Selected Sermon/Article
2005-10-05 Rosh Hashana 5766/2005 Day 2 by Rav Ze'ev Smason
Proving Your Potential
Rosh Hashana 5766/2005 Second Day "Proving Your Potential"

The big game had finally arrived. The time had come for the Student/Faculty basketball game at Epstein Hebrew Academy. This past spring the kids at school were excited, and I was excited also. It had been several years since I did anything more with a basketball then push it out of the way in the garage, and I was looking forward to a good workout against the 8th graders. Late in the afternoon I picked up my 11 year old son Leib , and we drove to the game.

On the way to the game, Leib asked me if I was ready to play, and I said that I was. Leib then said something to me that really caught my attention. He said, 'Dad, you better play well, because you have to prove yourself.' I burst out laughing when he said that and said, 'prove myself? Why do I have to prove myself? I'm a rabbi?

Leib smiled and said, 'Dad, you have to prove -- that you're more than a rabbi.'

I don't remember how many points I scored in the game, but many times over the course of this past year I've thought about what my son said to me that day -- 'Dad, you have to prove that you're more than a rabbi.' And on Rosh Hashana his words seem particularly relevant, given that today is Yom HaDin -- the Day of Judgement.

What does it mean that I have to prove that I'm more than a rabbi? It means that -- while standing in the presence of Hashem -- I have to recognize my potential, and commit to use it. On Rosh Hashana Hashem wants to see that I'm aware of my potential to be a good Jew, a decent human being, a good husband, and a good father. Hashem wants to see that I know my potential to be a kind and compassionate person who loves life, and will make very good use of another year of life, if He grants it to me. And Hashem wants you to prove yourself, as well. It's not enough to be a doctor, a lawyer, a student, a real estate broker or salesperson. You have to demonstrate that you're aware of your potential and that you're deserving of another year of life. My judgment today, and the judgment of each and every one of us, is based upon our potential.

This concept of 'Judgement based on potential' can be found in yesterday's Torah reading.

Yishmael, the son of Avraham and Hagar, was dying of thirst. Hashem, however, wasn't prepared to let the 17 year old boy to die. The Almighty was about to cause a well of water to miraculously appear, when a group of angels objected.

The Midrash says that when the heavenly court got wind of Hashem's plans, a group of 'malachai ha'shareis' (ministering angels) rose to protest the decision to save Yishmael's life. The said before Him:

Ribono shel olam! Adam sh'hoo asid l'hamees es banecha b'tzama, ata ma'aleh lo b'eer?

Master of the Universe! A man who in the future will kill your children with thirst -- for him, you want to provide a well?

And it wasn't simply that Yishmael and his descendants -- the Arabs -- would kill Jews with thirst during the Babylonian exile, as the Midrash points out. You can be certain that the angels saw -- and that Hashem saw -- that the descendants of this 17 year old Yishmael would kill Jews during the middle ages in Spain. And you can be sure that the angels saw the Jews who would die at the hands of the Arabs in the Chevron Massacre of 1929, and in the War of Independence of 1948, and in the 6 Day War, and in the Yom Kippur War. And the angels saw the Arab homicide bombers at Sbarro's Pizza Parlor in Jerusalem, and at a Pesach Seder at Netanaya. And even though the media didn't see them, the angels also saw the Arabs burning synagogues in Gaza. So we can understand why the angels questioned Hashem's decision to save Yishmael's life. If you could have been there and seen what the angels saw, wouldn't you have questioned, also? I know that I would have.

Why, then, did Hashem cause the well to miraculously appear to save Yishmael's life?

The Midrash says that Hashem asked the angels, 'Right now, is Yishmael a rasha (a wicked person) or a tzadik (righteous person)?' To which the angels had to say, 'he's a tzadik'. Hashem said, 'I only judge a person based upon who they are NOW -- not later, or upon what they may or may not do.' In the words of the Torah, Ba'asher hoo sham -- Who he is NOW is the Almighty's litmus test for judgment. We're judged based upon our potential and what He sees in us now; not what we did this past year or what we're going to do.

Two weeks ago at a Rabbinic Conference in New Jersey, I met a man named Tom Kaplan. To say that Tom Kaplan is an impressive person would be understating the obvious. Tom has a doctorate in History from Oxford University, and is an eloquent and intelligent person. Dr. Kaplan was the sponsor of the Conference I attended, which gathered rabbis from around the world to deal with the crisis of intermarriage. Tom shared with us some details about his background in business, and in the process gave me a deep insight into this concept of 'Judgement by Potential'.

Tom said that although his education was in history, he started his business career in the mining industry. One day, his geologist called him from Bolivia and said, 'Tom, I know I've been very hard on the prospects we've been looking at. But if what I see is right, one of the prospects you own may turn out to be one of the greatest discoveries of silver in our generation." Shortly thereafter a gigantic cache of silver was found on Tom's property. Tom became a fabulously wealthy man through that discovery of silver, and is using his resources to finance a major project to benefit the Jewish people.

Tom said that shortly after he struck it rich, someone asked him the following piercing question: 'Tom 'why do you think you were chosen to be successful?

Tom's response was;

"My success clearly wasn't because of anything that I've done yet in my life, but it must be because of something that I'm going to do. G-d must see certain potential in me."

We're tested constantly in life -- from the smallest irritants and bothers, to the hurricane-sized problems and challenges. The Ramban tells us that the function of a test is to actualize our potential. Hashem knows with a certainty how each test will come out. Why then does He test us? Not to see how we'll do, but to allow us to become the type of person that He sees us being at the time He tests us.

There's so much to accomplish, and there's so little time.

Abraham Maslow once said:

If you deliberately plan to be less than you're capable of being, then I warn you that you'll be unhappy for the rest of your lives. You'll be evading your own capacities, your own possibilities.

Each and everyone of us has tremendous capacities and unlimited possibilities. But what did we accomplish this past year? Were we on auto-pilot, just going through the motions, not daring to actualize the potential that Hashem has given us? If we're essentially the same people who we were last Rosh Hashana, then it's time for a different game plan for the coming year.

To paraphrase the words of my son Leib, 'we have to prove that we're more than what we do for a living.' Our judgment on Rosh Hashana is based upon the potential that Hashem sees in us, and whether we're prepared to do something with it. As the shofar sounds in just a few moments, let's use the opportunity to be inspired to think what we can accomplish this year for Hashem, the Jewish people, our shul, our families, and ourselves.