For many years, I had the tradition of writing a prayer for the New Year which I read at the conclusion of services on the first night of Rosh Hashana. These prayers often reflected one of my interests or events taking place in the world at the time. My words were often more “charges” than prayers, words of encouragement to consider what is truly important in our lives as we engage in the process of teshuva, repentance, which is the major theme of the High Holy Days.
In our tradition, Teshuva is not just for the Holy Days. The entire month of Elul, which began yesterday, is a month dedicated to teshuva in preparation for the High Holy Days. During the month of Elul, I will share some of those prayers on my podcast and here, in my blog.
You will hear one such prayer in this week’s edition of my podcast (which will be posted on Thursday, August 12). That prayer focuses on my love of geography. The prayer I am posting below, with the original introduction, is based on my love for sports and my fascination with the Olympics and was delivered on Rosh Hashana 2016, after the summer Olympic games.
PRAYER FOR EREV ROSH HASHANA 2016
As I do each year, I have written a prayer for the New Year.
As a rule, I try to keep my prayer on the light and hopeful side each year but as you no doubt feel, it is difficult to ignore all that is happening outside of our doors and in our hearts and minds. Still, I want the prayer to reflect the beauty of our world and the opportunities we have to elevate our souls even at times of sadness.
So, my prayer is in two parts linked together by one idea: the concept of movement.
During the middle of the summer, I, like many Americans, at least those of us who are not completely cynical about the Olympics enjoyed a bit of a break from the bad news around us by watching the games. As many of you know, I had more than a bit of a personal interest in the US women’s gymnastic team as I was paying particular attention to my cousin Aly Raisman but it was the entire gymnastics effort which amazes me. So, I used the four events of woman’s gymnastics: vault, bars, floor exercise and balance beam, as the metaphor for my prayer.
Please understand that I am not making the claim that these young women must be the role models for everyone, especially young girls. There are so many women and men in our nation with inspiring academic, business, philanthropic careers who deserve our admiration and respect. I know that. But, for a few days this summer, I and so many others were uplifted by these young women’s ability, tenacity, poise and strength. (Note from 2021: Strength is measured not only in physical terms but in the ability to know ourselves and to have the strength to make courageous decisions. Thank you Simone Biles for teaching us a lesson we all need to learn and for being a role model in this different way.)
But those uplifting moments in the Olympic gym can’t blind us to the problems we face as a nation as we enter this new year so the prayer has, in essence, two parts. And, as our Mishna teaches about telling the story of the Exodus, I will begin with the sadness and end with hope
Before we turn to the fancy moves of gymnasts, let us never forget how for so many simply walking down a street is a tremendous and often life-threatening challenge.
We pray O God that you protect all of the young children in our inner cities and throughout the nation so often tragically caught in the crossfire of violence and all who are victims of our national obsession with guns. O God grant heath, hope and peace of mind to those who face the reality that simply walking or driving a car can become a dangerous act for no reason other than the color of their skin. Let us stand by them in their struggle for justice and equality.
We pray for the safety of the law enforcement officials who protect us all. May they perform their roles with wisdom, courage, compassion and appropriate caution as they do a job more difficult than most of us could ever imagine.
We pray for those for whom the very act of walking does not come easily, if at all. We pledge to stand by them with assistance, encouragement and respect.
Let us continue to stand with lesbian, gay and transgender individuals, especially youth, many of whom walk to school each day in fear of bullying and ostracization.
And O God, as we walk through life, stand with us and help us all be safe from the dangers which plague our nation and the world.
Help us, O God, to be a nation where all can walk with their heads up, in freedom and without fear.
But, let us also not give in to fear and despair and let us not limit our movements to walking.
Help us to get a running start in the New Year, to dare to vault over the obstacles which are in the way, to come down standing firmly on our feet and ready to face the next challenge along our path.
Help us O God to move from the highs to the lows of life with grace and dignity, to continue to seek higher ground and more meaningful and celebratory moments.
Teach us O God to move through our life, staying within the boundaries that we have established for ourselves and that you O God have established for us. But let us realize that within those boundaries there is plenty of room for jumps and twists and impressive, creative movements that will enliven our days and inspire those around us.
And, most importantly, O God, teach us to find balance in our lives. Let us never be afraid to reach out to grab for those around us to keep us from falling, to rely on the wisdom of our tradition for stability in a difficult world but always, always seeking balance in our lives.
May we always remember that there are often no medals for getting through life impressively, that goodness may truly be its own reward but that we will never know how many people we have taught and inspired because, believe me, they’re out there watching.