The Courage to Continue - Rosh Hashanah 2014

You never know who you will meet on any given day in New York. If you keep your eyes open, you can easily spot celebrities on the streets of New York. Just in the past few months I saw Matt Damon pushing a baby stroller on the Upper West Side, Cynthia Nixon chatting outside Zabar’s, Hank Azaria working out at my gym and Tina Fey sledding with her kids in Riverside Park.

My approach to celebrity sightings is to let them know I know who they are and then quickly disengage. I usually say something like, “I really like your work” and walk away.

A while ago we were on our way to our friends on the Upper West Side of Manhattan when I noticed a man walking towards us who looked a lot like Philip Roth. Philip Roth has a certain look, i.e. the hair, the height, the nose, etc. 

I said to my wife, Julie, “Hey, I think that’s Philip Roth.” What sealed the deal was this man was carrying a book by no one other than Philip Roth.

As we approached each other, I made eye contact and exclaimed, “Excuse me, sir. Are you Philip Roth?”

“Well, yes, I am,” he replied with a hint of surprise.

“I am very big fan of your work,” I said as I turned to make my signature quick exit.

Before I could pivot, he responded, “Thanks. Who are you?”

This question doesn’t usually happen when meeting celebrities, so I was taken aback. In my experience, most celebrities are polite, yet they want their privacy. I am lucky if I get a smile. The interactions are much, much shorter than Portnoy’s opening remarks in Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.

After Julie and I introduced ourselves, Mr. Roth turned to Joseph, who was six at the time, and asked, “Who is this young man?”

I said, “Mr. Roth, this is Joseph.”

Joseph gave a hesitant, almost bashful look that indicated he had no idea who this guy was or why I was introducing what appeared to be a random stranger on the street.

Without missing a beat, Philip Roth responded with a smile, “Well, it’s not like meeting Derek Jeter.”

“Mr. Roth, you are much more important in our house than Derek Jeter, and it’s not just because we’re Red Sox fans.” Ushering Joseph forward, I continued, “Joseph, I want you to shake Mr. Roth’s hand, so one day you can tell your grandchildren that you met one of the greatest authors of all time.”

When Mr. Roth looked at his watch, I figured our time was up.

“Before you go, can I ask you one last question, Mr. Roth?”

“Sure.”

“Do you always carry your own books around?”

Looking at his own book in his hand, Philip Roth let out a gentle laugh and explained, “Oh, that. I told a friend I would mail him a copy of my new book, so I am heading to the Post Office.”

Today, on Rosh Hashanah, we are in a similar position as Philip Roth. Spiritually we all stand before God with our own stories from the past year in our hands, and we pray for the privilege to add another chapter in the Book of Life.

This might just be a metaphor, but it's one with real meaning. What could be more important, more powerful than the idea of being here next year - or even next week - with those we love and respect?

Just this past week, I sat in the park with a friend who has cancer. What's on his mind? The gift of another year with his wife and kids.

Rosh Hashanah takes on extraordinary significance when we embrace the fact that the future is uncertain. Shakespeare calls the future “The Undiscovered Country.” I think we, Jews, view it as the “undiscovered chapter.”

In order for the high holidays to have true resonance and meaning, we embark on an honest review of our lives over the past year and identify where we succeeded and where we can improve in the next chapter.

It is true that we watch our lives unfold firsthand, yet do we truly understand why we do what we do? Are there words we've said, paths we have pursued, actions we've done that we simply cannot explain?

Rosh Hashanah provides us with the opportunity to take a step back and learn from the past, so the future might be better on an individual level.

While our individual experience is important, Rosh Hashanah reminds us that we are part of something larger than ourselves.

On the High Holidays we come together as a community to look in the mirror and ask not just what can I do to improve myself, but also what can I do to help the community this year. The fact that our prayers are couched in the plural signifies that this path of growth, healing and renewal is one we walk together.

While we can conduct this heart to heart with God anywhere, anytime really, there is something special that brings us back to the synagogue, to the community and to each other. There is something empowering and comfortable about being together every year, and this year even more so.

This has been a challenging year for Temple Israel and the Sharon Jewish community. I think it's important to acknowledge the loss many of us feel, so much so that one can easily be distracted just sitting here.

One of the first leaders of the Jewish people to be knee deep in the waters of change is Joshua. Sefer Yehushua, The Book of Joshua, begins as soon as Moses has passed away.

The Israelites at that time were distracted because Moses was the only leader they had ever known.

  • Moses led them through the wilderness.
  • He oversaw the building of their spiritual home, the Mishkan.
  • He taught and interpreted Torah.

It's not hard to imagine that Moses officiated at countless baby namings, weddings and funerals for thousands and thousands of the Israelites.

With Moses gone, Joshua is called upon to lead the people not just across the Jordan River, but towards a future in a Promised Land yet to become truly theirs.

If you were Joshua, how would you feel? Nervous, excited, anxious.

We get a clue from the text that Joshua feels all this and more, because God tells him three times "Hazak V'amatz," "to be strong and take courage." Interestingly enough, the first time this expression is used, it's for the people as a whole. Now, God personalizes the communal message for their new leader.

The commentators believe that the emphasis of this expression is intended not only to calm Joshua's nerves, but also to underscore what is needed at times of change and uncertainty: strength and courage.

We need strength to carry on and the courage to fight for what we believe in.

Years later Winston Churchill helps us better understand this sacred charge to Joshua when he writes: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

The "courage to continue" constitutes the cornerstone of communal resilience. From the time of Joshua till today, the Jewish people have faced enemies and crises that have shaken the foundation of our spirit. Yet, in every generation, b'chol dor vador, we find a way not just continue, but to move forward; not just to escape death, but to embrace life, not just to leave Egypt, but to find our way to the Promised Land.

Being here today, it is great to see first-hand the power of community and the resilience of this wonderful congregation.

In the face of tragedy and loss, sometimes all we need is someone to stand up and remind us that a new chapter begins today, with us. Temple Israel is blessed to have many leaders who stepped up when we needed it most. Arnie Freedman, Cantor Dress and the officers have led the Temple over the past few months with vision, purpose and the courage to continue.

Our focus today is not just on community, but on the transformative nature of congregational life. Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, my colleague at the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York, gave a talk recently called "Why Synagogue?". He writes:

The differentiated mission of a synagogue is not just the presence of God, or to feel that presence in the context of a communal setting. Think about the range of life in this building today, from newborns to senior citizens and everything in between. Here we see each other – ourselves and our children and grandchildren – go through life together. As a member of the clergy, this is without a doubt the most rewarding part of my job. Sanctity compounded over time – to be present at birth and bat mitzvah, wedding and birth again; in joy and in loss, in sacred relationship over time and, please God, a lifetime.

Temple Israel is a great and inspiring congregation. The challenge before us is to create an even stronger future.

The pathway to a stronger future together is mapped out by the Mahzor itself. Our guideposts along the way are Teshuva; Tefilla U'Tzedakah. Today, I will reinterpret them as tools for communal resilience.

First, Teshuva can be more than repentance. It can also be seen as reflection with perspective. After we have looked inside, let's turn outwards not to judge, but to help and to heal. In light this light, Teshuva enables us to not just look inside of ourselves, but also to examine how we can serve our community. 

Second, Tefilla, as you know, means prayer. In the context of community building, Tefilla can manifest itself as coming together to articulate our dreams for the future, to join our voices together at times of mourning, and to celebrate life's most joyous moments with song.

Finally, there is Tzedakkah, which we usually think of as charity and financial support. The most vibrant communities I know are united in action for just causes that affect our lives and animate our souls. Rabbi Jonathan Sachs frames this directive for us:

No people has believed as lucidly and long as have Jews, that life has a purpose; that this world is an arena for justice and human dignity; that we are, each of us, free and responsible, capable of shaping our lives in accordance with our highest ideals. .. On Rosh Hashanah [and Yom Kippur] God summons us to greatness.

Acting together b'lev echad, k'eish echad "with one heart, united", we embody the very best of what it means to be a kehillah, a community.

Rosh Hashanah reminds us that a proactive communal focus, lending our voices to the soundtrack of communal life, and unified purposeful action are the keys for building a community that can stand the test of time.

These Days of Awe remind us that we not only have the chance to begin again, but also the power to write a new story for ourselves, for our families, for our community.

I mentioned earlier that I ran into Philip Roth on the street. Do you remember how I knew it was him? He was carrying his own book.

This year Rosh Hashanah I believe that - just like Joshua - we carry not just one, but two books: one for ourselves and one for our beloved community at Temple Israel. We have the power today to write the next chapter that is filled with purpose, love, trust, inspiration and collaboration.

All it takes is the courage to continue. Shanah Tovah!

Rabbi Charlie Savenor