It is so wonderful to see so many gathered together, reunited with family and friends, in anticipation of a year of blessing for each of us. As we gather here for another Rosh Hashanah, beginning the year 5776, I’d like us to think about how we want to change ourselves for the better in the coming year. I would argue that Judaism is unique amongst the world religions in that we begin the year by focusing on self-improvement, always striving to reach a higher spiritual level than the one on which we currently stand. In fact, the word Shanah, or year, has as its root Shinui, or change. Our challenge is to internalize which things are eternal, that will not change, versus the significant changes that we need to make it our lives.
To explore this I’ll begin with a story that I relearned from my uncle’s rabbi in Scottsdale, Arizona. There were twin brothers, extremely different from each other. One of them was named Anav, and he was meek and humble-a worthy virtue but one which was out of balance in his life, dominating him entirely. Anav was constantly self-effacing, feeling that he was unworthy. In contrast, his twin, Hallal, was extremely self-confident, to a fault. He was boastful and arrogant, and he carried with him a sense of entitlement.
As the boys grew up, they grew apart. Anav the meek could not relate to Hallal the confident. Hallal the self-assured could not relate to Anav the humble. The boys’ parents became distraught over the distance created by their sons. They could see that each brother possessed a virtue, yet it was incomplete and would only be whole if shared with the other. After consulting with their rabbi, the parents had an idea as to how to proceed.
The parents met with each son separately. To Anav they said, “You have the sweetest, kindest soul, overflowing with humility. That is your gift to share with the world. Perhaps you could share some of it with your brother. He could use some of your gift.” To Hallal, they said, “You have the confidence which can change the world; your self-esteem is overflowing. That is your gift to share with the world. Perhaps you could share some of it with your brother. He could use some of your gift.”
That evening the boys, in their separate rooms, each had an idea, taking to heart their parents’ advice (as children always follow their parents’ advice). Anav, on a piece of paper, wrote down “I am but dust and ashes.” At the same time, Hallal wrote on a piece of paper “For me the world was created.” Each boy rolled up his prayer and tied a ribbon around it-their gift to the other.
In the middle of the night, each boy went to sneak into the other’s room and place their prayer on their brother’s nightstand. Their plan was to wake up in the morning and, like an angel had come down in the night, there would the prayer be. Tip-toeing in the dark, so as not to awaken anyone, the brothers were startled when they bumped into each other. The parents, awakened by the noise, opened their door, just a crack, to see and overhear their sons. Both boys extended their prayer, each pausing to read their gift for the other. Then, for the first time in a long time, the boys embraced each other in the hallway, their parents holding their breath with delight. By receiving the gift from one another, the boys were made more whole. Surely angels had descended.
Each of us has both Anav and Hallal inside of us. When we feel out of balance, tipping to one side or the other, we need to take the appropriate prayer out of our pocket and read it. When we are feeling broken, that we can do no right, we need to take our Hallal’s prayer and realize that we can make a difference and that we have a special role to play in the world. By reading Hallal’s prayer, we believe in ourselves again, and have faith that things will work out. When we feel on top of the world, that we can do no wrong, we need Anav’s prayer to recognize that we are not “hot stuff,” but rather dust and ashes, in order to bring us down to earth. Both prayers together balance us out and make us into a whole human being.
My maternal grandmother has modeled for me how to achieve this balance. Whenever I had an accomplishment in Milwaukee, be it winning an award or achieving recognition in school, people would tell my grandmother, “You must be so proud of him!” Her reply was always, “I’m proud of all my grandchildren.” She taught me to never let things go to my head and to do things not for recognition but because they were the right thing to do. Similarly, when I was completely downtrodden, feeling that I could never get anything right, my grandmother would know what to say to enable me to persevere and move forward. Words like “you’re not a quitter” or “you’ll get there” were enough to propel me forward on the task at hand be it getting through rabbinical school or finding my bride.
Each of us in our own way handles the challenges of Anav and Hallal. At times we feel like Anav, “who am I to change the world?” Perhaps we wish we were wealthier, better educated, smarter, or thinner. At these times, we need to look at the prayer of Hallal and recognize that we’re needed, that we can and will make a difference in the world. Tomorrow I will talk about prayer, and one of Judaism’s core teachings is that we are God’s partners in creation, that our mission is tikkun olam, constant repair of the world. The time to do this is now…not when we have inspiration, or motivation but NOW.
At other times we feel like Hallal, invincible, like we can do no wrong. At these times we need to recognize that we are part of a greater whole. No matter how much success we have in our career, no matter how privileged our upbringing might have been or how good looking we feel we are, we need to put our egos in check. Our tradition teaches that each of us came from the earth and each of us will return to the earth. We also are reminded each time we step into our synagogue דע לפני מי אתה עומד, know before whom you stand. We are nothing without God and without the others who give meaning to our lives: our parents, our grandparents, our spouses, our children and our friends.
This Rosh Hashanah gives us an opportunity to take a spiritual checkup, to see where we are at and where we would like to go. Are we more Anav or Hallal right now? What steps are we taking to recalibrate ourselves, to maintain the healthy balance between self-worth and humility? As we enter the New Year, let us hold onto both prayers, one in each pocket. Let us celebrate the creation of the world, recognizing that on one hand it was created for us, while on the other it serves a far greater purpose than our needs alone. Shana Tova, a Happy, Healthy and Sweet New Year to all.