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Success and Failure (RH1 5775)

Shanah Tovah! It is such a pleasure to look out and see all of you here on this Rosh Hashanah 5775. This is a Shehehiyanu moment, a moment to celebrate and to savor, so please feel free to join me in reciting this bracha, this blessing that thanks God for this special moment in our lives, it can be found in our Mahzor on p. 30 in both Hebrew and transliteration for all who do not read Hebrew – [say bracha].

Today like on all our sacred days we read from the Torah, in our Torah reading this morning we read of the birth of Isaac, the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael and the conflict between Avraham and Avimelech. The rabbis ask what is it about this section of the Torah that led to it being selected to be read on Rosh Hashanah. After all they could have chosen to have us read the Shema reflecting the unique nature of God, or they could have selected the Ten Commandments focusing upon our Covenant with God, or they could have chosen the beginning of the Torah to parallel the start of the year and the theme of Rosh Hashanah as the creation of the world. But instead they chose this messy and difficult text about a dysfunctional family, the transition from one generation to the next and conflict between neighbors. It is a very real text, a very human text, something that I certainly can relate to more personally than the more esoteric texts I mentioned.

On Rosh Hashanah we are called upon to think about lives and the year that we have just finished – what went well, and also what we want to change; to contemplate the relationships we have – which are working well and which need extra time and attention to improve. Our most intimate relationships are often with our family, but they can also be our most challenging. When relationships are working well, they give us such a sense of satisfaction, of security, of completeness. But when we are not happy with the state of a relationship, we feel broken, hurt, and incomplete. We often wonder what's wrong with me that I cannot make things work with someone I love so much. And then we look at this morning's Torah reading and we see Abraham, the first monotheist, the first Jew; what an amazing man! What accomplishments! He lived around 2000 BCE or 4,000 years ago; 4000 years and we still talk about him and all he managed, that's staying power. And yet, in spite of all his accomplishments, his home life was rather turbulent. He married Sarah; they tried to have children, but instead, they discovered the pain of infertility. There are many couples who would like to have children, but are unable to conceive. Today, we have medications and procedures that can help and many couples who in days gone by would have been childless are thankfully able to have children. But this in turn can make it all the more difficult for the couples that in spite of all that modern medicine has to offer still cannot conceive. Infertility is a major theme not only in our Torah reading, but in our haftarah as well. In the first book of Samuel, we read about Elkanah who has two wives – Penina who had children and Hannah who was barren. We see that Hannah is subject to verbal abuse by her co-wife and sadly we see that her husband does not defend her. When she goes to the Temple to pray, even the priest is hostile to her, accusing her of drunkenness. In the end Hannah's pray is answered, but not everyone gets her happy ending; what is a blessing for one person, can be a painful reminder of loss and lack for another.

Life isn't fair and often it isn't easy; here in the US we are told that we have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But the rabbis tell us that happiness is not something that we can pursue. In Pirkei Avot, we read, "Who is rich? One who is happy with his lot." (Avot 4:1) We've all heard the adage, "money can't buy happiness," and I'm sure that you've either met or heard about someone who is rich and successful, but not happy. The ancient rabbis understood that happiness is a state of mind; it is not about what you posses. Happiness is not a goal to be achieved, but a byproduct of the way you live your life. Let me share with you a Hasidic tale.

Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev was walking down the street with a misnageid rabbi – a Lithuanian-style, non-Chasidic rabbi. The two rabbis were involved in conversation when they came across a simple Jew who had stopped by the side of the road. The man was greasing the wheels of his wagon. Both rabbis immediately noticed that the man was wearing his tefilin.

The misnageid rabbi called out. "What are you doing?" he said. "Come out from under there!"

     The simple Jew stopped greasing the wheels and stood up next to his wagon.

"There are rules about how we're supposed to wear tefillin," the misnageid rabbi said. "You have to have a clean body – a pure body – when you wear your tefillin." The misnageid rabbi was very upset. He continued to rant: "You're doing one of the most disgusting, grimy jobs possible, and you're wrapped in one of the holiest objects a Jew can put on. What are you thinking? What's wrong with you?"

     The simple Jew felt ashamed and embarrassed. He began to cry. "You're right, Rabbi," the man said. "I know those rules. I know that I shouldn't be wearing my tefillin when I'm greasing the wheels of my wagon," he said between sobs. "I know that it's offensive. I don't know what else to say except that I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry."

Reb Levi Yitzchak could no longer contain himself. He screamed out with incredible joy. "Master of the Universe, Lord of the World, look at this beautiful man, this holy Jew. See how devoted he is – how devoted all Your People of Israel are to You. Even when they're greasing the wheels of their wagons, they want to be wrapped in Your presence, Lord. That's how much they love You!"
(Laney Katz Becker. Three Times Chai, "Greasing the Wheels")

Happiness is a matter of perspective. Only you can decide if you are going to be happy or not. Can you appreciate what you have? Are you satisfied with the state of your affairs? Or are you only focused on what you lack?

Abraham and Sarah first respond to their circumstances by having Sarah's handmaiden, Hagar bear a child. We are never told how Hagar felt about this or even if she wanted to have children for them; she was a slave and so had no choice in the matter. What must it have been like for her to bear a child not of her choosing? While slavery was accepted as normal in their society, we reject it in all its forms today; still, it could not have been easy for her. Sadly, we know that slavery still exists today, even in this country, and we know that human sex trafficking is big business. But we also know that there are women who find themselves in bad relationships, who can't seem to extricate themselves and sometimes end up bearing children that they might not have chosen to bring into the world. Our world is not an easy place.

As story progresses in the Torah, Sarah gives birth to Isaac and no longer wants Hagar or Ishmael around. At her insistence, Abraham sends them away into the wilderness and there God blesses them. It's all well and good, but stop for a moment and consider the family dynamics! This was a blended family that did not blend well at all, with disastrous consequences for all involved. Abraham sends away his first born son and the woman who bore him, Hagar ends up as a single mother, and Ishmael grows up estranged from his father. Things don't end up very harmonious for Abraham and Isaac either, but that is a story for tomorrow.

Success and failure are not so easy to measure. Moreover, they are not static. There was time here when someone who came up with a new idea to try out was shot down before they ever got a chance to see if it would work or not. There are always reasons why something might not work, but in never trying, we lose something valuable. We lose the opportunity to grow, to change, and to improve. It is familiar and safe, but it is also stagnant. Life keeps on moving, like it or not, change is a constant. Now, we try to cultivate a spirit of experimentation at Shomrei Torah; to help people to realize that when we try something that does not work, we can learn from it. It wasn't a waste of time, but rather a step towards improvement.

We try things, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. When it doesn't, no one likes to be told that they've failed, but if you believing in yourself you can still accomplish great things. Here are a few famous examples: Thomas Edison was told he was "too stupid to learn anything." Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first television job. Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper because he "lacked imagination and had no good ideas." Steven Spielberg was rejected by the USC school of Cinematic Arts. R.H. Macy had a number of failed business ventures before he launched his department store. Colonel Sanders was fired from dozens of jobs before founding KFC. When Sidney Poitier first auditioned for the theater, he flubbed his lines and spoke with such a heavy accent that the director told him to stop wasting his time. In one of Fred Astaire's first screen tests, an executive wrote: "Can't sing. Can't act. Slightly balding. Can dance a little." J.K. Rowling was a single mom living off welfare when she began writing Harry Potter, she is now a billionaire! Dr. Seuss had his first book rejected by 27 different publishers. Perseverance can pay off in the end, but only if you don't give up on yourself. Rabbi Jack Reimer has written, "You learn that the world is not divided between those who succeed and those who fail. The world is divided between those who fail and give up, and those who fail, and get up and try again."

As a religious figure Abraham was a HUGE success, but as a family man, not so much. There are some of us sitting here today who consider ourselves successful, while others of us consider ourselves to be failures. Perhaps we feel successful in one aspect of our lives; but feel like we've failed in others. Like happiness, I don't think success is necessarily measured by how much stuff you have, but rather how you feel about what you have or what you've done. Our understanding of what is a success can also change over time.

In the synagogue world, we used to measure success or lack thereof by the numbers. More members was a sign of success, more attendance at a service was the measure of success, more people at an event determined if it was a success. But there has been revolution in our understanding of what it is that happens in Houses of Worship. This Rosh Hashanah service with hundreds of you present is not necessarily a more successful service than a Shabbat service with less than 50 people present or than a morning minyan service with a dozen people in the room. The question we ask now is, was it meaningful for those in attendance? Did we help to foster a connection between the people who came? Did we further someone's sense of their Jewishness? Did we help someone feel more connected to God? Did you leave feeling more content, at peace? Today we seek connections and meaning. I rather doubt that you are drawn here today because others are here; most of us are motivated by something inside of us. We are looking for something and God willing, you will leave her having found it or at least a piece of what drew you here.

The Hartman Institute has written, For the Kabbalist, failure is built into the very fabric of existence. Ultimately, that means that God is the both the source and model of failure. One of the least understood and most radical dimensions of Kabbalistic teaching is the model of a God who cannot seem to get it right the first time around.

Remember that in Renaissance Kabbalah, the primary image of creation is God-force emanating light into vessels. For whatever reason, these vessels are structurally flawed. The flawed vessels are unable to hold the light streaming into them from the divine emanation. They shatter. Shards of vessels fall and disperse throughout reality. Many of the shards retain sparks of light. The purpose of existence is to gather the sparks of light, called nitzotzot, and reintegrate them with their divine source.

What is essential in this kabalistic image is the centrality of failure. God tries to create the world. It doesn't work because the vessels shatter. Our whole lives are then spent trying to return to the original pristine state before the vessels shattered, the only difference being that this time when we return, we are humbler, wiser and able to transcend even the initial perfection with which we began.

An image from Talmudic mysticism: God "who creates worlds and destroys them." God is dissatisfied with creation. God is the artist who tears up draft after draft until one spills from the brush that seems right.

We are imitators of divinity. We participate in divinity. Just as God stood on the abyss of darkness and said, "Let there be light," so do we stand on the abyss of darkness and say, "Let there be light." Just as God failed in the initial creative gesture yet reached deep within to find the love to create again, so do we.

I'd like to end with words I learned from Rabbi Jack Reimer – This is my wish for you and for me today; that in this New Year that now begins may we succeed often. And when we fail, as surely we will, may we learn from our failures, because there are some heights that can never be reached except by failing and by learning from those failures. May this be a good year, a year in which we preserve.

Wishing you a Shanah Tovah; and let us say, Amen!

Mon, August 10 2020 20 Av 5780