A Drash for Rosh HaShannah 5777
By Marc Mangel
In the late 1960s and 1970s, there was a poster of a young couple hugging, with the sun sparking between them. On the bottom of the poster was written: “Today is the first day of the rest of your life”. People often repeated as if it was profound. But of course, every day is the first day of the rest of your life.
However, today – and the 9 days that follow – have a special profoundity because of the way that memory and expectation merge to change the future through Teshuvah.
Regarding memory, Rav Soloveitchik wrote that “memory of those situations and experiences from the past which, in many senses, has not died or been erased but continues to exist in the inner recesses of our hearts.”
Faulker put it as “The past is never dead. It is not even past”, but it is more complicated than that.
According to the Alter Rebbe even when we do genuine Teshuvah, a trace of impurity remains for two reasons. First, the heavens are timeless so that past and present exist together. Second, there is always the possibility that our past teshuvah was sufficient then but we have grown and it is not sufficient for our current standing.
But the last Rebbe said that we should not be deterred or depressed by these observations: since the permanent effects of sin remain at some distance, we can revisit them to improve ourselves but should not berate ourselves about them.
Rav Soloveitchik continues that the second realm of activity for our very existence is the expectations of the future: our plans and hopes for tomorrow and beyond.
What is meant by expectation? A simple interpretation is that it means something that comes to us. I work and expect a salary. We pray during these 10 days and expect good things to come as a result.
But expectation can also mean something else: it takes into account all the things that might happen, weighting them by the chance that they happen.
For example, one may decide during the ten days of Teshuvah not to drink and drive or not to text and drive or even not to eat a sandwich and drive. Although we may expect that we’d not be in an accident, such Teshuvah does not ever guarantee that we’ll not be in a car accident – although it surely shifts the expectation of an accident free year, it does not make such a year certain.
So it is with everything else in our lives. We cannot make deals with God – that’s not what these 10 days of deep introspection and goals of changing ourselves are about – but rather we make deals with ourselves counting on God to give us strength and insight for how to achieve the goals and increase the expectation of a great year.
Here’s how Rabbi Michael Gold put it: too many of us are mistaken to think “that God is like a giant vending machine; put in the right change and you get the right result. Say the right prayers and God will respond in the appropriate way…Prayer is a kind of magic, a way in which we can control the universe”
The Hebrew word for prayer comes from lehitpalel – meaning to judge yourself. Thus, prayer is not something we do to God but something we do to ourselves.
Rabbi Gold goes on “In other words, prayer is way to change us. And when we change for the better, it is as if God answered ‘yes’…If we pray to change God, then there is a good chance that God will answer ‘no’. If we pray to change ourselves, then there is a good chance that God will answer ‘yes’…Prayer is a means to renew ourselves”
To finish with Rav Soloveitchik “we do not live with the past, but with the future of which the past has become a part”.
Memory and expectation come together to give significance to our lives. This is what the 10 days of Teshuvah is about: converting the past into part of our character to change expectations for the future.