Rosh Hashanah Message

I want to be a better person. Living a Jewish life affords us daily opportunities to reflect on our lives and our actions and make changes. Yet Judaism also prescribes that we set aside about ten days every year to delve deeply into our own lives and set priorities for the next year. This is the purpose of the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe.

How do we change to become better people? In my life and work, I have tried to influence change in my organization, my children, the campers entrusted to my care, and myself. A few thoughts about constructive ways to work on self-improvement have been running through my mind over the last few months.

I think people get frustrated when change doesn’t happen instantly and permanently. Yet that is not how change works. I remember being a new Ramah director at my first Ramah directors’ meetings, listening to a senior colleague – a veteran of over thirty years – explain a project that he had been working on for ten years. I remember thinking to myself, “Ten years? If I don’t increase enrollment significantly and balance the budget in two years, I won’t be around to work on ten-year projects.” Of course, there are fixes that are effective and can be immediate, but much meaningful change takes a long view, consistent effort, incremental improvement and occasional setbacks and course corrections. At Camp Ramah, I have worked with the absolute best young Jewish people. The difficulty of change can be a very discouraging challenge for them. That’s part of maturing. Understanding how change works is important because it helps us keep at it through discouraging times. The quality of resilience is very high on my wish list for my children and those who I help nurture at Ramah.

Speaking of children, I drive mine crazy by quoting the late John Wooden: “Consider the rights of others before your own feelings, and the feelings of others before your own rights.”My children feel they can’t win. When they argue with each other and they feel they are right, I tell them to consider the other one’s feelings. When their feelings are hurt, I tell them to recognize the other person’s rights. My point is that we need to be empathetic. We get so wrapped up in our reasons why others should do as we want that we forget to see things from the other person’s point of view. Additionally, when we feel that others are doing something wrong to us, it is far easier to lash out at them instead of truly trying to understand their point of view.

That leads me to the topic of being mean, lashing out, and saying or writing cruel things. Over the last few years, I think this has gotten worse in our society. In the movie “Harvey,” Jimmy Stewart plays Elwood P. Dowd, a man whose friend is an invisible six-foot rabbit. People think that he is crazy. Yet he says one of the wisest things I have ever heard. Dowd explains: “my mother told me I could be ever so smart or ever so pleasant. I tried smart, I prefer pleasant.” In our desire to win arguments, or if we are upset about something, we find it hard to resist a sarcastic or witty barb. I have seen this intensified in the way people post things online or write emails. It is easier to say very cruel things using these mediums. Being pleasant is an undervalued character trait but one that we need to reemphasize in our lives.

All of these personal qualities – resilience, empathy, and pleasantness – can be difficult to accomplish; we often slip and make mistakes. This might be discouraging. The Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuva (laws of repentance) include an interesting statement on this topic. “Each and every person has merits and sins. A person whose merits exceed his sins is [termed] righteous. A person whose sins exceed his merits is [termed] wicked. If [his sins and merits] are equal, he is termed a Beinoni,”or in between.

To be righteous, you don’t have to bat 100%. If your merits exceed your sins, you are RIGHTEOUS! We are humans. The process is what counts. We need to strive every day to do the best we can to enact a little change to make ourselves better. Our jobs as parents (or counselors and teachers) are to help guide our children along this path and encourage them to stick with it, to be reflective and to show empathy to others.

May this new year bring life’s finest blessings to you and your loved ones and may we all find meaningful introspection and opportunities for growth in the coming year. Shana Tova.

Categories: Director, Dvar Torah