A Rosh HaShanah Story:
Upon a time, there was a king. Or a baron, or a lord, or some kind of chief in charge. Maybe it was another kind of chief in charge, a lady, a baroness, or even a queen for that matter.
One day, this big chief in charge threw a big party at the palace. Invitations were sent to everyone in the realm: the painter, the potter, the blacksmith, the launderer. The invitation read the same for all: please prepare yourself for a big party at the palace. The whole town, or city, or country, was aflutter with excitement about the party. Everyone was talking about this most important occasion.
But then everybody noticed something odd about the invitation: it said to dress formally; it indicated to be at the palace; it was missing the date and the time.
What did people do? One painter went home, changed into the finest outfit they had. A different painter figured they would later learn when the party would happen; they stayed on the ladder, paint dripping all over their smock. One potter left the spinning wheel to go home and change into the fanciest attire. A different potter stayed with their lumpy clay, little bits flying everywhere, caking to their clothing. It was the same all around. One blacksmith stayed in sooty suit at the anvil; another left the forge to find formalwear. One washer went home to change into clean clothes, the other stayed at work, ironically, in suds-stained clothes.
One day, without warning, a herald cried out in the town square, “The Party at the Palace begins now! Everyone report immediately!”
What did people do? Those who were prepared, already dressed in their finest outfits, ran from their homes, maybe putting on one final jewel or adding a last drop of sophisticated accoutrement. Those who had waited at work anxiously dropped everything and ran from their shops: the potter rose from the wheel, the painter descended the ladder, the blacksmith smashed one last spark and dashed away.
In the palace, it became clear: half the people had prepared for the feast; the other half were covered in paint, in clay, in soot and in suds, and were in no way fit to be hosted by king, queen, or anything in between.
And that was the exact moment when the Big Chief in Charge made their grand entrance. Beholding those who had prepared—and those who were in no way ready—the Big Chief said, “How happy I am to see those wonderful people who responded to my invitation and knew to be ready. And how disappointed I am at the rest of you, who have failed to prepare yourselves for this important occasion.”
An attendant then rushed up to the Big Chief in Charge, whispering, “Shall I see out all these disrespectful people who didn’t prepare?” The Big Chief in Charge, lips pursed in thought, responded, “No. Let those who are prepared take a seat at my spacious table and enjoy all I have prepared. And let those thoughtless ones who arrived at the palace in workclothes, who prioritized their efforts over my invitation, who simply showed up unprepared: let them stand by silently and watch, enjoying nothing. Let them stand on their tired feet, look on, and be grieved.”1
Standing on tired feet. Looking on. Being grieved. Sounds like the way I spent most of 2020. When last we welcomed a New Year, the specter of a presidential impeachment loomed on the horizon. No sooner than we moved past that stalemate did we start to hear of a novel virus. Pandemic reports in China and Italy soon spread to American shores: we shut down, thinking for weeks; now some of us have barely left our homes in six months. Against the backdrop of international tragedy, the uniquely American tragedy of racism was exposed, laid bare so no one could ignore: police officer Derek Chauvin stood on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds until he choked the life out of him. #BlackLivesMatter protests erupted in our streets; looters and vandals took advantage; politicians and pundits poured fuel on the fire until an inferno ascended. And schools remain closed despite the beginning of a new academic year. And millions of Americans are not only out of work, but also no longer receiving unemployment insurance. If that’s not enough, we face an epochal election fraught with fear of voter suppression, intimidation, and outcomes not necessarily accepted by all sides. Oh, and I’m preaching this sermon in a mostly-empty sanctuary while staring at a screen.
Happy New Year.
In our story, the unprepared stare at the feast of life’s banquet, imagining how delicious life would have been if only they had prepared for the occasion. Instead they were caught off-guard; like us, their unpreparedness for what happened left them on the outside, looking in. If in our parable the unprepared were wearing the wrong clothes, you might say we feel as if we have been caught with our proverbial pants down, exposed and vulnerable in the cruelest of ways. This past year has thrown surprise after surprise at each of us and at all of us. I don’t really believe any of us can honestly say we were prepared for what has happened since we last welcomed Rosh HaShanah.
In all fairness to ourselves: how could anyone have prepared for what no one would ever predict? If this past, disorienting, year taught us anything, it is that we live in a time of volatility, complexity, ambiguity, and radical uncertainty. 2 No matter what road we believed we were walking, no matter what goal had set for ourselves, unforeseen and unpredictable obstacles rose up from, literally, out of nowhere. We have been thrown off the very trail of being ourselves. Perhaps this phrase from our Psalms catches our mood: we feel like chaff chased by the wind,3 blown in every way and any direction. Choose whatever language you like: blown away, tossed about, thrown for a loop, dazed and/or confused: many days we wake up and are aren’t sure we know right from left, let alone what day of the week it is. “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” has become a great American standard in more ways than one.
But this day of celebration is not an occasion for us to sink further into the quagmire of our own existence. We know we are living in an historic moment of great instability. Our question today is, how, at such a confusing season, do we find a way forward? How do we greet the promise of a New Year when the past year leaves us feeling like every tomorrow we will wake up to still worse news? We gather here today—powerfully even though at distance—to try to orient ourselves at this most disorienting time. One of the few helpful articles I read this year reminded me: “We live in a state of radical uncertainty. The first step is to accept it.”4 That I can do. That we have done, accepting all this uncertainty. But if acceptance is the first step, what do we do next?
Judaism addresses the issue of how we find stability in our lives even though we cannot be prepared for the uncertainty we encounter. Our biblical tradition teaches that the opposite of chaff chased by the wind is a tree planted beside flowing waters, that bears its fruit in season, whose leaves do not wither, that finds success in all it undertakes.5 The tree planted beside flowing waters senses the strength of the wind, feels the fullness of the flood, yet its roots are set in fertile ground that it may survive the storm. Not so the unstable chaff, easily withered with no water source, so strikingly vulnerable to the slightest shift of the wind. As one ancient sage explained, “A tree planted beside flowing waters, even if its branches be small, its roots are so strong that even the four winds of the world could not come and move from its place. 6
Even if we live along the lake—or on a branch of the river—we are not trees. Judaism knows that. For centuries, we have unpacked this metaphor of a rooted tree that can survive disorienting seasons; we have applied the wisdom of the Psalms to our everyday, rather non-arboreal existence. In so doing, Jewish tradition translates the image of the rooted tree into a five-point program for preparedness:
First, plant yourself: sit at the feet of many teachers.
Next, for flowing waters: find a community that is broad, deep, and mighty.
Third, bear fruit in season: see that your calendar reflects your values.
Fourth, wither not: stay optimistic by finding gratitude.
Fifth, find success: make sure all your deeds are not for some minor purpose or personal predilection; if your deeds are for the sake of heaven, you will meet success.7
Be open to learning. Situate yourself with good people, with powerful community. Spend your time in keeping with your values. Find gratitude. And if you need a final litmus test: make sure all your deeds help fulfill a purpose higher than your own. Learning, community, gratitude, living a life of values, divine values: Jewish wisdom would not have us predict an unpredictable future. Our tradition only asks we lead lives that are rooted. Judaism teaches stability: stability achieved by being in touch both with the values that should guide our lives and with the community that—like us—wants to lead lives of purpose and meaning. Spending our time with the right people, spending our time engaged in constructive activities, filling our days with learning from many sources, being grateful for what we have even as we seek to do for others: this is the Jewish way to lead a stable, rooted life. None of this will keep the evils of the world from our doorstep. But committing ourselves to eternal values is the Jewish way to be planted deeply, to root ourselves in lives of purpose, so as not to be shaken by life’s storms.8
We have seen some of those storms this past year. And our Jewish values helped us navigate these difficulties. Judaism values the preservation of human life, pikuach nefesh, over even our High Holy Day rituals;9 we knew it was right to shut down the economy, to quarantine, to make sacrifices necessary for the health of our congregation, city, world. Judaism values Justice: tzedek, tzedek we are commanded to pursue.10 When America’s injustices of racism were laid bare for all to see, we knew we needed to act: for some that was marching in protest, for others supporting black-owned business, for all a time to learn about how we can be antiracist. Judaism might not have a cure for Covid or a specific policy for racial justice; our tradition nonetheless knows the values that guide us. If the day-to-day remains difficult, we don’t suffer from any lack of clarity about our end goal, about the better tomorrow we want to build. Remember: we are the people who wandered for forty years even when we knew where our destination was! Our Jewish values guide us even on winding and circuitous paths as we make our way to our own Promised Land.
The way to that better tomorrow is what brings us together this High Holy Day season: the work of teshuvah, of repentance, or—better still—of turning towards our better selves, returning to our roots. Teshuvah is about returning to the values that should guide us, turning ourselves more and more each day into the people we deeply want to be. Teshuvah, this work of repentance, is really about being rooted: when we fear our actions are amiss, when we feel adrift from our anchor, the work of teshuvah helps us return to the right way. True repentance is about being that tree planted beside flowing waters: rooted deeply in values.
The Talmud teaches a fascinating lesson about this work of teshuvah. Thousands of years ago, Rabbi Eliezar taught, “You need to repent only one single day of your entire life.” His students were astonished: repentance is so important it is the crowning feature of our Days of Awe; teshuvah, turning towards our better selves is the whole hallmark of our High Holy Day season. “How,” they wondered, “Can our master teach that we only need to do this work one single, solitary day?” Sensing their bewilderment, Rabbi Eliezar, a glitter in his eye, added one important detail, “You only need to repent one day of your life: the day before you die.” “Does anyone know their day of death?” the disciples asked? “Of course not,” smiled their teacher. “Do the work of turning towards your better selves today, in case you die tomorrow. That is the best way to spend your entire lives in sacred pursuit.”11
Repent the day before you die. Make the most of yourself today. How this Jewish teaching differs this from Latin motto, semper paratus, be prepared. Semper Paratus, be always prepared, makes us think it’s possible to predict what will come; turn in teshuvah today—repent because you know not what will come tomorrow—instead grounds us in tradition and meaning. In these disorienting times, it is this work of reorientation, of returning to our roots, of turning towards our better selves, that will help us find stability. This year taught us the folly of semper paratus; today teaches us that the time of teshuvah is now, that today is the day to reorient ourselves in keeping with our highest commitments and values. If we cannot be prepared for this world’s surprises, being rooted in our values remains the way to be ready for our world and whatever it may bring.
Right after Rabbi Eliezar reminded his students about life’s impermanence, immediately following his lesson about turning in teshuvah every day, he told a story to illustrate the power not of being prepared for the unpredictable, but, instead, ready for what life brings. The story was about a town where the Big Chief in Charge invited everyone to a party… but forgot to include the date and time. You remember the rest.
That party was not at some ancient palace. The invitation arrives today, right now: you open it even as I speak. The occasion of a lifetime awaits you, summons us all. When will this great day arrive? Tomorrow? Next week? No: that great occasion is right here, right now. The occasion of a lifetime is today. And by “today” I don’t mean the celebration of Rosh HaShanah or the beginning of a New Year. Whenever we wake up to greet the world, we are offered the occasion of a lifetime: a new day, another chance to return to our roots, another opportunity to be our best selves. Forget the Talmudic truth that tomorrow we may die; the flip side is we live today. And since we live today, Judaism commands we live today to our absolute best.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who himself passed away this year, taught this same lesson about living today to build a better tomorrow: sometimes it’s better, he said, “not to know too much about difficulties and believe more in possibilities.”12 We need to believe in possibilities, especially our own. There is much we do not know, but we gather today because we share one certainty: today can be better than yesterday. And if today can be better than yesterday, tomorrow can be even better. We turn in teshuvah today, we return to the roots of our Jewish heritage, to build our characters on this sacred occasion that we might, together as a community of values, build a better world in the tomorrow of our New Year. Even though we focus on the present, even though we work on ourselves today, our real preparation is for the future. This past year has taught “how great a responsibility we bear toward the future”.13 Into our uncertain future we must bring the values and commitments that have nourished our tradition for millenia. If today brings bad news and heartache, then it is upon us to bring into tomorrow all the goodness, the decency, the justice and the compassion at the core of our Jewish values.
So let us take time today to ready ourselves for what tomorrow may bring. May we plant ourselves in tradition, in community. May we be open to learning from many people; may we remain grateful for all that we have (even as we mourn all we have lost). May we make sure that all our deeds are for the sake of heaven, that we are committed to purposes greater than ourselves, working always for the repair of our world for all peoples. May we always be engaged in the work of self-reflection and self-improvement. May we grow deep roots. Since we are open to life’s storms, may we feel the wind blow but never be shaken. May we who cannot predict the future awake every morning knowing that it is our job to make today better than yesterday, tomorrow better than today. Tomorrow may bring cure and healing; tomorrow we may die. May we who cannot be prepared for all the uncertainty life brings our way remember that we nonetheless are invited to the greatest feast in the world, and may we make the most of the great gift of today.
1 This is my own narrative version of the story found in Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah 9:8:1, which itself is an expansion of the parable brought in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat 153a. My story’s final italicized words are a translation of the final decree of the King that we read in Ecclesiates Rabbah:
2 VUCA is the acronym from the world of leadership development, developed by Walter Bennis and Bert Nanus: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volatility,_uncertainty,_complexity_and_ambiguity
3 Psalm 1:4.
4 Mark Lilla, “No One Knows What’s Going to Happen,” The New York Times, May 20, 2020, p. 3 of Sunday Review.
5 Psalm 1:3. ַ וְֽהָיָ֗ה כְּ ﬠֵץ֮ שָׁת֪ וּל ﬠַֽל־פַּלְגֵ֫ י מָ ֥יִם אֲשֶׁ֤ ר פִּרְי֨וֹ ׀ יִתֵּ֬ן בְּﬠִתּ֗ וֹ וְﬠָלֵ֥הוּ לֹֽא־יִבּ֑ וֹל וְכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ ר־יַﬠֲשֶׂ֣ה יַצְלִֽיח
6 That sage is Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh, who taught in Avot d’Rabbi Natan 22:1:
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah would say: If there is no Torah, there is no common decency. [If there is no common decency, there is no Torah.] He would also say: A person who has done good deeds, and has learned a lot of Torah – what is he like? Like a tree that stands near the water, whose branches are small, but whose roots are so strong that even if the four winds of the world all came and blew at it, it could not be moved from its place, as it says (Psalms 1:3), “He is like a tree planted by (streamsof) water.” But a person who has not done good deeds and studies Torah, what is he like? Like a tree that stands in the desert, with small branches and small roots, and when a wind comes and blows at it, it uproots it and flips it over on its top, as it says (Jeremiah 17:6), “You will be like a bush in the desert.”
7 This, my modern rendering of the advice delivered in interpreting Psalm 1:3 in Midrash Mishlei 1:17:
Rabbi Shmuel bar Rav Yitzhak would uproot himself from community [hevruta] to community to uphold what is said [Psalm 119:99]: From all my students I have learned. What about on fertile waters? They are like Tiberias and its community and Tzippori and its community. Whose fruit produce in season: these are the a person’s disciples who strive in Torah and make daily times: a time for Torah, a time for Bible, and time for Mishnah, a time for Talmud. Its leaves do not wither: that they find all they need for their discussions and disciples. And all they do succeeds: they have all they need for themselves. For example, Rabbi Eleazar ben Arak who shared his advice and it was upheld and led to success. They asked him, “Are you a Prophet?” He said, “I am not a prophet nor the son of prophets, but I have received from my Rabbis that all advice given for the sake of the heavens, its end is to be upheld, as it is said [Proberbs 19:21]: it is Divine advice.
מכל מלמדי השכלתי. מהו על פלגי מים כמו )תהלים קיט צט( ר’ שמואל בר רב יצחק היה שותל עצמו מחבורה לחבורה כדי לקיים טבריה וחברותיה ציפורי וחברותיה. אשר פריו יתן בעתו אלו תלמידיו של אדם שיגעין בתורה ועושין את היום עתים עת לתורה עת למקרא עת למשנה עת לתלמוד. ועלהו לא יבול שהכל צריכין לשיחתו ולתלמודו. וכל אשר יעשה יצליח שהכל צריכים לעצתו. כגון
ר’ אלעזר בן ערך שהיה יועץ עצות ומתקיימות ומצליחות. אמרו לו נביא אתה. אמר להן לא נביא אנכי ולא בן נביא אלא כך אני
ועצת ה’ היא )משלי יט כא(מקובל מרבותי כל עצה שהיא לשם שמים סופה להתקיים.
8 This, based upon a different version of the rooted tree metaphor from Psalm 92:14, which speaks about being planted in eternal values: Planted in the Abode of the Eternal, in Divine Courts they will flower,
9 Mishnah Yoma chapter 8 and subsequent tradition.
10 Deuteronomy 16:20.
11 This is a literary version of the story told in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat 153a, about Rabbi Eliezer teaching this lesson to his disciples:
We learned there in a mishna that Rabbi Eliezer says: Repent one day before your death. Rabbi Eliezer’s students asked him: But does a person know the day on which he will die? He said to them: All the more so this is a good piece of advice, and one should repent today lest he die tomorrow; and by following this advice one will spend his entire life in a state of repentance. And King Solomon also said in his wisdom: “At all times your clothes should be white, and oil shall not be absent from upon your head” (Ecclesiastes 9:8), meaning that a person always needs to be prepared.
12 Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, z”l, as quoted in Marissa Newman’s, “Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who made the Talmud accessible, dies at 83,” The Times of Israel, August 4, 2020. The full quotation is:
But sometimes, when a person knows too much, it causes him to do nothing. It seems it’s better, sometimes, for man, as for humanity, not to know too much about the difficulties and believe more in the possibilities
13 Mark Lilla, “No One Knows What’s Going to Happen,” The New York Times, May 20, 2020, p. 4 of Sunday Review. The full quote from this thought-provoking article about accepting the unpredictability of our world reads:
The pandemic has brought home just how great a responsibility we bear toward the future, and also how inadequate our knowledge is for making wise decisions and anticipating consequences. Perhaps that is why our prophets and augurs can’t keep up with the demand for foresight.