Rabbi Graff Rosh Hashanah in the Round 2014

L’chayim Tovim
Rosh Hashanah in the Round 2014

First everyone in the room had the opportunity to reflect alone or with a partner on the 4 insertions in the High Holiday Amidah prayer. (See link to handout.) In the first 2 insertions, we pray for life (zochreinu l’chayim… may we be remembered for life). In the latter 2 insertions, we pray for good life (uchtov l’chayim tovim kol bnai britecha, inscribe all the people of Your covenant for a good life; b’sfer chayim… l’chayim tovim ul’shalom). Everyone was asked to contemplate several questions:
What does “good life” mean for you? What is the difference between “life” and “good life”?
Who are role models to you of living a good life?
How do you think God defines a good life?
What one change would you like to make this year to help you live a better life?

After this reflective time, two members of the community, Michael Hahn and Kim Saloner, shared their personal reflections on what makes a good life. Then I shared the following.

It was at this point last year that I invited my dad up here to speak. This year, my parents are at their home shul in Chicago, with my brothers. But I did take the opportunity to consult my dad for some inspiration. He immediately went to … his favorite movie, and mine, It’s a Wonderful Life.
For those not familiar with the story, It’s a Wonderful Life tells the story of George Bailey, a humble guy who goes through life doing good for other people, but always feeling like his life has yet to begin. All he wants is to get out of Bedford Falls, to go to college, to see the world, to do something big. But instead, his father dies, and he takes over the family business, providing people with fair loans to buy their first home. He takes care of his mom, he supports his wife and kids. He enables his brother Harry to go off to college, and then Harry becomes a big war hero. Meanwhile, George fights the daily battles at home, fending off the evil Mr. Potter, keeping the old Building and Loan business afloat, and befriending the everyday people of Bedford Falls.

What’s tragic about George Bailey is that he doesn’t think he has a good life. When absent-minded Uncle Billy misplaces $8000 and George faces financial ruin and possibly prison, he reaches his breaking point and prepares to jump from a bridge. It takes a guardian angel showing him what the world would have been like had he never been born, for him to realize that his life does have meaning, for him to see just how many lives he has touched. Finally, George cries out, “Please God, let me live again.” And suddenly, the snow begins to fall again, George’s problems all return to him, and he couldn’t be more grateful, just to be himself again. He returns home to find the whole community coming out to help him, contributing their money, showing him their love. And we cry, I cry, because finally, George realizes, “It’s a wonderful life.”

How often do we not realize it’s a wonderful life until it’s over, or until a crisis threatens to take it all away?

I want to propose that we invoke these words “l’chayim tovim,” not just as a prayer for the new year, but as a toast to use every day. A way of noticing a moment when we are living the life that we pray for, and celebrating it – “l’chayim tovim!” I’ve been experimenting with this endeavor for many weeks now, and it has truly made my life better. I utter these words in different moments different days.

One day it was swimming, taking the rare opportunity to do something by myself, and for myself. I looked up and noticed the blue sky and the green of the tall trees around me, and I said to myself, “L’Chayim Tovim.”

Last Sunday, the girls and I made kugel for Rosh Hashanah, using my grandmother’s recipe that I’ve always loved. We made a royal mess, with 6 extra hands, stirring, and licking, and cutting pads of butter to add into the wet concoction. And I declared, out loud, “L’chayim Tovim.”
– To childhood, to Judaism, to togetherness, to memory.

I’ve been saying it in some unexpected times as well. A friend of mine’s brother died and she flew to Israel abruptly, leaving her husband and 2 kids for a week, having never left them before for a single night. I asked if I could help (as did others in this room), and I got the privilege of picking up both kids on the first day of school, a day of much anticipation and anxiety, and a half day, giving them and my 3 kids a 7-hour playdate.
L’chayim tovim, I thought, as I loaded them in the minivan and heard about everyone’s first day of school. – To friendship, to being needed, to being able to be a good friend.

The other night, it was at a shiva minyan that these words came to my mind. Another friend lost her mother, too young, to cancer. She spoke about how her mom had been her best friend, and she broke down in tears, as did most of us in the room. Afterward, I watched as another congregant, who lost his beloved son 3 weeks ago, came over and hugged her, in a way that I couldn’t. “L’chayim tovim,” I said to myself.
– To community, to being human, to all the love and pain we humans are able to feel, and to the goodness that comes out of us, sometimes in the most difficult times.

I want to propose that we say l’chayim tovim, not just as a way of toasting happiness, but as a way of toasting goodness. The goodness that we see in others, and the goodness that we see in ourselves.

I’ve printed cards to remind us of these words, to remind us of the visions we articulated today – of our role models of living a good life, and our hopes for the lives that we can live. And I offer these cards as a means to lift up l’chayim tovim moments that are with us all the time.

Thank you, Michael, and Kim, and everyone in this room for opening your hearts and for wanting to begin the New Year together, in earnest reflection and prayer.

L’chayim Tovim. To a good life – ahead, and right now.



Rabbi Sarah Graff asked me to reflect about the following question: What constitutes a good life? My first reaction was to think about how I get satisfaction from helping others, and how this makes me feel good. This attitude has helped me with my a rewarding career as a psychologist. But on further reflection, and some discussion with friends it became clear to me that this definition of a good life is unique to me. As I thought some more about the question I realized that this first pass at an answer to the question was incomplete.

That is, the good good life for me also means having good relationships with family and friends, a satisfying professional life and the ability to enjoy the material comforts and activities, which are dependent on good health. I know full well that even the simplest pleasure of, say seeing a flower, or hearing a bird-call, can all disappear in a minute if tragedy strikes, as it did for me, 6 years ago. My beloved son David, may his memory be a blessing, collapsed and died on a street in Palo Alto near his apartment.

I want to tell you how this event has added another dimension to my definiton of a good life. David was born with Williams Syndrome, which included difficulty with cognitive functions and health issues, and yet he had a good life for almost 36 years. As a testament to a life well lived, his Memorial service here at Kol Emeth, was attended by over six hundred people, including the Stanford Marching Band, Business owners and street people, as well as a Salvation Army gentlemen who looked like Santa Claus.

Why did David have such an impact on all who knew him? Answer: He exuded love and joy, and connected with everyone in a loving affirming manner. He had a social intelligence that was off the chart.

When you met David, you felt good, and loved. He could read your mood, and could say just the right thing to make you feel better. He exuded a force field of joy and non judgmental affirmation.

I still get comments from some people who tell me about an incident in their interaction with David, which helped them overcome their worry, self esteem or body image issues. I, have to study Torah, Talmud, Psychology, and go to Services to aspire to achieve the “in the NOW way” of living that David could do without effort. The large crowd at the Memorial service and the numerous communications from all around the world made me realize how gifted he was in his ability to be joyful and affirming of everyone he met.

So David is my hero, and his way of BEING in the world guides me in how I try to interact with patients and everyone else.
When I succeed, I feel better.

If I could approximate a fraction of his positive attitude towards life, I could aspire to his attitude and motto, and I quote “Its all good”.

So the good life, for me, is to celebrate the GOOD of being alive. Period. And if sadness and loss occurs, as it inevitably does, I am comforted by the thought that I have been given life, pain and all. And for the gift of life, I am truly grateful.

By living in the moment, and appreciating the gift of this moment, helps me, deal with the pain of the moment, regardless of outcome. In the Jerusalem Talmud, in Tractate Kiddushin. the following is stated: “In the future, each person will have to give an accounting for everything he saw that he didn’t eat.”

By extension, David and I would say: Savor life and savor what you can while you can.

May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year.
Le Shana Toah Tekatevu

Everyone is welcome in our egalitarian Jewish community