Rabbi Fuchs Reflects

JUST BEFORE THE NEW YEAR 

Rosh Hashanah arrives very early this year, at sundown on Monday, September 6.

For me the Hebrew month of Elul that precedes Rosh Hashanah is the most important time in the year to remember the teaching of Rabbi Simcha Bunam, an 18th-19th century Hasidic leader in Poland.

He taught: Each of us should have two pockets. In each pocket we should carry a different quotation. In one, for when we feel puffed up and full of pride, let there be the reminder, “I am but dust and ashes!” In the other pocket, when we feel that our efforts are futile and have no consequence, let us read: “For my sake the world was created.”

During this month of Elul we have, hopefully, dedicated our thoughts to examining our actions and thoughts during the past year with the goal of becoming kinder and more caring in the year ahead. If our self-scrutiny is honest, we know that there are many times we have fallen short of our own ideals and God’s hopes for us. At such times it is easy to fall into despair and see ourselves as without merit, or as little more than dust and ashes. At such time it is good to remember that our tradition teaches us that this world is no accident and that our lives are not accidents either. They can have purpose and meaning!

We celebrate Rosh Hashanah as the anniversary of the creation of the world. God charged us at creation to use our talents to make the world a better place. Few of us will find the cure for cancer or bring about world peace, but that should not stop each of us from doing something. We each can teach a child to read, help an elderly person cross the street, cook and serve a meal at homeless shelter. The possibilities are endless. But when we become puffed up in the pride of our accomplishments or even in our acts of kindness, it is good to remind ourselves that, as Abraham realized when he addressed the Almighty (Genesis 18:27), we are ”but dust and ashes.”

 

One of life’s most difficult challenges is to find the balance between conceit and despair. Henry David Thoreau reminded us: “We are double-edged blades, and every time we whet our virtue the return stroke straps our vice.” I think that it is no accident that, as Bahia ben Asher of Saragossa (13-14th century) noted, the zodiacal symbol for Tishri and the Jewish New year is usually (although not this year because the Holy Days are so early) a balance scale. As we count down the weeks toward Rosh Hashanah, our tradition (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 40 B) enjoins us to think of our good and evil deeds as weighing equally on the scale of merit, and that our next act will tip the scale of judgment for good or for ill.

 

Think of the power the image of the balance scale can have. If each of us wakes up feeling an urgent need to do a good deed, what an amazingly positive impact our collective actions will have on our families, our Bat Yam community and our world.

May we all be blessed with a year of health and fulfillment and an ample measure of good deeds that make a positive difference in the lives of others!