Rabbi Mark Wildes: MJE, Rosh Hashanah 5775/2014: Second day

TRY AND TRY AGAIN: (Second day)

In 1960, while they were still an unknown high school rock band, four young lads from Liverpool, England went to Hamburg, Germany to play in some of the local pubs.

The band was underpaid, the acoustics were awful, and the audience unappreciative. So what did the Beatles get out of the Hamburg experience? Hours and hours of playing time with each other, something that ultimately forced them to get better.
As they grew in skill, audiences wanted more and more, and by 1962, the Beatles were playing eight hours a night, seven nights a week. By 1964, the year the Beatles came to America and Beatlemania was a reality, they had played over 1,200 concerts together.  Most bands today don’t play 1,200 times in their entire career. The Beatles quite literally practiced their way to stardom.
We often think of people or groups who make it big as having gotten a major break or lots of luck, but studies show that virtually all success stories develop from endless hours of practice and hard work. Famous author Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Outliers,” writes that research shows that most people who have achieved mastery in their field have put in roughly 10,000 hours of practice!
And so the old adages “practice makes perfect” or “try and try again” are no joke.
Today is Rosh Hashanah. It’s the beginning of a new year, the day we commemorate the very beginning of creation, and it’s when we declare God as Sovereign and Master of the Universe. The main theme or purpose of Rosh Hashanah is not to ask God for forgiveness (we’ll get to that on Yom Kippur), which is why there are virtually no prayers asking for forgiveness in the liturgy. Instead, today we say over and over again: “Hayom Harat Olam”, today is the birthday of the world. Today, the Almighty brought mankind into creation, and therefore today we coronate God as King and Master of the world. If this is so, then why don’t our Torah readings revolve around themes of creation? Why do we not read from the stories in the book of Genesis, like the story of creation or the Garden of Eden?  Instead we read about Sarah, Rachel and Chana and their challenges with having children!

Yesterday, on the first day of Rosh Hoshanah, we read about Sarah giving birth to Yitzchak after so many years of infertility. In the Haftarah (portion of the prophets), we read about Chana, who was in agony over her childless state until her prayers were answered and she gave birth to Shmuel. Finally, today in the Haftarah, we read about Rachel crying over her children – the descendants of the children she so longed for – on the way into exile. What is the relationship between these great women and Rosh Hashanah’s theme of Kingship?

My friend and colleague Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky suggested that all three women shared a common circumstance, namely all were initially childless and all had to contend with another woman who was having children. Abraham’s wife Sarah’s inability to have a child led her to encourage Avraham to have a child with their maidservant Hagar, and then when Hagar gave birth, she taunted Sarah, who felt threatened. Chana was the favorite wife of the wealthy Elkanah, but his other wife Penina had many children and seized every opportunity to make Chanah feel badly about her infertility. Finally when Rachel, Jacob’s true love, was unable to have a child, and her sister Leah (who Jacob had also married) was having child after child, Rachel felt unloved and threatened.

In reality, each of these women were cherished and truly beloved by their husbands, yet they all FELT unwanted and unloved. Each of these women, despite their feelings of worthlessness, was the favorite wife. How is it possible that there was such a discrepancy between their self-perception and the reality; between the actual feelings of their beloved and what they were feeling?

Rabbi Rackovsky suggests they all viewed their self-worth not in terms of what they did, not according to their noble efforts, but according to what they produced. Did they or did they not make children for their husbands? If they failed to “produce,” then they imagined themselves as failures.

An important study done on 400 New York City fifth graders showed that students who were praised for accomplishment and intelligence were far less likely to take risks or expend effort in school, because they felt their innate abilities excused them from putting in effort, and that failure (which could result from trying something new) was just not an option. In fact, among these children, effort was actually frowned upon as something for people of lesser intelligence. But the study showed that children who were praised for their efforts were far more likely to take risks and invest, get higher test scores, and live up to their potential. Studies also showed that children who were praised for their accomplishments and intelligence and NOT effort were more likely to cheat when placed in more rigorous environments with greater pressure.

Effort, the studies show, is far more important.
That’s what the Beatles taught as they continued to practice again and again in a basement pub in Germany, but unfortunately it’s not a lesson we learn in our world because, let’s face it, our world rewards results. Our world is often uncaring and unsympathetic to our efforts, to how hard we try, if those efforts do not somehow result in a tangible, concrete end product. It could be a law firm that needs to win cases, a pharmaceutical company that has to sell drugs, or a football team that’s cares only about winning games. But as much as this is the reality of our physical and material world it is NOT the ideal and it is certainly NOT what Judaism values.

Torah values effort above all. “Lo Alecha Hamlacha Ligmor,” (No one said you had to finish the task), the Sages said in the Mishna (Ethics of our Fathers). No-one said you had to have perfect results… “velo ata ben chorim lehibatel mimena” – but you’re still not exempt from trying.

The Mishna continues: “Im lamadeta Torah harbey” – if you studied much Torah, “notnim lecha sachar harbay” –you will receive great reward. We don’t receive reward for the knowledge that is acquired but rather for the effort. As another Mishna in Ethics of our Fathers explicitly states: “lefum tz’ara agra” – the reward is according to the effort . The level of scholarship is not what serves as our greatest merit, but rather the effort we put into it.

At the end of Sefer Shmot, the book of Exodus, when the Torah lists the materials that the Jewish people gave towards the building of the Tabernacle, it mentions gold, silver, brass, blue and purple and scarlet yarn, fine linen, goats hair… and at the very end, the avnei shoham, the onyx stones which set in the ephod, the breastplate of the High priest.

QUESTION: The Ohr Hachaim, a great mystical commentator on the Torah, says that presumably the Torah lists these items in the order of their importance beginning with gold and then afterwards silver… but why then are the avnei shoham, the onyx stones listed at the end? They should have been listed first because they were more precious than gold and silver due to their rarity.

ANSWER: Because the items for the Mishkan are not listed in order of their importance but rather in order of their effort, namely, how much toil and effort went into procuring and donating each of these items. All the materials that were used for Mishkan required work. The gold needed to be refined, the silver needed to be molded, and all the other materials required some form of toil except for the avnei shoham which, according to the Talmud, were miraculously found without any effort on the part of the people.

As far as the Torah is concerned, what’s most precious is not that which is more rare, but rather that which requires personal involvement and work.

The Talmud (Brachos 28b) says that when one exits the Beis Medrash, the study hall, after learning Torah, one should recite the following short prayer: ”I toil and they toil”, referring to artisans and other laborers, “I toil and receive reward and they toil and do not receive reward.”  The Chafetz Chaim asks: Is it really true that artisans or other types of laborers do not receive reward? He answers that when a laborer works, he gets paid for the item he created but not necessarily for the effort he put in. If one creates a beautiful vase and spends all of his effort on that vase, the worker gets paid the market value and no more.  And so even if he worked and sweated over that vase for weeks, if the market says it’s worth 5 bucks, that’s all he makes. On the other hand, the reward for Torah study goes for the effort, not only what one accomplishes.

Our society may reward only results, but when it comes to the deeper things in life, our relationship with God and with our fellow man, effort should mean at least as much, if not more.

There’s a beautiful true story told of a gentleman from Europe who was never taught much about Judaism as a child. He came to the Unites States and one of his children, despite being raised with virtually no Judaism, began to gravitate to Jewish life and Torah study. He eventually became a ba’al-teshuva and was quite knowledgeable. As his son’s connection to Torah developed, the father’s curiosity was aroused and would ask his son to study with him on occasion. He was particularly fascinated by Talmud and so on one occasion, the father asked his son to teach him Talmud. The son was at first reluctant. He said to his father: “look Dad, the ideas can be very complicated and the language in which in which the Talmud is written, Aramaic, is very difficult”. But the father was persistent and eventually got his son to sit down and study with him. They began to study and they learned Talmud each and every day and eventually after an entire year they managed to finish one page. The father was very proud of this accomplishment and was wondering whether he could have a siyum which is a religious celebration. The son said: “Dad, you can’t make a siyum over one page of Talmud, a siyum is for completing an entire Tractate!”  And so the father called a rabbi, but not just any rabbi.  He phoned the late and great Rav Moshe Feinstein tz”l who was a leading Talmudic and Halachic master and a saintly figure. When Rav Moshe heard the question and the whole story he was very inspired. Rav Moshe said to the father: “You may certainly make a siyum on one page of the Talmud, but I just have one question for you: ‘Can I come and join in the celebration? This is an extraordinary accomplishment and I want to be a part of it.’ The father threw a very festive siyum and the great Rav Moshe Feinstein attended.

A party for one page of Talmud… Why? Because it’s not just about the result, it’s the effort and investment you make.

How much of an effort did we make in the last year, and what kind of effort will we make in the coming one? Will we stretch ourselves more in the coming year than we did in the past?

–To make it to services earlier on Shabbat takes effort. So does doing some praying during the week, to start our day with Tefilah (prayer), even for just for a few moments.
–To increase our level of observance, be in the realm of Shabbat, Kashrut or in any part of our religious lives where we could be extending greater effort. Even if we fail, remember that in Judaism, we get credit for trying.

And it should be the same way with interpersonal relationships. If someone makes a mistake, do we give him/her another chance, assuming they are truly sorry and trying to do better? I was recently counseling a couple and one person in the relationship was really getting fed up with their partner so I asked her: “is he trying?” and she answered: “Yes of course he’s trying, but he often fails”. Trying, I said, is what it’s all about. It shows he cares, that he wants to make it work. It’s not always about the results.

I went to Parent-Teacher conferences a few weeks ago and my son’s high school history teacher said “I’m giving 15 percent of the grade for HW and 15 percent for class participation-basically I’m giving your children 30 percent for trying!” Of course the other 70 percent is about results on the tests. Because that’s the physical/material world in which we live. Just imagine today on Rosh Hashanna we are evaluated 100 percent on trying. We can get 100 on the test just by participating and doing our homework. No tests!!!!

In a few moments, we will hear the sounds of the Shofar which, according to some, is intended to sound like a mother crying for her child to come home. The image of a mother crying for her child evokes the image of a loving God calling for us, His children, to return to Him and to His ways. But perhaps the image of a mother is used because who more than a mother knows the potential of their child? Who more than a mother knows what their child is capable of, if they’re really trying? There’s only one Being who knows more and that’s the Ribbono Shel Olam, the Master of the Universe who created us and knows exactly what each of us is capable of and how high each of us can soar if we only try. May this year be the year we truly strive and in doing so bring great joy and blessing to ourselves, to our families and to all mankind.
Shana Tova

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