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Rosh Hashana Drasha

09/18/2023 09:39:48 AM


Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

And God saw everything He had created and behold it was good. Not just good, but tov me’od, it was very good. Inquiring minds of all ages have been intrigued by the word “me’od” and have wanted to know what additional layer of meaning the word might be suggesting.   

R’ Chama bar Chanina proposed that the word suggests that God was so completely taken with the goodness of the world, that He uttered the following prayer upon the world’s completion:

אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְעוֹלָמוֹ, עוֹלָמִי עוֹלָמִי, הַלְּוַאי תְּהֵא מַעֲלַת חֵן לְפָנַי בְּכָל עֵת כְּשֵׁם שֶׁהֶעֱלֵית חֵן לְפָנַי בְּשָׁעָה זוֹ

May you eternally be as wonderful in my eyes as you are right now. May the beauty of this moment never change.

It’s a deeply emotional prayer. And one that we each recognize. We’ve all had moments that were so wonderful and so beautiful that we’d wished that they would never end, that things could be just like this forever. Our hearts have prayed this prayer, even as our minds knew that its fulfillment was simply not possible. One of life’s earliest lessons is that everything changes -  in ways that are more foreseeable,  in ways that are completely unpredictable. Nothing ever stays the same.

Rebbi Meir was also intrigued by the word me’od, and boy did he interpret it differently, truly astonishingly so. The Midrash reports that

בְּתוֹרָתוֹ שֶׁל רַבִּי מֵאִיר מָצְאוּ כָּתוּב וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד, וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מוֹת

In the written collection of R. Meir’s Torah interpretations, or perhaps in the margin of his Sefer Torah, R. Meir rendered the word “me’od’ as “mot” / death, with the resultant interpretation of this verse being,  And God saw…. and He observed that death is good (?!) By what hermeneutical rule R. Meir made this interpretive move, no one really has any notion. But the idea he put forth here is so bizarre and provocative, not to mention a little morose, that we are compelled to try to understand what he was trying to say. My suspicion is that in a mischievously attention -grabbing way, R. Meir intended to express a view diametrically opposed to R’ Chama bar Chanina’s. R. Meir chooses death as his focus, because death represents the epitome of change. It is the ultimate change that all living things will experience. And he is using it as a pedagogical tool with which to talk about change generally, about the less morose yet equally indisputable reality that our lives are in a process of continuous change. And he is teaching that for some reason God beheld this particular quality of His World, and pronounced it as being good.    

While we’ve each prayed with R. Chama, we all live in the world of R. Meir. One of the things that strikes right now, today, is that even Rosh HaShana itself has changed, in the spirit of Heraclitus who said that, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for he's not the same man, and it's not the same river.” We never experience the same Rosh HaShana twice. Our seat and row number may be the same (or it might not be 😊), but that seat is not located in the same world, and we are not the same person who sat in it last year.  Our world has changed in so many ways - socially, politically, and literally physically. And the same is true of the life that we are each living, the particular blessings that we are needing, the particular prayers that we are praying.  Much has changed.  Between last Rosh HaShana and this one we have lost people, and we have gained people. We have moved forward, and we have fallen back. Our children have come to need us in new and different ways, our children seem to need us not as much as they used to. We are feeling more confident about the future, we are feeling more anxious about the future. We are not the same person, and Rosh HaShana isn’t the same river.  

We realize, each time that Rosh HaShana comes round again, that we don’t actually live one life, but a series of lives, each with its own conditions and circumstances, and each with its own distinct calling. And it’s on Rosh HaShana that we arrive, slowly but surely, at the recognition that the entry into our next life will require us to uncover a different set of inner resources, to redraw the contours and circumference of our hearts, to retrain our eyes and our ears. We come to the understanding that in each of the lives we live, God poses to us different questions, and is need of us in different ways.

I’m feeling change. I find myself of late trying to figure out how, at this stage in my children’s lives. I can continue to be a source of value-added for them, something which I want to do, feel an ongoing obligation to do, but am not always sure how to do it. I also felt change last month, when although it was already painfully obvious to me that something was wrong in my back, I nonetheless kept plunking grandchildren on my shoulders. Why? Because I was possessed of a new and acute sense, that time is only moving in one direction. Change has happened, a next life begins. And with it, a new and different bell to answer.   

Which is to say nothing of how achingly and constantly aware I am - and I know you are - of the changes happening in our world. I’m thinking that my task, my work, is to decide intentionally how I will allow these changes to affect my disposition, my mood, my sense of hope, all of which will shape my actions. Which makes this a profound ethical and religious decision.

We are not the same people, and that Rosh HaShana isn’t the same river.     

In R. Meir’s mind, in R. Meir’s Torah, God found zebras and monarch butterflies, and sequoias ot be “god”.  But a creature that can rise again and again to the emotional and spiritual callings of an ever-changing life…  that’s a  masterpiece.

I’ll offer the suggestion that we when we get to Nitaneh Tokef, and we reach the words mi yichye umi yamut, we answer, “I will” to both. Change is the arc of our existence, the fuel of our renewal, the magic of Rosh HaShana.

Today is the day, and the river is beckoning.

Mon, June 17 2024 11 Sivan 5784