Neilah - Go UP!©

Go UP!© - Neilah 2015/5776
Rabbi David Baum
Congregation Shaarei Kodesh

This year, my siblings got me a new gadget for my birthday, something called a Fit Bit. 
You know you’re getting older when you get exercise trackers for your birthday. 

But I am getting to an age where I do need to take better care of myself, to exercise more, and this device helps me become better because I can keep track of my steps.  Now, instead of sitting on the couch at night, I’ll be pacing in my house at night if I’m close to 10,000 steps.

But Fit Bits are all about reaching that goal, 10,000 steps a day.  When you reach that goal, your arm starts vibrating – it’s like your arm is cheering for you – you’ve accomplished the goal.  But what happens when you don’t reach that goal?  I was recently at my doctor’s office and the nurse said, “hey, nice fit bit, do you like it?”  I answered, yes, and she continued, “I used to have one, but I never got up to 10,000 steps, so I took it off.” 

In Judaism, we have 613 mitzvoth or commandments, but if we translate the word mitzvah in Aramaic it means connection – they are actions that connect us to God.  Mitzvoth are acts, like the steps we take in a day, so the question is, if we don’t get to our goals, should we give up? 
Franz Rosenzweig, a German-Jewish philosopher and theologian from the late 1800s, answered this question.  One time, someone asked Rosenzweig whether he wore tefillin.  He replied, “Not yet.” 
Rosenzweig did think that he would one day become a fully observant Jew, but believed in the gradual approach in which the observances slowly made their impact by “ringing a bell” for him.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is all about keeping track.  In the Rosh Hashanah Musaf Amidah we say -  Ki Zocher kol HaNishkachot Attah - Because You are the One who remembers for all eternity all that has been forgotten, and there is no forgetfulness before the throne of Your glory – our deeds are recorded. 

On Rosh Hashanah our deeds are written, and on Yom Kippur, our deeds are sealed.
It seems that if our prayers are right, we wear a mitzvah Fit Bit, and yes, each step matters.  I know that this might be a scary thought for us – especially since more and more our actions are being recorded online.  But, there’s a different way to look at. 

The Talmud tells us that we need to see ourselves as half-guilty and half-innocent at all times, and Mitzvah Ahat, performing one mitzvah, can tip the balance in our favor for the year ahead.  And the Talmud goes on to say something even more profound:  One person’s actions, a mitzvah one person performs, can tip the balance for the entire world.

There’s a famous prayer that we say on these days that typify these holidays – the Unetaneh Tokef – and it contains this famous line from the Mishnah of Rosh Hashanah: B’Rosh Hashanah Kol Baieh Olam Ovrin L’fanav K’VNEI MARON – our translation – On Rosh Hashanah, all those who dwell on earth, not just Jews, but every single person, passes before You, God – like a flock of sheep. 

But the Rabbis weren’t sure what this meant.

A famous scholar of the Talmud, Reish Lakish, says Kivnei Maron are like the people traversing the elevated paths of the Maron area, a mountainous part of Israel.  In Maron, there is a path where only one person can walk at a time and there are steep drops on both sides, again, they are alone, but they are going up.  And this is the important part of the interpretation – going up. 

Aliyah – it’s what we say when we come up to say the prayer before we read the Torah; it’s what we do when we move to Israel.  Going up. 

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we go up before God, and we’ve been climbing ever since then, until this moment – Neilah. 

Our service culminates with the whole community GOING UP before the Torah. 

But the going UP cannot end here, tonight.  So what does it mean to GO UP?

Rabbi Richard Agler, a friend and colleague, often talks about getting an injection of Vitamin J, J for Judaism.   Vitamin J isn’t a vaccine – it’s a vitamin, you need it everyday to stay healthy and grow. 

Reish Lakish, the famous rabbi who gave us this interpretation of going up, was on the path of stopping his spiritual rise.  He was a guy didn’t care at all about Judaism, didn’t learn a thing, and in fact, he was once a gladiator, the equivalent of a MMA fighter, and he also robbed people. 

But that all changed when a famous Rabbi named Yohanan challenged him as he was about to rob him:  Your strength should be for Torah.  Stop robbing, start learning, start doing, and GO UP. 

So here’s what I want you to do – set a goal for yourself – in addition to 10,000 steps, I want you to perform 10 mitzvoth a day:  say a bracha/blessing in the morning when you wake up; say hamotzi before you eat bread; call a friend who is sick; go to a Jewish website and read one article a day; donate $2 to a Jewish cause; kiss a mezuzah when you walk into home; give someone standing on the corner begging for money a couple of bucks on Friday before Shabbat.  The great thing about mitzvoth is that there are so many of them, so many opportunities to tip the balance for the entire world. 

10 mitzvoth a day – commit to it – write them down everyday, and by this time next year, you will have something to be truly proud of. 

I’m sure there’s an app for it also. 

And what happens if you don’t get to 10?  It’s ok, just tell yourself what Rozensweig once said, one day, I’ll get there, but I’m not there YET.   

For those who are looking for a way to strengthen the Jewish people this year – become more Jewish yourself – go up, for yourself, for your community, for Israel, for the whole world.  Even one mitzvah can change the course of the world. 

It all counts. 

In a couple of moments, the congregation will rise up from their seats, and get in line to stand before the Ark, before God.  You are going to go up – but God wants to see you again after this moment, and so do I. 

This year, my prayer for you is that you GO UP, that you take steps that will make you a better person, and a better Jew. 


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