Good evening:

It is an honor for me to be here this evening with my community, my friends, my family.  I know some of you hail right here from Old Westbury, some from nearby Jericho, or Brookville, or parts of Roslyn.  And of course some of you come from much farther away than that, but I want to tell you about a mythical town for a moment –a place the rabbis invented known as Chelm –a fool’s paradise if you will, where naïvete and irrationality ruled –and yet there was a certain amount of logic to be found in the simple nature of the townsfolk.  One particular story relates how two men came before the town Rabbi to have their dispute settled.  After listening carefully to the argument presented passionately by both sides, the rabbi stroked his beard, turned to the first disputant present and said simply “you’re right” he then turned to the second man present and just as simply stated “and you’re right”  “but Rabbi” protested a third man present who had been brought in to record the decision “they can’t both possibly be right” to which the Rabbi simply responded “and you’re right.”

            Is it ever possible for two opposite views to both be correct? For two separate ideals to represent two sides of the same coin?  Today our society seems to favor black and white, one side is right and one side is wrong.  We see it often employed in the rhetoric of the national elections this year, as if both sides can claim the absolute truth and at the same time attack the integrity of their opponents –and if we are not careful it can fragment our society and divide us as a people in a world and time when more than ever we need to be united! Because not everything in life is black and white, there is a lot of grey in this world (I learned that lesson well this year and not just after growing my beard) and not everything is red and blue either.  One thing we can and should work on in the coming year, especially as we seek forgiveness from God and one another, is to keep an open mind, and always remain civil in our discourse –and even more so in our disagreements with one another.  It is not just an important spiritual exercise for the coming year –it is a significant lifestyle choice.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously taught that the mark of first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in your mind at the same time. On that note I want to try something with you this evening.  On one side of the card I handed out to you has written upon it the phrase: “it is what it is.” Look upon that side of the card –think about that for a moment. Say it to yourself, chew over it, digest it.  Serena Williams said it a few years back to the press after she verbally assaulted a line judge over a disputed call.  Presidents, both past and present have said it after public gaffes.   And I guarantee you everyone in this room has said that line at one time or another.  It is what it is.  We say it over mistakes we would rather not admit are mistakes –or at least, OUR mistakes.  We say it to our kids and spouses after we have experienced a long, hard day and don’t have enough energy to debate a domestic point with them.  We say it when we feel things may not have gone the way we wanted to at a meeting.  We say it to protect ourselves, to keep us from admitting blame, or hurt, to try and pretend that perhaps we don’t care all that much. It is about deflecting responsibility and accountability when we don’t have the physical or emotional energy to accept either.  And of course, sometimes it is about simply not having a rational answer or a reason why something may have happened the way it did. Mahmoud Ahmedinjad, is speaking at the U.N. on our holiest day of the year –if that is not a chilling, sobering thought for you I don’t know what is –but what can we do about it? After all, “it is what it is.” But of course Yom Kippur is about admitting hurt, owning up to fault. And of course confessing blame. Exposing ourselves. Trying to make sense and find a reason. Showing that we care, we want to be forgiven, and hope, and of course pray, for another year of life! It is what it is…not unlike the famous observation Sigmund Freud made decades ago when he surmised: “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar..” It is what it is…or is it?

            Indulge me for a moment while I relate to you a famous rabbinic tale.  It may be apocryphal, it may be real –who knows? It is what it is –and here is how it goes:  Many years ago, in the Polish city of Krakow, lived a poor Jewish tailor by the name of Yakov Ben Yekel. He had a small house with many mouths to feed and there was never enough food or money. One night Elijah the prophet spoke to him in a dream and insisted he travel to the city of Prague, where he was to dig in a certain spot just by one of the main bridges and he would find a buried treasure!  The dream was so real and vivid, and when it repeated itself the next night, and the night after that Yacov felt there was nothing left to do but go to Prague in search of buried treasure! He traveled by foot and it took several weeks to get there but when he arrived he found the city looked just as it had in his dream, and it wasn’t long before he saw the same exact bridge!  He hurriedly began digging and it wasn’t long before a constable came over, and demanded to know what Yacov was up to! Too scared to come up with a plausible explanation, he confessed the dream he had about buried treasure by this very bridge.  The constable simply laughed: “silly Jew! I myself had a dream just the other night, the Virgin Mary visited me and insisted I travel to the city of Krakow because under the stove of a simple Jewish tailor lay a buried treasure, the likes of which I had never seen –but what idiot would put stock in such a ridiculous notion!” The guard then proceeded to kick Yacov out of the city and with that he began his long, solitary walk home, nebech! It is what it is!

 A couple in our community shared a most personal and profound story with me this past summer, and with their permission I am honored to share it all with you this evening.  Their son was born with Downs syndrome and they were handed the news by a physician when the baby was just a few days old, and on that very same day, the Mohel had arrived to meet with them and discuss their son’s circumcision which was scheduled to take place as per tradition, on the eighth day, just a few days away.  At that moment the parents were seemingly lost –what would this mean for them? Their son? What sort of future should they expect? The news was completely unexpected, hitting them like a ton of bricks. And so they explained to the Mohel the diagnosis they had been handed and not even had time to properly process, and that they were thinking under the circumstances it might be best if they postponed the bris. And the mohel said something quite important and extremely relevant: the minute you start treating your child like he is different, he is going to know it, he is going to feel it.  And you are putting him at a disadvantage when he is barely a week old.  And you know what? That Mohel spoke the truth.  He could have shrugged his shoulders and simply thought “it is what it is” –but no, he knew what was possible, and what was best, and what should be done.  And the parents of that young boy decided to have the bris as scheduled, and their child I am happy to say today is a beautiful young man, who has grown and prospered in our religious school –I look forward to officiating at his bar mitzvah in a few years.  I utilized that story to illustrate the point for you that many parents today want to coddle children, make everything easier, but what they may inadvertently be doing is actually making things harder for them in the end.  And often as is the case, Jewish tradition seems to lose out when parents attempt to pacify their kids.  Their children are just too busy. There are too many tests. Too many commitments. I cannot tell you how many times I hear from parents the excuse: “he doesn’t want to go –I can’t argue with him.” It is what it is. (shrug shoulders) But in truth it doesn’t have to be that way –and it shouldn’t be that way!  Is your child really too busy to be a Jew? To attend school a couple of days a week? Let me tell you something: I had dyslexia as a child, and I had other conflicts in my own life –but my parents made a decision during my formative years that I was going to be raised as a Jew, learn what it means to be a Jew and stay connected to my community as a Jew, and if I could do it, anyone can!  Perhaps your child has travel soccer, and that takes a lot of time –I understand, but at the risk of sounding callous –this is not brazil!  And your child has baseball practice throughout the spring?  Well, try and understand this is not the Dominican Republic.  Sports are all well and good, but let’s be honest and realistic with one another on this evening of introspection: sports are not the ticket out of here for your kids. They are meant as a form of recreation –a diversion. But not to divert you from all else that matters. What is the use of building the body and physical skills if we let the mind and spiritual being languish? They are not going to play in the World Cup or World Series. Athletics will always have their place –no one was more proud than yours truly to watch Aly Raisman in the women’s gymnastics  as she flipped and twirled and pirouetted during the floor exercise to the tune of Hava Nagila” but I will always contend that sports should compliment our Judaism, and can never compete with it.

I want to now return for a moment to our poor tailor, Yacov ben Yekel, he was trekking back from Prague, penniless –no treasure there.  He arrived home weeks later, exhausted, it was only the love that his family showered upon him at his homecoming that kept him from feeling like a total failure, and when he confessed what occurred to his wife in Prague, she simply responded “maybe the treasure was here all along –why not do some digging?” So he went to work with his old shovel, and pushing aside the stove, dug and dug, but he found nothing, and after several hours, passed out exhausted.  You see a dream without a plan is simply a hope.  It is what it is…or is it?

Kol Nidrei tells us, if nothing else, our actions matter, they are important, they shape us, help lead us to where we are today –and that we can affect the outcome of things, we can change our destiny.  That is why we ask for forgiveness –we pray for it! And you know what? We are all guilty on one level or another, some of us more, some of us less –or so we think –the rabbis of the Talmud taught that a fast day that does not include sinners was a not a true fast day! Perhaps you have things that you feel hold you back, or hold you down. You want to make amends with that family member, or that longtime friend –who was a friend a long time ago.  You want to try and channel God almighty, or you are at least here because, tonight you feel that sense of tradition –and belonging to the Jewish people –and that longing for your community.  And you must remember this above all else: it is never too late to change things, Yogi Berra once quipped: “it aint over till it’s over” –or, another way to look at it is “everything is what you make of it”  --which quite simply put, it is, because it is in our hands, our fates to decide –God just waits to see how much interest, care and responsibility we take over our lives, and the lives of those around us, before He bangs that gavel down!  So turn that card over. We are here now, and God willing, will be here another year from now, and another year after that, and so on, and so on because of what we make of things, how we determine our fate, and try and correct the mistakes we made. Mistakes are okay! They are an intrinsic part of our humanity (only angels are perfcet!) –what matters most is how we address them, how we own up to them, and go about correcting them for the future.  We can’t afford to wallow in self-pity or play the blame game –that is as much a cop out as stating “it is what it is” –because it isn’t! It is what it is because of what we make of it! We can eventually undo any wrong as long as we are sincere in our efforts and wholehearted in our t’shuva.  The ancient Rabbis state even the angels are not worthy to hover where a penitent person stands.

When we last left our poor, tired tailor Yacov he had passed out after failing to find any treasure, even in his own home.  However his wife and children saw how hard he had worked and decided that while he slept they would continue digging in hope, in support of his dream, and sure enough, after several hours Yacov awoke to see his family pull from the ground a golden pot that was filled with silver and copper coins, enough to set his family up comfortably for the rest of their lives. You see sometimes the greatest treasure of all is buried right under our noses, and can be found where we would least expect to find it –we just have to look for it –everything is what you make of it! Life can be filled with disappointment and yet discovery about who we are and what we are made of at the same time!  Everything is what you make of it! There is conflict and yet the opportunity for compromise around every corner –everything is what you make of it!  Red or blue –we are still all Jews!  There are challenges and also solutions if we are willing to look for them.  And never forget that Judaism is a treasure that can often be found in our own home, and shared with our own family! Everything is what you make of it!

And I want to come back to our mascot of this evening, the poor tailor Yacov ben Yekel, one last time.  Yacov lived a good long life, and one of the things that his small fortune enabled him to do was give money to the poor, perform the mitzvah of tzedakah, which had always mattered to him –he never forgot what it was like when he was impoverished in the days before his dreams were answered.  Late in life he handed a few silver coins on erev Yom Kippur to an old beggar, who thanked him and then pulled him close and whispered: “here is some last advice for you Yacov Ben Yekel: dig deeper!” The next night, Yacov returned to the same spot and although much older, began to dig, his children and grandchildren came over to help him and after several minutes they unearthed a small chest filled with every manner of emeralds, rubies and precious gems.  He had enough money to turn over to future generations but he also insisted on building a house of study, a small place where two roads converged.  Legend has it that it still stands there, to this day! Who knows? Everything is what you make of it.  It is a place for travelers to stop, rest a bit, think about where they are going and also where they have been.  You will know you have arrived there when you see these words, written upon the wall in gold letters: “sometimes you must follow your dreams very far to find out what is closest to your heart.”

May it be a good year in which we all realize our dreams, find what is closest to our hearts, and both empower and inspire our children to dig and keep searching long after us. Everything is what you make of it. And of course may it be a year of peace in the end, for us, Israel, and all the world. Amen, selah!

Red, blue –we are all Jews!