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Rosh Hashana 5766-2005

“Actions and their Implications”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

The celebration of the Jewish New Year is thoroughly different from the secular New Year festivities. No parties, no bands, no champagne, no glowing balls descending from towering skyscrapers. There is little similarity between the two, except for both being the first day of the year! The Jewish New Year, as opposed to the secular new year, is a pensive and reflective time. It is a unique opportunity for Jews to reflect on the direction of their lives, to conduct a self-evaluation of what they have done and where they are going. Both the legendary Dale Carnegie and the contemporary self-help guru, Stephen R. Covey, have written extensively about how highly effective people do self-appraisals on a regular basis.

The old adage: “To err is human, to forgive is divine,” boldly underscores just how fallible human beings really are. It is so easy, almost natural, to mess up, but, unfortunately, never easy to repair.

There are a number of reasons why doing bad is usually easier than doing good. Harmful things can result from simply doing nothing. Good can only occur as a result of affirmative action. Standing by passively watching a person drown is evil, even though the spectator has done nothing himself, especially if there is a life buoy readily available. Only by throwing the life buoy to the drowning person, or jumping in to the water to rescue the victim, can we do good. That is why the bible states in Genesis 8:21: “Kee yay’tzer layv ha’adam ra mee’n’oo’rav,” that the natural inclination of the human being is evil from his youth, because evil happens automatically.

Another reason why evil occurs so frequently is because most people rarely see the long-term implications of their actions. Most people have only a short term, immediate view of what really are the implications of their deeds. Too often they focus only on the goal at hand, and have no idea of the ultimate implications. The electric company seeks to generate electricity. Their workers dump the contaminated water into the local river, totally oblivious to the long-term implications. The original French settlers of New Orleans were warned not to settle in the Mississippi Delta area because of the frequent flooding. But, one strong-minded leader decided to disregard the warnings and established a settlement there anyway. In its first four years of habitation, New Orleans was flooded and destroyed several times.

I recently attended a selichot (penitential prayers prior to Rosh Hashana) concert featuring the wonderful cantor/singer Dr. Elli Kranzler. He told the following story that is attributed to the Rizhiner Rebbe (Rabbi Israel, Chassidic Rabbi in the Ukrainian village of Rizhin, 1798-1850). A king had built a new palace and decided to illuminate the biggest and most beautiful room in the palace with an extraordinary chandelier. He ordered the most magnificent crystal chandelier to be manufactured. It took years to make, and when it was finally installed, people came from near and far to see its beauty.

One day, a palace worker, (an assistant to an assistant electrician!) was told to fetch some electrical wire to be used to repair a frayed electrical cord in one of the fixtures in a minor basement passageway. As he walked through the elegant hall with the magnificent chandelier, he noticed the long wire that was connected to the chandelier. All he did was snip off a small piece of the wire for his use. He had no idea that he had weakened the installation of the chandelier, and shortly after he left the room, the entire chandelier came crashing down.

“So,” said the Rebbe, “sometimes we think that our actions are small and insignificant, and fail to realize the immense implications of these so-called ‘insignificant’ deeds.” We can destroy friendships, unravel marriages, scar our children and our students for life, without intending at all to be hurtful or evil.

Avtalyon, the teacher of the famous Hillel, states emphatically in Ethics of our Fathers (1:11): “Chachamim heez’ah’roo b’div’ray’chem,” Wise people, be careful with what you say. Each word, each action, has unfathomable power, to give life but also to destroy.

Let us use the new year 5766, and the G-d-given opportunity of Rosh Hashana, to improve ourselves, improve our lives, improve our environment, and improve the world.

May you be blessed.

This year, Rosh Hashana (2005) is celebrated on Monday evening, October 3, through Wednesday night, October 5th.