It has taken me a long time to get used to round-abouts. There, I said it. On this day of
reflection, starting a new year – the first of the ten days of repentance, I will admit that I can be
supremely frustrated by round-abouts. Perhaps I should have considered this about myself
before moving to Carmel, Indiana, the self-proclaimed round-about capital of the world. Or as
Sierra calls them, loop-de-loops. And no, her name for them is not a description of how I drive.
What I learned after several months of failed attempts, is that handling a round-about is a
lot like driving anywhere in Los Angeles, or any large city, all the time. There is constant
pressure from the person behind you to take up less space, and you take your life into your hands
if you merge at the wrong time with traffic careening around the curve. You are never quite
certain that the person ahead of you will stop in time before merging himself,
and then of course, you need constant awareness of what lane you are in, so that you don’t miss
the route you are planning to take.
But there is a reason why round-abouts are so plentiful in our northern suburb, because
they are safer, and actually help the traffic flow. Did you know that Carmel produces a brochure
to help us navigate round-abouts that mentions several important rules for their use – look to the
left, watch for larger vehicles that may need more space, and then they include one very curious
statement – don’t stop in the round-about.
This may seem like an obvious point for a native-born Hoosier used to this sort of thing.
Once you have yielded to oncoming traffic, it is critical that you get moving, that your car does
not stop the organic flow of traffic, even at 20 miles an hour. We have all been in the situation –
when the person in front of you has stopped completely, uncertain and a bit timid, hoping against
hope that someone else will slow down and let them enter the circle.
A round-about is designed to help traffic continue to flow, except during very busy times. When
one driver stops, that is when the round-about stops working, and we all get stuck.
In life sometimes we forget that we are the ones at the wheel. In order to get where we
want to go, we have to keep moving. Every year Rosh Hashanah arrives with this simple
message – today is the day to get moving.
It has been an entire year since we gathered last. We think of promises made, to
ourselves and to others, that we have had trouble keeping. When we arrive at Kol Nidrei in ten
days’ time we will attempt to feel better by absolving ourselves from those promises. Last year,
we will say, we did not know the challenges we would face, the pain we would endure, the anger
we would harbor. We did not know how busy life would get. And for some that will explain
why we did not even begin to change.
But today, let us drink deeply from the well of our Machzor. It is time to move, there is
no other opportunity than the one that this day presents. We cannot afford to wait, there may not
be enough tomorrows if we put off our work much longer. Rosh Hashanah calls us to start the
hard work of real change.
If we sit here, another year, another moment, and allow ourselves to remain distant and
indifferent – feeling that the words of the prayer book have no real relevance: in my marriage, in
my family, in my relationships – then this opportunity will have missed its mark.
Right now, sitting here, the machzor asks us a question: what gate is open for you, what
gate begins to close? What have you been missing in your life? What have you let slip by?
Where have you turned a blind eye? This is the season of cheshbon hanefesh, the accounting of
souls. God’s work of measuring souls begins when we measure our own. How many of us are
brave enough to confront ourselves this day?
Will it be possible this year for us to break through the barriers that keep the words on the page,
and instead allow them to enter our hearts?
Living life is a lot like driving, I understand the metaphor. But let us also recognize the
reasons why we failed last year, and so many times before that. Changing lanes is easy,
changing who I am is much harder. I am comfortable in my own skin, even if I know there is
more I want, more I could be. Change seems an insurmountable task, to try means to risk failure,
and I am too afraid to fail.
Fear is a powerful motivator. It has kept us from realizing our potential for a long time.
Each of us lives by a narrative – a story we tell ourselves about who we are – our character, our
circumstances, our choices. The way we tell our story informs every decision we make, and all
our interactions with others. Who wrote this narrative? Of course our parents, caregivers,
teachers and friends all had some input.
Coaches, mentors and bosses, with a sprinkling of input from ourselves along the way. But are
the stories correct? Are we the sum total of what others think of us? Maybe. Partially. But
every self-narrative has missing pieces. There are parts of ourselves we cannot see, parts we are
afraid to know, or simply do not show others. There are parts we push aside, parts of ourselves
we pretend don’t exist. The picture others have of us is missing not only the shameful or
embarrassing pieces, often they are also missing our strengths – maybe we came to believe
someone who put us down, feeling that they must be right about us. Or maybe we just never
showed a part we thought was unacceptable, not good enough, not cool.
At some point in life, we decided to accept what we believed about ourselves, and what
others had to say about us. Whether it was true or not, those conceptions stuck, and now we are
stuck with them. We carry around with us that scared child, the awkward teenager, the young
adult who feared that no one liked her.
We look in a mirror and those are the faces that peer back at us, our self-perception is based on a
core narrative that strips away confidence, when we know in our heads there is so much for
which we should be proud. Fear and pain often obscure our path, and leave us feeling vulnerable
and unable to grow. For some in this room, the pain from the past year is overwhelming and
fully present, even today. Moving forward does not seem like a possibility; life closes in and
threatens to envelop us.
Too often in the past we have said to ourselves, I’ll change some other time. Right now is
not the best time for me, I can’t commit to anything at the moment. When things are different,
when I can manage, when the weather changes, when I get some help, when the children go to
school, when they come back from school. We blame our immobility on a lack of urgency. My
calendar is too full, my family needs my attention, my job is too stressful. We wait for some
external stimulus that will push us forward.
Right now we stand on the precipice of a new year, we dare not say “when we get to it.”
We know that every moment counts. There is no other opportunity than the one in front of us.
Today we feel the urgency. Today we know our days are numbered, today is the only day we
have to choose.
The High Holy Days are intended to give us the courage to start up again, even when we
have stumbled and fallen, or when we are too afraid to begin. Today is a day when we ask
ourselves to be more like God, to become creators of worlds. We say, “Hayom Harat Olam,
today is the day the entire world is created anew.” We look at the world in which we have lived
and ask if it is the one we want to live in next year. As Martin Buber wrote “in the one who does
teshuvah (who makes this turn), creation begins anew; in their renewal the substance of the
world is renewed.” (On Judaism, p. 67) Some of us pray for renewal and creative energy. Some
face the task today of starting life over again, when the past no longer fits.
Whether our challenges are physical or emotional, whether facing illness or trauma, today
reminds us of the choice we always can make.
At the end of his life, Moses recounts for the Israelites the journey they have been on
since leaving Egypt. He reminds them not to lose sight of the goal – to bring a new vision of
society into the world, one with justice and peace at its core. It must have been daunting for a
single community of desert wanderers to imagine becoming “a light unto the nations.” And so
Moses includes this text, “I have set before you this day, life and blessing, or death and curses…
therefore choose life that you and your descendants might live.” Powerful words. Words to live
by, undoubtedly, but also somewhat strange. Here we are in the desert – what exactly do we
mean by choosing life? The daily choices we see in front of us seem far more mundane.
Moses wanted the Israelites to look beyond the existence they could see. He wanted
them to remember the journey they were on, the vision that drove them.
He wanted them to know that the desert landscape was not the end of the road. All of the
blessings they had experienced until that point were merely a prelude to what they hoped to
The same is true for us. What we see before us, our striving for wealth, for security, for
freedom, for the blessings of friends and family and even for our health, they are all like the
desert landscape that will pass too soon and fade into memory. The moment we say, “I no longer
need to grow, or work for change in myself or the world,” is the moment we stop choosing life.
Our lives are a part of a bigger narrative of the Jewish people – that is how we begin to
share our blessings. Our task is to ensure that all people have the opportunity to choose life.
This is our highest vision of ourselves, when we refuse to accept the world as it is and instead we
strive for more. This is why we come here, to this place because this congregation is a symbol of
our strength as a community, the manifestation of our most cherished values.
Choosing life is why we heal relationships, why we give those we love another chance, and
another chance, and another. We choose life when we decide today is the day I will begin the
hard work of recovery, of acceptance, of forgiveness, of healing – first my life, then my family,
then the world.
It is a scary thing, to look in the mirror and try to expand the narrative, to tell a fuller
story about ourselves. The road is long, it takes time and patience, but it begins with a simple
choice, one step and then two. Two right actions lead us to habits, and habits make a life. We
make time to light candles and bless one another, we give tzedakah, we love our neighbor as
ourselves, we honor our parents, we speak of important things with our children when we lie
down and when we rise up. Our ancestors understood that each of these mitzvot becomes a
building block for our lives, and with each one we become stronger in our commitment to life.
“I have set before you this day life and blessing, or death and curses. Therefore,” Torah reminds
us, today, right now – “Choose! Choose life, that you and your children might live.”
The shofar, that most recognizable of all High Holy Day symbols, gathers us together in
strength, with a collective breath. But the shofar’s call is also unique in the way it reverberates
in each individual soul. If you close your eyes, you can feel the shofar’s call in your very own
chest. The shofar’s blast is the perfect prayer for this day – it is pre-verbal: it hits us in the gut.
The Ten Days of Repentance, ask us to dig deep, to consider our lives not in some
general, abstract way, but each in our own way; to use this day, as the New Year begins, as an
imperative for each of us to change.
The shofar pierces through decorum, it pierces through the ancient words of prayer, and
might just pierce your heart, if you let it.
The alarm clock sounds, its rough and unhewn tone a clarion call to this passing, fleeting,
precious moment. This is our bridge from a year that is already written, the record of our deeds
both good and bad, signed and sealed – to a new year, an empty page, a chance to tip the scales in
our favor right here, right now.
My challenge for you as you hear the shofar today is simple. Let it in. Don’t applaud at
the end of the blasts, but rather allow the notes to enter and find their way. The first whole note
becomes three broken notes, which are then shattered into many, which says, we need to be
shaken. We are in mourning. We are shattered. When we arrive on Yom Kippur we will not eat
nor drink. We will not celebrate the day but rather we will try this year to attend to our own
work of teshuvah – of turning. We will do something different today, something for ourselves,
our families, our loved ones that maybe they would not expect but that we know they need from
us, or something we know we need for ourselves.
The shofar will mean something to us this year that is more than simply listening, this time we
will embrace its call more deeply.
For some the call of the shofar gives us the strength to endure, to reach out to others, to
find the help we need. For others, the shofar is a wake-up call to confront ourselves. To begin to
sew together the disjointed stories into a unified whole. We know that only by facing our whole
selves, by embracing with courage every part of the story we are in – do we have a chance to
grow, to turn, to take responsibility, to choose life.
Driving again – our hands gently grip the wheel, and we ease right up to the threshold of
the circle. We do not wish to simply squeeze our eyes shut and launch ourselves forward, we
also hope not to get stuck with indecision, unable to move forward at all.
The poet and musician David Wilcox shares this thought in his poem – the Four Lane Dance.
The driver right in front of me is making a mistake
He’s stopping on the entrance ramp, waiting for his break
The more he hits his break, the bigger break he’s going to need
When a little break is plenty if he’d just been up to speed
Oh and now he’s got it parked there and he’s looking back behind
Pleading out the window, hoping someone might be kind enough
To stop and wait and hold the traffic flow
And still he’s not quite confident there’s room for him to go
So I say move and you’ll have your place
don’t sit waiting on the human race
just go, you’ve got your chance
you can’t be timid in the four-lane dance
The freeway’s just a lesson in the way you drive your dream
if you think you’ll never make it, well than that’s the way it seems
But if you thought that it’d be easy, well then easy it would be
why just a foot between the bumpers has been room enough for me
So I say move and you’ll have your place
don’t sit waiting on the human race
just go, you’ve got your chance
you can’t be timid in the four-lane dance
On this Rosh Hashanah, may we realize we have everything we need to begin, here, in
this community, in this family, within each and every one of us. Let us get moving, let us reach
within and grow, step by step, with intention. Let us hear the shofar with new ears, and let us
awaken to a new and richer life. And together we will arrive at a new year, inscribed for
blessing in the Book of Life.