Erev Rosh Hashanah
Like a professional spy, Rosh Hashanah has many names and identities. We know it best as the Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah literally meaning “the head of the year.” But the Torah refers to this holiday as either Yom Teruah (the day of trumpet blasts) or Yom Hazikaron (the day of remembering), depending on the passage. The rabbis of the Talmud couldn’t seem to nail down Rosh Hashanah’s identity either. They knew Rosh Hashanah by all of these aliases, plus two more: Yom Hadin (the day of judgment) and finally Yom Harat Olam, meaning “the day the universe was conceived.” I am particularly drawn to this last alias.
If today is Yom Harat Olam, or “the day the universe was conceived,” that means we are celebrating the anniversary of creation. And when we celebrate an anniversary, we are not just commemorating some past event. We are celebrating its ongoing influence in our lives. For example, when a married couple celebrates their anniversary, they are ideally celebrating their ongoing relationship and continued love, rather than simply commemorating the date of their wedding ceremony. And when we celebrate the conception of the universe, or the birthday of the world as the cakes at tomorrow’s Family Service will say, we are not just celebrating the moment when our mustard-seed of a universe began to expand. We are celebrating the ongoing process and power of creation.
Our community includes a number of professional artists and parents, who have a profound understanding of what it is to create. The artists and parents among us know what it is to conceive and birth something into existence. But we do not all have to be professional artists or parents in order to participate in the ongoing process of creation. Every person here is a creator, fashioned in the image of the ultimate Creator. Every single one of us is a creator of life, as we create our own lives day by day, year by year.
Yom Harat Olam is the day for us to decide what it is exactly that we wish to create this year. Today is the day we must plant the seeds for the lives and growth we would like to see. But before we start planting seeds willy-nilly, we have to take a step back from our daily lives and consider the bigger picture. We need to reflect and come up with a rough sketch of the garden we wish to create. We must ask and answer for ourselves one of the most common and often dreaded job interview questions: “Where do you see yourself in 5, 10, or 20 years?”
Many people find their palms becoming moist with anxiety while trying to describe their long-term professional goals to an interviewer. But this question need not cause us anxiety on Rosh Hashanah, when it’s just us asking the question of ourselves and when we’ve already got the job. Yes, God already hired us to be the landscape artist of our own lives. God knows we all have what it takes to make something beautiful.
Most of us have been doing a great job already, even if we have doubted some of the decisions we have made along the way. Was it really a good idea to plant squash over here? It seems to have taken over the yard. Was it wise for me to go to medical school? I’m not sure that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. Should I have waited longer to get married? Would marriage have been easier five years later? We all have these questions and doubts sometimes.
Even though these questions can sometimes become a source of anxiety, it is still a blessing that we have such capacity for self-reflection. It is this capacity for examination that enables us to turn our lives into beautiful and unique gardens. To share a personal example of self-reflection and transformation, let me tell you that although I am a rabbi now, I did not grow up in a religious household. My weekends were spent watching television with my family and playing outside with my friends, rather than attending Shabbat services or Religious School. But that all changed in 7th grade, when I had to write a speech for my English class. This middle school assignment led to perhaps more self-reflection than the teacher could have ever anticipated. It was then that a seed was planted. I don’t know if it was a comment my grandmother made about her parents hiding their Jewish identity in Nazi Germany, or the fact that one of my favorite TV shows at the time stared a Jewish character. But something inspired me to pick Judaism as the topic for my 7th grade speech.
As part of my research, I started attending Shabbat services with my grandmother. There was something about the music, the intergenerational community, and the ancient wisdom I encountered at Shabbat services that suddenly piqued my interest. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. It led me to come back week after week, excited to learn something new and to connect with a newfound spiritual side of myself. I realized then that something had been missing in my life. There was this rich spiritual and communal experience available the whole time, and I was only now becoming aware of it. As soon as I encountered this warm and inviting Jewish community, I realized that it was something I wanted to plant in the garden of my life.
So I got to work. I grabbed a metaphorical shovel and started digging. I signed up for an adult Hebrew class with my grandmother and became a regular at both Shabbat services and Torah Study at age 12. I asked my mom if I could enroll in the Religious School, and I read as many books and websites about Judaism as I could find. I knew the more work I put into it, the more lush my garden would be.
But that turned out to be only one part of my garden. As I got more involved with the synagogue, I grew closer to the rabbi. He really took me under his wing and graciously allowed me to shadow him in order to see what rabbinic life was like, when I said that the idea of becoming a rabbi had crossed my mind, but I wasn’t sure exactly what rabbis did when they weren’t leading services. While shadowing him, I saw how this man was able to help countless families through all sorts of challenging circumstances. I saw how he shared in the many joys of their lives, too. And I saw how community and Torah were at the center of his life. In other words, I peeked into the garden of his life and realized that I wanted the garden of my life to have the same beauty. At age 13, I decided that I was going to become a rabbi, and I started planting more seeds.
I asked my family to enroll me in Jewish schools, including a Jewish boarding high school in North Carolina, so that I could get an even more substantial Jewish education. Then in college, I became a student leader in Hillel and began to teach Religious School at a local synagogue. I also made multiple visits to Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical school, to get myself on their radar before I applied to them my senior year of college. I wasn’t going to leave the fulfillment of my dream to chance. I wasn’t going to let it sit in a stack of ideas for that vague “someday.” I knew if I wanted this to happen, I had to plant the seeds, water the soil, and pull out the weeds day after day, year after year. I was determined to create this beautiful garden of a life.
But I wouldn’t have known what to do, if it were not for my first rabbi and other mentors who guided me along the way. I would not have known how to make this garden, had I not seen the beautiful gardens that they created first. I would have wandered around lost if I had not asked them what I could do to create a life like the ones they had created. Of course, sometimes we all feel a bit lost. We may not know what exactly we want to do with our lives, until we encounter someone who is already doing it. This ambiguity about purpose and direction in life is very common. Even the first human beings, Adam and Eve, had this experience.
In the story of creation, which we will be reading in the next couple of weeks, God models for Adam and Eve what a garden can look like. God creates the garden for them to enjoy and then instructs them to work the land, so they can get a strong sense of how to take care of a garden before it is time for them to go off and create their own gardens. The first human beings needed this sort of modeling and guidance. They needed to be exposed to someone else’s creations before they could figure out how to create a good life for themselves. This is true for most people. That is why we have parents, teachers, rabbis, friends, and sacred texts to guide us. We all need artistic inspiration and guidance in life.
Sometimes we can also benefit from the fresh perspective of others. Good friends, loved ones, and professional advisers including therapists can help us to see when weeds may have grown in our gardens. They can often help us to remove those weeds before the weeds take over our garden. And they can recommend other things to plant in their place. Everyone around us is filled with some kind of wisdom. Everyone around us has made their own garden with at least one beautiful aspect that we can imitate. If you are feeling unsure about the garden you have created so far, you can change it. Research how you can remove the weeds from your life. Maybe those weeds are grudges, addictions, or negative self-talk. There are known ways to remove all of these weeds from the garden of your life. Other people can help you find out how.
If you are feeling lost or aimless in life, do not despair. Rather look to other gardens for inspiration. No garden is perfect, but many gardens are quite beautiful and worthy of imitation. If you are at a point where you love your garden, share it with others. Take other people under your wing and become a guide to the creation of beauty and meaning.
Today is Yom Harat Olam, the day we must decide what world we wish to create. Think about the seeds you have planted in the past, and if they seem worth planting again or nourishing further. You have already planted some beautiful things. But your garden is not full yet. There is still time in your life to create something new, no matter if you are 6 or 96 years old. So I ask: What seeds are you going to plant this year? And I pray that you will find the support you need to tend your garden and create the luscious and beautiful life you deserve. Shanah tovah!