Planting for the Future by Counting our Blessings Today

Rosh Hashanah 5783 – 2022

“How awesome is this place – מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה!” (Ma Norah HaMakom HaZeh!)

It is awesome to see everyone, we are so glad that you are here both in person and online.

In our Torah we find Jacob, wary from a long journey, seeking a comfortable place to rest. He finds a smooth rock, places it under his head and drifts of to sleep. Deep in slumber he dreams about a ladder reaching all the way to heaven, on it angels going up and down. God then speaks to Jacob, “Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.[1]” Jacob awoke with a start and declared “Behold! God is in this place, and I did not know it.”

In that moment, when Jacob was filled with loneliness, fear and anxiety about change and an uncertain future, God helps lift Jacob’s eyes to recognize the blessings in his life – his family, his friends, and the beauty that surrounds him. Imbued with a renewed sense of self, Jacob can continue working to ensure that the blessing bestowed to his Grandfather Abraham, his father Isaac, and now him is also conferred upon future generations. Jacob understands both the blessings and responsibility by declaring:

“How awesome is this place – מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה!” (Ma Norah HaMakom HaZeh!

How awesome is this place. Surely God is in this place (though unlike Jacob we already knew that). Whether this is your first time here in two and half years, you were here on Friday night, you are joining us online, welcome home. Sure, this place is awesome because of the beautiful stained-glass windows, the intricate mosaic arc, because Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke right there, but really, this place is awesome because we are here just as generations have come before to both this sanctuary and other places to celebrate, to mourn, to pray, and to be in community. The people, all of us, in our community, young and old, make CMI awesome.

We demonstrated how awesome we are two weeks ago when we re-kindled our Shabbat Under the Stars service and when we re-energized our building during the first day of religious school, filling these walls with the sounds of kids laughing, people learning, embracing. Many of our students continue to ask when the tiger bounce-house will return. Soon.

We also showed how awesome we are over these past two years and long before, feeding the hungry, welcoming refugees, housing the unhoused, cooking, delivering food, and more, all by living our core Jewish values.

Tonight, we return together again to celebrate our new year 5783.

“How awesome is this place – מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה!” because we are here. (Ma Norah HaMakom HaZeh!)

Other places can be awesome too. Our homes, our schools, our offices, restaurants, Sleeping Giant and East Rock, these places can be awesome when filled with spirit and energy. When we pause to say, “How awesome is this place,” we engage in the Jewish practice called hakarat haTov, recognizing the good.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, an 18th century rabbi, understood the importance of hakarat hatov, recognizing the good. He taught: “Always look for the good in yourself.  And remember:  Joy is not incidental to your spiritual quest; it is vital.  For so it is written (Isaiah 55:12): ‘You will go out through joy and be led forth in peace.’” Rabbi Nachman continues, “Focus on the good in yourself; take joy in your blessings, and you will be led forth from inner darkness.[2]” Reb Nachman teaches us to embrace a positive outlook, like Jacob, when fear, loneliness and anxiety well up within us, recognizing our blessings and cultivating joy become essential to our spiritual and mental health.

Judaism offers us many tools for cultivating joy through community celebrations, of newborn babies, bmitzvah, weddings, and by fostering gratitude. Our rabbis teach that we should strive to recite at least 100 blessings in every day, whether we use a formulaic “Baruch atah Adonai” or simply by saying, “Wow!” Gratitude can also help us internalize the blessings in our lives and see that our ancestors worked to provide us with a solid foundation. Recognizing these gifts from our ancestors can motivate us to secure our children’s future so that they will also be able to say:

How awesome is this place – מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה!” (Ma Norah HaMakom HaZeh!)

When we engage in hakarat hatov, recognizing the good, we learn to become good ancestors for our descendants.

According to our 12th century commentator Rashi, the same place where Jacob lay his head and recognized God’s presence is the same place where Abraham bound Isaac, and the same place where the great Temples in Jerusalem once stood, today a space that stands atop the Western Wall. We can still go to the Western Wall, feel the 2000 year old limestone, put notes in the cracks and stand where the ancient Israelites once stood. Picture, for a moment, the year 4022. Will the Western Wall still exist in another 2000 years? Will future generation still put prayers of hope into the cracks in the wall? 4022 is the same amount of time in the future as our distance from when the Second Temple was destroyed.

This exercise generates an avalanche of additional questions:

What will our descendants read in their history books about this time period, just as we teach about the time of the Temple in Jerusalem? Will they, like us, teach of destruction and rebirth? Will they teach about a climate catastrophe or a courageous effort that saved our planet? Will they even be standing on Planet Earth?

I borrow this exercise from Ari Wallach, author of the book Longpath: Becoming the Great Ancestors our Future Needs. Wallach reminds us that, “we are part of something bigger than ourselves, and that while our own time is finite, we need to become the great ancestors our descendants need us to be.[3]” Wallach encourages us to embrace a model of living he calls “Longpath,” which “helps us start thinking and feeling beyond our individual life spans and to the impact we will have on future generations. And [to be mindful of the impact], that previous generations have had on us.”

Wallach further wrote in the Jewish Telegraph this summer about how his longpath mantra intertwine with his Jewish identity, especially in memory of Wallach’s father, a Holocaust Survivor. Wallach explains that the Longpath mantra is rooted in Judaism because Jews always look to the past to inform our future. As Rav Kook taught, hayashan nitchadesh, v’chadash nitkadesh, the old will become new and the new will become holy. Judaism teaches us that we don’t need some monumental lift, we just need to recognize “how even small actions [can] have [a] massive long-term effect.[4]” This idea was codified in Jewish thought nearly 2000 years ago:

לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.

“It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it;[5]
lo aleicha hamlicha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibateil mimena

The idea of working for our future can be found in a Talmudic parable about a man named Choni (the same person who drew a circle for rain). “One day, [Choni] was walking along the road when he saw a man planting a carob tree. Choni said to him: This tree, after how many years will it bear fruit? The man said to him: It will not produce fruit until seventy years have passed. Choni said to him: Is it obvious to you that you will live seventy years, that you expect to benefit from this tree? He said to Choni: [I] found [myself] in a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants.[6]

The simple act of planting one seed can transform a life, a community, even our world. As we return tomorrow for services in the daylight, take time to notice the carob tree on our patio, a reminder of how each generation of CMI members has strengthened the foundation for the future. In the spring and summer, you might recall seeing the seed pods fall from the tree and watching the kids giggle at the sound of the seeds inside. However, we might think, our historic building, and probably that tree, is only 60 years old yet it still bears fruit. Our Talmud didn’t mislead us and in fact carob trees hold an important lesson as we plan for the future.

Female Carob trees bear fruit in just 5-7 years, while male trees stay fruitless for 70 years, after which point, they transform and begin bearing fruit. If we plant a carob tree from seed we do not know which we are planting, and therefore if the tree will bear fruit in 7 or seventy years. Just as this fact didn’t prevent the man in Talmud from planting seeds of hope, it shouldn’t stop us either.

Hakarat haTov, recognizing the good and becoming good ancestors takes effort. On the High Holy Days, especially between now and Yom Kippur, we prepare for our new year by committing to be our best selves in the year to come. We return year after year because each of us is always working to be better ourselves, and to make our world more whole, filled with Shalom. Just like the carob trees, we seek a transformation, and as our wonderful religious school principal Michelle Goldstein pointed out, “if in seventy years a tree can transform, so can we.” It’s never too late to engage in one action that can make our world better today and for the future.

Even when our world might seem bleak, as we mourn the death of Roe V Wade, as we witness a most fractured nation, rising antisemitism, a baseless war in Ukraine, and climate change, our tradition still obligates us to continue repairing our world, even if we, ourselves, might not live to see the fruits of our labors. We must still work hard and plant one     seed     at      a       time. Seeds of hope, determination, kindness, real seeds, and seeds of joy. As we welcome the new year 5783, I pray that each one of us enters the year with joy.

Hakarat Hatov, appreciating the good in our lives gives us the courage to continue building a better future today, so that tomorrow, the next day, and forever in the future we can join with Jacob and say:

“How awesome is this place – מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה!” (Ma Norah HaMakom HaZeh!)

Shanah Tova u’metukah, may we all have a sweet, healthy, and awesome new year.

[1] Gen 28:15

[2] Mishkan HaNefesh: Yom Kippur: Machzor for the Days of Awe (p. 312). CCAR Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] Wallach, Ari. Longpath (p. 10). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. 


[5] Pirkei Avot 2:16

[6] Taanit 23a