At this time of year, and to a greater extent during the time between the Jewish New Year, tonight, and the Day of Atonement, ten days from now, Jews are expected to perform Heshbon Nefesh, an accounting of our souls. Heshbon Nefesh involves trying to look at our lives as God might look upon us. How are we living our lives? Are we fulfilling our promise, living up to our abilities? Are we striving to improve or falling back into bad habits?
Are we content with mediocre or accepting of the philosophy, “Happy is the person who is content with his or her lot?” Or do we interpret the latter statement to mean that we should strive to achieve betterment so that we may become content? And if we are discontented, perhaps, because changes in our lives brought with them chaos and disorder, challenge and uncertainty, how will we confront them? Sometimes, the challenge is simply to go on with our lives.
The Jewish New Year is a day of celebration, of renewal of the cycle of life, but it is also a time to confront the reality of our lives, a time when the realities and opportunities of change are placed before us.
Tonight, I would like to share a story about change with you and then to help you consider two things, first, how we might respond to changes that happen in our lives to which we must adapt, and second, how we might elect to make changes when the opportunity arises. Of course, not all of those changes are difficult decisions or painful ones, but change always brings challenges with it.
There are many versions of this story. I have entitled my adaptation of it, simply, “A Story of A Cow.”
In an isolated place, on land where there were no crops and no trees, a young man lived with his wife, three young children, all with long drawn faces, and a thin, tired cow. The man, whose name was Samuel, had purchased the cow when it was but a calf, having labored long and hard to earn enough to do so, in order that he might offer a marriage proposal to his beloved Rachel. Samuel was an apprentice cobbler. Each morning, he walked to the small village nearby, returning after dusk. Samuel earned little, but learned much. Someday, he would have his own shop.
Now though, he barely earned enough to keep his family fed. The family once had a pair of goats in addition to the cow, but during last summer’s drought, when the price of food rose, they had to be sold so that the family had enough to eat. Samuel felt badly about that now. He knew how much Rachel enjoyed goats milk and cheese.
It so happened that a rabbi and his disciple, hungry and thirsty, and a bit lost, were traveling by the home as Samuel cut the grass among the bushes, seeking more to feed his underfed cow. Samuel didn’t have much to offer, but he didn’t hesitate to invite the rabbi and his student to come inside for a rest and bit of refreshment in the heat of the day.
The pair stayed for a couple of hours, eating and then dozing off for a nap. At one point, the sage asked Samuel: “This is a place in which it would seem difficult to live. It is far away from other people. You have no trees or crops. How do you survive?”
“You see that cow? That’s what keeps us going,” Samuel said. “She gives us milk; some of it we drink and some we make into cheese. When there is extra, we bring it to the village and exchange the milk and cheese for other types of food. That and what I can afford with my earnings as an apprentice cobbler is how we survive.”
The sage thanked them for their hospitality, vowing to repay it when he could, and then he and his disciple left. When they were out of the hearing of the family, the disciple asked “Rabbi, why do they live like that? Surely, they could move somewhere more hospitable. This is no life.”
The rabbi thought about a story similar to our Fiddler on the Roof and about how life sometimes is truly like that, so easy to fall. It was obvious that the cow would not be long lived and then what would happen to the family? They could starve, but perhaps they would be able to move on and live a better life somewhere else.
The rabbi and the disciple continued on their journey, but neither could forget the family. The disciple, who was traveling with the rabbi on his way to be installed as the leader of a new school, went on to have disciples of his own. Some years later, he travelled to visit his beloved teacher and passed by the place where the run down shack had been.
Upon rounding a turn in the road, he could not believe what his eyes were showing him. In place of the poor shack there was a beautiful house with trees all around, and children were playing in a lush yard.
The heart of the disciple froze. What could have happened to the poor family? Then he remembered the sickly cow. It must have died. Without a doubt, they must have been starving to death and forced to sell their land and leave. At that moment, the student thought: they must be begging on the street corners of some city. He approached the house and asked the man on the front step what had happened to the family who used to live there.
“We are still here,” he said. The disciple was dumbfounded. He went over to Samuel and asked: “What happened? I was here with my teacher a few years ago and this was a miserable place. There was nothing. What did you do to improve your lives?”
Samuel looked at the disciple, and replied with a smile: “I remember you. Back then, we had a sickly cow that barely kept us alive. She was all we had. Not long after you left, your rabbi came back. He brought a man to teach us how to grow crops and even planted a couple of trees for us. There wasn’t much at first, but when our cow died the next year, there was enough to keep us going. To survive, we had to start doing other things, develop skills we didn’t even know we had. We planted more trees and crops, then traded crops for chickens, and chickens eventually for a healthy cow. I bought materials to make shoes as well. Now, we live so much better with crops, chickens, and cows. We sell produce and shoes in the village, enough to turn our shack into a house. Life forced to come up with new ways of doing things, and because your rabbi thought to prepare us by teaching us how, we are now much better off than before.”
The moral of my version of the story is that not only might we be better off trying to do something new and different to succeed instead of merely trying to get by, but we should help others learn to do so. We understand that we should be helping others adapt to the challenges that life may bring. When we teach about Tsedakah, we often think, “Give someone a fish, they’ll eat for a day. Teach them to fish, they’ll eat for a lifetime.”
Thus, we are people who work with charity after charity. We work with organizations helping battered and abused women, immigrants, the homeless, big brothers and sisters and so many more groups, helping others to change and improve their lives.
But how good are we at seeing personal challenges and adapting to them? How are we at setting new goals and seeking to achieve them? That is, to an extent, what we are tasked with doing during the high holidays each year. And the Torah portion that we read on Yom Kippur afternoon tells us, “It is not too distant from you.” We can change.
There are years when we come into this sacred space at this sacred time amid changes that have happened to us, our lives tossed and turned. Other years, changes brought us increased joy and happiness. Sometimes, we enter this space, this place and time, at a loss for what we should do.
Sometimes, We are Forced to Change
Going back to our story. Sometimes, the cow dies, whether we are prepared or not. We lose our job, our health fails or that of a loved one. Life can come at us pretty hard. We can be tossed into the deep end or even tossed about on a stormy sea.
In the original Story of the Cow, the sage demands that his disciple push the cow off of a cliff in order to force the family to abandon its struggles right away rather than continuing to merely get by until the cow inevitably died. The family simply wakes up one morning to find the cow dead.
This narrative doesn’t work in a Jewish version of the story, of course. In our religious tradition, taking and then killing the cow would be stealing, destruction of property, not to mention a violation of the directive to care for defenseless animals, and in this case, endangering the lives of the whole family as well. They could just as easily have starved as succeeded in their efforts to change. So such a sage’s advice wouldn’t be very Jewish advice.
The moral of the story as it is traditionally told is that sometimes our dependency on something small and limited is the biggest obstacle to our growth. We can cling to something that sustains us, but also limits us. Overcoming that dependency can be daunting, hence the version of the story in which the family is forced to change by the death of the cow, but once we are willing to change, we can improve.
Yet, the traditional story is also often closer to what happens in life. Sometimes, we wake up to changed circumstances. What we’ve relied upon to help support us is simply gone. At this time of year, we are particularly mindful of times of loss, of the people who are no longer sitting beside us reaching out to hold our hand.
Certainly, during this High Holiday season, my family and I are particularly mindful of that as we mourn the loss of my mother.
Yet, we are also particularly mindful of new hands that are present in our lives and new responsibilities that we have. There is an appropriate cruder version of this statement, but for Rosh Hashanah, let’s just say, “Life happens.”
Being able to adapt is the key to thriving and often to survival.
Charles Darwin once stated, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” This is true in regard to evolution, but also to success and happiness in life.
A few weeks ago, I attended a program about Israel’s response during times of major disasters around the world. Two young Israelis spoke about their experiences in Nepal right after the massive 7.8 on the Richter scale earthquake wrought havoc across the nation, killing over 9,000 people. One of the Israelis, Avi, had just finished his IDF service and was planning to hike through the mountains with three friends.
When the earthquake struck, Avi and his friends realized not that they were in the wrong place and the wrong time, but that they were in the right place and the right time. Their hiking trip wasn’t going to happen. That was obvious, but they knew that they could help and headed to Katmandu, straight into the heart of the disaster to seek out ways to do so, eventually working with the IDF disaster response team that arrived shortly thereafter, helping to distribute food and blankets to hundreds of people over the next few days.
The second Israeli who spoke was Tal. Tal is a nurse serving with Magen David Adom and in the IDF reserves, who aspires to become a doctor someday. She was at home in Herzliya, having dinner with her parents and watching television when reports of the earthquake were broadcast on the news.
Tal said that her father asked, “So are they going to send you?” “Maybe,” she said. It was nearly midnight. A few minutes later her cell phone rang. Within the hour, her unit was at the home of the doctor who runs the medical clinic that gives immunization shots for those traveling to foreign lands. The clinic was closed, but that wasn’t going to stop anyone. The doctor’s wife brewed coffee and the soldiers were lined up at the kitchen table to receive their shots. By the end of the next day, Tal was in Nepal, one of the first foreigners to enter the country after the quake.
When Tal’s unit arrived at the main hospital in Katmandu, eight stories tall, they found everyone from the hospital, doctors, nurses, and patients, sitting in the parking lot. All of the staff were working out of a batch of hastily assembled tents. The hospital building was unstable and there were powerful aftershocks.
Tal was informed that there was one particular patient, a premature baby born to Israeli parents, for whom she was especially to look to help. She couldn’t imagine where the baby was. The child needed to be in an incubator on oxygen with IVs. This was a tent city with little or no electricity.
Tal related that she looked around and there in the middle of the tents was a running car. They wandered over to see what was going on; perhaps they were using the car for electricity or lights. Instead, the hospital staff had realized that they needed a controlled environment amid the chaos. They turned the car into an incubator. An oxygen tank was outside one window and an IV pole was outside the other. Inside, on the backseat in a bassinet was the baby.
As Tal said, they made do with what they had. When asked why Israelis do these things, why they were there so quickly with no hesitation, she said in essence, “It’s what we do. It’s who we are. We just go and do it, no matter how difficult. We try. We believe in Tikkun Olam. We repair what’s wrong in the world. Anywhere we can. It’s what we believe in as Jews. It’s what we believe in as Israelis.”
And I would suggest, that attitude is plays no small part in the narrative of how our people has survived so many trials and tribulations through the generations. When we must adapt, we adapt.
Electing to Change
While life does regularly tell us, “Lekh Lekha,” “Go forth,” like Tal’s commanding officer did, and gives us no choice but to comply, often, we have the opportunity to make a choice.
In our High Holiday liturgy, we read of the Gates of Repentance opening this evening and closing at the end of Yom Kippur. Our tradition urges us to feel a sense of urgency and to seize the opportunity to change our direction in life, to perform Teshuvah, literally returning to the path.
The High Holidays remind us that we have it in our capacity to change ourselves and our relationships. There is no promise that it will be easy. We do need to understand what we can and cannot change about ourselves and to know the difference. The High Holidays are a time when we are reminded that we can change our relationship with our tradition and with the divine, but also that it is not beyond us to heal and improve other relationships, to seek forgiveness, to express love and caring, to act differently.
Sometimes Both Happen at the Same Time
Sometimes, we may find ourselves both forced to change in some ways and elect to change in others. Major changes in our lives can also force us to confront the possibility of making other changes.
It is best for us not to wait until the cow dies to adapt the possibility that it will. Neither is it good for us to endure suffering rather than seeking a better situation. We are the people whose tradition tells us that we wandered forty years in the desert to find the Promised Land and whose national history is of living in the Diaspora for nearly two millennia before being able to return to our homeland. Electing to deal with some hardships, while seeking something better is very much a part of who our ancestors were and of the tradition that they passed on to us.
Some days, it does indeed feel like the world is testing us, that we not only have to ascend a mountain, but know that what we face when we reach our destination is going to be a greater challenge still. Perhaps, a new alternative will arise, a ram will emerge from the thicket, on a very rare occasion someone may step in and help us, our angels, but most of the time, it is up to us to build up the courage to overcome the challenge.
Like Abraham, we may find ourselves all prepared to continue with the task, the expectation, whatever we’ve been planning to do, and then think to ourselves, “What am I doing?” Sometimes, knife in hand, we realize we’re on the wrong path and a voice inside of us speaks up and then calls out, “Avraham! Avraham!” We suddenly see what we’re doing and where we are. We decide to change. We turn. We find a new way.
That process of making changes, of turning and returning, of Teshuva, repentance, is what the High Holidays are all about. May each of us be open to change in the New Year.