Day 1 Rosh Hashanah 2013
Monday, 14 July 2014 | 16 Tammuz, 5774
Adam, Abraham and James Hird
First Day Rosh Hashanah Drasha 2013
Rabbi Ralph Genende
He is charismatic and clean skinned. There is an awesome, unreal glow that he radiates, the light just seems to pour off him. He is handsome, envy of the angels, awe of the demons with a perfectly buffed body and a strong independent mind.
He is Adam, the first man, who strides across the universe with confidence and absolute belief in himself, in his power and potential to shape this world and make things happen. Today, Rosh Hashana, is his birthday.
Let me tell you about another exceptional individual. There was always something about this man, one of the most likeable, decent, widely admired players the game has ever produced. Engaging, hard-working, immensely skilled and talented sport star of the past 22 years – James Hird. He too believed he could shape the world and make things happen.
And like Adam we have witnessed his painful fall from grace and now while I am no footy maven, in fact I speak to you as an AFL agnostic, more at home with CHC and CSG than the MCG,I do believe there is a profound Rosh Hashanah message in this sad story.
It cuts deep because James was the kind of hero we long for – a man of determination and decency, tenacity and likeability, grit and goodness, success and straightforwardness. If all hero-worship has an element of self-worship to it, James is the kind of human being that many of us want to be; audacious, tenacious, accomplished and adored.
And in this lies one of the significant morals of this tawdry tale. We should have known better. We should have known that when you expect perfection of any human being it's going to end badly. Only God is perfect, the best we can do is strive for excellence...
Judaism has always been acutely aware that even the greatest have feet of clay and are ultimately flawed human beings.
Isn't this, after all, the story of Adam. He sets off with so much promise onto the playing fields of Eden Park and he fails so spectacularly in his grace and in his mission. And perhaps worst off all, for a good while he can't admit he has even partially failed, can't acknowledge his short-comings: I didn't really do anything wrong – it was Eve's fault, the snake's fault, the place's fault and maybe even your fault God. After all you made me think I was superman.
It is especially hard for leaders, for people of exceptional ability to take responsibility for failures, to question their decision and to be challenged.
There is always a fine line between pushing the envelope, challenging the boundaries and over-reaching yourself, between accepting limitations and becoming arrogant, a law unto yourself. Adam crossed this line, James crossed these lines, Essendon skirted across this boundary.
And herein lies another important Rosh Hashanah message for all of us. It's that when you set out to win at all costs, you will stumble and sometimes at a spectacular cost. Success needs to always be measured against principles and values.
As the anguished Essendon player's mother told Eddie McGuire: "The whole question is not about cheating, it's about morals, it's about ethics and it's about trust that parents put in their clubs to take care of their kids."
Why do we find it so hard to accept responsibility? (Why didn't James Hird recognise his situation earlier, step aside earlier to help his club and salvage his reputation?) The answer to this perhaps lies in an intriguing interpretation of the story of the akedah, the binding of Isaac which we read tomorrow. An angel of God intervenes and prevents Abraham from sacrificing his son and then God declares:
עתה ידעתי כי ירא אלקים אתה
Now I know that you are a man who fears God
Asks the great Chassidic teacher Rav Menachem Mendel of Kotzk: Why the emphasis on "now". Surely the moment Abraham bound Yitzchak on the altar God knew that he was one special leader, one awesome "fearer". This statement should have come earlier, right at the beginning...why wait until now to give him the recognition?
The answer of the Kotzker is nothing short of amazing: He says that taking Isaac off the altar was much harder than putting him on there in the first place! It was more painful for Abraham to release Isaac than it was to bind him; it was tougher for Abraham to step backwards at this point than it was to step forward in the first place.
Rabbi Norman Lamm explains: What he means is not that Abraham was a sado-masochist but rather that the nature of humanity is that once a person has taken a clear position or stand in life they find it extremely difficult to back down, to retreat. Abraham had risked everything by putting Isaac's life at risk. His reputation, his wife's love, his relationship with his son, his sanity, his expectation of God. He had gone so far to prove he was a warrior of God, a knight of faith. And now to step back was to say: "I got it all wrong, I was mistaken. My self-image as a heroic, tragic figure was in error". His ability to do so now is therefore what earns Abraham God's special praise and recognition
Once we have achieved a fixed position, we don't want to change, we find it so hard to change. Self-justification of our past dictates our future. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a time of teshuvah, a time to say – I messed up, I got it wrong. I am willing to start all over again.
That's the greatest challenge – to abandon self-justification for self-rectification, to acknowledge that I may have been a lousy Jew, wayward husband, a wrong-headed parent or a business partner, a pig-headed rabbi or a chazer of a congregant. Or a football coach who went just too far (who failed to listen to the doctor's warnings;) who neglected the truths that had always guided him .But the apologies from Hird and Essendon last week were in the true repenting spirit of this season ...maybe they're really secret Jews? Saying sorry still seems to be the hardest word to say (thanks Elton) Justas with the man who approaches his rabbi before YK and asks: Do I really have to apologise to my friend Goldenberg for all the wrong I did to him? Rabbi assures him there is no other way. 'Can I do it on phone? "he asks .Rabbi :It's not ideal but OK .So he phones and when Goldberg answers he asks –Is that Katz ?.G: ''No its Goldenberg" Oh, I'm so sorry...
Is the final moral of this Biblical like saga– 'don't have any heroes' or as therapist Sheldon Kopp put it: "If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him!" I think we still need heroes and role models but they aren't necessarily the ones of popular cultures – movie, media and sport stars. They are often the invisible, the ordinary and unsung, the surgeons working in the slums, the social workers and rabbis helping hurting families, the young men women volunteering across the world, the sensitive teachers, the thoughtful business mentors, the mums and dads who care enough about their kids. The Talmud gives such an example when it talks about two simple and menial labourers working in the most undesirable district of Jerusalem who remembered and carried a truth that the sages had forgotten; the rabbis couldn't remember what to do but these ordinary workers hadn't and they carried the day ...
None of us is perfect. Each of us has failed in one way or another. Like Adam we may have failed ourselves ethically or morally; like Abraham we may have gotten caught up in preserving our lifestyles or reputation. Even the greatest stumble and falter; Nelson Mandela likes to say. "Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying." Rosh Hashanah is actually an attempt to dislodge us from our inertia or old habits, the tyranny of self-justification.
Let me conclude with a little Talmudic story about Adam who after he sinned was feeling down and depressed facing the darkness without and within. He had just been exiled from the garden and the very light of his own skin had diminished...Facing the end of the second day of his life he acknowledges and knows he has done wrong ,that his previous excuses were just empty and desperate rationalisations ;he is ready to step back but is frightened by the growing darkness. It is at this point that Godrecognises Adam's remorse and places in him the insight, the capacity to create fire
והביא שני אבנים יטחנו זו
And so he brought two stones and ground them together and a flame shot out of them.
The creation or discovery of fire and light was gifted to the first human beings because they had taken the first step to self-enlightenment. Unlike Prometheus they didn't have to steal it from the resentful gods. And in this way Adam is able to reclaim the original iridescent light of his inner-self. And so at Rosh Hashanah time when we accept our limitations and are willing to surrender our excuses and cop-outs, embrace our frailties and let go of our old certitudes, God grants us the gift of light, the charm of creativity and the powerful flame of renewal.
May this light guide is through the year to come and may the light of God cast its light on you and yours.