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Rabbi Mitch's Weekly Teachings

Weekly Teaching 9/19/2014

Weekly Teaching 10-03-2014

I am providing an abridged version of my Erev Rosh HaShanah sermon.  The theme is especially relevant as we observe the culmination of our Ten Days of Awe with Yom Kippur.

Gemar Chatimah Tovah; a good closing seal in the Book of Life for a Happy, Healthy & Peaceful New Year!!

-Rabbi Mitch



(Abridged: Erev Rosh HaShanah Sermon 2014)


One of my favorite baseball stories is about the boy who goes outside with a bat and ball. He throws the ball up, swings, and misses. Again, he throws the ball up, swings, and misses. He keeps at it while his father watches through the window, as again and again he throws the ball up, swings, and misses. A few more swings and misses, and the father becomes worried:  How does his son feel with each swinging miss?  Will he sour on our national pastime?

The father continues watching his son as over, and over the boy tosses the ball up, swings, and misses. After 30 minutes of this, finally, the boy comes in the house and the father prepared to comfort his son. But his son had a broad grin on his face. Enthusiastically, he shouted: “Dad, you won’t believe it; I’m the greatest baseball pitcher that ever lived; I’m unhittable!!”

Baseball is a game where each player on each team does his or her best. Before the game everyone knows that despite doing their best, one team will win and one team will lose. Baseball is a great metaphor for life.  We are allowed to fail; we learn from our failures; and, we are better because of what we learn.

Baseball is also a wonderful metaphor for our Judaism. Judaism also considers errors to be part of the truth of life. Errors are especially relevant as we begin the observance of the High Holidays. During the High Holidays we know that “to err is human, and to forgive divine”. During Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we are not attempting to strive for perfection. We know that perfection is impossible.

Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur; the Yamim Noraim; the 10 days of Awe that we begin to observe tonight; are here to help us learn from our mistakes, and from our failures. From the vantage point of recognizing our own failures, we learn how to forgive the errors of our own ways; and, to forgive the errors of others. Our imperfections are what make us human, and from the experience of our own errors and failings, we learn and grow.

Have you noticed that our Biblical heroes are flawed? Not a little flawed, but terribly flawed. There is no family I’ve witnessed during my counseling career that is as dysfunctional as a family in the book of Genesis. Flawed Biblical heroes continue to be the recurring theme in the Bible. Aaron committed idolatry and built the Golden Calf. Moses had a quick temper, and was a poor husband and father. Miriam indulged in gossip. And, moving to a later time in Biblical history, our greatest Jewish king, King David, was both a murderer and adulterer. The Hebrew Bible doesn’t try to clean up the failures of our heroes; there was no PR machine available for damage control.

Our Biblical heroes are shown to have both extremes and this is one of the important messages in our Sacred Scriptures; to be both good and bad. From our Biblical Heroes we learn that each of us can face the worst of ourselves, learn from it, and become much better. Judaism understands that all of us are flawed. Our own personal success is directly correlated to what and how we learn from our flaws, and our failures. Failures can be our best teachers.

I googled examples of famous people who have failed, learned from their failures, and become motivated by what they learn. Here are just a couple examples I found:

  • Isaac Newton's mother pulled him out of school as a boy so he could run the family farm. He failed miserably. 
  • Thomas Edison was told by his teachers he was "too stupid to learn anything." 
  • Winston Churchill was estranged from his political party from 1929 to 1939.
  • Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor because he "lacked imagination and had no good ideas."
  • After one of Fred Astaire's first screen tests, an executive wrote: "Can't sing. Can't act. Slightly balding. Can dance a little."
  • R.H. Macy had a series of failed retail ventures before he launched what became Macy’s.
  • Mr. Honda's vision for how to build a car initially got him ostracized by the Japanese business community.
  • Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first television job as an anchor.
  • Steven Spielberg applied to USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and was rejected multiple times.
  • J.K. Rowling was a single mom living on welfare when she began writing the first "Harry Potter" novel.

And, my personal favorite...

  • Abraham Lincoln failed over and over for 28 years before he became the man many of us consider the greatest leader in American history.
  • Before Lincoln’s election as President in 1860 you can find 28 years of major failures.
  • In 1832, Lincoln was defeated for a position in the state legislature.
  • A year later his business failed.
  • In 1835, Lincoln’s sweetheart died, and a year later he had a nervous breakdown.
  • In 1838, Lincoln was defeated for the position of Speaker in the Illinois State Legislature.
  • In 1843, Lincoln failed to get his party’s nomination to run for congress.
  • After Lincoln was elected to congress in 1846, he lost his re-nomination from his political party to run again; after just two years of service.
  • In 1849, Lincoln lost an opportunity to become the Land Officer.
  • In 1854, he was defeated in his US Senate run.
  • In 1856, Lincoln was defeated for his run to be nominated as the Vice presidential candidate.
  • And, finally, in 1858, Lincoln again lost his run to become a US Senator.
  • An important thing to notice is that Lincoln never gave up...and in 1860 this failed businessman and politician was elected our greatest President.

Success in Judaism, and in life, is not measured by failure. Success in Judaism and in life, is measured by what we do in the face of failure.

How will we respond to our mistakes?

Will we defend ourselves or learn and change?

How resilient will we be in the face of adversity?

Many of you might not know this, but I rushed through High School in three and a half years and then I rushed through college in the same manner. All I wanted to do was to get to rabbinical school. Yet, when I entered the University of Judaism's rabbinic graduate program, I was miserable. I spent my earlier years loving Jewish activism. But now, my time was spent learning Aramaic and Biblical Grammar; Deuteronomic phraseology; who said what to whom in the Bible; and the Jewish legal minutia that is found in the Talmud.

I left after one semester of rabbinical school. I went to work as a paralegal in a law firm. I worked there for two and half years, and I was getting ready to go to law school. But, then I went to a Rosh HaShanah service. As I sat there with the Machzor in my hand, Roseanne looked up at me and saw that I was disturbed. She asked what was wrong. I shared that I had failed in what I really wanted to do. In more compassionate language than this, Roseanne said: “You did fail; not because you aren’t capable; but because you aren’t willing.” I knew she was right.

Soon after that conversation, I went back to do my seven years of rabbinic graduate studies. And here I am today. I believe I’m a better rabbi because of my initial failure. I learned a different way of life when I worked at the law firm. I came back to rabbinical school determined to be the student most willing to learn.

Each of us face moments in life where we fail to meet our own expectations, or the expectations of others. No failure defines us. It’s what we do about failure that defines us. What will be our “True Grit”?  How will we learn and grow from our adversity? When I look at my children, I sometimes get frustrated. Why don’t they do it this way? Why don’t they think this way? Why don’t they act this way?

But, I try to remember that we have to allow our children, as well as ourselves, the gift of failure. They will make mistakes, and because of these mistakes they will learn and grow. It's tempting to protect them.  We could re-write his or her history paper to get an A, but how much will they learn from this? Instead, we must let them get their own grade. A-minus, B, C, D, or even an F may inspire them to action. Because, this is how we all learn.

Our role as parents, especially as our children get older, isn’t to tell them what to do, but rather, to guide them, to be there for them when they need a good listener, and to let them know we believe in them; we believe they have the inner strength to see disappointments, mistakes and failures as launching pads to rocket to success. 

We come here tonight to begin our observance of Rosh HaShanah, and we start by acknowledging honestly where we have made mistakes. We take note of our wrong turns, and now we take a U-turn. God’s most powerful directional sign is the U-turn. We are encouraged to be brave and to change direction. Our Teshuvah, our repentance, isn’t easy. It takes serious contemplation. It calls upon strong personal resolve, and it requires dedicated hard work. Judaism gives us this sacred time to make U-turns. This sacred time is a gift we want to use well; and willingness is the key to success.


I started my sermon tonight with Baseball, so let me end it with baseball. I love the game, and I was pretty good at it. I was a strong hitter and a good fielder. Generally, I was also a good hustler. But, one day I hit a clean line drive to right field; then I took a slow jog to first base. I was not particularly alert to what was happening around me. The right fielder was especially quick to the ball and had a very strong arm. He threw me out at first base. I felt humiliated. As I came back to the bench my teammates looked at me without saying a word. Our coach looked away in silence. After that, I had two more hits in the game, and drove in the winning run. But, I was focused on my error and I was miserable.

To this day, I recall that play vividly. I still feel the embarrassment of my slothful jog to first base. I also know that I learned from it. It changed my game forever. From that moment on I ran out every ball full speed, no matter what. On several occasions, the ground ball I hit for an easy out, was unexpectedly boggled, and my hustling got me to first base instead of my being an easy out.

What I learned from my errors and failures in baseball; I also learn from my errors and failures in Judaism. I learned that slothful half-hearted commitment runs the risk of failure every time; whereas spiritual hustling delivers the highest likelihood of personal growth, positive change and success.

Right now we’re up to bat. Right now we get to decide how we will play out the game of our lives. Will we be like the boy who throws the ball up, swings, misses, and sees the positive in his efforts? Will we be like Moses, whose fit of temper, and hitting the rock twice, cost him the ability to enter the Promised Land? Will we be like Abe Lincoln, who overcame multiple failures to successfully change the future, for him and for us? Will we use these High Holidays to examine our errors and failures? Will we use the insights we gain to change and grow? Will we make a commitment to transform our lives and the lives of those we love?


As I wish us all a L’Shanah Tovah; a happy healthy New Year, I pray that each one of us hits a spiritual home run.


Rabbi Mitch




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