When I started thinking about what to say in a d’var Torah for Rosh Hashana, my first thought was to read the Torah portion. When I was reading, though, I had another question come to mind. Why are we reading this story today?
As we know, odds are that many Jews in the world only catch two Torah portions a year, so Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are the Torah’s days to shine. When it is your big moment, why pick this story out of the many, many options we have.
We could spend the day reading about Kashrut. We could spend it reading about Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. But we instead spend it focusing on something else completely. And one of those highlights is the birth of Isaac, the first person in the world to ever be born Jewish.
In Judaism, there is a big focus on ends and beginnings. We do that every week on Shabbos, when we celebrate the end of a week. We can look back and reflect, kick our shoes off, and enjoy a good l’chaim with friends and family as we rest and recharge for the next one.
Rosh Hashana is very unlike Shabbos in that regard. We were not together yesterday kicking off our shoes and relaxing to celebrate the end of another year. Instead, we are facing forward, with prayers and traditions about the upcoming year, not the year behind us.
We have plenty of time to repent and focus on the next year on Yom Kippur, so why start today and spend the next ten days looking forward to the upcoming year, and hardly give lip service to what we achieved and celebrated last year?
It’s an interesting puzzle to solve, but I think we can get there.
The Great Sages have many things to say about why we read this portion on Rosh Hashana, but most of them did not live in an age with Facebook, texting, or Amazon Prime 2 Day Delivery.
Today, we have many competing interests for our limited attention spans, and that is why it is important for us to find our own connection.
In today’s reading, we quickly discuss that HaShem gave Abraham and Sarah a baby boy. Abraham was 100, Sarah was 90. Even with today’s medical science, this would be quite the miracle.
We usually give most of our attention in this story to the fact that Abraham and Sarah were well past their childbearing prime when they had Yitschak. But that is not the part I want to focus on.
Today, we are starting a new year. And today, we read about Abraham and Sarah starting a new life. I have a baby on the way in the next couple of months, so this one aspect of the Torah portion is extra relevant to me this time around, but like all things Torah related, there is a deeper meaning to what is going on.
Any parent, big brother, or big sister knows how much work it is to start a new life. Once the baby is born, you can expect months of sleepless nights and days of pandering to the needs of a little one who cannot fend for themselves. It’s a lot of work.
A New Year will happen whether we put in work or not. I could be at home napping today, or at the office, or here with you, and the new year will happen either way. So why should I put in the work to be here? Why should I put any extra effort into the new year when my favorite holidays are a lot less work?
THAT, is what today’s Torah portion is all about. Or at least a few lines of it.
Most experiences I have had in life adhere to a simple rule: you get out of it what you put into it.
When Abraham and Sarah had a desire for a new child, they prayed and prayed for decades before their prayers were answered. But praying was the easy part, as this new parent is about to experience.
Bringing a new life to a healthy and successful adulthood is hard work. And bringing a new year to success is hard work as well.
While the last year is now behind us, the new one is now starting. We have an entire year to reach our goals, live our dreams, and work on our relationships with Hashem, our family, our friends, and our community.
Don’t take the lazy way out.
The Rebbe once said: “I will only add that the Yetzer Hora is never lazy, and is very busy and industrious in his efforts to distract a Jew from his service to G‑d. Therefore, you must have a ready weapon with which to combat him.”
You are already here. That is step one into putting in the work for a successful year. But the work does not stop today, or on Yom Kippur, or Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret, Simchas Torah, or any other day until we read this same portion in the Torah next year.
There is no app for connecting with Hashem. There are only actions we can take. Just like I will be busy feeding and caring for my new child in the coming months, we all must care for our spiritual wellbeing.
I challenge you to pick something new that you’ve never done before, but have been curious about, in this Jewish new year. Maybe it is giving up bacon. Maybe it is starting Dof Yomi. Maybe it is finding a time each week to read a page of Tanya with your favorite Chabad Rabbi. Maybe it is just taking the time to ask a question each time you visit this house, or any congregation you visit. I have tons of questions each time I read the Torah or say a prayer.
This year, I’m going to find out more about why we do the things we do. That is my challenge to myself.
So, that’s why I think we read this small clip of the Torah today, on the Super Bowl of Judaism when everyone is watching and listening. That is why we look at this story. The Genesis of Judaism may have begun with the creation of Adam in the Garden of Eden, but our own experience with Judaism in the coming year starts today.
May we treat this new year like a new Jewish child. We will care for it and put in the effort to turn it into something amazing. Something we can look back at next Erev Rosh Hashanah with a smile before we get ready to do it all again.