Three phrases in the news that will help us prepare for Rosh Hashanah.
President Obama recently got into trouble for three statements he made about his role as the leader of the free world.
Obviously his words are important. His decisions play a crucial role in determining our national destiny. They will eventually face the verdict of history. Our personal resolutions almost assuredly pale in comparison.
Yet in the view of Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher held by tradition to be second only to Moses, there is reason to believe that the choices we make in our own lives may very well have cosmic significance comparable to those of the most powerful political leader.
As we approach the High Holy days, Maimonides asks us to imagine that the fate of the world is placed on a scale weighing its good versus its evil – and is found to be perfectly balanced. Every one of us must view our lives as bearing the potential to sway God’s divine decree to one side or another based on the quality of the deeds we add the total equation.
It is a remarkable insight that imposes upon each of us the notion of a kind of collective responsibility which grants inestimable meaning and value to the seemingly minor roles we play on the stage of the world’s history.
Let us explore the words of President Obama – not as a political jibe – but in order to gain some insight that will help us properly prepare for Rosh Hashanah.
1. “We don’t have a strategy yet.”
The words were in response to Islamic extremism.
In The Washington Post, Karen DeYoung and Dan Balz observed that while Obama’s no-strategy remark “may have had the virtue of candor,” it in no way projected “an image of presidential resolve or decisiveness at a time of international turmoil.”
In a time of national crisis – and as several commentators have pointed out you can only spell the word crisis with Isis – a clear strategy is key to our very survival.
So too, I think it is fair to point out that in order to successfully confront the challenges and the crises of our own lives we dare not put off the need to develop a strategy for living, a strategy that incorporates the values and ideals that justify our presence here on earth.
Some years ago I received an amazing invitation. A group known as the Gathering of Titans, comprised of 100 CEOs of major corporations in America, annually get together at a retreat – in this case at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – to discuss issues relevant to their business practices and to hear from prominent experts in various aspects of corporate management. As part of their program, they asked if I could come and lecture as well.
Stunned, I asked what role I could possibly play. I have no business expertise. My rabbinic background hardly qualifies me to teach these titans of industry how to improve their corporate bottom line.
“We understand that,” they countered. “That’s not why we want you to address us. We all know how to make money. But more and more of us have come to recognize that in the process of making ourselves very wealthy we’ve impoverished ourselves spiritually. We want to know what a religious leader such as yourself can suggest for us to feel greater meaning and purpose to our lives.”
So I shared with the Gathering of Titans a concept they were very familiar with in their corporate world and asked them to integrate it into their personal lives as well.
Every major company prepares a mission statement. It is a short and succinct summary of what they hope to accomplish as well as the ideals that motivate them. Imagine if we had similar clarity about personal goals and how we plan to achieve them. Imagine if we took our personal mission statement as seriously as a business manifesto. Imagine if we took the time to decide why God put us here on earth and then went ahead and fulfilled our life’s purpose. In short, imagine if we had a strategy for the way in which we lead our lives. After all, making a success of our lives is as important as making a success of our businesses.
The insight I shared with them from Ethics of the Fathers, to “Know before whom you are standing and before whom you are destined to give a final accounting,” seemed to make a profound impression. And that’s why one of the chief goals of the High Holy days is to find the wisdom to turn God’s will into our personal strategy for living.
2. “The world has always been messy.”
Sure we read about masked madmen holding a crude knife to the necks of Americans on their knees in the desert and beheading them, witnessing the rise of a barbaric Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, watching as Russia downs a civilian airplane murdering all aboard and taking illegal possession of its neighboring country, observing the rise of anti-Semitism in a post-Holocaust Europe that was supposedly cured of this lethal disease – but we cannot take comfort from a historical perspective that is willing to accept evil as inevitable and wickedness as inescapable.
Let’s be clear that “We’re never going to make this a better world” is a philosophy totally alien to Judaism. The messianic ideal is another way of saying that we have faith – faith in a world that can be improved by our efforts and our commitment to change it day by day in accord with the values of Torah.
The high priest in the days of the temple followed a remarkable sequence in which to seek forgiveness and atonement from God. He began with himself, followed by his household and then by his concentration on the entire Jewish people. How do you change the world? First from within; begin with yourself. Then reach outward to those closest to you. Only then you may accept the challenge of the larger community.
That is a doable project. And on the High Holy days God reaches out to every one of us and asks us to improve in the knowledge that every one of us can eventually lead to all of us.
The key to success is not to resign ourselves to the fact that the world has always been a mess but to believe that every new year carries within it the potential for a new beginning that can lead to a truly happy ending.
3. “Don’t do stupid stuff.”
Jewish law is divided into two categories. There are 248 positive commandments and 365 negative ones. The beauty of Torah is that it contains a dual message: it not only teaches us the forbidden but also the obligatory, not only what we have to stay away from in order to be considered righteous but what we are required to be committed to in order to deserve God’s favor.
“I never did anything to hurt anybody” sounds like a declaration of piety but falls far short from a biblical perspective. Don’t simply tell me what you never did wrong but share with me what you did right if you want divine respect.
“I never said anything bad about him” is meant to suggest kindness. True care and concern for others would include finding it possible at least occasionally to say something good about others.
“Don’t do stupid stuff” isn’t good enough to serve as the key to our national policy. So too, simply avoiding the irresponsible isn’t good enough to express our personal goals for the coming year. We need to clarify the specific goals that we are proactively committing to this year.
The High Holy days are the time for serious consideration of our life’s direction. It is a period of heavenly judgment. We dare not ignore the need for a strategy for living. We dare not excuse our reluctance to change with the paltry defense that it never was and never will be better. And we dare not make a claim upon righteousness solely by virtue of not being guilty of having made the wrong choices.
Take a few minutes to think about these three important ideas. They have the power to transform your life.