Last Monday was the 10th anniversary, by the Jewish calendar, of the death of my father, Joseph Karol. I try every day to remember and pay tribute to what he taught me about life – striving for excellence and integrity, showing compassion, and demonstrating an unwavering commitment to a community. My dad also taught me about writing, which was a major aspect of his job at the Army Corps of Engineers. That fact, combined with his many years of teaching religious school and volunteering for Temple, may help explain why both children in our family became rabbis. My Dad’s talents live on in my brother and in me, and you see or hear them every time I write a newsletter article or deliver a d’var Torah.
One of my dad’s hobbies was photography. Before the days when video-recording technology was affordable or available in our homes, we only had tape recorders to record television audio and a camera set on a tripod in front to the TV screen to capture an image. On July 20, 1969, my dad and I did our best to preserve on tape and Kodak slide film the first steps of Neil Armstrong on the moon. Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin seemed larger than life that night. The same could be said of Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space on June 18, 1983. Our nation and the world now mourn both of these pioneers of space exploration who died this summer. Even with their fame, each of these astronaut’s families shared memorial messages with the public that were thoughtful and very unassuming. Neil Armstrong’s family offered this statement: “Neil was our loving husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend. Neil Armstrong was also a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job. He served his Nation proudly, as a navy fighter pilot, test pilot, and astronaut. He also found success back home in his native Ohio in business and academia, and became a community leader in Cincinnati….While we mourn the loss of a very good man, we also celebrate his remarkable life and hope that it serves as an example to young people around the world to work hard to make their dreams come true, to be willing to explore and push the limits, and to selflessly serve a cause greater than themselves. For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink."
Sally Ride’s sister, Bear, said this of the first American woman in space: “Our parents, Joyce and Dale Ride, encouraged us to study hard, to do our best and to be anything we wanted to be.…They encouraged us to be curious, to keep our minds and hearts open and to respect all persons as children of God. Our parents taught us to explore, and we did. Sally studied science and I went to seminary. She became an astronaut and I was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. Sally lived her life to the fullest with boundless energy, curiosity, intelligence, passion, joy, and love. Her integrity was absolute; her spirit was immeasurable; her approach to life was fearless. Sally died the same way she lived: without fear. Sally’s signature statement was ‘Reach for the Stars.’ Surely she did this, and she blazed a trail for all…of us.”
Both families of these world-renowned space explorers found a way to put into words the aspirations and character of their loved ones. It wasn’t greatness that permeated their tribute, but the down-to-earth nature of their lives. Their successes were large, but both families were essentially teaching us that any one of us can achieve our own level of greatness and then share our story so that others can live by our example. And that can be our goal in life: to thrive, the make a difference with our lives, and to symbolically write a new passage every day in the book of our lives about the peaks and the valleys, and everything in between, that we encounter. The Un’taneh Tokef prayer that we recited earlier this morning declares about God: “You write and You seal, You record and recount.” God isn’t the only writer noted in that prayer, because it also proclaims: “You open the book of our days, and what is written there proclaims itself, for it bears the signature of every human being.” This prayer likely imagines that our actions automatically inscribe themselves into an imaginary text, a process that singer Dan Fogelberg once called “burning lines in the book of our lives.” Yet, our additions to that book are not simply a list of what we have done. Our full writing assignment demands that we put our deeds into perspective – that we determine how our words and actions can reflect what we want to be inscribed and remembered. The prayer states, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” Right now, on Rosh Hashanah, what lies before us is a rough draft, our initial summary of our lives until now. By Yom Kippur, when the manuscript of our life’s current chapter is due, we can make whatever revisions we consider necessary and adopt new ways of thinking about how we have lived and how we want to live in the months and years that lie ahead.
We do take many opportunities to live our rough drafts, with the possibility of turning them into the finished product. We might find our own “rough drafts” in an email or letter that we write to release anger or disappointment towards someone and then DON’T SEND IT. It could be a conversation that doesn’t go well the first time but that we are able to conduct later with a better result. It could also be a failure or failures that precede success. In an installment for Craig Taubman’s annual Jewels of Elul series, writer and film director Marshall Herskovitz explained, “Robert Bly once wrote that failure is a necessary part of life….I’ve come to see that he was right. Failure is freeing, failure is bracing. Failure makes you alive. I now understand, in fact, that my life and career have followed a distinct pattern: Success. Complacency. Failure. Struggle. Breakthrough. Success. It started in film school, when I landed my first TV writing job -- and wrote the script in a haze of self-congratulation -- only to find that the producers hated it. Failure number one. I then spent several years in despair, hustling for jobs on bad television shows, realizing finally that I was failing because I wasn’t writing in my own voice. That was the first time I felt that sense of unexpected exhilaration when your back is against the wall – and you discover you have courage after all. With nothing to lose, I renounced my career as a TV writer and wrote a screenplay. In my own voice. And everything changed. People loved the script, studios offered deals. I was made. Until I failed again, and had to find the courage – again – to write from my authentic self. And the result this time was [the television show] “thirtysomething”, from whose success I assumed – finally! – I must be immune to failure. Until my first film as a director bombed – and the process had to begin again. And so it has continued, for thirty years. I welcome the rhythm now, the struggle, the renewal, the euphoria, and yes, even the despair – because I understand that this is the rhythm of art, of life. Failure is not the opposite of success – they’re part of the same thing. The opposite of failure…is death.”
Failure, success, learning from mistakes, trying again, succeeding, and failing again, with the hope of another triumph down the road – this is what it means to live. During the 2012 Olympics, there were too many times when commentators characterized a silver or bronze medal as a loss rather than a win. American gymnast McKayla Maroney’s well-publicized facial expression on receiving a silver medal in the Olympic vault competition offered a sharp contrast to Aly Raisman’s joy at being award the bronze medal in the balance beam event. There was the personal story of American Olympic diver Brittany Viola, who gave up gymnastics so that she could compete in a sport that would allow her to stay home in Minnesota with her parents. Oscar Pistorius of South Africa became the first double-leg amputee to participate in the Olympics. Sometimes, the TV commentators at the summer Olympics did declare that competing in the Olympics at all was an achievement that shouldn’t be minimized. In real life, small triumphs or a one-time amazing performance may offer competitors and, perhaps, any one of us, the deepest satisfaction and a sense that greatness and goodness are within our grasp.
In the terms of the Un’taneh Tokef prayer, we are all still in the game. Each of us has the chance to give our best to the various roles we fulfill in our families, schools, workplaces or community. Whatever we do, including, as Marshall Herskovitz noted, our failures as well as our successes, shows that we very much alive, recording in the Book of Life even our smallest achievements and our personal attempts to bring goodness into the world. But what about those who aren’t trying to bring goodness into the world, people who have veered off the path towards reaching their highest potential for decency and integrity? The Un’taneh Tokef prayer, in Gates of Repentance, states: “This is Your glory: You are slow to anger, ready to forgive. It is not the death of sinners You seek, but that they should turn from their ways and live.” We might expect that the Hebrew word for “sinners” in that passage would built upon a root word for sin, like “CHEIT,” so that the word would be “CHATA-IM.” That isn’t what the Hebrew says. The word for sinners in the Hebrew version of the prayer is “MEIT” – literally – “You don’t desire the death of the dead.” That may sound redundant or almost meaningless. When that phrase occurs in the Bible, the word meaning “those who are dead” refers to people whose moral misjudgments have taken them down a path devoid of goodness, well beyond the point of no return….or is that really the case? This prayer says that they can come back at any time. They can retrace their steps and rediscover their true moral and spiritual selves if they do so honestly and wholeheartedly. To add to Marshall Herskovitz’s statement about failure being the opposite of death – taking responsibility for our actions, whether we succeed or fail, clearly demonstrates that we are not morally or spiritually dead. The fact that we care about doing what’s right and making amends when necessary shows that we are very much alive and that striving for goodness is still a reachable goal.
In the book WHO BY FIRE, WHO BY WATER, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman compiled a wide variety of interpretations of the Un’taneh Tokef prayer. In one chapter, Rabbi Gordon Tucker explained a reference in the prayer about the nature of human beings, where it says that “Each of us is a shattered urn.” How are we like shattered pottery, and how does that image help us at this time of year if we are trying to make ourselves whole, to overcome feeling “broken” or “shattered”? Tucker described a rabbinic interpretation of a bible passage about what needs to be done with an earthenware pot that has become impure in some way. The procedure was to break the pot, bury it, and then unearth the pot and put it back together. Only then could it be considered fit to be used again. The High Holy Days take us through a similar process on a spiritual level. We begin Rosh Hashanah, very much alive and rejoicing in the beginning of a new year. We spend the next 10 days morally dissecting ourselves, trying to determine what we have done well and how we can improve ourselves in the coming year. On Yom Kippur, we don’t eat, we don’t drink – we deprive ourselves of many of the signs that show we are alive. We recite prayers of confession, an end-of-life ritual in which we engage so that we can emerge from the High Holy Days to live and thrive once again, with a fresh perspective on how we can strive for spiritual and moral success on our own terms, with our heritage and our faith as our beacon along the way.
The journey of Abraham and Isaac to Mount Moriah, which will be retold in the Torah reading this morning, took them far away from where we would have expected them to be. Some commentators explain that this trek was meant to teach Abraham, called by many “the first ethical monotheist,” not to do what his neighbors were doing – namely, practicing the sacrifice of human children in order to please the gods in whom they believed. If we are like shattered pots that are disassembled and then renewed during the High Holy Days, we could see Abraham’s and Isaac’s near tragedy as an experience that was meant to remind them that life could take them to the brink, to a point of being “shattered” or “broken,” but that there would always be a sign available to them that could bring them back to where they needed to be morally and spiritually. In the Torah reading, the sign was the call of the Angel, “Abraham! Abraham!” For us, it might be the voice of a friend or family member, pleading with us to step back from the precipice so that we can remember who we are and what we can do to make our lives worthwhile and meaningful. The Un’taneh Tokef prayer tells us that we can make our lives worthwhile by practicing t’shuvah, t’filah and tzedakah” – repentance, prayer, and righteous giving, which can make the harshness of life’s stark challenges seems less overwhelming. Reaching within to make ourselves complete, reaching beyond to connect to all of creation, and reaching towards others can enable us to weather the storms of life, whatever they may be. In the words of Rabbi Brent Spodek and Ruth Messinger of American Jewish World service, when we practice “repentance, prayer and charity” with an open heart, our road may still be bumpy, but we’ll have better shock absorbers.
As I wrote this sermon, I watched weather reports about tropical storm Isaac and noted posts of my facebook friends who live in Louisiana about power outages that would continue for several days. I heard about the deaths of several American solders in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. I read about opinions across the entire political spectrum regarding which presidential candidate or political party can best take our nation into the future. In the coming year, we will brace ourselves for the winds of unexpected challenges, the storms of sudden disappointments, and a sense of restlessness that makes us feel that our souls are wandering aimlessly without direction. At the same time, we can focus on what we can control - creating a positive attitude within ourselves, preserving a feeling of gratitude for the blessings that we enjoy, and demonstrating our concern for the world and the human community. To live, to love, to learn, to extend a helping hand, to overcome obstacles, to take ourselves apart and then put ourselves back together so that we are even more complete than before –we can achieve these goals both on our own and with the support of our sacred community. May all that we write in the book of our lives – separately and together – bring us hope, strength and peace in this New Year. So may it be –and let us say Amen.