all those people here in New York that we so often allow ourselves to feel estranged from… Life was precious.

But that feeling is almost impossible to sustain, and defaulting back into the ordinary, business-as-usual model is too easy. Today is Yom Harat Olam! We have a chance to do it better. God is waiting for us to do it better.

How do we do that?

That, my friends, is the question that we all need to be asking ourselves on these sacred days of Rosh Hashanah. How can I do this better, this “life” thing? How do we make our lives matter in a way that gives expression to the gratitude we must feel for being alive?

In the spirit of this most sacred time of year and of speaking ultimate truths, I would like to suggest three irreducibly important answers to this question.

The first answer is- invest in your family. This morning’s Torah reading might make you want to think twice about this suggestion, but still… Despite all of the difficulties inherent in family life, all of the complexities, all of the heartache that family relationships can bring, like they did to Abraham and Sarah, and Hagar… despite it all, invest in your family.

One of the realizations that hits you between the eyes when you’re on the edge of empty-nesting is that there are no “do-overs” in family relationships. There are no wrinkles in time that can transport you back, so as to undo what you’ve done, or of equal importance, do what you haven’t done. I’ve often spoken about this issue in a purely Jewish context at Parents Association breakfasts here in the synagogue. To create the Jewish child that you want, you have to establish exactly what defines that child, and then spend the next twenty or so years working towards accomplishing that goal.

It’s true in contexts not uniquely Jewish as well. In order to create the family that you want, you have to fashion a clear vision of what is it that characterizes that family, what your “family mission statement” is, if you will, and make sure that all the energy that you put into raising that family is “mission driven,” supporting your dreams and ideals.

My friend Rabbi Ed Feinstein, the rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California, has said that in real time, we have eighteen years within which to impact a child, and then they are for all intents and purposes beyond our reach. For the first few years, they have little if any idea of what you’re saying. For the last few years, they are either intentionally tuning you out, which adolescents do, or they have ear buds in and they’re listening to their iPods. When you talk to them, you’re disturbing them. So factoring all of this in, maybe, in a best case scenario, we have eight or nine years in which to make our mark. It’s not a lot of time…

I feel just a little uncomfortably like Ecclesiastes in saying this, but when all is said and done- sof davar hakol nishma– there is nothing more precious in this life than family. I would imagine that, over the thirty years of my rabbinate, I have seen hundreds of thousands of gravestones at the various cemeteries that I have visited. I am a student of those stones; they tell me a lot, even in their few brief words. I have, on the rare occasion, seen an elaborate headstone that mentioned that someone was a great teacher, or honored rabbi, or public servant. But I don’t believe that I have ever seen one that, in the very limited space allotted by the monument maker, said “outstanding corporate executive,” “phenomenal money maker,” or any other kind of professional achievement. It’s not that those things aren’t important; they are. But what people will remember you by is who you were to those most close to you. Hayom Harat Olam! You have a chance to start on a better path…

The second answer to my question of how to live a meaningful life is: invest in community.

Now that I’ve said all of that about family, I want to impress upon you that there are people in this sanctuary today who are either without immediate nuclear family for whatever reason- single by choice or not by choice, divorced, widowed, alienated from the family they do have- and community matters to them more than most of us can even imagine. I’ll take that a step further and say that this community- the Forest Hills Jewish Center- matters to them more than most of us can imagine. It is something of a blood sport in the synagogue world to point out all the things that are wrong with the synagogue world in general, and one’s own synagogue in particular, and God knows that the Forest Hills Jewish Center is not exempt from that phenomenon. We have more than our share of detractors. But it is within the power of all of us- of all of you- to make this community a virtual family for its members, in the very best sense of the words. You can do that by investing in community- not just financially, although that surely helps and is important- but by being an active and involved member, and consciously reaching out to those who are beyond your immediate circle of friends. When we speak of the Center family, we mean it. When people say how the “Center family” helped them through a difficult time, and enabled them to more fully enjoy a joyous time, they mean it. But every member of this community is entitled to feel like family here, whether he/she has a nuclear family to lean on or invest in or not. That is the sacred work of building community. Hayom Harat Olam! This is the season of new beginnings…. Now is the time.

And so I come to my final answer to the question of how to live a more meaningful life: invest in yourself.

I’m not really the best person to preach about this because I am not really all that good at it, but I know it’s true. It’s very hard to live a life that sings to God or to your family or community or to anyone else if it doesn’t sing to you. You have to sing to yourself first. You have to take care of yourself, nourish your soul, allow yourself some pleasure, and then you will feel good about all the other commitments that make up a meaningful like. Think of it like the pre-flight speech we all hear when a plane is about to take off. In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, we are told that oxygen masks will automatically drop from above our seats. Remember, the flight attendant will say; put your own mask on first, and then help your children and the others around you. The reason is simple. If you don’t put your own mask on first, you’ll pass out, and won’t be able to help anyone else. You have to take care of yourself.

Robin’s greatest gift to me when I turned 50 some years ago was that she convinced me- as much out of self defense, I think, as pure altruism- that I needed to do something for myself that would bring me pleasure. I was burning out, and she saw the signs. She knew that I had spent most of my life wishing that I had learned to play guitar, and she had the great idea that maybe Matan and I could share a lesson every week.

“I can’t do that,” I said. The lessons are on Tuesday nights, and I have meetings almost all the time, and, and, and… So she said to me, in so many words, that both the synagogue and the Jewish world would go on without me on Tuesday nights, probably quite well, and that I’d get to spend some wonderful time with Matan, too. And you know what? She couldn’t have been more right. Matan and I had great family time at those lessons, and I still- though no longer studying- play guitar to relax and have pleasure from it, and also to teach the music that I love to students young and old. It was a great gift, but ultimately, I had to decide to give it to myself. You can do that same thing for yourselves, too.

And while you’re at it, the other great gift you can give youselves is to invest in your spiritual life. You don’t have to be a rabbi to find solace in prayer. You don’t have to be someone’s version of an inaccessible religious model to find meaning in the regular performance of mitzvot. And you don’t have to be exceedingly learned in sacred text to feel that God loves you.

Hayom Harat Olam!! Why not use this Rosh Hashanah to write a new chapter in your own, personal Sefer Hazichronot? Whether you’ve got an empty nest or a full one, whether your life is exactly as you would want it to be or you are living with longing, let this season of new beginnings spur you on to create the life you dream of. Invest in your family; invest in your community; invest in yourself…. And let your life be a song of praise to God!

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.