Rosh Hashana Sermon: Your Life’s Trending Topics, or, You Could Have Had my Vote

During this Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, I will focus the attention at the services I facilitate to a Hebrew word: bechirah. The word bechirah means choice. The same Hebrew root, b-ch-r, is used for words that mean: free will (bechirat chofshit) and elections (bechirot). In an election year, that is certainly relevant. And at Rosh Hashana time, we reflect on the choices we have made in the past year and look to use our free will to make better choices in the coming year. All of these about the Hebrew word: b-ch-r.

Over a lifetime, any of us will participate in dozens of High Holidays. If we look at each year’s Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur separately from the previous year or the coming year, the prayers and rituals can become a bit monotonous. “We sinned, we’ll do better, Amen”. While it is important to look at our years, one by one, I believe that it is just as important to look at our lives with a broader lens.

In our narrower, year-by-year lens, we are saying: We have used our free will to make choices this past year. Some of our choices were good. Some of our choices were bad. We will use our free will in the coming year to make new choices. Some of our choices will be good. Some of our choices will be bad. Right. That’s pretty much the message each year.

The broader lens approach says something a little different: Indeed, we have used our free will to make some good and some bad choices in the past year. And certainly, we will try harder to make better choices in the year ahead. But there is a bigger picture here. To borrow a phrase from social media: What are the trending topics? In other words, when we look not just at each year by itself, but look at our 5 year trends or our ten year trends, what do they look like? If you’re a smart financial investor, that’s how you look at your investments, right? Not how well did they do last week or last month or last year. But how are they doing over a 5 year or 10 year return.

We need to look at our life choices in the same way. The short term picture of our past year gives us some data to review. And our commitment for the coming year gives us short-term projections. But the real investment question is: how does your life look in the long-term? Are the trends over the long term good trends, trends that show that we are continually moving in the right direction?

Making moral choices is what this season is about. And it’s not only about making the right choices for ourselves, but for how we use our moral choices to serve as role models and teachers for others. Dr. Tom Sergiovanni is one of the great educational leaders of our generation. He writes about how, in education, moral leadership is of prime importance. As he points out, and I concur, it is not merely in schools that
moral leadership is critical, but in families and in communities as well. As members of the Jewish people, or as individuals who are mishpacha, family to those with Jewish members, we see ourselves as moral leaders. Fallible like every other human, but with a leadership role for our world that we strive to carry out.

So what makes Rosh Hashana less monotonous, is movement from small picture to greater picture. Just as we move from what this past year and coming year look like to a bigger picture of what our lifelong trends look like, I suggest that we also move from our own individual lives to looking at how we express our moral leadership through choices on a family, community, national and even global level.

Which leads us to the topic of bechirot, elections. I have my personal preferences, politically. Actually I have always voted not so much on the basis of a particular party platform, but on the basis of the moral leadership that I’ve spoken of. Which candidate is a true leader? Who leads on the basis of the personal values that I respect? Who has the most integrity?

Having said that, either of the two major political parties could have easily won my vote. I watched a few quick segments of the Democratic and Republican conventions, and was disappointed in both. The only thing I really learned from the conventions is that, even if you’re as good an actor and director as Clint Eastwood, it’s not a bad idea to have a script or at least some notes.

Know how either party would have had my vote this year? All either one had to do was to say, a month or two ago: Hey, Americans! We already know who is being nominated for president and vice president. And, within reason, we pretty much know what the party platform will look like. So, rather than spending over $136 million in tax money, plus millions more that were raised privately, plus millions more spent by convention participants in travel, food, hotels and other expenses, we’re cancelling the convention. In a year in which 1 out of every 10 people are unemployed and seeking work, plus more that have given up on jobs and are either taking retirement or have tried to open their own businesses [like myself]; a year in which 15% of Americans are living in poverty; a year in which 16% of Americans lack health insurance, we just can’t justify having a big national party to decide absolutely nothing. Instead, we’re going to donate ½ of what we’d spend on the convention, and ask the delegates to donate ½ of what they would have spent to shlep to Tampa or Charlotte and use those hundreds of millions of dollars to feed the hungry, create some jobs, save some people from foreclosure and insure some folks.

For a statement like that, I would have voted a straight party line. It’s all about integrity and putting things into perspective.

In this year, here are my two platforms:

  1. Moral leadership for our families, community and world
  2. Lifelong trends in how we make choices.

I invite you to spend these holidays reflecting on these two considerations and on setting our course for making and, as Gandhi remarked, actually becoming the change that needs to happen.

 

Wishing you a שנה טובה

 

Wishing you a shana tova u’metukah, a Happy and Sweet New Year,

Arnie

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