True to One's Self

A Rosh Hashanah Sermon
by Rabbi Benjamin H. Englander

Reb Zusya of Ampol was a paragon of saintliness in his time. He was revered by all. On his deathbed, his Chassidim found him in bitter tears. They sought to console him, and asked, "Reb Zusya, why do you weep? Your life is without blemish, and your destiny is Gan Eden (Paradise)!

But Reb Zusya would not be comforted and replied, "I weep because, when I reach Heaven, the Supreme Judge will not inquire, 'Why were you not like the Baal Shem Tov?' Nor will the Ribbono Shel Olam ask, 'Why were you not as saintly as Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev?' For these questions, I would have a ready answer, for I am not the Baal Shem Tov, nor am I Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev. But should I be asked, 'Reb Zusya, why were you not like Reb Zusya?' what shall I reply to the Almighty?"

We stand today before the High Court to plead for life: "Katvenu b'sefer ha-chayim! Inscribe us into the Book of Life!" If we were asked, "Are you as pious as the Baal Shem Tov or as devoted to his people as Levi Yitzchok?", we could find ready answers. We are neither the Baal Shem Tov nor Levi Yitzchok. If we were to be asked, "Are you like Theodor Herzl, the great dreamer of modern Israel, or like Solomon Schechter, who conceived of a Judaism for America true to tradition?" we could also answer, "We are neither Theodor Herzl nor Solomon Schechter." But do we have a rebuttal to the question, "Are you your best self?"

This season challenges us to find ourselves.

Reb Zusya spotlights this basic aspect of the Rosh Hashanah observance. Who among us can truly say that we are true to ourselves, that we live our lives fully and completely? Who among us has used all of the God-given gifts and developed them to his or her own benefit as well as that of their fellow men?

In praying for life, we face the admonition of the psalmist, "Limnot yameinu ken hoda. Teach us to number our days, and give us a heart of wisdom." We are not asked to be what we are not, but are we ourselves? Are we making the maximum use of the days that are ours on this earth? Rosh Hashanah bids us to examine this proposition through introspection and self-searching inquiry.

I am told that in Lake Wales, Florida, by the Bok Singing Towers, there is a bench beside a quiet pool of water. On the back of the bench, there is the inscription, "I come here to find myself. It is so easy to get lost in the world."

It is so easy to get lost in the jungle of our daily lives. And because it is, we Jews on Rosh Hashanah come to the Synagogue to find ourselves. The Synagogue pew is the bench by the quiet pool: For the quiet pool, we substitute the soul-stirring words of our Prayer Book and the solemnity of the Rosh Hashanah ritual. And to find ourselves, we look for that which is greater than and beyond ourselves: We relate to the Eternal Himself.

This is the true significance of our prayer, "Remember us to life, O King, Who desireth life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life for Thy sake, O God of Life!"

I submit that no one has a right to say to another, "Brother, you have lost the way!" But each of us has an obligation to ask himself, "Have I lost the way?" "Have I turned my back on what I know to be true and just?" "Have I betrayed my own finest instincts? Have I misused God's gifts of body and mind?" The emphasis is on the first person, singular: I stand before the Bar of Judgment. This is what we mean when we say that Rosh Hashanah and the Season of Repentance call for a "Cheshbon ha-Nefesh, a taking of an inventory of the soul." It is a time for asking searching, crucial, oftentimes embarrassing questions.

The late Professor Albert Einstein once pointed out, "The best in man can only flourish when he loses himself in the community." Speaking of his ancestors, he continued, "These obscure, humble people had one great advantage over us: Each of them belonged in every fiber of his being to a community in which he was completely absorbed."

Should we not ask ourselves, "Am I integrated with my community to the fullest extent of my being, or do I keep myself aloof and thereby am I not denying myself the best that is in me?"

Very few rise to the position of great stature, to become world-recognized leaders, molders of men and of human destiny: an Arthur Goldberg, Ambassador to the United Nations, or a Louis Finkelstein, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. But who of us has the right to withhold himself from contributing his little mite to his community and thus, perhaps, to be the little pebble that creates the enlarging concentric waves reaching out to the farthest shore of the human sea? It is the aggregate of individuals that make up the group. What we do as individuals determines the course of the nation and the world!

During this High Holy Day season, we again gather in large numbers in our houses of worship, and feel again a sense of kinship to God. We assemble this year under a continuing cloud of tension and escalating wars. We are enmeshed in a swirling storm-center of racial discord. Yet this day we are to be concerned primarily with ourselves. Not that we take leave of these world-shaking problems, but in order to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven -- the better social order -- we are asked to engage in self-scrutiny and communion with our Creator.

We are called upon as individuals to discover the road we are to travel, and the direction we are to take. We reaffirm our faith that "Generations come and generations go, but the world shall last unto Eternity." Russia may scoff that their astronauts penetrated the heavens but did not encounter God or any of His angels. But we come to the Synagogue because we believe that there is a God before Whom we stand in judgment and to Whom we are to give an account of our lives.

When we face a world in danger of destruction from a nuclear holocaust, we posit our faith in Him Who "neither sleeps nor slumbers." We feel confident that "He will watch over us, and guard us from all evil." When we face this turbulent world, and ask ourselves the question, "What can I do to build a better world?", we turn to the prayer of an ancient sage who so wisely said, "Lord, change and make this a better world -- and begin with ME!"

Let us build -- each one of us -- a better one of us!


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