Erev Rosh HaShanah 5744 – September 4, 2013—This summer, the global news media excitedly stood vigil in London, as Britain’s Prince William and his wife, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, awaited the birth of their first born; and, on July 23rd, when Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge was born, and the world went crazy with joy.

 

Also this summer, in Poland, a colleague of mine, Rabbi Fred Guttman, met a survivor, a woman, named Dora,  who now lives in Los Angeles.  He described her,  as he put it, “dressed to the nines.”  When he asked her why she was so fashionably attired, she replied that when she had left Poland after the Shoah, she had been dressed in rags, but she had promised herself that if she ever camp back, she would dress royally because she considered herself to be the daughter of the King—G-d.

 

Young Prince George is declared by the world as the child of royalty and regal, elderly survivor Dora considers herself the child of royalty.

 

Who are we to consider ourselves children of royalty?  We’re pintele yids, merely little Jews, after all.  So let’s start with what it means to be Jewish, to be B’nai Israel.

 

The word “Israel” comes from the 32nd chapter of Breishit, Genesis, in the Torah. It describes the wrestling between Jacob and man, or between Jacob and, perhaps, an angel. After Jacob wrestles this man/angel, he is bestowed with a new name:  Israel. “Israel” means:  “one who wrestles with G-d.”

 

In essence, we as Jews, as members of the peoplehood of Israel, are people, who, throughout the centuries have wrestled with difficult questions time and time again. We are not satisfied with simplistic answers to such questions. We are people who, on the whole, have a positive attitude toward science and, as a whole, see no conflict between our religion and science. We are not afraid to tackle the hard questions:  Why is it that some of the times good people suffer? Or why is it that some of the times evil people seem prosper? The 20th century saw the destruction of 6 million of our brothers and sisters. We are not afraid to ask the question: Where were You, G-d, during the Shoah/the Holocaust? Why, G-d, didn’t you stop it? And while we confront G-d, we also confront ourselves:  What was our responsibility to stop the Shoah then? What is our responsibility now, as we view photographs of children being gassed in Syria?  Can there ever be peace in the Middle East?  What should we be doing about the proliferation of guns here at home?  What should we be doing about immigration reform?  We are not afraid to ask the question.

 

Although we struggle to answer those questions, we do not shirk from wrestling with them and with others, often prompted by difficult situations—sometimes global, sometimes very personal.   “What should be my response? What should be my response to the fact that a loved one is ill, and what should be my response to the strangers in our midst who have no loved ones to worry about them or tend to their care? What should be my response when I lose my loved ones; and how can I live my life as so to preserve and honor his or her memory?

 

And, of course, we are not afraid to admit that we wrestle with the very concept of G-d……all the time.  These are questions with which we as the people of Israel, the people whose very name signifies that we are “G-d wrestlers” are not afraid to ask. The fact that we wrestle with hard questions is admirable, but does that entitle us to be children of royalty?

 

The word “Jew” itself comes from the word “Yehudah/Judah.” Who was Judah? Judah was the fourth-born son of Jacob and his wife Leah. In Breishit/Genesis chapter 29 verse 35 we read, “Again she became pregnant and bore a son and said ‘This time I give thanks to the eternal.’ She therefore named him Judah.” In other words, the word Judah means to “give thanks.”

 

We as Jews are people who are raised to develop a spiritual practice of giving thanks to G-d for all of our many blessings. We awake in the morning with the prayer “Modeh/modah ani lifanecha”—-a prayer of thanks for G-d’s giving us another day to work towards our Divine potential.  “HaYom, HaYom, HaYom”  is a theme we repeat on Rosh HaShanah….today, this day, this day.  There is something about today that causes us to reflect.  Let us take a moment, and think about what the things are in our life, for which we are most thankful? Are these things really what we possess or is it the fact that we have life, that we have friends, that we have loved ones. Yes possessions are important. Yet, I am so grateful to G-d that I get up every morning. I am so grateful to G-d that I’ve been able to come here today to be with you, to be part of this holy community.

 

Let me ask you to pause for just a moment and think about what it is in your life that you are grateful for. Now look at the people who are around you—-especially if they are friends or families—-and think for a few moments about what it is that you are grateful for in them. What is it about their companionship and friendship that enriches your life? PAUSE

(Be sure to tell them later…)

 

As I’ve said many times before, Judaism is no less than a spiritual practice designed to help us develop attitudes of gratitude. The very word Jew means to be thankful and grateful.  But does being a consciously grateful people come exclusively to children of royalty?

 

Early in the Torah we are told “b’tzelem Elohim barah oto”  every individual is created in G-d’s image. Therefore every individual is precious and special and nothing less than a holy reflection of the DIVINE. Consequently any action that leads to bias, bigotry, and discrimination—any action that attempts to lessen the rights of another is, in essence, an action in which we as individual or as society fail to see the divine in that person. And therefore it was no surprise that this past year the Jewish community in North Carolina was virtually unanimous in its opposition to an amendment, which sought to deprive gay and LGBTs of civil rights; this is reflective of how Jewish religious doctrine is intertwined with civil rights…caring for the humanity in one another.

 

We respect the religious convictions of our neighbors and yet as Jews who throughout history have all too often been the victims of discrimination, we reject discrimination in any shape or form seeing it as lessening of the divine in an individual.

 

But more than that, we as Jews believe that relationships with each other and with G-d are paramount. Specifically in our relationships with each other we believe two individuals who possess the image of G-d are creating space for the Presence of G-d. In other words the image of G-d is in each one of us, but the presence is to be found in our holy and meaningful relationships with one another.  Does this qualify us as children of royalty?

 

We Jews believe that the world as we know it is not the world as it ought to be. The world that is, is not the world that G-d desires. And therefore we are mandated to pursue, through our actions as a community, the betterment of the community and society. The Kabbalists referred to this as Tikkun Olam, repairing or completing the world.  Tikkun Olam tells us that when children go hungry and people lack proper healthcare the world is not okay. The doctrine of Tikkun Olam tells us that when elderly are forced to make choices between healthcare, medicinal drugs and groceries, our world is indeed lacking. Tikkun Olam tells us that on Rosh Hashanah we hand out bags in this congregation, so that they will be returned on Yom Kippur, filled with non-perishable goods, and we know that volunteers will then bring them to the food bank at the Jewish Family Services Agency.  We trust that those who take the bags will remove the Mazon envelopes, place a check in the envelope for the amount of money they would ordinarily spend on food for a day and send it to Mazon, so others can eat.  Tikkun Olam is what tells us that we need to be better stewards of our earth, to reduce our carbon footprints, to seek ways to live a more sustainable existence.  Tikkun Olam basically redefines what the word “violence” means, because violence is not simply someone hitting someone else; in Jewish tradition, it’s that, and as important, it is a society turning its back on its children, its elderly and its people in need. The biblical prophets rail against ignoring the plight of the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. In biblical times these were the poor, and, as Jews, we are not content to stand by and say that personal redemption is paramount when others are suffering. Communal redemption means that even though I have escaped from Egypt, even though I am free, even though I am economically secure; the world is not complete; and I should not be satisfied until all people live in safety, live in a situation economic security and peace.  The welfare of others is decidedly a responsibility of children of royalty, so maybe we’re getting somewhere here.

 

Judaism comes to us and says that, as individuals, we can do better. The very word “Teshuvah,” which we traditionally define as “repentance,” simply means to “turn around.” If I had been going in the wrong direction all I need to do is turn around. All I need to do to improve my life is to return to the teachings of Torah. All I really need to do to really improve my life and my relationship with others is to ask forgiveness and in so doing start out on a new path.

 

Yes! You and I can both be better than what we are right now. And frankly I find the optimism in that statement compelling.

 

I might not be able to lose the weight I want to lose, I might not be able to know all of the things I want to know, I might not be able to achieve all of the things that I want to achieve, but certainly I can be able to make improvements in who I am as a human being. The rabbis tell us, “Lo alecha ha-m’lacha lig’mor.  It is not up to finish the work, but neither are we free not to start it.” And what they meant by that is that if I just turn around, if I just make the effort to improve who I am, I will be blessed and that for the time-being will be enough.  It’s not as if the world’s paparazzi are on us, or our Royal Parent is constantly checking up on us….or is it?

 

You know, Rosh HaShanah is known by several names.  HaYom Harat Olam is one, and we’ll get into that tomorrow, and Yom HaDin…the day of judgment is another.  So, if this is a day on which we are being judged, on what are we being judged?

 

Dr. Ron Wolfson wrote a book several years ago, called The Seven Questions You’re Asked in Heaven, and these seven questions may surprise you.  The first one is “Nasata v’notata b’emunah?”[1] Did you deal honestly with people in your business practices?  Interesting, huh?  Not, did you follow the Ten Commandments, or do you believe in G-d, but were you an honest businessperson?  Rava, the Rabbi of the Talmud who wrote that inquiry, knew, as Dr. Wolfson says “You might believe that G-d is omnipresent, that G-d sees everything, that G-d knows everything.  Or you might believe the powerful metaphor of the Jewish High Holy Days:  G-d, the Supreme Judge and Accountant, keeps books detailing personal deeds, good and bad, a kind of cosmic Santa Claus who knows who’s been naughty or nice.”[2]  Of course, one could just as easily ask who is judging us?  Are we judging ourselves or is G-d judging us?…. and does it matter?  Rava knew that as much as one might try to “hide” his or her less than honest business dealings from others, you can’t hide them from yourself.  “Honest to G-d.”

 

The second question we might be asked in heaven is also from Rava’s imagination:  “Asakta b’friyah u-riviya?” [3] Literally, did you busy yourself with being fruitful and multiplying, but what this really means is “Did you invest yourself in your family?”  The mitzvah of being fruitful and multiplying is a bittersweet one.  The desire to have children is so compelling; yet not everyone can conceive…and sometimes there are overriding reasons why a couple may choose not to conceive.  So, the mitzvah of procreating is not applicable to those who can’t, and to those who can, it is not simply to spew forth offspring.  It is to invest yourself in your family….whether that is your biological progeny, your adopted children, your students, or yes the community you choose to be your legacy.  We will each, some day, be someone’s ancestor.  Will they consider themselves coming from royal lineage?

 

The third question is “Kava’ata itim la-Torah?”[4]  Did you set times for Torah?   In the Talmud, we are provided a list of deeds[5] that yield immediate fruit and continue to yield fruit in the world to come, but topping the list is the study of Torah, because it leads to all the other good endeavors.

 

The first three questions were about what we have done in our lives; the fourth question is “Tzipita li’yeshua?”[6]  Did you hope for deliverance?—is more about attitude.  We who call ourselves “P’nai Tikvah,” Faces of Hope, strive to see the glass half-full, to keep hope alive, to choose hope.  If we live a life in fear, in a state of anxiety, as pessimists, we will waste a great deal of energy and imprison ourselves in our own Mitzrayim.

 

The fifth question, also imagined by Rava, is a two-parter:  “Pil’pal’ta b’chochmah?” Did you seek wisdom and “Heivanta davar mi-toch davar?”  Did you understand one thing from another?”[7] This is about more than the methodology employed in studying, I think.  This is about asking questions about your life experiences that led you to wisdom and analyzing those life lessons to lead you to understanding.  It’s about whether we consciously made thoughtful decisions or whether we dreyed our kopfs, literally spun our heads, (not unlike the dreidle, the spinning top).  But being a dreykopf isn’t always bad or unproductive. Sometimes, like yours truly, dreying is a part and parcel to making a decision.  In weighing ones options, we often go into our inner GPS (the inner G-d Positioning System) to see alternative paths.  I sometimes think that dreying may be part of Jewish DNA; the rabbis of the Talmud would drey on the meaning and implications of biblical texts and ancient laws and through the massa u-matan, the give-and-take l’sheim shamayim, for the sake of heaven. I wonder if the children of Royalty drey their kopfs or always make spur-of-the-moment wise decisions.  Oops, cancel that.  I do recall a not too wise decision Prince Harry made in Las Vegas not too long ago.  Oh well…

 

The sixth question asks “Were there earthly pleasure permitted to you that you did not enjoy?”[8] You can decide if that’s referring to fulfilling your bucket list or simply taking full advantage of what you have; enjoying your life in this world; and, perhaps, helping others to enjoy theirs.

 

And the seventh question, Dr. Wolfson imagines we will be asked when we get to heaven, or, perhaps, as we have been doing here, ask ourselves today, on this Erev Rosh HaShanah,  comes from the classic Chassidic tale about Reb Zusya.  On his deathbed, he tearfully declared, “In the coming world, they will not ask me:  ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me:  ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”[9]  So, we ask ourselves if we’ve been true to ourselves?  Have we been all that we can be?

 

Which brings us back to our original question…the one posed by the survivor Dora, juxtaposed to his royal majesty, young Prince George:  Can we consider ourselves children of Royalty?

 

Hmmm.   Our Rosh HaShanah liturgy praises G-d with the declaration:  “Baruch Ata Adonai,  HaMelech HaKadosh.”  Praised are you, Adonai, the Holy Sovereign.  During the ten days that begin this evening, these  Asseret Y’mai T’shuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, we continually refer to G-d as Melech Malchei Ha-M’lachim, the King of Kiings of Kings.  And, we sing of G-d as  Avinu Malkeinu, our Father our King, in which case,  Dora is right— we Jews, especially during these highest of holy days, should put ourselves in the mindset of being  “children of royalty.”

 

On this Erev Rosh HaShanah, let us consider what it means to be Jewish…. children of royalty.  Children of royalty are unquestionably both privileged and charged with immense responsibility.  Our privilege?  To be alive would be good enough for me; but to have inherited a treasure trove of wisdom and responsibility in our Jewish heritage, undoubtedly, is our mazel.

 

So what does it mean today to be the son or daughter of royalty? It means (1) to be part of a people named Israel who are G-d wrestlers, it means (2) to be part of a people called Jews coming from the name Judah who are grateful for all of their many blessings. It means (3) to realize that we are all created in G-ds image, but that the presence of G-d is found in the relationships we have with one another. It means (4) to be committed to creating a world as it ought to be and not to be satisfied with the world as it is. And finally (5) it means at this season to engage in the process of Teshuvah of repentance and self-improvement.  It means to be able to respond honestly to all seven questions we might be asked in heaven.

In the Book of Micah, the question is posed:  What does the Lord require of us?  “Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with G-d.”

 

When Dora came back to Poland and was dressed in the way in which she was dressed, she understood very well what it meant to be the daughter of royalty. On this holy day, filled with the presence of G-d and the beauty of community, may it be G-d’s will and may it be our task that we too will be able to say I am the son, I am the daughter, I am the child of the Sovereign or Sovereigns of Sovereigns.  Amen.

 

L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu.  May we all be inscribed, royally, for a good year.

Rabbi Yocheved Mintz

Congregation P’nai Tikvah

 



[1] Shabbat 31a

[2] Wolfson, Dr. Ron.  The Seven Questions You’re Asked in Heaven,” Jewish Lights , 2009.  Woodstock, VT., p 10.

[3] Shabbat 31z

[4] ibid

[5] Honoring parents; deeds of loving-kindness, setting a time for study—morning and evening, providing hospitalitiy, visiting the sick, helping the needy bride, attending a funeral, probing the meaning of prayer, making peace between one person and another, and between husband and wife; and the study of Torah is the most important of them all.  —Shabbat 127a

[6] Shabbat 31a

[7] Shabbat 31a

[8] “A human being will have to give account for all that his eye beheld and he did not eat.” –Kiddushin 4:12

[9] Tales of the Chassidim, Volume 1, page 251.