Sir Edmund Hillary was the very first man to conquer Mount Everest. Did you know that he failed to do so his first attempt? Speaking to the Science Academy in England after his first unsuccessful climb, Hillary stopped in the middle of his remarks, paused, turned toward the large mural of Everest that was on the wall and declared: "Next time I will succeed — for I am still growing, and you have stopped growing."
I want you to think for a moment about the very name of our holiday, Rosh Hashanah, because it should evoke more than auld lang syne and brisket. The word shanah in Hebrew means "year." Our great rabbis — ever sensitive to the nuance of language — make an incredible observation. That very same word in Hebrew, shanah, also means, "to change." And during this season, at this acutely sensitive and auspicious time — a time where families come together and synagogues percolate — our tradition calls on us to think about change.
How can we become better human beings? How can we nurture our relationships — to our families, to our community, and yes, even to ourselves?
How provocative and liberating is the teaching of Rabbi Yochanan. In his name, we find a fascinating Talmudic metaphor: "Three Books are opened at this time; one book is designated for the totally righteous, one book for the totally wicked, and one book for the average person."
I think — if only at a moment of deep humility and brutal honesty — most of us would consider ourselves more in the latter category than in the other two. With regard to the "one for the average person," the Talmud continues: That book is held open, in abeyance from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur — waiting for us to write our verses of righteous acts and chapters of sacred deeds. Indeed, the longest distance in the world is the distance between the mind and the heart. We don't have to conquer Everest during these days — but we have to resolve to act and commit to the journey; a journey toward becoming, and not just being.
One more story. There was a sagacious leader of the Jewish world — Rabbi Ya'akov Yitzchak Horowitz. Known to the Jewish world as the Chozeh ("Seer") of Lublin, he ultimately became a venerable and venerated Chasidic rebbe in Lublin, Poland.
Five-year-old Ya'akov Yitzchak was a precocious child, but had one bad habit. In the middle of his lessons, he would often leave. The teacher was frustrated, and went to the boy's father, himself a prominent rabbi. The father assured the teacher that he'd take care of the situation. The next day, the boy's father hid outside the door of the school, and invariably, as if on cue, the boy picked himself up in the middle of the teacher's sentence and made a dash for the door. Of course, this time, his father was waiting for him.
"Ya'akov Yitzchak, where are you going?" asked the father,
"I'm going to the forest," answered the boy.
"Why are you going to the forest?" asked his father.
"Because there, I seek God," answered his son.
"But isn't God everywhere — and isn't God everywhere the same?"
"He is, but I am not."
As we enter 5767, may we all reserve the right to be different — and to make a difference.
May we reserve the right to be Jewishly smarter today than yesterday. May we reserve the right to be Jewishly more connected today than yesterday. May we reserve the right to be Jewishly more engaged and empowered today than yesterday.
May you and your family merit a Shanah Tovah U'metukah, and may we merit a true peace for the Land of Israel and the people Israel.
Rabbi David Gutterman is executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.