Rosh Hashanah: Cultivating Integrity, Humility, and Joy in Difficult Times
Tonight, we stand, once again, on the threshold of the New Year. What will it bring? Think of all that’s happened since last Rosh Hashanah. Who could have predicted it? Consider developments in your own life. Maybe a new employment status or living situation, the loss or gain of a significant relationship, a health crisis, or the death of a loved one. On the national scene, the presidential election took many of us by surprise. Dangers America hasn’t faced in a generation or more are resurfacing, even the prospect of nuclear war. We’ve witnessed scenes of brazen antisemitism that we never would have imagined in America in 2017. Many of us have responded by becoming involved in social and environmental causes as never before. In my case, I have become more outspoken as a public figure this past year: denouncing bigotry, advocating for the most vulnerable in American society, including refugees, immigrants and the homeless, and fighting climate change.
Rosh Hashanah is the most universal of Jewish holidays. Other festivals commemorate historical events for the Jewish people, the Exodus from Egypt or the giving of the Torah. Rosh Hashanah celebrates the Creation of all existence. On Rosh Hashanah, the entire world stands in judgment; humans, angels, and even the animals pass under the Shepherd’s staff. Our fate as Jews is conjoined with the fate of humanity and the fate of the Planet! The earliest addition to the High Holiday Amidah begins with the words: “may all whom You have created become one, bound in Your service, performing Your will with a full heart…”
Judaism conceives social responsibility as a series of concentric circles. First, we care for our family, next, the community, then, the Jewish people, and, finally, the world at large. The ways we implement the theoretical model for giving tzedakah will vary from person to person. But this evening I want to tackle a more basic dilemma than how we manage universal versus particular obligations: how do we manage our obligations at all? When we contemplate the enormity and complexity of the global challenges we face, what prevents us from succumbing to paralysis and despair? How to get through times like these? –that’s this evening’s topic. How are we going to make it through 5778?
Let me introduce three spiritual qualities for cultivating hope during difficult times: integrity, humility, and serenity. Integrity is the steadfast adherence to principles and values. Many are familiar with Dr. Martin Luther King’s eerily prescient “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, delivered the evening of his assassination. He likens himself to Moses, looking down upon the Promised Land (incidentally, in this week’s Torah portion). Dr. King knows that he may not get there himself, but as a people, as Americans, we will get there. What’s not so familiar is what he says earlier in the speech:
“If I were standing at the beginning of time, with the whole sweep of human history unfolding in a panoramic view before me, and the Almighty asked me, ‘Martin Luther, which age would you like to be born in?’ strangely enough, I would turn to Him and reply, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.’ Now that's a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick, and trouble is in the land. But I know that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”
We live for times such as these. Only when challenges and obstacles force us to make sacrifices for what we believe in do we discover our mettle. Integrity means that our actions are determined not by external authority but by our own internal moral compass. We are liberated the moment we refuse to take marching orders from the power structures in which we are embedded —like the Israelite women, Shifrah and Puah, who feared not Pharaoh but their God.
At the same time, integrity must be tempered with humility. We need to acknowledge that thoughtful people maintain a variety of views on what constitutes progress. Some of us decry the policies of the new administration, while others applaud them. Who’s right? In today’s era of polarization, political and religious, it’s dangerous for any single person or group to claim a monopoly on Truth, or certain knowledge of God’s will, for that matter. Within Judaism, Torah represents the sum total of wisdom. But Torah itself is perennially unfolding, revealing new insights in every generation. There is no point at which one can claim: I have mastered it! A little doubt must accompany even the most fervently held convictions.
I learned a great deal about the constructive potential of humility to bridge ideological divides from a workshop I took part in, entitled the Public Conversations Project. It turns out that when we express absolute confidence in our own position and never admit uncertainty, when we cast complex issues in stark, black-and-white terms, and when we listen only to find fault and speak only to persuade or ridicule, we perpetuate and increase hostility between factions and forestall the possibility of collaboration. If, instead, we listen to understand and speak to be understood, acknowledge our own misgivings and ask genuinely curious questions, and focus more on exploring a variety of perspectives than winning the debate, we develop trust, build a common sense of community, and open new opportunities for jointly solving problems. I attended the seminar in December, and for the first time since the presidential election, I began to feel optimistic that the country’s divisions might be healable.
Finally, the more turbulent things get, the more vital it becomes to actively pursue serenity. A cartoon magnet on my friend’s refrigerator shows a woman walking along the beach with her husband. She turns to him and says: “the best part of my day is the moment between waking up and remembering what’s going on in the world.” But, all jokes aside, whether to be peaceful inside is a choice we make. We alone are ultimately responsible for our emotional reactions, no matter what anyone says or does on the news.
Shabbat is our tradition’s great institution for replenishing the soul. Shabbat lets us unplug the computer, detach from all the commotion, and immerse ourselves in nourishing activities. But once a week is not enough! We need daily reprieves to offset the stressors constantly bombarding us. There are two commands regarding Shabbat: Shamor ve-zachor, keep and remember. “Keep Shabbat” refers to what we do on Shabbat to elevate Shabbat-awareness, and “remember Shabbat” indicates what we do, not on Shabbat, to foster Shabbat-consciousness.
I, for one, no longer consume the first part of my morning by heading from bed directly to the New York Times on my computer, coffee in hand, a compulsion that used to put me on edge before I got my day started. If there was anything sensational, it would hook me, in which case I’d have to check spasmodically for the latest “breaking” development throughout the day. Nowadays, I set aside a time once a day, and once a day only, to read the headlines and selectively follow up on what seems important to be informed about. Then I go to a certain armchair in the living room, put on my Tefillin, and sit in meditation. This discipline stills whatever mental chatter the news generated, focuses me on the tasks in my daily schedule, and lets me let go of all the things I cannot control in the world. (This is what I do, and I’m not necessarily prescribing it for you. What I am recommending is some kind of regular “Shabbat discipline” for the workweek, when you need it most.)
Another way to enhance serenity is to broaden your outlook and adopt the long view! The most distressing situations sometimes contain seeds of progress. For example, white supremacists have lurked beyond the margins of American society for decades, only now, since Charlottesville, they’ve come out of the woodwork to be exposed, condemned and repudiated—and that’s not an entirely bad thing. Although climate change has been underway for years, when flooding and storm surges suddenly disrupt the lives of millions of Americans, as during the recent back-to-back hurricanes, maybe now we’ll sit up and pay attention—and that’s not an entirely bad thing. So, the next time you despair that society is unraveling or the world is coming to an end, remember that progress often unfolds in zigs and zags, and the next chapter of history has yet to be written.
“Trust in Adonai” is a formula we find in Scripture and in our liturgy, but it’s commonly misconstrued. It’s not a prescription for passivity and fatalism. It doesn’t justify our saying: “I’ll do nothing, because God will provide.” Quite the opposite. God lives inside each one of us. “Trust in Adonai” promulgates the fundamental goodness of human nature and the purity of the human soul. “Trust in Adonai” affirms our God-given capacity as human beings to regret and repair, to grow and change, to do teshuvah and to do good, to choose good over evil. “Trust in Adonai” means, in the words of our Siddur: “The good in us will win, over all the wickedness, over all the wrongs we have done. We will look back at the pages of written history, and be amazed, and then we will laugh and sing, and the good that is in us, children in their cradles, will have won.”
My prayer for you and for all of us as we enter the New Year: no matter it brings, events both positive and negative, challenges both personal and societal, triumphs and disappointments, may we meet them all with integrity, humility, and serenity. Shanah tovah.