The evening is perfect. Hundreds of family and friends gather before a beautiful chupah, wedding canopy, completely covered with white flowers. The sky is lit up by the twinkling of millions of stars all watching the union about to take place. The bride and groom are ebullient with energy for the hope and excitement that comes with new beginnings and feelings of love. The ceremony is about to begin and all eyes are on the rabbi. Tonight is extra special for the rabbi because his daughter is the bride under the chupah.
And in a loud clear voice he announces, “Give me a nugel!” (Yiddish for nail).
After a few seconds he announces again, “give me a nugel!” The wedding guests begin to whisper to one another. “Has the old rabbi become senile? What is he talking about? What does a nugel have to do with a wedding? Doesn’t he realize that his daughter is getting married? And all he can say is give me a nugel?!?”
The rabbi clears his throat and continues, “My beloved daughter is getting married. What an amazing and extremely joyful moment. I want it to last forever. Life is like a spinning wheel. Each moment, each memory is a point on the wheel. Sometimes we experience happy moments and sometimes life is so terribly sad. Yet the wheel continues to spin throughout our lives. This moment. Right now. I want to capture it. I want to stop that wheel right where it is before it continues to turn. So God, I ask of you. Give me a nugel!”
The rabbi in this story powerfully describes the transitory nature of our lives. What is beautiful about this story is the rabbi’s recognition that the moment he is in is one that he wants to hold onto forever. But he knows that, like every moment of our lives, this moment will soon pass and become a memory. But also inherent in this metaphor is that the wheel turns again with the faith that good moments are to come again in the future.
This story reminds us to take stock in our lives and be as present as we can in the moment. Because if we don’t imagine a nail stopping our lives now and again, we may never get off the roller coaster of life to catch a breath. For me, that is the basis for the Jewish calendar. Time is sanctified through ritual. By celebrating our holidays we give meaning to the events and passing moments of our lives. And without time, we cannot recall and actively remember memories. Sometimes we need to be reminded to point to a moment in our lives and stop the clock. Perhaps one of the gifts of memory is that we are able to return in a small way to past memories with the hope of experiencing a small part of what made that moment great.
Each year as the season comes full circle we remember where we were last year. For me, the services of the high holidays each year bring me back to years past: The music, the liturgy, the special ritual garments, and the sense of beginning again. The challenge each year is to consider not just where we have been, but where we are going. Time is not just a calculator of the past; it is also the hope for the future. We pray for God’s compassion to inscribe us in the book of life, to bring blessing to ourselves, our families, and our world. Each year on Rosh Hashanah we are inspired by what can be in the year ahead and hopefully we leave the services optimistic about our role in improving our lives and the lives of others in some way.
During the Rosh Hashanah musaf service we repeat a paragraph a number of times which begins with the words, “Hayom harat olam” which means “today is the birthday of the world.” Alternatively it means, “today, the world is pregnant.” The Hasidic master, Meor Enayim, or R. Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, (d. 1797) offers an interpretation of these words. He writes, “For it is in the stage of pregnancy that mercy was hidden (ha’olam, הָעֳלַם), like a fetus in pregnancy. But now it must be awakened by the shofar, that it should be revealed in actuality.” One of our goals in praying the liturgy of the High Holiday Services is to evoke God’s compassion. We cannot live exclusively in the state of wishing for God’s mercy and compassion in our lives but we must be part of causing it to arrive. We cannot only be subject to the turn of the wheel but must be active in shaping the moments of our lives with the knowledge that sometimes the turns of life are out of our hands.
Remembering the past is crucial for the Jewish people and for us all individually. We are at the same time creating new memories and redefining the communities in which we live. On Rosh Hashanah we acknowledge both as being part of life. As a Jewish people we have set the course for powerful memories which have led us to where we are today. Yet the stage is set for our next actions. The moment is pregnant and we must seize on it together. May we all hold onto past memories that give us meaning and joy, and may we recognize the potent energy of every moment and work to fulfill the possibility that awaits us.
Shanah tovah, tikateivu v’teichateimu
Rabbi Adam Baldachin