As we enter the High Holiday season, we are – at the same time – leaving another important season: that of the U.S. Open. I think half of our congregation went to see the matches at some point; next year, someone should plan a JCCH shul gathering at Center Court! On that theme, a tennis lesson:
One of today’s tennis greats, Roger Federer, loves the game of tennis for the same reason that I love the High Holidays. In a CNN interview, Federer was asked what he loves about playing tennis. Reflecting on his choice to play tennis at a young age, he explains, “I enjoyed the position I was in as a young player. I was to blame when I lost. I was to blame when I won. And I really liked that, because I played soccer a lot too, and I couldn’t stand it when I had to blame it on the goalkeeper!”
Federer’s love of tennis is based on his ability to determine the outcome of the match. Of course, it goes without saying that it is easy to love tennis if you have Federer’s ability on the court. But the idea, applied to other areas of life, is profound. If we all live our lives believing that we are responsible for the path we find ourselves upon, our lives will be infinitely more meaningful.
Each year in preparation for the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, the High Holidays, we begin with a month of tshuvah/returning, returning to our best selves. This month, Elul, in the Jewish calendar, helps us to take responsibility for our lives and turn our attention inwards as we ask ourselves the important questions that help us improve ourselves each year. Who am I? What is the essence of my life? Am I focusing on the right things? In what ways have I dedicated myself to improve the lives of others? In what ways have I positively impacted my community and society in positive ways?
The reason we need a whole month to do this is because it is not easy work. We are quick to take blame away from ourselves, explaining away our responsibility because of the situation we are in. Or we blame the other people involved for their actions. Each year we are reminded that we have the ability to make our own choices in life.
One of the symbols of considering our past actions is the ritual of the scapegoat, as recounted in Leviticus and read during the Yom Kippur service. Perhaps you recognize this once-a-year, somewhat strange portion (okay, very strange – or, at least, unfamiliar portion) of the service. Aaron the High Priest is commanded to take two male goats from the Israelite community as a sin-offering. After he has slaughtered a bull as a sin offering for himself and his household, he is to bring the two goats to the entrance of the sanctuary. He is to cast lots upon the two goats, designating one “for God” and the other “for Azazel,” for the wilderness. The one “for God” is to be slaughtered as an offering on the altar of the sanctuary. Aaron is then to place his hands upon the head of the other “Azazel” goat and to confess all the transgressions of the Israelites upon it. Afterwards, that goat is to be sent off to wander in the wilderness. Ultimately, it will die in the wilderness – but it will first enjoy the freedom and natural death that its companion goat was denied (Leviticus 16).
How can we possibly relate to this ritual today? We don’t have the Temple in Jerusalem, we don’t slaughter animals in order to pray. Today, without the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem, these sacrificial rituals must be understood symbolically to maintain any significance for us. I believe that the powerful symbol in this strange ritual is the control we have vis-a-vis our own lives. Then, it was up to Aaron the Priest to choose which goat would be sacrificed and which would be set free. Today, we are in control. We are ultimately the tennis players in the match of life and we must make decisions that will ultimately earn us a favorable outcome. Every person is offered the opportunity to evaluate the choices that are before him or her and set out on a path towards making good decisions.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 19th century German rabbi and philosopher, understands this goat ritual to be a symbol for the choices that every Jew has to make during the season of repentance. Hirsch understands the good and the evil inclinations battling to pull us in each of their respective directions. “We can decide for God,” he argues. Alternatively, Rabbi Hillel Silverman, in his book, “From Week to Week: Reflections on the Sabbath Torah Readings,” describes this choice as symbolizing what we are willing to give towards our own pleasure and enjoyment vs. what we are willing to give for the welfare and security of others.
Each year for centuries, Jews have been experiencing a rededication of their lives towards the service of a Greater Good at this time of the year. Ultimately, most of our difficult life choices are not known to us all at once. We are instead offered opportunities to live our lives according to our values system which helps us make decisions. This blessed and holy season is a time in which are to refocus on what is most essential in our lives. May this New Year of 5777 grant us clarity of heart and mind as we continue on our paths to take responsibility in fulfilling our own, individual potential.
Shanah Tovah Tikateivu Veteichateimu – May you be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life – Amen.