Living in Boxes (Rosh HaShanah Morning 5781, Rabbi David S. Widzer; 9/19/2020)
I have spent the past year of my life living in boxes. A year ago in August, my former congregation in New Jersey merged with another temple, so we moved out of our building. Most of my papers and books and belongings were packed up and stored, so I lived for a rabbinic year out of the few boxes I brought with me. In January, once I was blessed with the opportunity to move to Virginia to be the next rabbi of Temple B’nai Shalom, my family started collecting boxes in our garage to begin packing up our home. In May and June, boxes helped conceal clutter as we put our house on the market. In July, we began packing in earnest and, in August, the movers came and put the rest of our lives into boxes marked “Kitchen” or “Living Room” or “Miscellaneous.” Once the boxes all arrived in Virginia, we began unpacking. Thanks to the heroic effort of my wife, we are about two-thirds unpacked, with many now-empty boxes living once again in our garage. (If you would like any, please let me know!)
Those aren’t the only boxes I’ve been living in, of course. When the pandemic shut down normal routines, much of my life shifted to little boxes on the computer screen. I had used Zoom before March, but never as much as I have since then. For meetings, classes, conferences, seminars, interviews, and, yes, worship, like so many of us, I have been in my box in the digital realm. And in the real world, like so many of us, I’ve been confined for long periods at a time to the box that is my house.
But my favorite boxes of the past year are those that arrive, seemingly on a daily basis, on my front steps. Maybe you’ve gotten them, too. They say on them, “Amazon,” or “Zappos” or “Nordstrom” or “Chewy.” The variety is endless. These boxes come in every conceivable shape and size. I’m not the primary shopper in my house, so I never quite know what is in them before they are opened. I’ve learned not to have too many expectations, but rather to be pleasantly surprised with the shoes, dresses, cat food, blue light glasses, or hooks for hanging picture frames that come out of them. Truly, the possibilities are endless.
I’m not sure who exactly did the ordering, but I can’t imagine that when we opened up the box of the year 5780 twelve months ago that we ever expected what we would find. Or, in secular terms, ever since we opened up the box of 2020, we have been confronted by one unexpected thing after another. An insatiable, seemingly unstoppable virus. Economic distress. Racial injustice. Natural disasters. Health care crises. Educational challenges. This certainly seems like a box we would quickly ship back, marked “Return to Sender,” if such a thing were possible.
Despite the calamities of this year, I still believe in the inherent possibilities of boxes. As we open up this new Jewish year of 5781, what will we find? Allow me to draw upon my extensive experience with boxes this year to suggest a few possibilities.
We might find old things that we want to get rid of. How many of us have moved from one home to another, only to realize in unpacking that we didn’t really need to bring this stuff with us? Growing up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, a family with kids about my age moved in down the block. Our families became friends. A month or two later, we were visiting at their home and marveled at how few things they had left to unpack. But in the corner of one room were several boxes still tightly taped shut. When we asked about them, the dad turned one of the boxes around so we could see what it was labeled: “Things We Should Have Thrown Out Three Moves Ago.”
Fortunately for us, this season of the year is perfect for tossing away the things in our boxes that we no longer want to keep. At the High Holy Days, we are called upon to engage in cheshbon hanefesh, literally, an accounting of our souls. What do we want to get rid of? Which of our negative habits? Our unkind ways? What did we do this past year that we regret? That we wish we had not done? This is the season for leaving those behind as we enter a new year.
It’s not quite as easy as putting a box out by the trash, of course. Cheshbon hanefesh should lead to acts of teshuvah, repentance and returning, saying we are sorry to those we have hurt and making amends. We may symbolically get rid of our sins by casting bread upon waters at the ceremony of tashlich, drawing upon a verse in the book of Micah, but there’s more work that should be involved. True repentance allows us to leave behind our past misdeeds and start the year with a clean slate. We empty the “Should Have Thrown This Out” box of what we did wrong to start the year anew.
On the other hand, in some of our boxes are old things that we want to keep as we move through life. Years ago, for each of our kids, we labeled a big plastic bin with their name. Into it went nursery school paintings and special birthday cards, programs from plays and music recitals, letters from camp and school projects. In a different era, or if I were more artistically inclined, these would be pages of scrapbooks. But nevertheless, we have these mementoes. These boxes are memory kits, collections of things we keep from our past to bring us the warmth of recollection in the future.
How true, as well, for us at this time of year. As we turn the page from one year to the next, we reflect back on the year that was. While we dispense with some of our actions and misdeeds, others we keep: friendships made, accomplishments achieved, experiences lived. They shape and inform how we view the year ahead, the goals we set, and the promises we make for the future.
The High Holy Days are also a season of memory. One of the most impactful moments of Yom Kippur comes at our Yizkor service. The liturgy evokes loved ones who are no longer with us. While the pain of those losses can be palpable, hopefully, we are also heartened by the memories we recall. They are precious keepsakes that we take out of their storage boxes to hold tenderly, bringing back fond feelings.
Apart from old things we want to be rid of, and things we want to keep, sometimes boxes contain things that are new. It’s a new game ordered as a birthday present, a new sweater for the upcoming season, a new book we’re excited to read. Each new package represents experiences yet to unfold. When Karen and I got engaged, it was exciting to see the wedding presents piling up as possibilities for our future life together. Two different waffle makers, one round and one square; a giant serving bowl larger than any meal the two of us could eat alone; a cordless drill with multiple bits. Each present box hinted at the limitless possibilities of what would come next.
As we begin a new year, we open ourselves up to limitless possibilities as well. What will the year ahead bring? Ordinarily, this question would likely be met with excitement. This year, I think there is some healthy trepidation and concern, given our experience with the box marked 2020. But the box labeled 5781 is just now being opened. Its potential is unmarred.
Still, this year has been a cautionary tale. In fact, it reminds me of a story, not from our tradition, but from another ancient Near Eastern civilization. There’s more of a backstory to it, but we’ll pick up the legend from Greek mythology of a woman named Pandora as her curiosity gets the better of her. She had been given a box by the Greek gods, who wanted to use her to punish humanity. She was told not to look inside it. Perhaps excited at its possibility, and definitely overcome by her curiosity, she can’t help herself and opens the lid. Out fly all of the worst evils the Greek gods sought to inflict on humanity: war, disease, jealousy, distrust, hatred, pain, greed, and more. She tries to contain them, to prevent them from infecting the world, but only manages to hold onto one thing – hope. When the rest of the world is overrun by these horrible forces, a human being can still cling to hope.
The Jewish people knows about hope: hope for ourselves, hope for our community, hope for our world, hope for our future. Hope is part of the Jewish DNA. Time and again in our sacred scriptures, God tells Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “Al tirah, do not fear.” Have hope. Hope is even in the signature song of our peoplehood. In 1878, Naftali Hertz Imber wrote a nine-stanza Hebrew poem that became the hymn of the Zionist movement and, eventually, the national anthem of the State of Israel. It’s called “Hatikvah,” “The Hope.”
When the world is beset by horrible forces, plagues and injustice and disaster, we hold onto hope. We know that the world that is does not have to be the world that will be. Our tradition allows for the possibility of change. The awesome words of the Untaneh Tokef prayer that we recite on the High Holy Days picture God, as it were, decreeing the destiny of every human being. This can be a fatalistic and troubling theology. And yet, even with its words, there is the possibility for change. There is hope that, whatever box we may be constrained in for the coming year, we can emerge into a different reality. The text says that teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah, turning back to the right path, sincerity in prayer, acts of righteous caring, can change what will happen to us. We can change what will happen to us. We can take actions that make a difference in our own lives and in the lives of others, compelled by our hope for the future.
This day of Rosh HaShannah is known as the birthday of the world, the anniversary of creation itself. And so we have a passage in the Shofar Service that proclaims “hayom harat olam,” “today is the day of the world’s birth.” But the Hebrew word “olam” can mean either “world,” as in the physical place, or “eternity,” as in a sense of time. The Hebrew root in “harah” can signify either “birth” or “pregnant.” The phrase “harat olam” is first found in the Book of Jeremiah (20:17), where Jeremiah is distraught over his role as prophet and wishes he had never been born. He would rather that his mother had never brought him into the world and instead been “harat olam,” “eternally pregnant.” Rabbi Marcia Prager teaches that this verse lets us reinterpret the phrase in the Shofar Service, “hayom harat olam,” not as “today is the day of the world’s birth,” but “today is eternally pregnant.” Today holds the limitless possibilities that have yet to come into existence. Today, right now, each and every moment, is always filled with what might yet be. It is a box yet unopened, its potential yet unmarred.
That is the year we begin today. That is what this season of the Jewish year is all about: potential; renewal; hope. We unpack our boxes, looking back at this past year. We empty out and get rid of that which we no longer want, things we need not bring with us in move after move, things we can apologize for sincerely, and move on. We put into storage that which we want to retain, memories and experiences, mementos and feelings. And we open ourselves up to the limitless possibilities that a new year brings.
We do not yet know what will unfold this year. We know not the contents of this box we’ve been gifted. But we know, with hope, that its possibilities are endless.
I’ve been living in boxes for a year and I suspect you have, too. But our boxes need not confine us or constrain us.
May we recognize that the “world as it is” is only a precursor to “the world as it can be.”
May we always hold onto the hope of eternal possibilities.
And let us say, Amen. See https://greece.mrdonn.org/greekgods/pandora.html; https://www.britannica.com/topic/Pandora-Greek-mythology  To Abraham (Gen 15:1), to Isaac (Gen 26:24), to Jacob (Gen 46:3).  http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/hatikvah/  We may know the phrases, “Melech Ha’olam,” “Ruler of the world,” and “l’olam va’ed,” which means “for ever and ever.”  I learned this insight from Rabbi Marcia Prager, by way of Rabbi Greg Wolf in “Open to the Present: A Response to Life’s Surprises,” Davar Acher by Rabbi Greg Wolfe, in “10 Minutes of Torah,” August 8, 2015; see http://www.reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/eikev/getting-what-we-deserve