Rabbi Steven Z. Leder

Rosh Hashanah sermon: Rabbi Steven Z. Leder


My name is Steve and I’m procrastinator.  For years the Temple staff has known that when my assistant says, “Steve is home working on his High Holy Day sermons,” it really means, Steve is home cleaning the garage.  Every year it’s all there, calling out to me:  the car mats from two models ago, vases from flower arrangements dead for a decade, a dirty aquarium filter, an electric chainsaw I never use, hinges, screws, light bulbs, paint cans, one refrigerator full of beer we never drink.  One empty refrigerator—up and running in case the Zombie Apocalypse arrives– an infomercial ladder I can’t figure out even with the Youtube video, Aaron’s 9th grade Lacrosse gear, Hannah’s college microwave, a dried-out sponge mop, tangled cords, cables, clippers and a Poncho Gonzales tennis racket from 1972—it’s all there just begging to be reorganized.

Each August I reorganize, but by the next August there’s the same mess waiting for me.  How does that happen?  It happens because I have been making the same mistake most of my life—a lot of us have.  As Marie Kondo put it in her book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, “Putting things away creates the illusion that the…problem has been solved.”

Are we hear tonight to create an illusion–to listen to the music, read the prayers, acknowledge a few troubling things about ourselves and then store them away until they spill into next year, and the next, and the next until our lives are over?  Or are we here to really get rid of some things, to make real peace, to really say goodbye to our bitterness and our regrets, casting them away forever?  Are we here to engage in change Kabuki, or real change?

Kondo’s method for deciding what to keep and what to discard from our homes is to pull everything out of the closet, everything off the shelves, everything out of the cabinets, the drawers and the boxes, everything in in every room and then, hold each thing up to light of a single question:  Does this spark joy?  If the answer is no, let it go.   Does this spark joy?  If the answer is no, let it go.

Imagine if we ask ourselves “Does this spark joy?” not about our overstuffed garage or chaotic kitchen drawers, but about our inner lives.  That is what the rabbis meant when they commanded a cheshbone hanefesh during these ten days—an inventory of our souls.  These next ten days are not for reorganizing our sins into neater piles and storing our demons in newer, stronger containers; not for restacking our regrets in the basement of our souls, but for facing them and letting them go.

The Rosh Hashanah custom of tashlich, when Jews all over the world take the lint from their pockets and throw it into water, must be done in a body of water that contains fish.  Why?  Because as one sage suggests, just as fish have no eyelids, so too the eyes of God are always upon us.  Jews going to the oceans, rivers, streams and wells of their villages, cities and suburbs on Rosh Hashanah afternoon to do tashlich is more than a metaphor.  It is a promise.  A promise before the ever-watchful eyes of God that we will cast away our sins and our guilt.   Tashlich is a promise to let go….

So is prayer.  That’s what we are doing here with these ancient words and soaring melodies—we are letting go.  God is not some cosmic grantor of wishes.  To pray is not to wish, not to get, not to persuade God to change our fortunes.  To pray is to change ourselves.  To rid ourselves of the sin of indifference, the sin of bitterness, the sin of having betrayed another, of gossip, of cynicism, of pettiness, of an angry, senseless grudge that has gone on for too long.  To pray, is to let go, to lighten, to shed and to know that the shedding and letting go is at one and the same time an embrace of a lighter, better, freer, happier, wiser, more beautiful life….

Ask yourself, what grudges, what bitterness, what guilt, what shame, what avoidances, what foolish pride, what sins tucked away in the cabinets, closets and secret hiding places of your life should you hold up to the light tonight and admit bring you no joy?  Tonight, God and three thousand years of Torah are asking us to hold our joyless, ugly habits, our joyless regrets, mistakes and grudges up to the light.   To think about what we are carrying inside and to ask, does it spark joy?  If the answer is no, pray tonight to let it go.

Is your life not what you hoped for?  Is that what is weighing you down tonight?  After thirty years of being on the inside of other people’s lives—I have learned that no one—no one has it easier than anyone else, and no one has it all.  Tom Waits put it pretty well when he sang:  “Got the sheets, but not the bed.  Got the jam, but not the bread.”  My Yiddish speaking grandmother put it differently:  “God,” she quipped, “doesn’t give with both hands.”

That billionaire you envy may have an ill child, or a child who will not speak to him or grandchildren she rarely, if ever sees.  That woman’s body you envy, she might be living with chronic, debilitating pain in her gut.  The uberkinder you wish your kid could be like might be headed for an unbalanced life that will someday implode.  No one has more or less than you have when you add it all up.  Does envy or jealousy bring you joy?  Count your own blessings, and let your jealousy go…. 

“OK Rabbi, I can let go of my envy, but not my pain.  Do you know what she did?  What he said?  How he hurt me?”  Is it the bitterness of betrayal that is cluttering your soul tonight?  I don’t blame you, unless… Unless the person who hurt you has stopped, has apologized, has changed, and has asked to be forgiven.  We know what Jewish law demands of us then, especially tonight.  We have to forgive; to let it go.  Have you never betrayed another?  Have your passions never gotten the best of you?  Have you never dealt with the stress of your life in some terribly dysfunctional and hurtful way?  Is it right to carry bitterness in our hearts for someone who has done what we ourselves have also done?  Maybe it is, if the person who hurt us shows no remorse.  If that person has not stopped, has not apologized, will never stop or apologize, then it’s true that we do not have to forgive.  But we can let go, move on, make peace with what they will never be—we can release ourselves from their grasp.  To paraphrase the Buddha, “In life, we are not punished for our anger, we are punished by our anger.” 

Remember the 23rd Psalm?  “The Lord is my Shepard, I shall not want.”  Remember that line that says:  “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies?”  Most people consider it is a verse about revenge in the afterlife.  A vision of eternity wherein we will feast at a table while our enemies who wounded us in life can only watch, starve and suffer.  I do not see it that way.  I think sitting down at a table with our enemies is about an opportunity in this life, the opportunity these High Holy Days present us with.  Sit down with your enemies, reach out to those with whom you have fallen out but whose arms may well be open, pick up the phone, apologize, seek forgiveness, do your very best to make peace with what can and what cannot be changed, what ought and ought not to be held in your heart. 

Your unloving mother, your stubborn brother, your egotistical boss, your friend who let you down, hurt you, gossiped about you, failed to be there for you—do your best with them, and when your best creates no change, ask yourself how long will they remain a poison in your heart?  Does that bitterness in you spark joy?  Let it go….

And invite one more kind of enemy to your table this year too.  Sit down with your enemies that dwell within and punish you every day–your shame, your regret, your moral failures, stupidity, arrogance, pettiness, greed—get help to change what you can, stop what you can, vanquish what you can, and then, sit at the table with your own sins, make peace, loosen their grasp on you and grant the most difficult forgiveness of all–the forgiveness, after honest effort, you owe yourself. 

Look at this.  I bought this in a tiny village in India outside of Bhubaneshwar.  It is a village that time forgot.  No running water.  No electricity.  No paved road.  No doctor.  Most people without shoes and with only a goat or a small garden with turmeric and lentils drying in the sun.  It was the kind of place our ancestors during the time of the Torah likely lived their entire lives. 

Inside this is a tiny elephant surrounded on the outside with this beautiful filigree.  This began as a solid piece of stone rounded by an artist who then carefully, meditatively, with the deepest of intention, removed small bits of stone with ancient tools hewn over time, until this delicate, amazing, work of art remained.  This was created by taking away everything that was not beautiful–everything that prevented light from entering.

People think the Torah is a book of light and love but that mostly isn’t true.  Every family in the Torah is incredibly dysfunctional.  Eve convinces Adam to eat of the forbidden tree.  Cain murders his brother Abel.  At his infertile wife’s request Abraham has a son with the housekeeper.  Then Sarah makes him banish the boy and his mother to die in the dessert.  Next, as we read in the Torah tomorrow, Abraham nearly murders his other son Isaac.  Jacob steals his brother Esau’s entire inheritance.  Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery and tell their father he was dead.  Add to these stories the hundreds of thousands dying in plagues or at the tip of a spear. 

Why?  Why is Torah so filled with negative examples of human behavior?  Why of the 613 commandments in the Torah, are 248 positive “Thou shalts,” but 365 are negative “Thou shalt nots?”  Because the Torah knows we can become better people by choosing how not to behave.  Because what we choose not to do, not to say, not to envy, not to hold onto from within any longer, because of what we remove from our hearts and lives…the true light of Torah, of God, of who we really can be, shines upon our innermost soul.       

Reject the America of Charlottesville and you will find within you the America of Houston’s good Samaritans; that rag tag navy of compassion.  When you see someone, anyone, who does not welcome the stranger, the gay, the new kid, the neighbor of color, the poor, the immigrant, the slow, the large, the small, the disabled, the different, the devout Muslim, the faithful Christian, the pious Orthodox Jew, the liberal or the conservative of good conscience—when you see anyone who hates without reason, without even knowing the object of their hatred–reject that narrowness and that arrogance and that indecency.  Throw it out and let the light of tolerance shine in our country and our souls.   

When you see unkindness reject cruelty.  When you see cheating reject the moral short cut.  When you see someone abusing his or her body with drugs or too much or too little food, or exercise, or alcohol, or cigarettes, or weed, reject the desecration of you own God given body. 

When you know you have a problem with money, with anger, with addiction, with workaholism, with stubbornness, with anxiety, depression, with the friend you no longer know, the loved one you no longer call—do something, get help, don’t just tidy up, reorganize, re-shelve and wait another year.    

When someone is truly sorry, forgive, let go.  If you have slayed some terrible demon because you did face it, you did stop, you did confess, you did change, you did hold your moral failing up to the light—then forgive yourself.  Your shame, your regret, they spark no joy–let them go.  We are all, after all, only human.      

Why three-hundred-sixty-five “Thou Shalt Nots” in the Torah?  Because every day we encounter something we should no longer hold onto, or someone we should never become or believe in.   Because every day we have the opportunity not just to reorganize that which brings us no joy, but to cast it from our lives forever. 

The High Holy Days, repentance, forgiveness are all tashlich—are all a casting away with the time hewn tools of Torah, Teshuvah and love.  Use these ten days.  Use these tools.  Use them to finally let go of what is hurtful, and ugly and brings you no joy.  Then, what remains for you in the New Year will be lighter, gentler and more beautiful than before.

L’shana tova.

+