Walk Humbly into the New Year
Erev Rosh Hashanah
Ask me something…Ask me anything about myself: where I was when I heard about President Kennedy’s assassination, when I went to college, what music Marsha and I listened to when we got married.
I’m an expert. All of us are experts when it comes to ourselves…although I did learn something new about my “expertise” when I visited Glenmeadow, our neighborhood assisted living residence, back in August.
I went to Glenmeadow one morning to lead a discussion and thereby reach out to some of our Temple seniors who often get overlooked when they no longer get around so easily. So there I was shmoosing and wanting to warm up the group when I asked those present to name a favorite movie. These were people mainly in their 80’s, and they began by mentioning some fairly recent movies followed by the classic Gone With the Wind.
Then someone mentioned a movie called The Best Years of our Lives and everyone present lit up. “I remember that one…Yes, I do…Wasn’t Fredric March in it?...Yes, and who else….Myrna Loy!...That’s right. Myrna Loy and Dana Andrews…And what year was it? 1947? No, 1946. And it won lots of awards, didn’t it? …Yes, it won seven Academy Awards, including best picture, best director, actor, supporting actor and more.”
From the smiles, the enthusiasm, and the body language, I soon understood that The Best Years of our Lives was a powerful memory for those at Glenmeadow. They vividly remembered the movie. They eagerly told me the story which involves three servicemen coming back home from World War Two trying to put their lives back together.
It was news to me. As a fan of the movies, I discovered a movie I had never heard of. That morning I also realized that as much as I know about me, I didn’t know half as much as I thought I did about the seniors. Witness the fact that this movie which meant so much to them was totally unknown to me.
In a larger sense, I realized that morning that I really had no idea what being in your teens or 20’s meant for these seniors back in 1946. I didn’t understand what it felt like to be a returning serviceman or to welcome one home. Some of those people at Glenmeadow were in college at that time. Some were working. Some were falling in love or having babies. They were listening to big bands and watching the beginnings of something called television. They were making lives, maybe hoping for the best years of their lives, and their experience was something I could barely know.
Here’s what dawned on me as I listened and learned that morning: As much as I know about “me,” I didn’t and couldn’t really know the thousand details of living that formed the heart and soul of the Glenmeadow residents.
“Smart me” (expert that I am on “me”) was “little me” around them if I really considered how vast and complex the life experience of those seniors was.
A passage from Walt Whitman captures the awareness that struck me. Whitman wrote, “I am large. I contain multitudes.” To which I would add, “We are all large. We all contain multitudes.”
Seniors know a world other than this 21st century we all share, and, frankly, within that senior generation, one senior is as different from the other seniors as can be imagined. “We all contain multitudes.”
For that matter, baby boomers know their favorite decades of the 50’s and 60’s, but each boomer is her or her own unique person. And so it goes with those in their 40’s or 20’s. Each generation has defining moments and each person has them as well.
What strikes me and moves me when we gather together on occasions like Rosh Hashanah is how rich, varied, and complex we are. But it’s more than the fact that a lot of us are here during the holidays and therefore a lot of stories are held in this sanctuary. For if only two of us were here tonight, the same would hold true. Every one of us individually represents a thousand stories. Each is indeed a multitude.
Each of us is a library of memories, movies, songs, old friends, new friends, good decisions, bad decisions, funny stories, trips, books read, sleepless nights, and beautiful sunrises. Each of us is a universe and, on this Rosh Hashanah evening, that is the awareness I want to hold tight.
I am touched by a sense of awe as I stand before you. By the abundance of humanity we represent.
I am moved by a sense of humility when I consider the multitude of our lives.
I am reminded of a biblical verse – maybe the first I learned at Sunday School when I was a little boy. From the Book of the prophet Micah: “What does the Lord require of you? Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”
Tonight I want to revisit that verse. Not so much for the sake of its opening teaching: that doing justice and loving mercy are important. We already know that justice and mercy count for a lot.
But that third phrase. Maybe that’s the most intriguing imperative of all: Walk humbly. Consider the varied and varying ways in which each of us lives our lives. Be humble. We are surrounded by men and women, young and old, who know life from as many perspectives as there are people in this room.
Cultivate humility. The medieval sage, Bachya ibn Pakuda, believed there was nothing better to do. Bachya taught that our best selves only emerge when we are humble.
But how do you achieve humility? Or put it another way. How do you think small?
I know one way. We can get “small” by stepping outdoors to look up at the stars. One midrash about Abraham, the first Jew, tells us that Abraham actually began to rethink his place in the universe when he gazed up at the huge night sky over Mesopotamia.
That was long before the discoveries of the last century and long before the Hubble telescope and other devices carried human vision literally light years beyond the globe. Only a few years ago, the Hubble telescope orbiting earth photographed a star at the center of our galaxy. This one star is so big that it would fill the entire space inside the earth’s orbit around the sun. That would give this single star a diameter of approximately 180 million miles.
And speaking of numbers, don’t forget that our own little sun plus this massive star are only two of the 100 billion stars in our galaxy. Plus our own galaxy is one of possibly 100 billion galaxies.
That is awesome! That is incredible! To paraphrase the Yiddish poet, Aaron Zeitlin, when I look at the stars, I don’t yawn.
I ooh and aah. I am star struck. I am humbled.
I wonder at the vastness of the universe, just as I find myself amazed at something as commonplace as a loaf of bread. Think about it. How amazing is it that there happens to be a plant called wheat, which happens to have seeds which, if harvested in a certain way, ground, sifted, and then placed in heat with exactly the right ingredients, results in a mainstay of the human diet? How did the so-called primitives ever discover all this? Indeed, if someone set out to invent something called bread, I’m not sure it could be done.
But what a marvel it is. A kind of miracle. I’m thankful that Judaism has even given us a mechanism for keeping the sense of awe alive We call it a blessing, and we say the blessing when we put bread to our lips because the whole process is quite so astonishing.
Baruch atta…Blessed and miraculous is the process by which wheat becomes bread and sustains human life.
If I can train myself to look up at the stars or to truly taste bread as if it were for the very first time, I am awestruck. I am humbled.
Of course, it’s not only the chemistry of producing bread that is extraordinary; there is also the human process which we easily overlook. To begin with, somewhere in the Midwest there is a farmer who has to plant the grain. He watches the sky for rain. He waters when he must. He harvests what grows. A truck driver brings the produce forward. Someone in an office catalogs the arrival of the grain. Someone else gets up before dawn to go to the factory where the grain is processed and baked. Another truck driver takes the bread to a train. And then from the train to a truck to the grocery store and a shelf where the bread waits for you and me.
A vast human network has to unfold for that bread to get to my table. And so I say my blessing to help make that invisible network visible. I say the blessing to remember – even momentarily – that a thousand interactions have to happen on cue to keep me alive.
I buy a sweater. How many people in which countries labored to create that sweater? I buy a computer. How many people were involved before that shiny machine came to rest on my desktop?
We are part of a huge, interconnected world. We are each a small part of that tremendous, interlocking process that allows life to carry on as we know it.
Which brings me back to you and me here and now. Not as compared to the stars, not as compared to all the global comings and goings that give us modern life. But you and me cradled in this vast world and sharing this sacred space.
We too are large. We are multitudes.
When you look at each of us with fully wide-open eyes, you see that and you feel it. The person you pass daily on the way to the parking lot, the person who talks your ear off over lunch, the person in front of you at the CVS cashier, the person who can’t figure out what to order from the Starbuck’s menu, the person in front of you tonight…each lives a life as marvelous as the universe. There is, in each of them, a universe of experience, memories, losses, loves, and pleasures.
It is enough to make you pause. Walk humbly.
For me, it’s enough to make me take a second look. Walk humbly.
It’s enough for Jewish tradition to have created a blessing for this exact sensibility.
Baruch atta, Adonai, elohauni melech ha-olam m’shane ha-briyot…
Praised are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who gives shape to each and every creation separately.
You and you and you.
It’s a loving awareness like this that inspired a nurse who works with the terminally ill. Several years ago, she wrote a description of the way she encounters her patients. She said she never enters the room of a patient without pausing at the entrance to remember exactly what the stakes are on the other side of the door. For an instant, she stands still, prays for the patience and courage to deal with the patient, and, only then, forges ahead.
Why does she stop at the door?
It’s her sense of humility at work. It’s her feeling that, like Moses, all of us are treading on holy ground when we encounter other human beings.
That’s the point about walking with humility. It means never forgetting how sacred human beings are.
If you walk softly, you enter a hospice room with more humanity.
If you walk gently, you enter a classroom as a teacher with more care.
If you walk humbly, you enter your office with more compassion.
You are mindful of your own limits.
Many years ago I had the good fortune to know Rabbi Jerome Malino. He was a congregational rabbi in Danbury, Connecticut. He taught rabbinic students at Hebrew Union College in New York City. He was also president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
Rabbi Malino was a man of great depth and literacy. Well into his eighties, he was asked, at a luncheon marking his retirement from teaching rabbinic students, what he intended to do now. He rose to his feet and without hesitation, replied, “I intend to continue my preparation for the rabbinate.”
That is humility.
That is the awareness that we are all always preparing.
Tonight, we prepare for a new year.
Tonight, we start all over, knowing where we have come up short before and vowing to do better.
I am humbled by the prospect, but I am also humbly hopeful that together we may just be able to fashion a brand new, surprisingly sweet year.
Please join me. Together, we have much to accomplish.
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