sermon: Rosh HaShanah 5777 - Nefesh Service

A Million Things You Haven’t Done Yet

When we get rid of the distractions, what will we do to impact the world around us?

We don’t know how much time we have. So we better make our time here good and worthwhile, plentiful and meaningful.

This summer I fell in love again, fast and hard. A few years ago I fell in love with my husband. Three years ago and again nine months ago I fell in love with my children. But this summer I fell in love with Alexander Hamilton. You know one of the founding fathers of the United States of America, the guy on the 10 dollar bill? Well not him exactly, but with the Broadway musical called Hamilton: An American Musical. From the moment I heard the first few bars, I was hooked. It combines some of my favorite things; history, music, love stories and Broadway. I may have been a year late to the Hamilton party, but I eventually arrived.

Throughout the musical, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton philosophize about how much one should share their personal ideologies with others. Aaron Burr, a person of means with a lot to lose, is of the mind that one should, “talk less and smile more, don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.” Hamilton, an orphan who had to make a name for himself, thought this idea was ludicrous. He could not imagine living a life without standing up for the things in which he believes. The musical plays this theme out through romantic affairs, changing political parties, wartime allegiances and (Spoiler alert!) a duel that led to the death of Hamilton.

Admittedly, before listening to the musical soundtrack, I had forgotten much of what I had learned about Hamilton from AP Government in high school. Here are a few facts, in case there are others who need a refresher. Born in the Caribbean in 1755, he emigrated to New York at the age of 16. In matter of a few short years he attended college, assumed the role of Captain in the Continental Army and fought in the war of Independence from Britain in 1776. During the war, George Washington hired him to deal with organizational and financial issues that plagued the army. He practiced law after the war and became the first Secretary of the Treasury where he built the financial systems that we still recognize today. He also established the Coast Guard and the New York Post. Alexander Hamilton only lived 49 years but in those years he did so much. One of the refrains in the musical is that there are a million things he hasn’t done, just you wait.

What are the million things we haven’t done yet? Answering this question is a deeply rooted Jewish activity. Each year on the High Holy Days we are prompted to think about how we spend our time. A month ago on Rosh Hodesh Elul, we began asking ourselves how we have done this year, in our relationships, in our actions? We asked the same questions last week at Selichot, the service that officially kicked-off the High Holy Day season. Last night, we stood before the open ark saying, Hineni, here I am. We asked ourselves how have we been this year? Where have we gone wrong, where have we relaxed in places that needed our attention. This time of year begs us to take a look at our lives and reminds us that there are a million things we haven’t done, just you wait.

One of the more intense moments during the High Holy Days is the reading of Unetaneh Tokef. This piyyut (or: liturgical poem) asks, “Who shall live and who shall die? Who by fire and who by water? Who by stoning and who by strangling?” I would fancy a guess that this is the reason people say that the do not like the High Holy Days. It sounds so harsh. At first glance, we might think that it means that individuals’ actions are the reason why people die. It looks like God is deciding who to take this year and who to spare for next year. And when we get to the end of the poem, it says that repentance, prayer and charity mediated this severe decree. So it isn’t even that our actions determine when we die but that if we ask for forgiveness enough, pray enough, and practice tzedakah enough we might make it to next year. This is also problematic because what happens when someone who did all of these things dies? Then what? Unetaneh Tokef is not about any of that. It is about recognizing that we do not know what is next for us. We don’t know how much time we have. So, we better make our time here good and worthwhile, plentiful and meaningful.

One of our most famous Jewish sages, Rabbi Akiva, made a huge mid-life transition. He came from humble beginnings, no formal Jewish education and no aristocracy or nobility in his family tree. At the age of 40 he began learning the Aleph-Bet by attending the same school as his child. Imagine, an adult sitting on little chairs learning to read the Hebrew alphabet. Not only was the content challenging for him, he was also resentful of everyone else who had had that opportunity earlier in life. So what made him take up this learning? During one of his fits of despair that he would never learn Torah, he watched water trickle over a rock. At that moment he remembered the verse in Job that says, “Water wears down rock. (Job 14:19).” Even great stones are rubbed smooth by the force of water. This became Rabbi Akiva’s motto. If water can wear down a stone, Akiva can become a scholar.

Shimon Peres, the recently deceased former President of Israel said, “Always remember – you have greater potential than you know. Do not listen to your parents or teachers – dream, initiate, dare.” The person that we want to be is already within us. We just need the space and time to think and spur us into action. Even when we get to the point of knowing what we need to do we get distracted. I know for me, the current political theatrics have gotten in the way. Our cell phones have gotten in the way. YouTube videos of cute kittens and elephants that sit on people’s laps have gotten in the way. The intimate facts of other people’s lives shared on Facebook have gotten in the way. I have lost hours of my life by scrolling through the “newsfeed” of other people’s lives. Maybe our sages knew that we needed a few days to scroll through the newsfeeds of our own lives to wake us up to the reality that this is the life we have and we must use it well.

So the question is, when we get rid of the distractions, what will we do to impact the world around us? Anne Frank said, “How wonderful that no one need wait a single moment to improve the world.”

Will the year 5777 be your year of volunteering? Will it be a year of learning? A career change? Picking up that hobby that you have been thinking about for years? What books are on your reading list that will contribute to being a better person? In what ways can you be a more compassionate spouse, friend, or parent? What charitable organizations fulfill the values that you hold and how can you help them carry out their mission? Will it be something as simple as cooking more, dancing more, living more in the moment? Or will it be something that really challenges you in a way that you were previously afraid to tackle? Alexander Hamilton knew that the Constitution of the United States needed to be defended to the people through a series of essays. Of the 85 Federalist articles, he wrote 51 of them in 8 months. As the musical says, “He wrote and wrote and wrote as if he was running out of time.” Let’s think about how our actions will define our life’s story in the coming year. There are a million things we haven’t done, just you wait.

I want to conclude with a story.

There once lived a wise pencil maker. He had an amazing ability to actually speak with his pencils. One day, just before putting one into the box for delivery, he took it aside.

“There are five things you need to know before I send you out into the world,” the pencil maker told the pencil. “Always remember them and never forget, and you will become the best pencil you can be.

First, you will be able to do many great things but only if you allow yourself to be held in someone else’s hand.

Second, you will experience a painful sharpening from time to time, but you will need it to become a better pencil.

Third, you will be able to correct any mistakes you might make.

Fourth, the most important part of you will always be what’s inside.

“And finally, little pencil, you must leave your mark on every surface on which you are used. No matter what the condition, you must continue to write.”

The pencil understood and promised to remember, and it went into the box with purpose in its heart. For that reason, pencils are so useful that most planners and designers like to use them instead of pens.

Like the pencil, we must remember that we will be able to do many great things – but only if we allow other human beings to access the many gifts we possess and reveal the different talents that are hidden within our best selves.

“A Piece of Peace” by Sharoq Almalki