Unanswered Prayers

Sermon Saturday Morning
First Day Rosh Hashana
2009 – 5770
Temple Emeth, Delray Beach

L’Shana Tova U’metukah, May you have a good and sweet new year

A Good Year? Are you serious Rabbi? A good year!!?? What could be so good about this year. The whole world is falling apart. My life is falling apart! A good year? It is just starting and already it is a failure!!

I lost my job, Rabbi, who will hire me now at my age. My kids lost their jobs in this lousy economy and they need my help to support them. They lost the house, the business and their marriage is coming apart! How will this year be any good? My investments have lost half their value. The entire country is in a recession. I feel sick about it and then I discover that even my health care program is in trouble. My investments have failed, my bank has failed, my business has failed and I guess I have failed. How can it be a good year if from the start I feel like a failure?

These are tough times in this country and around the world. We have gone from a nation of plenty to a nation of insecurity about the future. Fear stalks our streets. Even if I have a job and a paycheck, tomorrow it could all be gone. Realtors have seen the housing market collapse. People can’t afford to pay for their homes and they can’t afford to sell their homes and they can’t afford to move.

My own family is not immune from the failures around us. I was looking for a congregation in a year when there were too many Rabbis looking for work and not very many congregations with strong enough finances to afford a Rabbi. My being here is truly a blessing. Michelle, my wife, came to be headmaster of a Jewish day school, but the economy hurt those who were funding the school and the school did not have to money it needed to open this fall. Now she is looking for work in a year when, for every job there are 50 -70 applicants.

There are plenty of people and institutions who we can blame for the failures around us but as we watch our income and our retirement dissolve, we find that more often than not, we are kicking ourselves, that WE are the failures in this crisis. We should have paid close attention to our investments. We should have saved more money rather than spend like there was no tomorrow. We should have listened to those who said that the end was near, and not laughed at them for their doomsday message. If only I was smarter I would have sold the GM stock and bought the Ford stock. I would have paid down my credit card debt rather than run it up. I would have saved for these rainy days; instead I bought these designer boots. I thought I was so smart, and now I feel like a fool.

Rabbi Jack Reimer includes in one of his books a story of a little boy who came to the rabbi with a heavy heart. “What has happened,” asked the Rabbi. The boy replied, “I have done something terrible and I don’t know what to do about it. At my Little League game yesterday, I was playing second base and the batter hit an easy ground ball right to me. I bent down to scoop it up and it rolled right between my legs.” Asked the Rabbi, “Are you embarrassed that the people laughed at you? Did the mistake cost you the game?” “No,” said the boy, “That is not the problem, we got the out with the next batter and the inning was over. I was embarrassed about it but I got over that and yet I still feel terrible.” “You know,” said the Rabbi, “that anyone can make a mistake, it was an unimportant baseball game, why are you being so hard on yourself?” the boy replied, “Rabbi, you don’t understand, I am a better ballplayer than that.” Imagine, ten years old and he already feels like a failure.

I know parents of preschool children who go to extreme lengths to make sure their children qualify to get into the best preschool in the county. They figure that if they get into the best preschool, they will get into the best elementary school which will get them into the best high school, which will assure them a place in the best university, which will insure that they get a great job and will be a success in life. Of course, if they don’t make it into the best preschool, then at age three, they are already a failure

We may all feel like failures and fools from time to time but perhaps that is not such a bad thing. Perhaps it will be our failures that will make this new year a Good and Sweet year. Country Singer Garth Brooks, in his song, “Unanswered Prayers”, tells the story of a married man who meets his high school flame at a football game. This was the girl that he prayed that he might marry someday. It didn’t work out, now his old flame does not seem so angelic anymore and the woman he did marry is the love of his life. In the refrain of the song he sings, “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers. Remember when you’re talkin’ to the man upstairs; that just because he doesn’t answer doesn’t mean he don’t care, Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.”

Take a look at some modern failures. There is a long list of failures associated with Abraham Lincoln. He had many business failures, could not get the votes necessary to win a seat in the US Senate twice and had his first true love die just as they were about to be engaged. He had to work hard to become a lawyer and a surveyor. He could not afford a good education so he had to educate himself. And yet he went on to be one of the most important Presidents of the United States.

Maybe we should take a look at the life of Winston Churchill. The great war leader of WWII was responsible in WWI for the catastrophic invasion at Gallipoli. His political fortunes rose and fell many time until he became Prime Minister of England during World War II and strengthened the entire country. Later,even though he lost the election after the war he did go on to win a Nobel Prize in Liturature. He once said that “Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.”

The only real failure, it seems, is not learning from our failures. I don’t know if you have noticed that so many businesses have taken to sending out customer satisfaction surveys. Maybe you fill them out or maybe you ignore them but the true test of a company is what they do with the surveys they get back. On the one side are those organizations that try to inspire their employees to earn perfect scores on these surveys. It is the modern take on performance testing. I am often handed a form by an employee who “reminds me” that if I had good service, to give him a score of “10”. I can see how this kind of survey can help a company discover who is doing an excellent job and who is not.

But there are some companies who are looking for something deeper. They don’t really want to know what they did right, they want to know, it great detail, where they let the customer down. Such surveys ask me what I think of their product. Was it a good value for the money? Did it arrive in good condition? Did it perform as I expected? How could they make it better? What could they do to make it more usable or convenient? Such companies don’t obsess over their successes. They can’t learn much from success. Only by understanding where they “failed” me can they begin to build on a better tomorrow.

I remember a scene in the play, The Lion King, Where Simba, horrified that he has caused the death of his father and feeling a failure at life, runs away to join a band of misfits. Rafiki, the Baboon mystic finds him and tells him to come home and take his place as the true King. Simba says he is not worthy because he is a failure. Rafiki hits Simba on the head with his staff. “Hey!” yells Simba, “cut that out!” Rafiki swings again but this time Simba ducks and the staff misses its mark. “You see, Simba,” says Rafiki, “already you have learned from a failure”. It is only a failure if we don’t learn from our mistakes.

What is a failure anyway? Just because one aspect of our life fails does not make us a failure. Life is way too complicated to fail on all fronts. We all have successes as well as failures. When we feel like a failure, We have to rise above the chaos and assess were we are and where we need to go. We must first ask the question, do we have friends and family who love us? If so, we cannot consider our life a failure. Do we have a friend who will come to help us in a crisis even at 3 AM? That does not sound like a failure in life to me. Are you such a friend? Would you go to help a friend in crisis at 3 AM? Then don’t let me catch you calling yourself a failure. To your friend, you are a hero.

Hannah Senech, the Hebrew Poetess and soldier from Palestine, risked her life to parachute into Hungary to save Jews from the Nazis. Her mission was discovered and the Gestapo caught Hannah and her friends. They were all tortured and executed. It would seem that the mission was a failure. But, as one general noted; From a military point of view, it is often difficult to identify a mission as a failure. Sure they were caught and executed, but they gave hope to those who were down and oppressed. The Jews in Hungary knew that while this mission may have failed, the Jews of Palestine had not forgotten nor abandoned them, and this gave the Jews of Hungary great hope.

Remember the spaceship Apollo 13? There was a terrible accident on the way to the moon and three astronauts were in danger of loosing their life in space. The engineers on the ground did not kick themselves for their failure. They did not moan over what they had done wrong. They were rallied by the flight director who refocused their priorities. He said: “There are three American astronauts out there and we need to bring them home safely. We have never lost an American in space and it is not going to happen on my watch. We are going to bring them home gentlemen and failure is not an option.” All three were brought home safely.

Think of Joseph, the son of our Patriarch Jacob. Every good thing that happens in his life causes a problem; the multi colored coat, the dreams, his hard work in his master’s home in Egypt, it all leaves him abandoned by family, sold into slavery and thrown into prison. His own dreams do not make him great. He became great only when he learns to listen to the dreams of others. Failure can teach us that when we stop caring only for ourselves and start caring for others, even in prison, we can rise toward success.

Victor Frankel was a doctor in Vienna before WWII. He had just finished a manuscript that was his life’s work when the Nazi’s came and arrested him. He stuffed the manuscript into his coat thinking that someday things could change and he would be able to publish it. When he got to the concentration camp, they took away all his clothing and he lost the manuscript. He was given worn out clothing that had been taken from prisoners who had already been killed. In the pocket of this prison uniform, he found a piece of paper with a prayer on it. Even in this dark place and in the dark times, this prayer was the light that kept Victor Frankel going. After the war, Frankel wrote a different book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”. It is still in print. In this book he maintains that we don’t get to pick what will happen to us in life. But we do get to assign it meaning. As long as there is hope, as long as we can learn from life, then nothing is really a failure.

The little ten year old Little League player I told you about did get some important advice from his Rabbi. When the boy said that he felt like a failure because he was a better player than that, the Rabbi replied, “What you are saying then is that on that play you didn’t do your best. You didn’t do what you know you are capable of doing. You let yourself down, more than you let the team down.” “Yes, that’s it!” exclaimed the boy, “I know that the games are not that important but I learned something about myself that day. It doesn’t matter how good I am at doing something if I don’t do my best. But now what do I do about it? There is no way for me to fix the problem and say “I’m sorry” to the person I may have hurt. To whom should I say “I’m sorry”?” The Rabbi responded, “When we hurt ourselves we need to say “I’m sorry” to God and we need to say “I’m sorry” to ourselves. That is the reason we have Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.”

When we feel like a failure, that we have let ourselves down, these Days of Awe come to help us get some perspective and they allow us to forgive ourselves. We sometimes get so busy with our feelings of failure that we fail to see not only the good we have done but the good that may still be possible not in spite of the failure but BECAUSE of the failure. Today we may feel like a fool for not hearing the warnings, for not paying attention to the signs that the world was coming unglued, but even a fool has lessons that can be taught and learned if we are open to their message.

Jacob the Baker, in the book by Noah ben Shea, tells a story of a fool who set out for the palace of the king. Along the way the people laughed at him, “Why should a fool like you go to see the king?” the Fool replied, “Well, I am going to be the king’s teacher.” But his conviction only brought more laughter by the people along the path. When the fool arrived at the palace, the King decided to make short work and great laughter at the expense of the Jester. The Jester was immediately invited to the royal court. “Why do you dare to disturb the King?” said the Royal Majesty. “I have come to be the royal teacher.” Said the Fool in a matter of fact voice. The king roared with laughter, “How can you, a fool teach me?” “You see,” said the Fool, “you are already asking me questions” The royal court froze in silence. The King gathered himself and stared at his ridiculous opponent. “You have offered a clever response but you have not answered my questions.” “Only a fool has all the answers.” replied the fool with a sly smile. “But, but…” now the King was sputtering, “What would others say if they found out the King had a fool for a teacher?” “Better to have a fool for a teacher than a fool for a king.” Said the Fool. When he heard this, the King, who was not a bad man, confessed, “Now I do fell like a fool.” “No,” said his opponent, “It is only a fool who has never felt like one.”

The only fool is the one who has never felt like a fool. The only failure is the one who does not see what the failure has to teach. Lewis Timberlake in his news letter, wrote the following message to all who may feel like a failure in life:

Failure doesn’t mean you have accomplished nothing; it just means you’ve learned something
Failure doesn’t mean you’ve been a fool; It just means you had enough faith to experiment.
Failure doesn’t mean you’ve been disgraced; it just means you dared to try.
Failure doesn’t mean you don’t have what it takes; it just means you must do things differently next time.
Failure doesn’t mean you’re inferior; It just means you’re not perfect
Failure doesn’t mean you’ve wasted your time; it just means you have a reason to start over.
Failure doesn’t mean you should give up; it just means you must try harder.
Failure doesn’t mean you’ll never make it; it just means you need more patience.
Failure doesn’t mean you’re wrong; it just means you must find a better way.
Failure doesn’t mean God has abandoned you; it just means you must continue to pray as if everything depends on God and act as if everything depends on you.

I hope that by this time of the year most of you have already asked forgiveness from those who feel we have done something wrong to them. I hope that by now, we have returned to those we may have offended and asked for forgiveness. I hope that when others have come to us, we were quick to forgive and to reassure them that we value their friendship too much to carry grudges into a new year. If all of that is done, it is time to begin to forgive ourselves. It is time to set aside the failures, the times we acted foolishly. When we knew we were better than that and discovered that we were not giving this game of life the best we have to offer.

What is the formula that will guarantee a good year in 5770? It is the same formula that got us into 5769, the same formula that got our parents into 5720 and the same formula that our sages used in 3770. To forgive others their mistakes, to ask forgiveness of others for our mistakes and to forgive ourselves for the times we were not the best we know how to be. The New Year is beginning. It is time to start over, with more patience and the wisdom that comes from trying and failing, and to enter the New Year with the faith we will need to continue to try harder, to experiment with new things and to keep searching for a better way.

Author Robert Fulghum has written: “Remember that nursery rhyme about the “eensy weensy spider that went up the water spout? It failed in its climb when the rains came and washed it right back to where she started. The sun came out, dried up the rain and our friend the spider, perhaps with an eye to the sky looking for clouds, went out to climb again.”

Today is a new day and a new year. The sun has come out to dry up all the rain. With the lessons we have learned, with the faith that we have earned and with a spirit that has returned, let us aspire again to the top of the waterspout, to the top of our game and to the top of the world. Armed with the lessons of the past year we enter this New Year with faith and with the conviction that we must give each day, each hour and each minute our best; and always remember, Failure is not an option.

L’shana Tova U’metuka – may we truly be blessed with a good and sweet New Year.

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