Friday, September 26, 2008

Gambling on Rosh HaShanah (Rosh haShanah, Day 1)

Credit where credit is fully due:
I once participated in a "Yarchei Kallah" program run by Rabbi J.J. Schacter, in which he mentored young rabbis in the art - and with him, it truly is an art form - of the Derashah. Yeshiva University's Center for the Jewish Future has since taken the program under its wing, and Rabbi Schacter continues to lead this program, and to help young rabbis become darshanim, and more.

The idea that triggered this derashah - the midrash about HaShem rejecting Emet and taking a risk on creating humanity - came from Rabbi Shalom Axelrod's development of an idea expressed by Rabbi Schacter at a Yarchei Kallah program. Rabbi Axelrod's derashah was printed in a tribute collection for Rabbi Schacter, "His mother didn't call him, 'Our Beloved Teacher.'"

The federal government has finally admitted the full extent of our economic shambles, congressmen are competing to describe the meltdown in the most dire terms possible, banks have closed or are threatening to go that route - and everyone is blaming the gambles of greedy banks, the audacity of greedy lenders, the risk-taking of a greedy market. Risk-taking has acquired a bad name over the past two weeks.
So it is with some trepidation that I say that one of the most important themes of Rosh HaShanah is this: Take audacious risks. Gamble with money, gamble with relationships, gamble with Judaism.

Perhaps the most important gamble in human history occurred on the very first Rosh haShanah - and the gambler was Gd.
On that first Rosh haShanah in history, 5768 years ago, Adam and Chavah ate the fruit they had been warned not to eat, the fruit regarding which Gd had said, “On the day you eat this, you will die.” But they didn’t die that day. What happened?
Gd opted to forgive Adam and Chavah. Gd took a chance on their future righteousness.
In fact, the midrash records that even before Gd created humanity, Gd was already gambling on us. As Gd determined to create us, the Divine attribute of Truth protested, arguing that human beings would tell lies - and Gd refused to listen, opting to gamble on us instead, arguing that, as the Kotzker explained, אמת שאומר אל יברא אינה אמת, Truth which refuses to create, to take a chance, to lose once in a while, is not truth.

Gambling is required, and losing is acceptable, because this world is not meant to be a place of perfection; Gd designed this world as a laboratory, and laboratory experiments fail.
We are taught in Pirkei Avot, העולם הזה דומה לפרוזדור, This world is a hallway, a preparation area, a lab for the next world. Certainly, we take this world seriously, we try to mend the world and improve it. And if we fail, the consequences for ourselves and for other people are real. But the message of Pirkei Avot and the Torah is that in this Research & Development lab, mistakes are part of the learning process.
Unlike the greedy banks and lenders, we take risks for the sake of noble values, for the sake of helping others - and then, if we fail, we can accept that, and Gd can accept that. Gd does not rig the table; He deals the cards, bets on our success, and lets the chips fall where they may.
This is why Gd can create Humanity and forgive Adam and Chavah, all the while knowing that they and their descendants will fail again: Because in the lab that is this world, it’s all right to take a risk and fail. We just get up again and keep on going.

Today, Rosh haShanah, the anniversary of the inauguration of this laboratory of chance, we ignore the calamitous market and we are inspired to take chances - financial, social, and spiritual.

First, a financial gamble.
This is a time of year when Jews traditionally pledge tzedakah - as we will say shortly, ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזירה - Repentance, Prayer and Tzedakah will remove the evil decree. Shlomo haMelech/King Solomon wrote, וצדקה תציל ממות, Tzedakah rescues us from death.
In this market, though, I’ll bet many of us are planning to reduce their tzedakah. That with the economy teetering, by all accounts, on the brink of collapse, with an ongoing recession and the new threat of a crash, with unemployment and shrinking retirement funds and lost scholarships and skyrocketing costs of staples, many of us - most of us, even - feel we just can’t do it anymore.
The cards will be on our seats next Wednesday evening at Kol Nidrei, and it’s a safe bet that some people who used to fold down 180 will have to think long and hard before doing that again. Some people who used to push 54 might not be able to convince themselves to do that, either. And won’t we be smart, won’t we be prudent, when we reduce the tzedakah we give? After all, our assets are in danger!
To which Rosh haShanah says “No.” Despite the market and the banks, despite our fears for the future, it is still time for us to gamble. We have been promised, and it’s actually recorded as law in Shulchan Aruch, לעולם אין אדם מעני מן הצדקה, We will never go broke giving tzedakah.
Giving tzedakah is not the same thing as gambling on sub-prime loans. The bankers, the lenders, were gambling for the sake of lining their pockets. We, on the other hand, gamble on helping other human beings. Supporting a shul, a school, a Jewish Family Service, a mikvah, a needy family in Israel.
I am not speaking glibly about something I am asking others to do, about some challenge for others to face. Over 40% of my take-home salary goes to tuition, and almost 20% goes to mortgage and real estate taxes. Add in gas and groceries and medicine and clothes for six and you realize that, yeah, Torczyner has a pretty good handle on what economic crisis means. But I believe that לעולם אין אדם מעני מן הצדקה, I will never go broke giving tzedakah, and Caren and I are going to act on that belief for Israeli tzedakot, for Federation, for the Mikvah, for Jewish Family Service, for JDS, for the shul.
Please understand: I am not saying that a family should take bread out of its own mouth in order to give tzedakah; the first and most important tzedakah is to one’s self and one’s family. There are more ways to help other people, piety should not be linked too closely to the pocketbook. Tomorrow we’ll talk about one way to help people, that has nothing to do with spending a single cent. And if you need assistance, please, please come to me - thank Gd, and thank our community, the Rabbi’s Benevolent Fund can help.
But if there is something left over after the immediate needs are met, then before locking down the savings account, remember the words of the prophet Malachi - ובחנוני נא בזאת, Test Gd on this: If you will separate out your tithes, then HaShem will open for you the storehouses of the heavens and rain down unlimited blessing upon you.

Tzedakah is one gamble we should make, even in this risky world. Here’s another one: It’s time to gamble on our families, on our most fundamental relationships.
There is not a single family that doesn’t harbor a broken relationship - siblings who have not spoken in years, a husband and wife who have become bitter over each other’s offenses, children who cannot stand the thought of speaking to their parents, parents who feel betrayed by their children, aunts and uncles who boycotted your wedding, cousins you wish had boycotted your wedding, you name it. This is normal in human relationships; relationships grow, and break. But they can also heal, and it’s amazing what an outstretched hand can do toward that end.
Three years ago today, I spoke about the reconciliation between Avraham and his exiled son, Yishmael.
There was good reason for this relationship to break, and remain broken.
*Avraham kicked out his seventeen year old son, giving him nothing of his vast estate but a loaf of bread and a jug of water. Avraham gave more to three anonymous passersby than he did to his own son!
*Yishmael, for his part, endangered the life of his brother, Yitzchak, and Gd personally approved of Avraham’s eviction of Yishmael.
If ever there was a reason for a relationship to break, and to remain broken, this was it!
But it did not remain broken; as the midrash tells us, Avraham pursued a reunion with his son Yishmael, and, eventually, not the first time but after a while, he got it. And when Avraham passed away, Yishmael was there - honoring his younger brother, Yitzchak, putting him first in the burial procession.
Avraham took a chance, reaching out to a son whom Gd had described as פרא אדם, a wild man, who in his youth had wandered off into idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder, a son who had lived a life far removed from Avraham’s דרך ה', his path of Gd.
Yishmael took a chance, too; he could have rejected Avraham’s advances. Yishmael could have berated Avraham for kicking him out of the house.
Avraham put his heart on the line and reached out - he was willing to risk losing, and because Gd taught us in creating and forgiving humanity that taking a chance is not only permissible, it is imperative.
And Yishmael responded.

And a third gamble: When it comes to our spiritual lives, we need to take chances in this laboratory world as well.
We spend so much of our religious lives working off of old ideas - stories we learned in grade school or Hebrew school and have not examined since, beliefs our parents conveyed to us and we never really questioned, empty stereotypes of Judaism, practices we perform regularly or ignore regularly. Of what value is a religious life unexamined?! Of what value is a Judaism that substitutes ritual for thought, scenery for substance, rote for re-examination?
Prayer which is unexamined rote needs risk-taking to shake it up. Shabbat without thought, whether spent in shul or at home or at the mall, needs risk-taking to shake it up. Every mitzvah is available for us to re-examine and re-invent at every opportunity, so that it is new every time.
All of us - those who are here for the first time since we sounded the shofar at the end of last Yom Kippur, and those who come here every morning and evening - all of us can take chances today. We are taught that Gd gives us the Torah היום, today, each and every day, בכל יום יהיו בעיניך כחדשים, each day these laws, these ideas, should be new in our eyes, like the first day we heard them, like the moment we stood at Sinai.
Of course, religious re-examination is hard; it’s a threat to the status quo. It might lead us to do more, it might lead us to do less. We might read the Torah and come away believers; we might read Richard Dawkins and come away heretics. That kind of unpredictability is uncomfortable. We love our stability.
But this is precisely why we must take chances - because the status quo is seductively comfortable, and profoundly unacceptable in its seduction. Yes, doing so risks making the wrong decision - but in creating humanity and in forgiving Adam and Chavah, Gd taught us that failure is acceptable, so long as we take a chance. The only falsehood is the decision of אל יברא, the decision not to gamble at all.
Some 2800 years ago a prophet named Eliyahu stood astride a mountain and challenged the priests of the Canaanite idol, the Baal. Right in the middle of their territory and under the nose of their royal supporters, Eliyahu dared the priests to bring a public offering to their god, and to summon fire from heaven, in front of the assembled nation, to consume the offering.
As the priests carried out their rituals Eliyahu taunted them, asking if they should not pray louder; maybe Baal was sleeping, or chatting with someone, or in the bathroom. He was Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart and Billy Crystal in one, commenting on the Baal rituals for the amusement of all - and putting himself further and further out on a precarious limb, if he should fail to deliver in his own offering.
When the priests of Baal had failed, Eliyahu built an altar and had water poured all over it, once, twice, three times. Then he cried out, beseeching Gd to reveal His authenticity to the nation - and a fire came down from Heaven and consumed the offering, the wood, the stones, the dirt - and even the water.
Eliyahu took a massive risk. He lived at a time when prophets of Judaism were being slaughtered by the queen. He was in the distinct minority just for believing in HaShem! And he turned to his nation and said, “Look, folks, it’s time to decide what you believe: If you believe in Baal, go follow Baal. If you believe in Gd, come, follow Gd.”
Eliyahu bet his beliefs, he bet the beliefs of the public, he bet his very life, on a distinct longshot - because it wasn’t a selfish gamble for his own sake, it was a gamble for the sake of the nation. He was willing to bear defeat - and he didn’t lose, he won.

Even as we shoulder the burden of Wall Street’s profligate gambles, remember that their mistakes should not dictate our future. A selfish gamble will never be rewarded - but using Gd’s forgiveness as a model, we endorse selfless gambling. Losing is acceptable, and part of the enterprise that is this world.
William Arthur Ward wrote a poem called “To risk” in which he summed up our message beautifully:
To laugh is to risk appearing a fool,
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach out to another is to risk involvement,
To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self.
To place your ideas and dreams before a crowd is to risk their loss.
To love is to risk not being loved in return,
To live is to risk dying,
To hope is to risk despair,
To try is to risk failure.
But risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
Gd gambled in creating us, and Gd did it again on Rosh haShanah 5768 years ago in forgiving Adam and Chavah; today, as we hear the Shofar blasts and contemplate our paths for the coming year, we are blessed with the opportunity to do the same.

1. The poem at the end also comes via Rabbi Axelrod. Avraham's reconciliation with Yishmael is a theme I first appreciated from Rabbi Schacter's elaboration thereon at a Yarchei Kallah program.

2. Ibn Ezra is the one who says HaShem forgave Adam and Chavah; others have other explanations. The midrash on Creation is from Bereishit Rabbah 8:5. The Shulchan Aruch's reassurance regarding tzedakah is Yoreh Deah 247:2.

3. I worry about being too cavalier for some people who are reluctant to ignore financial peril, and too harsh for others who cannot afford to ignore financial peril. But I truly believe in this ideal, I live it, and I believe it is my job as Rabbi to promote it.

4. I had a million topics to talk about today - Israel, Agriprocessors, various electoral issues, and so on. But, to me, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are fundamentally about working on ourselves, about making ourselves the best we can be, and so this is the route I chose to go. If I publish Day 2, you'll see the same thing there.


  1. Thank you for sharing.

    שנה טובה, שנת אושר ובריאות.

  2. ALN-
    Thanks, and for you as well. If you feel like commenting after you've read it, let me know; I like feedback on derashot.

  3. I used part of this idea(a large part) in my derasha. thank you very much--it seems it was very well received(though i never know for sure).Brad

  4. Glad it went well, Brad. Here it also went well, thank Gd.

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