“The Middle Way”: My 2018 Erev Rosh Hashanah d’rash

This past spring, when my thoughts began to turn to the High Holidays, I created a project to improve one aspect of my life. Since I have periodically struggled to implement healthy personal habits, I set a few goals for myself for the summer. I limited them to three, hoping these would be attainable and meaningful.

My first goal was to eat at least four servings of fruits and/or vegetables per day. My second goal was to drink at least eight cups of water per day, and coupled with that, to avoid drinking anything with calories. My third goal was to have at least five active days per week — measured, at least in part, by walking 10,000 steps per day.

I am grateful for the many encouraging words I received from congregants and others since announcing these goals in June. And I stand before you today to announce … partial success.

I stuck to the fruits-and-vegetables goal for the first three weeks of the summer; I tailed off after that. I had a fair number of active days, but not nearly as many as I had hoped. The one goal that I reached involved what I drank; with the exception of a couple of weekly sips of grape juice while making kiddush, I only drank water and other non-caloric beverages.

So, how can we best evaluate how I did? How can we measure my level of success or failure? It would be easy to lament that I only went one for three, that I couldn’t reach goals that I thought would be within my grasp. On the other hand, it would be tempting to pat myself on the back, to see only the positives, to celebrate that I was able to avoid apple juice and regular soda for three months.

I’d like to suggest a third way, a path suggested by Rabbi Tarfon from the Ethics of the Fathers, one of our tradition’s oldest and most revered collections of wisdom: “You are not obligated to finish the work, neither are you free to abstain from it.” Rabbi Tarfon understood that many tasks seem too gargantuan to achieve … sometimes, because they are. When it comes to personal goals, we’re often our worst enemies, expecting too much from ourselves, often in too small of a time frame. On the other hand, if we never set our sights high, we won’t accomplish much of anything. That’s why Rabbi Tarfon urges us to take this middle way, to make big goals without the illusion we’ll achieve them all, but to get so much done just by starting.

As we begin the Hebrew year 5779, as we examine past deeds and resolve to improve our future deeds, we are tempted to dream big. After all, there’s nothing like a clean slate, a new beginning, to get our minds racing about all we can accomplish and all we can be. And then, inevitably, we’ll encounter obstacles, and our optimism might turn quickly to cynicism, making us wonder why we even bother. Whatever your goals are for the coming year, I urge you to take the middle path that Rabbi Tarfon advised — not to get too high or too low, to not focus too much on whether we are succeeding or failing, and, instead, to keep moving.

Looking back on this past summer, I’m not satisfied with the personal progress I’ve made. But I’m not ashamed of it either. Rather, I’m going to take these next 10 days, and then many days after that, to rededicate myself to being a better version of myself, and to help our congregation and community be the best they can be. I urge you to join me, to start the journey and to see where it winds up. “You are not obligated to finish the work, neither are you free to abstain from it.”