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Sermon on Erev Rosh Hashanah 2013/5774

 

Take Note of Us: Let Us Be Notable

Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro, September 4, 2013

 

 

A scholar once interviewed a distinguished Parisian woman who was 85 years old. She had lived through all the regimes of 19th century France. After the French Revolution there had been the reign of Napoleon, followed by King Louis XVIII, King Charles X, and so on down to the emergence of the Third Republic.

"Reviewing your long life, Madame," the scholar asked, "which of all the many governments would you say was the best?" "Why, that of Charles X," was her instant response.

This amazed the scholar, because it was rare for people to speak positively about Charles and his reactionary politics.

"What makes you choose the reign of Charles X?" he asked. "Because," she explained, "that's when I was young. When Charles was king, I turned 18, and I began to be invited out to dances."

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I venture to say that is the not the kind of response the scholar expected. But in one sense how true and honest an answer. "I turned 18 and I began to be invited out to dances." The older woman just happened to look at life with very different eyes than those of the scholar.

Doesn't each of us do the same? Don't we all look at experience in our own unique fashion?

We come to this service, for example, with different attitudes and different needs. Some of us are here because someone in the family brought us. Some are called by nostalgia. Others come because the High Holidays are a time for seeing old friends.

This evening we truly are a hundred moods: some reluctant, some eager, some pleased, some angry, some worried, some hopeful. There are those who say they are religious; others who say they are not religious; and others who wonder what the very word is supposed to mean.

So varied in style and feeling, what strikes me about Jews, as it does every year at this season, is the fact that religious or not, sure of who we are as Jews or not, as different as we are, the High Holidays touch us.

These Days of Awe have an aura that lures us back, and it is that spirit of the season that I want to consider with you this evening. I stand in awe with all of you and wonder what gives these holidays the power to bring us back.

A key for me lies in the words we translated towards the beginning of the Amidah this evening. At that time, we recited in English the words of a phrase that occurs throughout this season.

Zochrenu l'chayim, melech chafetz ba-chayim, v'chotvenu b'sefer ha-chayim l'ma-an'cha elohim chayim.

Zochrenu: remember us for life, O Sovereign who delights in life.

Chotvenu: inscribe us in the Book of Life, for Your sake, O God of life.

Remember us...Inscribe us...Book of life...God of lifeā€¦

Think of this prayer as a poem. Think of the prayer as a petition and feel with me some of the urgency behind the petition. "Zochrenu," says the anonymous poet - a Jew who conceived this prayer around 18 centuries ago. "Remember us," but what does he mean when he says that? Does he wonder about God's memory and with this prayer tap God on the shoulder to remind God of His responsibilities? Does worrying about God's capacity to remember give this piece of liturgy its passion?

I don't think so. I do think something moves the poet, but it can't be God and God's memory that concerns him. I think, instead, it is something more internal and personal that touches the poet. You see, Hebrew not only translates "Zochrenu" as "remember us." The phrase can also be understood to mean "Zochrenu - Take note of us."

And this it seems to me is what the original poet and all Jews, including you and me, have really felt as we have said or sung this prayer.

The prayer says, "Take note of us, O God" and the prayer endures because the feeling of wanting to be noted, of wanting to count, of wanting to be important beats strongly and persistently in the heart of every human being.

"Notice me. Pay attention to me." Jews in ancient Israel felt the need. Presidents of major corporations, high school teachers, nurses, and physicians all still have the need.

At a very basic level, I believe all of us want to matter. Few of us are so insular or so sure of ourselves that we ever stop wondering how and if we measure up to the world around us. There is always the doubt as to whether what we have or do or are is of real consequence.

Zochrenu is not only a petition. It is a question. "Are we memorable? Are we notable? Are we worthwhile?"

I can state the matter in terms of my own experience. A few years ago as I was doing research for a paper, I read some of the yearbooks published by the Reform Rabbinic Association, the CCAR. They were yearbooks from the 1940's and early 50's and included the full proceedings of the rabbis' annual meeting. Major addresses were recorded by the leaders of the American Reform movement. The rabbis who were the most prominent and accomplished leaders of their times filled these pages.

That was why I was struck by the fact that in many cases as I looked over the presidential addresses in those yearbooks, the names of the rabbis were unfamiliar. Leaders in their time, truly famous if you will, only a few decades later they were unknown.

To borrow the phrase from our prayer book, they were not remembered. They were forgotten.

And ego-gratifying fame is not the remedy or the essence of the issue.

Most of us don't want to be famous. We don't need to have our names in yearbooks or newspaper headlines.

However, most of us do want at some level to be significant. Recognition -- someone's remembering our name (if not for decades than at least a small amount of time), someone's thanking us for a job well done, someone's asking our opinion -- is very important to us.

You can tell these things are important by watching people's reaction when they do not feel appreciated or when they do not feel trusted. In those circumstances, when it might sometimes look to the outsider as if nothing so bad has happened, the people involved are infuriated or shattered. They are built up sky high when something or someone confirms their worth, but when that self-worth is challenged, the sky quickly collapses.

We humans bruise easily because we humans are fragile.

I'm not saying we're hopeless neurotics. I am saying that because we are not machines, we feel our way through life. Of course, we think, we plan, we execute our plans, but all the while we feel. Sometimes we feel very good about ourselves. Often, in our heart of hearts we feel exposed and insecure.

That is why the High Holidays have their power. Without saying what we have said explicitly, the Days of Awe are built on the questions of self-worth, significance, and meaning.

Consider that image of the Book of Life. It permeates this season with the notion of a cosmic book of who's who where the shape of one year and perhaps the destiny of a lifetime can be inscribed. What an awesome prospect that is. If we wonder at other times of the year about our worth, the holiday imagery forces our hand, as it were. With that image of the great book, the holiday brings to the fore the concerns we always carry with us. The prayers only articulate what we sometimes avoid dealing with the rest of the year. Zochrenu. Take note of us. Let our lives be significant. Let them be of consequence.

And that is in the final analysis what the High Holidays do teach.

For as intimidating as the Book of Life, Destiny and Death can be, Jewish tradition also insists that everyone does merit a page in the Book. In other words, the High Holidays not only raise our anxiety level. They also join with Jewish tradition to give us the assurance that no one is without significance. No one is without value.

The 20th century writer Martin Buber speaks about human worth in these words: "Every person born into this world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique...For if there had [already] been someone like him/her there would have been no need for him/her to be in the world. Every single person is a new thing in the world and is called upon to fulfill his/her particularity in the world."

The Mishnah puts the matter as follows: "Deride no one and call nothing useless for there is no one whose hour does not come."

Moses Maimonides speaks from the 12th century with this advice: "A person ought to behave as if the whole world is in the balance, equal weight on the side of merit and the side of sin. Whatever a person does for the good or the bad, therefore, weights the judgment for himself and the whole world."

By Jewish standards, Maimonides is not exaggerating. He's only articulating the belief that what any and every human being does makes a difference.

Of course, it is clear that those in the headlines do certain things which have immediate consequences for whole cities or countries. On a day to day basis, however, Judaism would say that that kind of reality is beside the point. It is beside the point because individual human beings are always left to choose their reaction to what others bring their way. Individual human beings make choices day by day that touch the lives of those in their world and ripple out like the water in a pool to diminish or enhance the larger world.

There is therefore no one without his or her hour, no one without the ability to listen fully, to hold a hand, to step out from behind a mask and be honest.

Everyone can teach. Anyone can ease another person's burden.

Every person can help someone else laugh. Each of us can curb his anger.

Each of us can look beyond ourselves to try and understand the heart and soul of the person opposite us.

We can listen to Elie Wiesel who writes: "If we measure our lives against eternity, we may be asked what value there is to a human life. What does it mean when our lives are no more than the blink of an eye? [Now] I have learned that the blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the person who lives that span, he or she is something. He or she can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant."

As the Torah portion on Yom Kippur morning will say, every person can choose life.

That is the message of comfort these High Holidays deliver.

Beyond routine, nostalgia, or camaraderie, we are here because the passing of another year brings to mind our deepest questions about life: do we make a difference; have we made a difference?

"Zochrenu, take note," we say. "Let it be. Let it be that we are not inconsequential. Let our lives have some meaning."

To which the High Holidays and all of Jewish tradition respond, "Yes, it is so. Against the darkness and emptiness of the universe, a human being always counts. There is worth and dignity at the core of humanity. There is a page for every person who wants it."

Go ahead and write on your page.

It is yours.

For the coming year it is as open and clean as anyone else's in the world.

And during this coming year let it become worthy of you.

Let it be a page that changes the world.

Let your page change the world because of the sincerity, decency, and compassion that you bring to the world.

Let your page reflect the irreplaceable and irreducible humanity that is yours and yours alone.

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