I’m a fan of classic rock, and one of my favorite bands is Foreigner. They wrote a song called Feels Like the First Time, and one of the lyrics is “It feels like the first time like it never will again.” When we reflect on our first time experiences: the novelty, the excitement of the unknown, even the fear, what comes to mind? Do you remember your first time coming to High Holiday services as a child, or at the Jericho Jewish Center? I imagine your experience then was quite different than it is today.
I reflect on the first time I led High Holiday services, when I was in Year One of rabbinical school. It was Kol Nidre evening and I was at Florida State University. Underneath my Kittel my legs were shaking, and I was pacing back and forth. I was so nervous I had to step aside before the service began to compose myself so that I could step into a room with over 300 college students.
I wish I had had the words of Rabbi Adam Frank in my head at that moment. Two years later, I was in my year of study in Israel, and a friend and I were reading the double portion Tazria/Metzora at Congregation Moreshet Israel. For those who do not know, Parshat Tazria/Metzora is the most difficult portion to learn, as it does not follow traditional Hebrew grammatical patterns-rather, one has to memorize the words and their sequence. I was thinking how could I master this portion in front of a congregation of Israelis, who would know every time I made a mistake. Rabbi Frank could tell I was nervous, and he said to me, “Don’t worry about them (pointing to the congregants); worry about Him (pointing to G-d). It was at that moment that I knew what was truly important-a focus on a higher matter than what others around me might think.
There’s a story about a Yeshiva bochur who was going to lead High Holiday services for the first time. He was nervous, scouring the prayerbook to make sure he had every piyyut (liturgical poem) down perfectly. He then set up a meeting with his rabbi to go over the service. The rabbi listened to his concerns, knowing that this boy had gone to services for the majority of his life and knew the prayers. He told him, “The prayerbook hasn’t changed since last year; how have you changed?”
Every year we gather together here at the Jericho Jewish Center, saying the same prayers, atoning for our sins and then returning to our regular routines . As we engage in this process of repentance, let us ponder the question: How have you changed in the past year? What are you doing differently than when we gathered together last September? How are you becoming a better person, taking more time for your family, putting more effort into your work, eliminating bad habits and strengthening good ones? Our service may not have changed much but you have certainly changed. You’re one year older and wiser with more life experience, the wisdom to guide you on your path.
I strongly believe that none of us are here by accident-each of us has a specific path to walk down, a mission to follow, a destiny to embrace. During these holidays we take our personal heshbon hanefesh, our accounting of what we are doing, how we are progressing on our journey through life. It’s too easy to go through the prayers by rote, saying hello to our neighbors and then walking out the door until next year. It’s far more difficult, though crucial, to sit back and ponder who we are and in which direction we are heading.
I sometimes wish I was back in those days at Florida State University, at Congregation Moreshet Israel, or even back at the Jericho Jewish Center two years ago for my first High Holiday. Having an experience for the first time forces one to step off autopilot and be fully present in the moment. The challenge is when one becomes accustomed to a way of practice and does it by rote. How can we ensure that these High Holidays will be a unique experience, one that will be meaningful and life-changing for us? How will we ensure that we are on the road to positive change in the year 5777?
On Rosh Hashanah we traditionally eat some special items, one of which is apples dipped in honey. These are called Simanim, or “signs” for a good new year. Each one has a saying after it, a wish (יהי רצון) “may it be your will” for the coming year. One of the items traditionally eaten is the fish head (I know, not the most appetizing). The words said for eating the fish head is שיהיה לראש ולא יהיה לזנב, that we should be like the head and not like the tail. In other words, we need to be a leader, not a follower. It’s too easy to follow the same patterns year in and year out-it’s a lot harder to lead by changing ourselves for the better, working on techniques to “liberate us from enslaving habits which disturb us and give us no rest.”
The High Holidays are called HaYamim HaNoraim, the Days of Awe, as they are meant to inspire us, to give us a sense of renewal, of reinvigorated energy to begin the year. Think about when the last time you had an experience that brought awe into your life. For me it began with the birth of my daughter, Ariela. Each and every day I get to see first-hand her sense of wonder as she discovers new things about herself and the world in which we live. I see how she looks at the world with eyes wide open, at first energized by things as simple as a spinning mobile or a rattle and now engrossed by the strings on my tallit or the straps of my Tefillan in morning minyan or by a cell phone or the television remote. Abraham Joshua Heschel said “wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge,” that we develop through self-growth and positive thinking rather than through despair and sadness.
Rosh Hashanah’s significance is that it is the birthday of the world. In the Musaf service, we will say three times היום הרת עולם-this is the day on which the world was created. For this passage there is a creative interpretation by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, who blogs by “The Velveteen Rabbi.” She writes that היום הרת עולם means “today is pregnant with eternity.” In other words, anything’s possible on any given day. We are not bound by the same old but rather we must open ourselves up to new possibilities. Rosh Hashanah provides a lightning rod for doing so, for reflecting on how we want the coming year to go and what type of person we want to be this year. I think about what type of rabbi, husband, father, son, teacher and leader I want to be in 5777, how I want to get rid of bad habits and refine myself for the better. Thank G-d Rosh Hashanah comes around every year and enables us to be introspective and reflective…as long as it is followed by acting in a constructive and proactive manner.
Think of the moments that have inspired you to change. It could be a wakeup call of some kind, a matter needing urgent attention, or it could be a characteristic you noticed in someone else that you wanted to emulate. We hope for more of the latter as opposed to the former, as too often we wait too long to make the constructive, beneficial changes that would greatly aide us. Now is the time to do so-for Rosh Hashanah (ראש השנה) can also be thought of as Rosh HaShinui (ראש השינוי), the time for making changes.
When we return to daven together next year I imagine that the prayerbook will still be the same. You might be sitting in the same seats next to the same people. However, you will have changed over the course of the next year. Perhaps you will take those Krav Maga lessons or learn how to sail. Maybe you will find a way to be better connected with friends and family who live far away or to be more patient, kind and gentle for those who are in your midst. Perchance you will gain the skills necessary for a job promotion. Perhaps you’ll go to Africa to help at an orphanage. Maybe you’ll even win at Pokemon Go! Whatever this new year brings, think about what you can do to grow as a person so that when we meet again you will be able to say, “I certainly have changed for the better, and it was well worth the effort.”
We cannot go back to “the first time,” as enticing as that might be at times. At times we will get downtrodden with our situation but instead of staying stuck in the moment, we do our best to move ahead, finding enjoyment in every opportunity, striving to make 5777 a year filled with growth, vitality and inspiration. How can we change ourselves in the coming year so that we will look at our jobs, our partners, our families with a renewed sense of wonder, or to quote Heschel again, “radical amazement?” The prayers we say might not have changed but we certainly have and we will continue to do so as we progress on our life’s journey. Let us continually ask ourselves how to bring positive change into our routines, so that we will always look at our lives with wonder and with joy.
I invite you to join us right now in the reflective process of how you will change as the Cantor Black will begin to chant the Hineni prayer on Page 124. Before he begins, however, I want to share a reading by Rabbi Rami Shapiro entitled A Different Kind of a Hineni in hopes that this gives us some additional insight into this important prayer:
Hineni. Here I am.
A little bit nervous, a bit self-conscious.
After all, who am I talking to?
And what have I done?
Am I a sinner in search of grace
Or a saint seeking salvation?
Am I so evil
Or so good
As to warrant this season of introspection?
And yet here it is, and here I am:
This time of change and correction,
This heart of confusion and contrition.
Oh, if I could change!
If I could be so sure of myself
That I no longer had to imagine the slights of others;
To be so loving of myself
That I no longer had to ration my loving of others;
To be so bold with myself
That I no longer had to fear the bravery of other.
Oh, if I could change
There is so much I would change.
Maybe I will, but it scares me so.
Maybe I won’t and that should scare me more.
But it doesn’t.
So let me pray just this:
Let no one be put to shame because of me.
Wouldn’t that make this a wonderful year?
Hineni-Here I am!
 Learned from Rabbi Jonathan Hecht
 Text of English reading for Hashkivenu is Siddur Hadash , p. 61
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone.
 Blog posting in The Velveteen Rabbi, “Being Change” on September 17, 2012.
 Longer version of quotation, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
 From The World of the High Holy Days Volume II, edited by Rabbi Jack Riemer, Pages 103-104.