Day 34: Turning Oy into Joy: Choose Life!

I hope everyone experienced a wonderful holiday. Wishing everyone a happy, healthy and spiritually successful new year.

I am sharing with you the sermon delivered on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. G-d willing, this week will be one in which we do our best to choose life!

One of the greatest Jewish philosophers, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, writes in the introduction to his classic work, Path of the Just the following: I am not here to tell you anything new but rather what I am sharing is obvious. We often forget what is most apparent to us. Therefore, the goal of my book is to encourage you to review these well known principles on a daily basis. Constant review of these truths reveals the path to spiritual greatness.

In this spirit, I am embarking on something unconventional this morning. I am sharing the essential idea from a sermon I delivered this past Shabbat. At Kiddush a few days ago, a number of people approached me about the timeliness of my message for the holidays and that they would not mind hearing these truths again on Rosh Hashanah. With thanks for their patience and feedback.

During this season of the year, we read about Moshe’s last days on earth. What does he choose to convey to the Jewish people before he dies? What would you say if you only had days to live?

Surprisingly, Moshe states the obvious…twice.

See, I place before you the choice of life and death, good and evil. A few seconds later, he says again – the Heaven and Earth bear testimony that you have a choice between life and death. Choose Life so you and your children will live.

What is the reason Moshe informs us of our free choice? We all know that G-d endowed every human being with this gift. In his final hours, why does he convey an apparent truth?

I would like to share two answers today, one briefly and the other in greater depth. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the leading Torah sages of the 20th century, suggests that Moshe is not restating the principle of free choice but offering a message of renewal.

If we have been in a spiritual groove, we should not take our state for granted. Every day, we should make a choice to follow in the ways of G-d. Moshe encourages us not to rest on our laurels but move forward with a mitzvah TODAY. On the other hand, if we find ourselves in a spiritual rut, we should not live in the past and or with regret. Today is a new day. Start fresh. Today is the first day of the rest of our lives so we should make a commitment to choose life and the path of Torah, one mitzvah at a time.

Yet, as much as this message resonates with me and certainly on the holiday of Rosh Hashanah which is about new beginnings, it seems that Moshe is not just stating the obvious, nor a message of personal renewal but a legacy message. It is the last day of his life and he knows he will no longer be leading the Jewish people. He is thinking about the future of the nation of Israel.

I was awakened to the significance of Moshe’s message from an unsuspecting person, a gardener at Agudath Sholom. Last week, as I was writing my sermons, I took a break and walked outside to the back of the shul where I lingered for a few minutes gazing at our Harvest Now Garden. We are planting vegetables to be delivered to the homeless. A gardener from Gino’s Landscaping noticed me and asked, “Why do you think the tomatoes are so big” He answered his own question, by saying, “It is because they are made with love. If you till, plant and tend with love and care, the harvest will be so much sweeter.

He continued, “My girlfriend asked me why when I cook for her the food tastes so good. I tell her – Honey, I do not just make the food with my hands but I invest the preparation with love. You can taste the difference when someone just throws the food together or makes with heart and soul.” I asked him where he learned this lesson and he told me from his mother. I then let him know how grateful I was for the encounter. I came outside for a little air and little did I know I would get such inspiration.

I asked him his name and he told me Jesus. I could not have made it up. A message from Jesus to a Rabbi in the back of the shul next to the Mikvah. Who would have thought….

His words illuminated for me a new understanding of Moshe’s final message and one deeply relevant for all of us. Planting with love echoes an idea in the Talmud in the Tractate of Brachot. The Talmud addresses the struggle we all experience between our two inclinations. Do we follow our basic instincts and seek momentary pleasure or follow our higher selves and soul? When we make decisions, do we make them based on what feels good or what is good?

The Talmud recommends the following strategy to vanquish our baser instincts. First, study Torah. Develop positive connections to Judaism. Understand the whys of what we do and experience a Judaism of joy. Strengthen our good inclination. If that fails and we still seem distracted by our passions and temptations, remember the day of death. It is no secret that that fastest way to awaken ourselves and anyone to putting priorities in order is a confrontation with our mortality.

I see this all too often as a Rabbi. The moment we experience, G-d forbid, an illness, a tragedy, or a brush with death we re engage with our faith. The moment the terra firma underneath our seemingly secure life becomes destabilized, we awaken to the fragility of life. We pray, we ask for more time and pledge to refocus our lives. It is human nature to respond in this way. I would call it crisis Judaism.

Moshe on the last day of his life is telling the Jewish people there are two paths to staying committed to our faith. One path is Judaism filled with love, Torah, positive experiences and the other is a Judaism defined by death and crisis. Both will anchor us but Moshe understands there is a critical difference between the two.

As the gardener explained, if we invest in our faith with love, then it will blossom and flourish. If not, if our Judaism is crisis motivated and it is a chore, it may die on the vine.

On his last day, Moshe tells the Jewish people both paths are in front of you. The Oy or the Joy. Moshe exclaims: Choose Life! Choose a path defined by joy not oy.

Moshe does not just recommend a positive approach but shares the consequences. Choose life so that you and your children will live!

If our Judaism is rooted in negative experiences and our only encounter with faith is a Day of Judgment, when God is evaluating who shall live and who shall die…our faith will not thrive.

For this reason, Moshe asserts – Choose life. If we choose life, if we choose a Judaism of joy, our children, our children’s children and we will live. The future of Judaism rests secure.

In my mind, I can think of no more timely message for Rosh Hashanah as we gather together and pray for a better year. We all hope for a year filled with peace, harmony and most importantly a strengthening of our faith and dedication to the values of Torah.

However, the path begins not with G-d but with us. Let us reflect for a few moments on our commitments and our enthusiasm for our faith. If we are not engaged in a passionate way, neither will our children or our grandchildren. If our Judaism is a chore, then for our children it will be a bore. Choose Life!

I would like to speak about three areas of Jewish Life – faith and prayer, Torah observance, and Jewish communal life.

I want to begin with the question of faith and prayer. This year as it seems so often the world is in a precarious situation. The crisis in Syria looms large. We are faced with Iran’s ever threatening use of nuclear weapons, Egypt, and the security of Israel and challenges in America …and on a personal level, some of us more than others have experienced setbacks, health issues and more. It seems more and more, people are unnerved by the fragile nature of the world.

Yet, we cannot and must not lose faith. We have to choose life. In the last week, twice, mothers have shared with me how their own children are lamenting how bad the world is and both parents remarked – it is way too early for our children to lose faith in a brighter future. Perhaps it is because we are too quick to lose faith ourselves.

Judaism teaches the way to fight darkness is to bring more light.

I am reminded of the words of Robin Roberts, a cancer survivor and anchor of Good Morning America, who remarked most recently in her acceptance speech for the ESPY Awards – When fate knocks, let faith open the door.

When the world’s message is no, we must say yes.

During the High Holiday season, we recite twice a day Psalm 27, the words of King David who experienced much anguish in his life. He writes; though my mother and father have forsaken me, G-d will gather me in. Hope to the Lord, strengthen yourself, and He will give you courage and hope to the Lord.

The Jewish path is to not lose faith.

If we do, our children will. But if we speak with hope, if we do not shirk from bringing more light, than our children will be moved by our optimism and strength.

Faith leads to prayer. Do we pray to G-d with our hearts for a better world? If we want our children and grandchildren to daven with concentration, so must we…every day. Not only when our lives are on the line but each morning and every night.

There is a story about a righteous man who lived in Northern Israel. He would bring his son to shul (synagogue) at communal prayer times. Another congregant would do the same. This second congregant would constantly pester his son to be sure to look in the prayer book, and say all of the words, whereas the righteous man would sit with his son beside him intently concentrating on his own prayers.

One day the congregant asked the righteous man as follows. “Why aren’t you educating your child to pray properly? You just let him sit there in shul and you ignore him. How will he learn to pray properly?” The righteous man replied, “I am educating my child to pray. I am accomplishing this by praying the right way, and setting that example for my son. As he grows he will emulate this example. You, on the other hand, think you are educating your son correctly by pestering him incessantly. All you are teaching him to do is ignore his own prayers. He will in turn pester his own children in the same way.”

It’s clear that if being Jewish is important to us, and we want it to be important to our children, we must show them that it’s important. We much choose life.

Let’s talk Torah observance.

Growing up I got high with a little help from…. Hashem. You might recognize the song. It is not what you are thinking. It is actually the lyrics from a Jewish band in the 1970’s the Diaspora Yeshiva Band- the Jewish Beatles of my generation.

We played the song in our home and it captured the spirit of the vibrancy and vitality of Judaism. Choose life. If we want the next generation to be inspired by the Torah and its mitzvoth, than we have to live them with gusto and joy. Let’s take Shabbat as an example. Do we see the observance of Shabbat as a burden or a blessing? More than any other ritual it is a the greatest gift for our generation. We are so tethered and plugged into technology and in touch with our thousands of friends on Face Book, we fail to connect with our immediate family and community. Turning off the outside world opens our inner world.

How do we observe Shabbat? If our Friday night dinners or Shabbat experiences are infused with community, rest, Torah, song, friends, games, great food…it will be a joy and our children will sense the love. It is not easy to stop and reflect, share a Shabbat meal with family, come to shul every week…it takes a reordering of life’s priorities but the benefits are priceless.

Rabbi Luzzato shares an important Torah secret his his book. He explains that we are all on fire…on the inside. The joy of observing Judaism is implanted within. However, like a coal on fire, the flame will expand if we stoke the coals. When we study Torah and observe the mitzvot, the flame expands and ignites.

King David writes – Taste and See that G-d is good. When we discover the pleasure of a Jewish way of life, not only will be inspired but we will merit at our children will too. This year, find a new mitzvah or deepen one you observe. Invest in it with passion and love and the blessings will overflow.

Finally, the future of Judaism rests on dynamic and engaged Jewish leadership. Yet, we see a paucity of volunteers in Jewish communal life. Why? From my experience in synagogue life, the number one reason for people declining roles in a shul is due to the fact that they will no longer be able to pray in peace. People might approach them during shul asking about the temperature – why is it too hot, too cold or another complaint. Beyond the fact the people may not remember what we tell them in shul, we are diminishing the value of volunteerism when we do not give volunteers proper respect. Thank G-d, we have a great board and executive leadership but when they should be able to come to shul without being bombarded at Kiddush by criticism. The shul must be a sacred space.

Recently I heard that a few parents were spending kiddush lamenting a choice of teachers for their children. This is a private discussion between parent and the school. How do we speak about our teachers and do we applaud and offer proper respect to many who serve the Jewish people. Our community is blessed with devoted and talented leaders but our people and we need more.

Volunteering for the Jewish community insures a strong and vibrant future for all of us. Even if we do not have children or grandchildren, we are all responsible for the next generation. They look and listen to the way we act.

When we step up to serve, when we honor those who volunteer for the shul or another vital Jewish communal organization, then our youth will be inspired to lead. When we choose life and celebrate Jewish leadership, the future is bright.

I want to conclude with a story.

Last week, I had a lunch and learn with a few of our congregants and one new person. The conversation ranged from the situation in Israel to Yonah and many topics in between. At the very end of the meal, as we were leaving the new women commented to me – you must have had wonderful parents. As much as I knew it to be true, it gave me pause to reflect on my formative years and the positive experiences and dreams my parents implanted within me. My parents chose Judaism not of death but of life for my siblings and me.

As we anticipate the coming of the New Year, it is our turn to make that choice. To choose life…. for ourselves our children, our grandchildren and the Jewish people.

When raise the Torah we proclaim – The Torah is a tree of life…it nourishes and refreshes…but only to those who hold fast to it.

With G-d’s help and our spirit, may we all grasp hold this year…to plant with love and choose life. One day a time.

G-d willing, we will merit the promise of Moshe on his last day. When we choose life, we and our children and our children will truly live for many generations to come.

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