Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5776, September 13, 2015

Shana Tova and Gut Yontef.   On behalf of Sally and our family, our clergy, staff, officers and Board of Trustees, I welcome you back to Oheb Shalom as we usher in the New Year of 5776.  Together we pray that this will be a year of sweetness and health, of peace and calm, for us, the Jewish people, and the entire world.  While we cannot control much of what occurs around us, we can control our behavior.  That is what we will be talking about tonight and throughout these Yamim Noraim, this High Holyday season.

I was listening to the car radio a few weeks ago when I heard an ad for an on line reputation management service.  Never having heard of such a thing and fascinated by it, I did a little research.  I found that there are literally hundreds of internet sites that promise to manage our personal and professional on line reputations.  Thinking about it, I realized how necessary this is in a day when an on line rumor or a malicious post can have far reaching negative consequences to a business, an individual or even a synagogue.  Reputations can be destroyed in moments as messages go viral in a few minutes.  A life time of work in the building of an honorable name can be destroyed by a person with evil intent or even by a non-thinking individual who creates a false allegation.  Before we go to a restaurant, a movie, or buy a book, we always read reviews.  Negative reviews can have disastrous consequences.  What happens if the competition plants those negative reviews?  What if a disgruntled former employee tells lies about a restaurant?  What happens if someone, for example, at the Downtown Hilton, writes a terrible anonymous review of the Downtown Marriott?  As you can see, the implications can be far reaching and potentially catastrophic.

All we really have in life is our reputation.  The honor imputed to our name is all important.  We strive throughout our lives to build a reputation of reliability, honesty, trustworthiness, and capability.  Unfortunately, we never really know how we are perceived until after we die.  I have officiated at funerals of modest men for which there was only standing room at Levinsons.  It was not their wealth or fame that brought so many people to their funerals.  It was their integrity, the influence they had on others and the love they spread that brought mourners to fill the seats.  In other words, they were honored because of their good names, what on line services would call “their positive reputations.”

Our parents usually name us after beloved ancestors, those whose qualities they would like us to emulate.  For example, my parents named me after my father’s father and my father’s first cousin.  Both men died at a relatively young age and were greatly missed by their families.  They were both dearly beloved individuals of whom I have heard many stories.  Sally and I named our children for deceased relatives whom we loved and whose qualities we hope will be passed down to them.  What no parent can do is create a good name for his or her child.  That each child must do for themselves.  We do it by striving to live a life of integrity and decency, by working hard and giving back to others, by being reliable, faithful, and empathic.  While our parents gave us the names by which we are known, they are certainly not our only names.  Our Tradition tells us that we have three names- the one our parents give us, the one by which others know us, and the name which only God knows.

The first name we receive is the one on our official documents, such as our driver’s license and passport.  It is the name on our birth certificates, the name which our parents chose with laborious care.  The second name is the one by which we are known to family and friends.  That may be a diminutive or a nickname.  It usually reminds us of childhood and hopefully still has positive connotations.  Very often it is a pet name whose use is reserved for those closest to us.  For example, when I was very young, my closest family members called me “Stevie.”  To this day, I am “Stevie” to them.  When they refer to me today by this name, it causes me to hearken back to a simpler and more innocent time, when I lived in a warm and comfortable childhood womb of family.  We all have names like this, names only given to us by those with whom we are, or were, most intimate.

Our third name is the one by which only God knows us.  It is the name we earn for ourselves through our daily labors, our personal interactions, and the big and small decisions we make.  God looks into our hearts and opens up our Book of Life.  God discovers our real names, the only ones which matter for all eternity.  These names are the ones we earn for ourselves.

The beauty of these High Holy days is that we have an opportunity each year to re-name ourselves, to start over so that God can know us by a different name this year.  During these next ten days we will ask our family and friends to forgive us and take us back in love.  If we do this and sincerely engage in repentance, then God will know us by our true name, a name of honor and goodness, a name of dignity and respect.  Rosh Hashanah brings us the annual opportunity to change our name to the only one that really matters- to the one by which God knows us.  During these Aseret Y’mei Teshuvot, may we dedicate ourselves to enhancing and burnishing our true names, which will, we pray, someday be as radiant as the stars in the sky.

Amen and Shana Tova Tikateivu

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