Reaching for Meaning—a sermon for Erev Rosh Hashana 5780

 

No one in my household felt there was a real need for a fourth Toy Storymovie. For those of you who missed it, the first Toy Storyfilm was released to extraordinary acclaim way back in 1995. Toy Story 2, considered an even better film that its predecessor, came along four years later. After an eleven year break, the third film in the franchise was released, and then what I’m sincerely hoping will be the last Toy Storyfilm ever came out earlier this year–a full 24 years after the original. If you have never seen any of the movies, I absolutely recommend the first two. Many people loved the third movie, although I think of it more as an ending in search of a plot. And the fourth movie was delightful, if somewhat unnecessary.

All four films are based on the inner life of toys. Quite early in the first movie, we learn that toys come to life when the children who play with them are not watching. In the home of Andy, a young boy, there is a definite hierarchy of toys, with Woody the cowboy serving as their benign leader. The toys mostly cooperate among themselves, but squabble over access to the children and argue about who are the favourites. In many ways, they come across as distinctly human: they laugh, they cry, they play, they love. But they are different in one significant way: they can only find true contentment if they are loved by a child.

Toy Story 2conveys this idea with particular poignancy. In this film, we are introduced to the Prospector, an antique toy action figure who is in mint condition because his box has never been opened. As the film unfolds, we learn that the Prospector is a deeply bitter toy; his life is incomplete, because he has never known what it is like to be a part of a child’s life. Other toys in this and other of the Toy Story films share tragic tales of rejection: having once been the centre of children’s lives, they were eventually cast off as their children outgrew them. The cowgirl Jessie tearfully remembers the day that her beloved Emily left her in a box at the kerb along with other unwanted toys.

Ultimately, all toys in these movies face the same dilemma: their children will eventually outgrow them, but they’ll never outgrow their need to be in children’s lives. Over the years, the writers at Pixar have come up with different ways to solve this problem, usually involving the toys finding new children to embrace them. And so the cycle begins again.

I must have been in a particularly tender place when I watched Toy Story 4 because despite the fact that the plot of the movie was similar to the other three films, I was very touched by the story. 24 years into the franchise, I felt that I finally had realised an organising theme of all four movies: they are about what it means to live a life that has meaning and purpose. In the Toy Story world, toys that are loved by children find that their lives are full and content. Toys that are marginalised or rejected hold grudges and becoming increasingly bitter. They end up focusing on themselves rather than on others and become even more unhappy as a result.

Our lives are far, far more complicated, but I believe that most of us are also striving to figure out what gives us meaning and purpose. There is no one answer that fits everyone. I personally believe that the purpose of life is to leave the world a better place than when we entered it, but there are an almost infinite number of ways that we might make that happen. Some people feel called to a life in the spotlight and end up involved in politics or other areas of leadership. Others feel more comfortable living a quieter life—perhaps volunteering locally, whether that means coaching a sports team, working on a community vegetable patch, taking in foster children, or a thousand other possibilities. Many people strive to find meaning through their work; it is important for them to be able to say at the end of each day that they’ve done something that has made a difference. Many people dedicate themselves to raising ethical, kind children who will grow into wonderful adults and may well change the world themselves. It is up to each one of us to determine what it is that we will do with our lives that will bring about a better world.

“On Rosh Hashanah it is written,” says the prayer, “and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” There is much that is beyond our control, but there is also so much that we can do. This season asserts that each of us has the power to rewrite our destinies—we can be the ones doing the writing and the sealing.

So tonight, we begin to ask the questions: what will we change, and what will we keep the same? How will we make more time to spend with those we love? How will find a way to do more of the activities that bring meaning and purpose to our lives? What activities do we want to add to our weeks? What activities might we consider reducing or eliminating altogether?

Rabbi Arthur Green notes that the High Holy Days draw us in because they feel more like part of the life cycle than part of the year cycle. Life cycle events like births, marriages and deaths occur quite rarely. But once each year, at the start of the month of Tishrei, the life cycle and the year cycle touch. On these days, we are repeatedly reminded that our lives are finite. They will be what we make of them, and none of us know how much time we each have to shape our lives in the direction we’d like.

Treat each day as a gift, whether the day goes as you’d wish or not. Treat each person you encounter as created in the image of God, even or perhaps especially those people who seem to us to have no resemblance to God. Treat your loved ones as the precious treasures they are. And never forget the power that each one of us has to change the world in ways big and small. Shana tova—may the year ahead be filled with health and joy, sweetness and peace!

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