First Day of Rosh HaShanah 5783
September 26, 2022
Each year, I look for books to read that share wisdom that can help make me a better person and a better rabbi. Some I read just for my own enlightenment. Others help inform my sermons. In the Spring, I asked Yeshiva University Vice-President, and noted Jewish educator, Dr. Erica Brown, to share what books she would recommend to us, and she noted author Bruce Feiler’s recent book, “Life is In the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age.”
In his book, Feiler spends a few years crisscrossing the country, collecting hundreds of life stories in all fifty states from Americans who have been through major life changes – from losing jobs, to losing loved ones, from changing careers to changing relationships; from getting sober to simply looking for a fresh start.
If you remember Gail Sheehy’s 1970’s classic work “Passages” or any number of self-help books about life and life cycles, until recently, they assumed a linear pattern or stages, as suggested by this illustration “The Stages of Life” showing what life should be for each of us -from cradle to grave – using the metaphor of a staircase. In the early part of our lives, we are climbing a staircase, in the middle, we are at our peak, and after 50 well – we are heading down the staircase – until we stumble and die. In the 20th century social psychologists used the terms “life cycle”, “life span”, or “life course.”
What Feiler discovered was that we do not – maybe never did – live in such a linear world- going up and down the staircase, but rather we live in a world in which change and transitions are more frequent and often unexpected. Often these changes take us ‘off course’ or down a ‘long and winding road.’ Feiler calls many of these changes – ‘disruptors’– and that the best way to approach life is to know that our lives are not going to chug merrily along in a straight path – but that we will have many curves and obstacles placed in our way, and that our key mission and challenge in life is to learn and master the skills we need to ‘handle the curved roads’ and manage all of these life changes.
The idea that we will have one job, one relationship, one source of happiness is hopelessly outdated. More important, what we thought would be our life’s calling will often change and it’s possible that the things we hated when we were younger or making decisions about- whether with our studies or career – we will learn to love and embrace. The downward spiral of decisions we sometimes make can lead to a new world of opportunity and purposeful living. We all have upheavals in our lives. We sometimes veer off course. Feiler suggests that we are often living our lives out of order and, that more often than not, Feiler notes that virtually everyone he interviewed said that at least one aspect of their lives was off schedule, off course, out of sync or out of order.
Feiler suggests that in our non-linear life, each of us may face dozens of disruptors. Some of the disruptors are lifequakes – major, major disruptors. His analysis is that we often spend half of our lives in unsettled states. And he suggests that either we or, someone we know, is living through one now.
As we reflect upon our lives this Rosh HaShanah what God might be reviewing in our Book of Life –and where we have been and where we want to go – Bruce Feiler encourages us to think about the following:
1. Think about the high point in your entire life, or a particularly happy or wonderful moment.
2. Can you identify a key turning point in your life, something that may have changed your life story?
3. Think about an experience in your life that was deeply meaningful or transformative, something that gave you a feeling of oneness or at peace with the world;
4) What would you identify as a low point in your life – maybe the low point, and what you thought about it then or think about it now?
5) Reflecting back on your life, think of key transitions – they could involve home, work, family, health, or religion. Think about a transition that others may have found difficult, but you found to be easy;
6) And now the opposite – think about a transition that others may have found to be easy, and you found to be hard.
As you reflect upon the key scenes in your life now think about the key story lines of your life – a story line is an ongoing source of conflict, struggle, or challenge – or if you are lucky – a story line of happiness, success, something that gives you joy. Feiler suggests that there are five major story lines in our lives: Identity, love, work, body, and beliefs. You might think of others. Together these story lines create a picture or a narrative of our lives. On these holy days, we can create the time to identify them, analyze them, decide to take actions or correct story lines to give our lives more purpose and meaning.
On this Rosh HaShanah, I encourage you to think about your life stories: where did you come from, who were your parents and grandparents; what kind of lives did they lead? What were they good at and what not so good. Let us use these days of awe to look at our ourselves, carefully and closely. What are our children and grandchildren learning from our lives, our messages, our behaviors. Are there story lines we want to change or adapt? Are there things in our life that we would like to press a ‘reset’ button for?
Feiler concludes his book with a story about John. Bruce asked him: “what is the shape of your life?” John answered: “a winding river… “that may sound corny, but there is a Garth Brook’s song that really made an impact on me. He has a song called ‘The River.’ A dream is like a river, he says, always changing as it flows, we are merely vessels, who must change as we go. That’s what I feel like today.”
Feiler suggests: even though we can’t control the river, even though life is ever flowing, ever changing, ever threatening, ever maddening – we must “choose to chance the rapids/and dare to dance the tide.”
And there is another wise man, a Holocaust survivor, who gives us great advice on how to navigate the winding roads and rivers of our lives. On September 2, we observed the 25th yahrzeit of one of the world’s great psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, Dr. Viktor Frankl. Dr. Frankly died two days after Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris. Their obituaries appeared on the same day in the New York Times.
Together with Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, Viktor Frankl’s ideas and therapies were considered to be the “Third School of Viennese Psychiatry. Viktor Frankl and his family were rounded up by the Nazis. Everyone in his family was killed except for him. His experiences and the therapy he created came out of the trauma of his experiences in four concentration camps.
Frankl’s classic work “Man’s Search for Meaning” is considered by The Library of Congress to be one of the one hundred most important books of the 20th century.
Here in shorthand is what Frankl teaches us:
“Everything can be taken from a person except for one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude and behavior in any given set of circumstances.” That when we are not able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” That living means taking responsibility for our actions and being responsible. Unlike Freud, Frankl believed in the power of religion. He wrote, “To believe in God is to see that life has meaning.”
Frankl’s main tenets of the therapy he called ‘logotherapy’ are that each person must have:
- A will to meaning – each of us must discover what gives us meaning in our lives and how we can achieve that meaning;
- Understand that there is meaning even in suffering – what can we learn from our experiences and how can we use tragedy or difficulty to respond to emergencies and difficult moments in the future?
- That we have the ‘freedom of will” to change at any instant.
Frankly concludes “Man’s Search for Meaning” with the following words: “We have come to know what humanity is all about. After all man is that being who created the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however he is also that being who has entered those gas chambers standing upright, with the words of the Lord’s Prayer or Shema Yisrael on his lips.”
Viktor Frankly teaches us that life is not about what we expect from life but what the reality of our lives expects from us. Today on Rosh HaShanah we start over and can choose the type of person we want to be and how to respond to the challenges and obstacles that life may place in our respective paths.
Frankl teaches us that we must have meaning in our lives and live our lives in a way that is directed to always finding meaning and purpose in our lives and through courage and a sense of responsibility direct our lives to those people and ideals that will bring love and make our world a better place.
And from Bruce Feiler we learn that:
We must insist that the narratives of our lives can turn out well.
We must write the legends and create new paths in and of the nonlinear age. We must never give up on our dreams and creating happy endings. “Our dreams are rivers, always changing as it flows.”
The close of one story, the end of one dream teaches us to push through the darkness, paddle through the torrents, persevere though the woods. And we are not alone. The woods are full of people just like us. All of the transitions, all of the disruptors, all of the lifequakes – the bend in the river, the enemy in the path, are what we all encounter between our dreams.
Bruce Feiler does not mention Rosh HaShanah in his book. He could have, since he is Jewish and his family was affiliated with a synagogue. But in a way, he didn’t have to. Reading this book with rabbinic lenses, the entire book screams out the themes and messages of Rosh HaShanah.
- What is the high point of our year or life? What is the lowest?
- Can we identify the meaningful experiences of our lives and what would bring us joy and meaning now?
- And what is difficult for us and how do we respond?
- Can we change? Can we write a narrative?
- What would we like God to write in our Book of Life this year?
Rosh HaShanah allows us to dream again, to figure out how to get out of the woods, to move from darkness to light, to reach dry ground. On this Rosh HaShanah let us dream another dream, dare to believe and use the teachings of our tradition to help us navigate the narrow places.
We have a song in the Jewish tradition – kol haolam kulo – gesher tzar me’od. Ve ha ikar – lo lephaheid clal.” “The entire world is a narrow bridge – but the main thing is not to fear.” Do not be afraid. Do not despair. Whether a bridge is wide or narrow, we can still cross from one side to the other. Do not be afraid.
It is now time to utter the most spellbinding, life affirming words we can utter. Today, as we ask God to judge us favorably and to write us into The Book of Life, may we do everything we can to assess where we are and where we want to be; and then on Yom Kippur, to ask for forgiveness and confess our desires to live and lead a better life. And may the words we prepare to recite in our Musaf service – teshuvah – tefilla – tzedakah – help us navigate our lives, our transitions and our response to those transitions to live lives of that are not expected to be perfect – but filled with the hard work and effort that bring us joy, life, meaning and purpose.