Rosh Hashanah 5781
The Passing Breath
Rabbi Eric Polokoff, B’nai Israel of Southbury
Inhale. Exhale. What did you see? Probably nothing unless like I am now,
you’re wearing a mask. In that case perhaps yours, too, is fogging up your glasses.
The Hebrew word for this is hevel.
There isn’t a common term in English for seeing your breath; in fact, we call that condensation “seeing your breath.”
Adam and Eve’s second son, Abel, in Hebrew Havel,
was quickly disposed of by his older brother Cain.
“All is hevel; what real value is there for a person in all
the gains one makes beneath the sun?”
Soon we are gone.
The pandemic and the many losses and concerns of the past year
underscore that reality. Psalm 39 offers the entreaty:
Tell me, O God, what my term is? What is the measure of my days?
I would know how fleeting my life is. You have made my life just
handbreadths long; its span is as nothing in your sight;
No one endures any longer than a breath.
Selah – so it is. Again note the “passing breath/hevel.”
Only perhaps our very transience highlights rather than negates the meaning
of our deeds. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav insisted:
Even if it seems inadequate in your eyes, none of the good you do is ever lost.
Rabbi Nachman avowed that somehow, in some way,
our deeds are not lost upon the void.
The good we do shapes us and others as well.
And the good we do may exert influence in ways beyond immediate understanding,
and resonate long afterwards.
Our Rabbis advise: One mitzvah leads to another.
Or as Mark Twain quipped: “do right and you will always be conspicuous.”
The upcoming Days of Awe can summon voices of strength and honor.
We ask God for support and insight. Adonai s’fatai tiftach…
Adonai, open my lips, that my mouth may declare your praise.
In this verse from Psalm 51,
God is thanked for welcoming Teshuvah, repentance, growth and forgiveness.
In this psalm, King David seeks to make amends for serious wrongs.
David concludes: true sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit;
God will not spurn a contrite and crushed heart.
God stands with the humble and the broken, those schooled in reflection,
remorse or grief. God seeks to comfort us and direct us through our distress.
God beckons us to review our priorities, and to learn from
and accept our failures and mistakes.
God knows we are sometimes impressively good
and at other times utterly disappointing.
God loves us anyway.
Many of us know struggle and burden.
We arrive at 5781 weighted by concern, with a long list of troubles ‘
demanding our attention.
Yet Adonai, open our lips.
Though our days pass away like a breath, our acts of righteousness
and caring have inestimable value.
At this season God says: open for me a door as big as a needle’s eye,
and I will open for you a door through which tents and camels may enter.
The enlarged space gives us room for growth.
So should we not always be perfect, let us cut others some slack too.
Should we know pain or anxiety, let us foster empathy.
Should we feel excluded, let us model inclusion.
Should we experience isolation, let us support community.
Should we have economic worries, let us promote Tzedakah.
Should we get perplexed, let us commit to Jewish learning.
Should we feel empty or closed, let us open ourselves to prayer and faith.
Adonai, open our lips. Because even if it seems inadequate in our eyes,
none of the good we do is ever lost. The opportunities for encounter this year through the congregations in our region have never been more accessible.
In settings like B’nai Israel of Southbury,
all are welcome to freely join us on the internet.
Making the most of our breath,
may we reintroduce ourselves to our best selves and to one another.