How many of you have seen the movie The Big Lebowski? For those of you unfamiliar with the movie, it stars Jeff Bridges and John Goodman as a couple of guys who most mothers, Jewish or otherwise, would probably not want their children to emulate. Goodman’s character is named Walter. Bridges’ character is named The Dude. Through a series of unfortunate coincidences, Walter and The Dude find themselves at the center of a nefarious criminal plot, which frankly isn’t germane to my sermon. What is relevant is this: Walter and The Dude are avid bowlers. And, unexpectedly, we discover halfway into the movie that big burly Walter doesn’t go bowling on Saturdays. Why? If you know it say it with me: “I don’t roll on Shabbos.”

It turns out that Walter converted to Judaism to marry his now ex-wife. As they find themselves in a car on a Friday night, Walter says to the Dude, “Here we are, it’s Shabbas, the Sabbath, which I’m allowed to break only if it’s a matter of life and death–” at which point the Dude challenges him: “Walter, come off it. You’re not even Jewish!”

“What are you talking about?” Walter says incredulously.
“You’re Polish Catholic,” says the Dude.
“What are you talking about?” Walter repeats. “I converted when I married Cynthia. Come on, Dude!”
“And you were divorced five years ago!” The Dude responds.
“Yeah?” says Walter. “What do you think happens when you get divorced?  You turn in your library card?  Get a new driver’s license? Stop being Jewish? I’m as Jewish as bleeping Tevye.”
The Dude challenges Walter, saying that this is just his way of not letting go of his ex-wife. “You take care of her dog. You go to her synagogue. You’re living in the past.”
And then, in a line that has become a favorite of rabbis everywhere, Walter says: “Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax–YOU’RE damn RIGHT I LIVE IN THE PAST!

This is a wonderful line, a gevaldic line as we would say in Yiddish. The breadth  and scope and longevity of the Jewish People is pretty well summed up in Walter’s words. Yet I think there’s something else that’s very important here, and it has to do with how we understand Walter.

One way we could understand Walter is to ask the question, Why be Jewish? And his response is one of the best: because our biological and spiritual ancestors have been doing this for thousands of years. Because for the last three thousand years in the past, and for countless years to come, Jews have gathered and Jews will continue to gather on this very day, to do what we are doing: to hear the sound of the shofar and usher in the New Year.  Why be Jewish? Because the past demands we be Jewish. Because the future demands we be Jewish. Because we are called to be Jewish. Because the shofar calls us be Jewish.

But there’s another way to understand Walter, and it starts with a very different question. Instead of asking Why be Jewish? instead we can ask the question, What is Walter’s story? What does he want his story to be? And when you ask a different question, you sometimes get a different answer. What is Walter’s story? Walter wants to be a good person—in his own slightly messed-up way. Walter wants to be authentic. Walter wants his story to include Moses and his ethical teachings, and Sandy Koufax and his Hall-of-Fame pitching. He wants his story to include, to be in dialogue with, the story of the Jewish People.

These are two very different ways of looking at the same story. They start with different questions and they start in different places. When we ask Why is it important to be Jewish, we already assume that it is important to be Jewish. We assume that Jewish tradition and membership in the Jewish people has value, and that if we question that value the problem is with us, not with the tradition. But when we begin with the question, What’s your story, we assume simply that each of us is writing the story of our lives. Jewish tradition and the Jewish people may be helpful or meaningful in writing that story, but the starting point is always with us. We control our own destiny, and we will define the dimensions of our Jewishness.
While I love talking about why it’s important to be Jewish, I think that today that question is the wrong question to ask. Because so many people today, perhaps you or your friends, might answer Why is it important? by saying, “It’s not important.” And that’s the end of the conversation.

So instead I think we need to ask the second question: What’s your story? Because that’s a question all of us care about. It’s a human question. It’s the human question. It is the question of Rosh Hashanah, it is the question of the shofar. And frankly, it is a question that, despite all his faults, Walter has a solid answer to.

What’s your story? What has your story been, and what do you want your story to be? What are you proud of, and what do you regret? What will you do better this year?
As we write your story, it doesn’t take long before we begin to introduce other characters.  Who are the important characters in your story? For Walter those characters are his friend, the Dude, his former wife, and the Jewish people from Moses to Sandy Koufax. What about you? Who has supported you, and who will you support? Who is committed to you, and to whom will you commit? What are your most powerful memories, and what memories will you create for others?

We keep writing your story. What causes are important to you? What ideas do you believe in? What will be your work in the world? What is your vocation?

The more questions we ask, the more we unpack your story, the more we find that your story is not written in isolation. Instead we find that our stories are written with other people. They involve parents and grandparents and siblings. They involve wives and husbands, partners and lovers, nieces and nephews, children and grandchildren. There are scenes of Thanksgiving dinners and Hannukah candles, Yom Kippur break-fasts and Passover seders. There are memories of grandparents who spoke with accents and made hard matzah balls and pinched our cheeks and called us ‘bubbele.’ There are histories of family members who perished in the Holocaust, or who built the State of Israel.

The more questions we ask, the more we find that your story is part of our story, and our story is part of yours. We find that my story touches your story, and that your story touches someone else’s.  We find that our stories are braided, and that while we are all living the story of our lives, we are also living the story of the Jewish people.

My friends, today, Rosh Hashanah, is also called Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance. While we write the story of our lives every day, on Rosh Hashanah we bring our stories into focus. Today we remember, and in so doing we re-member. Through our collective remembering, we renew the Jewish People and our membership in it. Today every one of us must conjure up our memories. Today we must tell our story and imagine its next chapters. And we must do it not in isolation, but here, together, so that all of our individual memories become a lake, a sea, a teeming ocean of memories, an ocean that is the collective memory of the Jewish people. Our story is the Jewish story, and the Jewish story is our story. The question then is not Why is it important to be part of the Jewish people. We are the Jewish people. The question for each of us and all of us today is, what’s your story.

Today on Rosh Hashanah we will listen to the shofar. Our liturgy refers not only to the sound of the shofar, but to its voice; we are commanded to hear the voice of the shofar. What is truly miraculous is that we will all hear the same sound, the same voice, and yet that sound, that voice, will mean different things to each of us. As the voice of the shofar rings through the air and resonates in our ears and in our bodies, its voice becomes our voice.

The Torah tells us that when Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, there was a mighty shofar blast. Imagine it: the moment of revelation, a unique moment of transcendence. And what was the sound in that moment? The sound of the shofar. The Torah continues by saying, “Moshe yidaber v’haelohim ya’anenu b’kol,” “Moses would speak, and God would answer him in a voice.” On this verse the Talmud asks, What voice did God use to answer Moses? Moses’s own voice. As the voice of the shofar rang out on Mount Sinai, God spoke to Moses in Moses’s own voice. God’s voice was Moses’s voice, it was the people’s voice, it was the voice of the shofar.

Today, as that very same shofar blast penetrates into us and resonates within and between us, as it cries for us and carries our prayers inward to our souls and outward to Heaven, it awakens our memories, it summons our stories. The shofar calls out to us. And it asks “What’s your story? What is our story?”

I’d like to close by sharing a story from my own life that intersects with a great person. As you likely know, the actor Paul Newman died over this past weekend. And while all the obituaries about him have talked about his status as a Hollywood legend and one of the greats of American cinema, they have also, and remarkably, talked about the fact that Paul Newman wanted to be remembered more for his charitable work than for his acting.

My first job after college was working for a consulting firm called AMS Planning & Research. One of our projects involved the Westport Country Playhouse, of which Joanne Woodward, Paul Newman’s wife, was the artistic director. In the course of our work, we were invited to a meeting at the Newman-Woodward apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York City. And this is where my story intersects with Paul Newman’s.

All the things that have been said about Newman and Woodward’s marriage were on display. They were incredibly cute. I remember they did this silly little wave to each other when he came in from a run in Central Park. It was obvious that even after nearly 50 years of marriage they were still very much in love.
At one point I went to the restroom, which was covered in pictures of the race cars Newman owned. Amidst the literally hundreds of photos, there was a framed typewritten letter, which, if memory serves, went something like this:

“Dear Mr. Newman,

The other night my girlfriend made me the most wonderful dinner. It consisted of pasta, with your pasta sauce; salad, with your salad dressing; and your lemonade. I hear that you’re an actor. Well, if you’re half the actor that you are a cook, then you must be a great actor.”

Paul Newman did a lot of good in his life. And while he was certainly a great actor, he decided that he wanted to story of his life to be that he was a good person, a mensch. He wanted his story to be one of mercy and compassion, of righteousness and goodness. Newman’s story is braided with my story, and now it is linked with yours. His story is part of my story, and my story is part of your story. Like the sound of the shofar, our stories echo in one another’s lives.

This Rosh Hashanah I bless you, as I hope you will bless me, with the ability to hear your voice, to hear your story today. I bless you, as I hope you will bless me, with a story in the year to come that is a story of happiness and joy, achievement and growth, of meaningful sacrifice and improving the world. And I bless us, as I hope you will bless us, with a story this year that is a story we will be proud to tell on a distant Rosh Hashanah in the future. L’shana tova.

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