Erev Rosh HaShanah Sermon 5777 by Rabbi Beni Wajnberg

5777 - My Shot

October 2, 2016


I am not throwing away my shot!

I am not throwing away my shot!

Hey yo, I am just like my country

I’m young, scrappy and hungry

and I’m not throwing away my shot!

We’re done, we can all go home now.

I am not throwing away my shot. I am just like my country: I am young, scrappy and hungry. And I am not throwing away my shot. Now, why would your rabbi quote lyrics from Hamilton? Well, for once, now I have your attention. Second, I can brag about the fact that we have tickets for December. Third, because the lyrics pretty much summarize the point of tonight’s sermon.

A New Year, a new beginning. New resolutions. I will not do this, I will do that. I will change this. Step after step that, we hope, will make us closer to perfect. Better grades, better relationships, better everything. We want it all. We want to succeed. And to succeed means to perfect. We don’t want to be ok. Ok is just ok. We want it, and we want it all.

Except for a minor detail. Perfection can’t exist. The word “perfect” comes from the contraction of two latin words; per, meaning through or completely, and facere, or “to do.” To be perfect is to do everything completely. If you wanted to be perfect, you would need to be perfect in everything. To do everything completely to its full extent.

Let’s take one tiny example to demonstrate how doing everything thoroughly is impossible. Let’s start with books. If you want to be perfect, you would have to read every single book ever published. Remember, you have to do it all. According to Amazon, the median length of a book is 64,000 words. If the average adult reads 250 words per minute, and you decided to read books as a full time job and read, non-stop, for eight hours a day, then it would be possible to read roughly two books per day. Working Monday to Friday with a break on the weekend (because, let’s face it, you would have to learn all languages to read all books published in all countries. With that in mind, you could read ten books in one week.That means it would take you five years and four months to read all the books that are published in the US in just one week.

Now, maybe we can live up perfectly at least to our values. We could perfect them, right?

Now, there are times that telling a lie may be the best thing to do. But we may be able to agree that being truthful or honesty is a value of ours, in spite of the rare occasions that a lie may be kosher. A study from the University of Massachusetts found that 60% of people lie an average of 2-3 times during a random 10-minute conversation. Whereas virtually everyone lies at least once in every 10 minutes. That by itself means that by the time the sermon is over, there is a 60% chance that I, your rabbi, will have lied 2 or 3 times, even if, and trust me, I don’t, mean to. They are most likely the so called “white lies.” A second study, from the University of Southern California - Go Trojans! - found that we are lied to an average of 200 times a day. My sermon should then be the least of your concerns. The reality is that we will likely - very likely - at least once in our lifetime, tell a lie. Perfection doesn’t quite work here. Even if our idea of perfection, if living everything completely, would be restricted to reading all books - being a perfect, complete reader - or being honest. So, let’s grab perfection, and toss it away.

What then are we left with? We are left with Hamilton. I am not throwing away my shot. I am young, scrappy and hungry. And I am not throwing away my shot. We may not be able to be perfect, but we can strive to be as perfect as we humanely can. Perhaps that’s a more realistic goal: not to be perfect, but to be as perfect as a human can be. And humans lie. Humans don’t read all the time. Humans make mistakes. Humans don’t always feel great or happy. So instead of perfect - we tossed that already - we are left with… human.

Tonight, Rosh HaShanah, we celebrate, commemorate and remember the creation, in the Biblical narrative, of the first humans. We don’t celebrate perfection. We don’t even quite celebrate God. We celebrate ourselves, humans. The ones who are unable to read all books they themselves write. The ones who lie. Frequently. The ones who make mistakes. The ones who cannot be happy all the time. The ones who may behave in far from ideal ways. And if we strive for perfection in a New Year, we are setting ourselves up for failure. Because we can’t achieve it. Instead, this sermon is about us striving, in this New Year, to become better humans. It may help to talk about who is this human. Who is this person saying: I am not throwing away my shot.

So… small question. Who are you? Are you your name? Your body? We are given a name by someone else, most of the time before we are born. Even more frequently, before we are able to express an opinion. Sure, our names may shape us. Especially those of us with way too many consonants in our last names. But they don’t define us, or at least not all that there is in us. Our bodies. Ok. Our bodies may define our quality of life. But even as that deteriorates and something doesn’t function as it used to, we are still ourselves. So we can’t be constricted to bodies alone. Maybe we are our thoughts. But our thoughts come and go. They help to shape us, or they come from the source of our being. But there is more to us than them. Maybe feelings. But sometimes we feel sad, and sometimes happy. Sometimes we suffer, and sometimes we feel joy. Love… and hate. Hope… and fear. And we continue to exist, independently of our feelings. We are affected. We change with every experience. And we can choose to change. But who is this one changing? Who are we?

Our tradition describes who we are - our human nature - as a duality. On one hand, we have the yetzer ha’tov, the inclination of being good. Our souls, inside of us, this energy that breathes into us life, have a component that is good. That inspires us to be our better selves, to become a mentsch - a person, a human. Not God. Not perfect. Human. Then there is a second component. The yetzer ha’rah, the evil inclination. We have the capacity of, well… not being as good as we could be. Transgressing. Committing deliberate mistakes. That part too is part of our souls.

Maimonides, one of our medieval thinkers, is known for not always the most lenient and understanding of our sages. He admits that yetzer ha’rah is part of life. Important part of life. This evil inclination is present when follow the desires of our heart as opposed to God’s intention and desire. It helps us to understand ourselves, and to have the chance to take advantage of our shot at being human. He says that even when we transgress, even when the yetzer ha’rah becomes prevalent in our actions, we can, and should, praise God. Praise God for giving us the capacity of following the desires of our heart. And learn from the experience.

Who are we? Based on this, one way that we can see ourselves is this complicated struggle and tensions of a tormented soul, balancing good and evil, happiness and sadness, love and hate. We are the in-between. “The” gray area. We are young, scrappy and hungry. Young because we have always the capacity of recreating ourselves. Scrappy because we make mistakes. We are not always good. We are not perfect. And we are hungry, because we want to continue to find meaning, even in the midst of our own personal struggles. Being human is embracing our marathon. Now, the convention is that marathons are 26.2 miles. But perhaps we all have our own marathons. The marathons that only we can face. Almost as if our marathon was created especially for us. Almost as if only each one of us could race our personal marathon. That limbo, that in between, that juggling through life trying to balance our evil and our good, our best and our worse. The race in which we compete only with ourselves. Being human is not throwing away our shots. It is facing that marathon. And, through our life, feeling that we are about to set our own personal best record.

If we need the right sneakers and appropriate hydration to run a 26.2 mile marathon, we also need help to race our spiritual human personal marathon. That brings us to a chassidic teaching by the 19th century Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa. He taught the following: “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: "For my sake was the whole world created.” But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: "I am but dust and ashes.”

Two pieces of paper, one in each of our pockets. In one, the words “For my sake was the world created.” When we feel bad, when we feel low, then we go high. We search for strength when times are difficult. In the other pocket, “I am but dust and ashes,” for moments when we feel super great. When we feel perfect. Then we remind ourselves that we are actually… not perfect. Being human is living in the gray area. But we may feel at either end of the spectrum. And then we remember our marathon. We take our shot, and run our complicated, broken, hard and complex race.

We may not always have pockets in our clothes. We live in a city with humidity and rain. So paper may not work for us to carry around on us. But to remind ourselves that we are both good and bad, both beautiful and capable of hurting, I want to invite you to an experiment on this Rosh HaShanah, on this birthday of the first humans. We will call it the #HHDchallenge. It is your invitation to not throw away your shot. As you exit our sanctuary, through either the door to your right or the front door, you will find a basket full with personalized wristbands, created for exactly this moment, created for you. 

You will notice that the bracelets are divided in two different colors, white and red. In the white side, there are two words: Dust and Chesed, which in Hebrew means kindness, or compassion. The color white is the color our mystics connected to this divine attribute of compassion. That side of the wristband represents our capacity of remembering the need to not feel perfect all the time, to sense others around us, to understand the limits of ourselves when we feel the strongest and most powerful. The other side is red, and it reads “For my sake” and “gevurah,” the Hebrew word for the divine attribute of strength or power. Red represents fire, the capacity of combustion, which is why our mystics assigned the color red to Gevurah.

We carry inside of us both this capacity of compassion and understanding that we are little, that not everything is about us, and the understanding that we have an amazing power of transformation. That the world - or at least our world, our marathon - was created for our own sake. The #HHDChallenge  is to wear the wristband as a reminder of your marathon. At least for these 10 days of atonement until Yom Kippur. As you go about life, search for moments that you feel great, all powerful, the best person to have ever existed on the planet. When that happens, turn your bracelet to the white, dust side. And when you feel down, incomplete, as if this race was not worth it, turn to the red side, and remember that for your sake this world was created. if you feel comfortable, take a picture, share a few words on what was going on with you, and send it to [email protected]. Don't worry, the e-mail address is in the plastic wrapping your wristband. We will choose a few of them to share on our Facebook. Why? Life may feel great, it sometimes may stink. We have our own struggles. But we struggle next to each other. And we celebrate with each other. This year, we at Shaaray Tefila want to become an even more powerful and sacred community. As a sacred community, we share both naches and tzures, both celebrations and complicated moments. Let this be our collective testament of claiming our communal role in being there for each other, in cheering for each other, as we embrace our very own personal marathon.

We are not perfect. We are human. Not good or bad. But human.

We are not throwing away our shot!

We are not throwing away our shot!

Hey yo, we are just like our country

Young, scrappy and hungry

and we are not throwing away our shot!

May this year be a year of growth to all of us, individually and as a community, and may we become the best humans that we can be.

Shanah tova!