As we begin Rosh HaShanah tonight, I’d like to share with you a thought experiment. Imagine an American activity that for generations has had millions of practitioners. People would devote significant time and money to this activity every week. Strong traditions developed around how one should dress to these activities and what items one had to bring to participate. The activity involved a high degree of skill, and practitioners were expected to adhere closely to the rules. The traditions of this activity were passed down from generation to generation until one day younger people stopped participating in this activity. It took too much time, cost too much money and was too difficult.
The scenario I just described is true; however, I am not talking about Judaism or even religion. I’m talking about golf. According to a recent New York Times article, golf in America has lost some five million participants over the last decade. Like many Jewish organizations as well as many other religious groups, golf clubs are struggling to attract a new generation of golfers. People under 35 have especially spurned the game, saying it takes too long to play, is too difficult to learn and has too many tiresome rules.
Recently, the PGA and other golf industry leaders are so fearful of losing the next generation of golfers that there are now experiments with alternative forms of golf with new equipment, new rules and radical changes to courses. The goal is to alter the game’s reputation in order to recruit lapsed golfers and a younger demographic. There are now–get this–15-inch holes, the size of pizza pans. There are games based on time, rather than completion of 18-holes, with limits at six or nine holes. There are newly designed balls that don’t slice. Some courses have introduced kicking a soccer ball down a fairway, and, yes, most importantly, players are allowed mulligans on every hole. Of course, golf traditionalists are up in arms over the dumbing down of the game. Industry leaders say they have no choice if they are going to pass the tradition of golf to a new generation. They’ve got to make it less time consuming, more accessible and non-judgmental.
Does any of this sound familiar? Indeed, the American Jewish community faces similar challenges. I could speak at length about the many parallels between the challenges faced by golf and those faced by Jewish institutions in terms of how to be relevant to younger generations. Just as golf attempts to reinvent itself, many Jewish institutions around the country are engaged in creative innovation that preserves Jewish tradition while making it more accessible. I’ll let you consider for yourselves the numerous parallels between Judaism and golf. For now, I wish to offer instead a major difference between Judaism and golf.
Judaism has a secret sauce that golf is only just discovering now: the value of renewal and reinvention. Judaism has renewal built into our DNA.
For golf, traditionalists might consider it a heresy to allow mulligans, or do-overs. In Judaism, we allow mulligans all the time. Pirke Avot teaches hashev yom echad lifnei motcha, repent one day before you die. The understanding is that since we never actually know when our final day will be, we must do teshuvah every day. Every day in the Amidah we say to God Slach lanu…m’hal lanu, forgive us, pardon us for our sins. We say this three times a day, every day of the year. And if that’s not enough, we also have Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the ten days of Penitence that we begin tonight. These ten days are all mulligans all the time. It is a reset button for the entire year. We take stock of our deeds, we make amends, we seek forgiveness from one another and willingly grant it when asked of us.
Among Judaism’s greatest gifts to civilization is the notion that people can change. Nothing is pre-ordained. We find our way through life one mulligan at a time. This notion is not obvious. The ancient Greeks, for instance, believed that we are what we are, and we cannot change. They believed that character is destiny, and the character itself is something we are born with, although it may take great courage to realize our potential. Heroes are born, not made. Before the birth of Oedipus, his fate had already been foretold by the Delphic Oracle, and nothing can avert it.
This is precisely the opposite of the key sentence we say on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: uteshuvah ut’fillah utzedakah maavirin et roa hagezeirah: “Repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the evil decree.” While difficult stuff happens in the world, we have control over our destiny. No fate that is final, No diagnosis without a second opinion – half of Jewish jokes are based on this idea.
As Isaac Bashevis Singer wittily put it, “We have to be free; we have no choice.”
On these High Holy Days, we renew our tradition of renewal itself. While golf widens holes on the putting green, let us widen our hearts. While golf shortens its games, let us make the time we have with one another in our families and in this synagogue community as meaningful as possible. While golf adds mulligans to allow players multiple chances to hit the ball well, let us reengage in our ancient tradition of Teshuvah, so that we may begin this year truly renewed.
It’s time for us now to tee off on a ten-day journey of introspection and renewal. May God grant us the strength to make these days meaningful and transformative so that we may bring positive change into our lives, our relationships and the world.