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Erev Rosh Hashanah 5782 Sermon Video and Transcript by Rabbi David Stern

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5782 Sermon Video and Transcript by Rabbi David Stern

• by Erica Drogoszewski

Watch Rabbi Stern's "Extra Life" sermon HERE

Extra Life

Rosh Hashana 5782

September 6, 2021

Rabbi David Stern


I said at the beginning of our service what a year it has been, and how grateful we all are to have at least traveled this path together.  But the truth is, what a year and a half it has been.

Along with, thank God, the blessing of some silver linings, we have endured the isolation of living alone; coped with the stress of homes that were classrooms and offices and playrooms and board rooms; done our best to figure out our own families’ practices amidst constantly changing circumstances; all while so many of our congregants and staff have served on the front lines in hospitals, schools and more.

What we thought we had done well to endure at six months last Rosh Hashana we have experienced for three times that now: the loss of loved ones made even more painful by their isolation and ours; occasions of joy still joyous, but different at a distance; all the while doing our best to transcend the rectangles on our Zoom screens. 

We pray that this gathering of our Temple community at this new year will bring strength and solace to us all.

America has lost 645,000 lives to the virus, approaching the total lives lost in the Civil War, and well more than the total of American lives lost in Viet Nam, Korea and World War II combined - and each life an entire world.  Last year’s shofar blast trumpeted a renewal that was full of hope and tinged with shadow.

But if we are here tonight, wherever our “here” might be, it is because we are survivors.  Likely by prudence and caution, or the miracles and counsel of modern medicine, or the support of loved ones, and probably some good old-fashioned dumb luck – we have made it to another Rosh Hashana. By the Book of Life or some coincidence of the cosmos, we have been granted another year.

To be honest, I have some difficulty with the Book of Life metaphor, or at least how we understand it. Its power is unmistakable, but its unintended consequence is to get us all hung up on the question of whether we will be granted more time, instead of directing our attention to what we can really do something about – which is how to use the time we’ve been given.

We are here because we are survivors, and Rosh Hashana wants to know what we intend to do with the gift of days that has now been placed before us.  Even in our sometimes sadness and exhaustion, this Rosh Hashana insists on a promising question of purpose: “What now?”

The truth is, as Americans living in the 21st century, we’ve been given not only an extra year, but as science writer Steven Johnson puts it in the title of his latest fascinating book, an Extra Life.[1] Johnson chronicles the causes behind a remarkable fact: the doubling of human life expectancy across the world in the past century, from about 40 years to about 80 years here in America.  The numbers are of course averages – we have lost too many at ages far short of average life expectancy, with our own personal losses as heartbreaking reminders.

And even as Johnson illuminates this remarkable achievement, he warns that this is no time for a victory lap – the combination of the opioid epidemic, the tragic increase in suicides, and Covid-19 have led to the first three consecutive years of decline in American life expectancy since the Spanish flu.

But even with that decline, the “extra life” achievement of the past century still stands. You can guess some of the causes: antibiotics, epidemiology, pasteurization, vaccination, regulation.  But as I read Johnson’s book this summer, I couldn’t help but hear the Rosh Hashana question, and it was a question not of medical advances, but of meaning: what do I hope to do with this amazing gift, the extra life I have been given?

The question comes not with a sense of foreboding, but of opportunity; not with a ticking mortal clock, but with the spaciousness of a gift. I know this runs contrary to the somber hues with which we sometimes paint Rosh Hashana, but that sobriety too often obscures the fact that this is a day to rejoice in the reality that we are alive – that we can laugh, love, argue, advocate, choose, repent, repair.  In the words of physicist Brian Greene, “To survive is to kindle the search for why survival matters.”[2] In the words of Rosh Hashana, “What now?”

So here’s my answer. Precisely because many of us feel demoralized by the resurgence of the pandemic, we should answer the “what now” question with acts of spiritual resistance to COVID and its constraints. Not to resist vaccines – they are saving lives every day.  Not to resist masks – they are limiting the spread. Not to resist social distancing – we can hug next year.

But if one of the most deleterious effects of Covid has been to shrink our lives, we can resist it by living our lives more deeply: by meeting physical confinement with the force of broader vision, by bridging social distance with societal concern, by combating narrow self-absorption with spirits open to the joys and sorrows and safety of others, by eschewing all the noise of toxic posturing for moments of quiet and wonder.  The extra life calls for spiritual resistance to Covid.

We start by recognizing that the extra life begins with one day. In tomorrow’s service, after each sounding of the shofar, our prayerbook follows with a 32-word medieval poem, Hayom Harat Olam: this is the day of the world’s birth. Traditionally, we understand “this” day to refer to Rosh Hashana.  But what if we were to utter the same phrase not just tomorrow, but the day after tomorrow, and the day after that, and every single day? Hayom Harat Olam: on this day, each day, every day, a world is born?

On the most personal level, to speak those words means to accept the challenge of my own renewal, to actually believe that with God’s help something new can begin in me this day, not just by a turn of the calendar, and not just if somebody else goes first, but by a conscious turn of my own heart.

This is not a sweat-free prospect. It is a demand of Rosh Hashana’s “what now” faith: to throw off the weight of resignation, to really believe that I can change, and then accept the responsibility such a belief confers.  To believe that with the help of the God who awaits our return in every moment, my self-centeredness yesterday can turn towards greater empathy today; that the blinders of ego can yield to the vision of humility; that yesterday’s resentment might become today’s compassion for precisely the person who really gets under my skin; today’s acrid impatience tomorrow’s extra beat and breath of understanding. 

We so often get stuck in pinning our own prospects on the behaviors of others.  “If only my - (fill in the blank) colleague, co-worker, boss, spouse, children, parents - would do this instead of that, my attitude would change.” Of course external circumstances affect us - the pandemic is ample proof of that.  But we are also at risk of giving those external circumstances too much power, and sometimes dodging our own responsibilities in the process.

In the extra life that begins this day, Judaism does not ask us to be reborn as someone or something else. The rabbis of the Talmud spoke of teshuva mei’ahava, “repentance out of love,”[3] the repentance through which I take the energy of my transgression and redirect it toward the good; identify the kernel of virtue even in my misdeeds, and seek to bring it to the forefront of who I am. 

If I am ambitious, can I turn that ambition away from greed, and towards the achievements of service? If I am argumentative, can I banish my debating skills from a conversation where they hurt someone I love and use them instead to argue for the downtrodden? Can my petty anger become outrage at human suffering? If I am nurturing, can I bring that instinct beyond the safely fortressed walls of my own home, and to a place where nurturing is far too scarce?

In commenting on Tolstoy’s view of moral transformation, the writer George Saunders describes something remarkably similar to Judaism’s “repentance out of love”: “We don’t have to become an entirely new person to do better,” Saunders writes. “We don’t have to swear off our powers or repent of who we are or what we like to do or are good at doing. Those are our horses; we just have to hitch them to the right sled.”[4]

In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “To claim to be what I am not is a pretension.  To insist that I must be only what I am now is a restriction human nature must abhor.”[5] To live into my extra life is to accept the challenge of personal change, hopefully with a good bit of compassion and patience for myself along the way.

The first way we resist the stasis of COVID days is by seeding dynamic change within ourselves. The second way is by seeing beyond ourselves.

The quarantines that left us gazing at our own four walls are all too apt a metaphor for the radical confinement of empathy in our lives, the gravitational pull of self-concern. The inability to recognize a masked face is all too reflective of our failures to see the other. How small we have made our worlds, long before Covid-19 emerged onto the scene.

We all want to range farther than this pandemic has allowed us to do. We want to move again, to travel again, to discover again. (I don’t know about you, but Nancy and I have a non-refundable deposit collecting dust – and interest - somewhere near Machu Picchu.)

But what if our first journeys in the extra life were to include not just a postponed vacation, or a trip to see the grandchildren, but a journey towards the perspective of another human being? In a polarized culture where every disagreement invites antagonism rather than curiosity, the voyage to understand another person’s way of thinking would be the stuff of Marco Polo, Amelia Earhart and Neil Armstrong all rolled into one. Proust put it this way: “The only true voyage of discovery would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another.”[6]

What does it mean to live out yet another hurricane, impoverished, in Jefferson Parish? To live with fear in Gaza, or on a kibbutz near the Gaza border? How does it feel when the police who patrol your neighborhood do not bring you a sense of safety? What does it mean to have your son be killed in the last days of our military presence in Afghanistan?

Can I discover the integrity of a political position I vehemently oppose? Can I encounter the joyous achievement of a colleague without getting jealous on my own life’s path? Can I journey into the space of someone whose gender identity puts their lives at risk on a city street?

Those are some potential itineraries in the journey of the extra life that begins this day. We don’t need Global Entry to make the trip, but we do need courage and curiosity. These voyages of discovery do not ask us to tolerate the intolerable, to accept the diminution of human life and dignity, to forsake our commitments.  They do ask us to hold those commitments with both deep conviction and true humility. We don’t need a passport – we just need to know what to declare when Rosh Hashana asks, “What now?”

In the sixteenth century, the great sage Rabbi David ibn Zimra, who for forty years served as Chief Rabbi of Cairo, was asked a question about a Jew named Reuven who was in jail.  Because Reuven was imprisoned, he could not go out to pray in a minyan or to fulfill the mitzvot. The prisoner pleaded before the officer in charge, who relented and said that Reuven could be free for one day a year, whichever day he chose.  And so they asked Rabbi ibn Zimra: Which day among all the days of the year should Reuven select?”

One authority gave the answer we might guess: Yom Kippur.  But Rabbi ibn Zimra disagreed: “The first mitzvah that is available to him, that he could not fulfill while imprisoned – that is the first mitzvah he should do.  It doesn’t matter what day of the year it is. It doesn’t even matter what the mitzvah is, how great or small you think it might be.  The first mitzvah he is free to do, he should do.”[7] Dr. Daniel Matt sums up ibn Zimra’s opinion: “The holiest moment is now.”[8]  Or in the words of Rosh Hashana, Hayom Harat Olam – on this day – every day – the world can be born anew.

How does the journey into an extra life begin? With this promising day. With this ready heart. With these potential deeds, this beckoning world.

My grandfather used to tell this story of Michelangelo, who once visited the studio of the young Raphael. The studio was empty, but on Raphael’s easel was a canvas with a very beautiful but small figure sketched on it. Michelangelo took up a brush and wrote one Latin word: “Amplius” – “Larger.”[9]

Amplius – after so much narrowness and confinement, may that be the measure of our spiritual resistance to Covid, the measure of our extra life that begins this Rosh Hashana.

Not more days, but larger ones.  A larger sense of gratitude to God that we are alive to greet a new year and each new day. A larger compassion, a larger kindness, a more expansive view of the world and our possibilities in it.  A larger range of hearing for the outcries of the suffering.  A larger hour that lets us move through the world a little more slowly, with time for wonder. A larger moral ambit. A larger forgiveness. The discovery of a larger resilience and strength. A larger hope.

Amplius – on this day, the world is born anew. For us, for those we love, for all of God’s creation, may this new year, and each new day, be great in blessing. 

Shana Tova.

[1] Steven Johnson, Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer. New York: Riverhead Books, 2021.

[2] Brian Greene, Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2020, p. 187.

[3] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma 86a.

[4] George Saunders, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.  New York: Random House, 2021, pp. 242-243.

[5] Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Who is Man? Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1965. Quoted in Moments of Transcendence: Inspirational Readings for Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, ed. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1992, p. 250.

[6] Greene, p. 234.

[7] David ben Shlomo ibn Abi Zimra, She’elot u’Teshuvot ha-Radbaz. New York: Otzar Hasefarim, 1966, 4:3a, responsum no. 1087. My paraphrase of the translation in Daniel C. Matt, God and the Big Bang: Discovering Harmony Between Science and Spirituality.  Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1996, p. 100.

[8] Matt, p. 100.

[9] Jacob Philip Rudin, Very Truly Yours: A Harvest of Forty Years in the Pulpit. New York: Bloch Publishing Company, 1971, p. 284.

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