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Rabbi Jessica K. Barolsky - Rosh Hashanah - 2nd Day - 2011/5772

Action – Reflection – Action
The Many Meanings of a Year

I’m wearing my white coat, walking down the hall in the special care maternity unit, about to visit my first patient of the day.  Can I call them “my patients” when I’m not a doctor?  My coat has a purple ribbon that says “chaplain.”  I know this patient has been in the hospital for a couple of weeks already, so she may want to talk just to relieve her boredom.  As I walk in, the first thing I notice is how dark the room is on a sunny summer afternoon.  It’s not a good sign.  . . .  And, she clearly doesn’t want to do much more than complain and watch TV.  It was a short visit.  I wish she had opened up to me more.  She’s clearly having a difficult time, and an uncertain ending awaits.  I should have asked more questions, but I didn’t want to push her too hard.  She should still be here for at least a couple of weeks, so hopefully I’ll be able to come back.  [Deep breath.]  Next up, Patient #2: she’s been here for a week, and we had a very lighthearted conversation last time I saw her.  I wonder what’s really going on, whether I can do anything for her, or whether I’ll just be a diversion again, a break in the monotony. Open-ended questions.  Open-ended questions.  Here goes…

Two years ago, I spent a summer during rabbinical school completing a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, commonly called CPE.  I was part of a group of student hospital chaplains that visited patients for several hours each day and for the rest of the day, we met to discuss our chaplaincy.  The idea of meeting to talk about the patients we were seeing seemed awkward at first.  As a group, we frequently talked about the fact that after each visit with a patient, we needed to pause and reflect upon that visit before we went into the next room, what our CPE supervisor termed “action-reflection-action.”  That was easier said than done; we each genuinely wanted to spend our time visiting with patients and their families, not sitting alone in the hallway, thinking.  Often, reflection was not our first priority; it was time consuming and not always particularly illuminating.  Sometimes, it felt like reflection resulted in learning…nothing.  But during our group CPE meetings, we were forced to reflect, taking one visit each week and sharing it, dissecting it, in detail, in front of the group.  We talked about what went well while we were in the patient’s room, what didn’t go so well, what that visit taught us about chaplaincy, what it taught us about ourselves.  A group discussion of one visit could take an hour—often far longer than the interaction with the patient or her family.   

During that summer of chaplaincy, my group also talked about how action-reflection-action was a pretty good model for the rest of our lives, not just hospital chaplaincy.  I would be a better teacher, I realized then, if after every religious school class, I sat down to think about what just transpired.  I would be a better student if I reviewed my notes every night.  I would be a better spouse if I took the time, regularly, to consider our relationship and time together.  But this model, action-reflection-action, is exhausting.  If we reflect on each action throughout our days, or even one or two events each day, it quickly adds up to a lot of reflecting.  We might be more self-aware, but we might also get much less done, or get far less sleep.  Action-reflection-action is a great model, but as in chaplaincy, if nobody is forcing us to sit down and reflect, it’s way too easy to just move on to the next room without thinking about the room from which we just exited.

This morning, on the birthday of the world, we read the story of the creation of the world.  Because we are created in the image of God, we often look to God as a role model.  The problem is, God is a tough role model.  If we assume that God is a perfect Being, then God has no use for reflection.  It’s hard to conceive of such perfection, and even harder for us to strive for it, because we will always fall short.  The ancient rabbis, though, also had trouble relating to a Being so perfect.  The rabbis use midrash to try to explain what happens in the story between the words and sentences of our Torah; they tell us of the events behind the scenes.  As the rabbis explain what went on, they often personify God, not out of disrespect, but out of efforts to make God more approachable, more like us, a more fitting role model.  In the story of creation, the rabbis understood that more occurred than the verses we’re about to hear, when God’s words produce light and dark, sun, moon, stars, plants and animals.  The ancient rabbis tell whole stories of God’s thoughts and God’s conversations with the ministering angels—God’s action, reflection, action. 

Luckily, we have Rosh Hashanah.  Like our weekly reflections in chaplaincy, Rosh Hashanah forces us to slow down.  We have to think back on the year that has just ended.  We consider our personal relationships with spouses, parents, children, friends, and even siblings, our relationship with God and with Judaism, our relationships to the larger world, our relationship with ourselves.  And we reflect.  What do I want to change?  What do I want to keep?  How do I want to stretch myself and grow?  Rosh Hashanah is perhaps the original basis for action-reflection-action.  Even the word itself urges us to reflect.  In English, we all know plenty of homonyms, words such as “rose,” a color, a flower, and a verb meaning ‘got up.’  The same word can have several meanings.  In Hebrew, shanah, year, has several other meanings, and they serve as a reminder to us of what to do each year in our period of self-reflection.  One meaning is change, reminding us that in every year, we should strive to alter something about ourselves.  Another meaning is repeat, indicating that no matter how much we want to change, there is always something worthwhile about ourselves, our lives, our years, that merits doing the same thing again in the future.  The third meaning of shanah is study, reminding us that a year without learning something new is not truly a new year.  All four of those meanings—year, change, repeat, and study—are a part of Rosh Hashanah.

The translation of shanah as year is fairly obvious, since the literal translation of Rosh Hashanah is head or beginning of the year.  Understanding shanah as change is slightly more subtle.  Perhaps the most obvious thing we look to do on Rosh Hashanah is seek change.  Consider the start of the four questions of Passover: ma nishtanah ha-laila ha-zeh mi kol ha-leilot, why is this night different from all other nights?  The word translated as “different,” nishtanah, is, in fact, from the same Hebrew root as the word shanah.  On Pesach we ask why this night is different from all other nights; Rosh Hashanah forces us to ask a different set of questions: What do I want to do differently this year than I did last year?  How do I want to be different this year than I was last year?  What changes can I make in the year ahead?

In Bereshit Rabbah (9:2), a collection of ancient rabbinic stories, the rabbis explain that at the end of the sixth day, God steps back to reflect on the work of creation.  God saw all of creation, and behold, it was very good.  The rabbis explain, however, that all the work of creation does not refer only to this world, but rather that God created multiple worlds and destroyed each one of them until this one—which was deemed very good.  God’s creation of the world, then, the anniversary of which we mark this Rosh Hashanah, is an example of even God reworking and changing creation until it was able to be recognized as very good, perhaps an early source for the story of Goldilocks.

While it may seem easy for God, almost a footnote to creation, change is hard for us humans, although our tradition does not leave us without guidance on attacking this giant question.  The Rosh Hashanah liturgy gives us an abundance of advice regarding what to consider changing in the year ahead.  We read this week in our machzor that teshuvah, repentance, tefilah, prayer, and tzedakah can ‘lessen judgment’s severe decree.’  Perhaps, then, these words of liturgy are guiding us to where to begin seeking change.  Repentance generally centers around our relationships with those who are close to us and with ourselves, so we consider how we can improve these relationships, from whom we need to seek forgiveness, who we need to forgive, what we can finally let go of and for what shortcomings we can forgive ourselves.  Prayer involves our relationship with God, so we think about our experience of prayer and Judaism: how we can improve—or establish—a relationship with the Divine, how we can nurture our Judaism in a way that is comfortable, but not boring.  Tzedakah has to do with our relationship with the rest of the world, so we consider how we give back, whether we give back enough, and what resources we can offer to others.  By dividing our focus for change into these three separate categories, we can begin thinking of even just three things we’d like to change, one in each of those categories.

Change is all about a series of small steps. The common advice regarding to-do lists is to break tasks down into manageable chunks.  For example, rather than “clean the house,” we may separately list “straighten, vacuum, and wipe down surfaces,” and each of these could be further divided by room to make them even smaller.  Similarly, we approach personal change with attention to small actions rather than attempting a change so huge that it leads to almost certain failure.  Twelfth century rabbi and physician Maimonides taught that we should consider that all of our good deeds are on one side of a scale, and all of our transgressions are on the other.  We are told that for most people, every year, our scales are just about balanced between merit and fault.  As a result, our next action could make all the difference.  Our next action could be what tips the scale in our favor, showing us to be more righteous than wicked.  Alternatively, our next action could tip the scale to our detriment.  Our lives, our reputations, quite literally hang in the balance.  Thus rather than seeking major transformative—but also nonspecific—change, such as “I will be nicer this year” or “I will spend more time with my family,” we are encouraged to take small actions that might make a big difference: the next time a car pulls out in front of me, I will not honk my horn in frustration, or, once a week I will work through lunch so that I can get home to the family earlier in the evening.  By cultivating a series of small changes, we may not even notice our progress toward large-scale change—until the end of the year when we look back and reflect all over again. 

Change is hard.  That’s why we approach it cautiously every single year.  But it is also necessary, which is why we mark Rosh Hashanah with prayers for personal change every year—and why it is a part of the word shanah itself.  Change is difficult, and change is slow.  But it is also central to our annual reflection.

However, we don’t just spend year after year trying to change everything.  The word for year, shanah, also means ‘repeat.’  As much as most of us are our own harshest critics, the message of repeat reminds us to see the positive in ourselves and recognize the high points of our years.  Surely each of us can find some part of ourselves, our years, that we want to carry forward, to repeat in the coming year.

To be more precise, though, the word shanah does not mean simply ignore or keep something the same, but repeat.  Perhaps the assumption is that everything we aren’t ready to change is something we should keep the same.  But shanah our yearly reflection, is not about just keeping the same, but about intentionally repeating. 

During my chaplaincy training, in our weekly reflections, one of the things our supervisor liked to remind us was that in each visit, there was something we should be proud of having done.  This focus is not limited just to chaplaincy; any supervisor, any parent, any teacher knows that almost everyone responds to positive reinforcement.  We try to reward more than we punish.  We learn that negative feedback should, whenever possible, be combined with at least some words of praise.  Our annual Rosh Hashanah reflection should be the same way.  There will always be things about ourselves and our character that we do not like, but it is just as important to acknowledge and celebrate those things that we really do like about ourselves!  As we honestly reflect, finding those things we truly see as assets, those things we want to keep doing, is not easy.  For many of us, the list of qualities and actions to repeat is much shorter than the list of what to change—but it is just as important.

Intending to repeat something about ourselves reminds us that in some areas of our lives, we’re doing a great job, and we’re going in the right direction.  In addition, in a season when we are full of words of change and prayers for forgiveness, it’s comforting to intentionally strive to repeat parts of last year.  There is comfort in repetition!  That comfort is one of the reasons we have traditions, that we park in the same parking space at work most days, that music from childhood makes us smile—no matter when we were children or what today’s children would say about that music.  When our holy days are filled with self-chastisement and calls for major internal change, we step back and say that in at least a few areas or specific events, we’re actually happy with where we are.  Think about what went right this past year, what we did well.                    We’ve done well; it is very good.  Let’s aim to repeat those parts next year.

 If we can reflect on things to change and things to repeat, we’re moving much closer to the reflective intention of Rosh Hashanah.  But if all we do is examine our actions, choose some to change and some to keep, year in and year out, we’re missing one more big part of Rosh Hashanah, and yet another meaning of the word shanah: study.  During the creation of the world, even God took time out to study the work of creation, and, according to midrash, to teach to the angels.  The midrash explains that God was discussing creation with the heavenly court, teaching about the beings God was about to create (Bereshit Rabbah 8:5).  The angels did not understand why God was going to create imperfect beings, people who would bring war and hide the truth in the perfect world that God had been creating.  So God explained to the angels all of the good that people could also bring to the world—love and righteousness that would not exist without humans.  As the angels pondered their new lesson, God went ahead and created humans—even ending the lesson to the heavenly court with a sort of a hands-on experience.   Even more than the angels, our knowledge is limited, and if we continue only to assess where we are, where we’ve been, and what we want to change and what to repeat, we are missing out on all of those things we’ve never known.

When I was a teenager, I learned that Reform Judaism was all about “choice through knowledge.”  The idea was that if we didn’t learn about a topic in Judaism, we could not make an informed choice about whether or not to do that thing, say that prayer, observe that tradition.  In high school, my older sister suggested that our family begin keeping kosher.  None of us knew much about it, so we studied reasons for keeping kosher and the practical aspects of setting up a kosher kitchen—a daunting task.  My sisters and I requested youth group programming about kashrut, and my parents discussed the idea with our rabbis.  Once we learned more, we decided to give it a try.  Some of us have found meaning with it and continued the practice; others have found it less meaningful and let it go to one extent or another. Without knowledge of a topic area, our lack of observance is from ignorance, not choice. We cannot always know what to change or what to repeat in our lives if we have not continued learning—whether that study occurs in a classroom, on a sports field, through filling a new role in an organization, or any other new experience.

One of the central lessons I learned in rabbinical school was that there is always, always more to learn.  Think about something you’ve been considering trying this past year, what you’ve always been curious about or just recently struck you as fascinating or a whole new world of knowledge. Go do it this year!  If we stop studying, our years are missing an important meaning, and our process of reflection cannot be complete.

Rosh Hashanah is described as two days that are, traditionally speaking, considered to be one long day.  This one long day of reflection, a pause in the action between the year that has just ended and the one that is just beginning, allows us to step back and reexamine the course of our lives.  Rosh Hashanah is really an example, an overview, of what every single day of every year should include: some time to pause and reflect on life, on our actions, on our relationships, as we continue to go about our lives.  But our days are full, and we need this reminder, this one long day, these Days of Awe, to force ourselves to do at least some of the reflecting that we are meant to do all year long.  Contained in a year, the passing of time, the potential of time, are three other translations guiding us on our annual reflection.  We consider change: small steps we can take to alter our relationships with ourselves and our loved ones, with our God and our Judaism, and with our world and its injustices.  We consider repetition: recognizing in ourselves what it is that we do well, that we did right, that we want to do again and keep on doing.  We consider study: what it is that we still want to try, to learn, to explore, so that next Rosh Hashanah, we have a whole new understanding, a new perspective, a brand new set of actions and experiences on which to reflect. 

May we be inscribed for a good and sweet new year, one full of time to reflect on what’s worth working to change, what we’ll be proud to repeat again, and what we’re ready to start exploring.  Kein y’hi ratzon, may it be God’s will.

Wed, October 23 2019 24 Tishrei 5780