Like many people, I was saddened to learn about the death of Neil Armstrong last week. I’ve always been inspired by Armstrong, a humble man yet the consummate explorer, who fulfilled the dream of millions when he stepped onto the lunar surface in 1969. What an extraordinary goal that John F. Kennedy set when he declared, in 1961, that the U.S. would put a man on the moon within the decade. And what an indelible moment when Armstrong, an Ohio boy who grew up dreaming of flight, showed that when we set our hearts and minds toward reaching a goal, we can actually achieve it.
I feel a sense of loss at Armstrong’s passing. Maybe because we as a society seem to have lost the boldness, the sense of possibility needed to commit ourselves to the kind of collective action that could put a man on the moon. But I’m hopeful, as well, because this is Elul, the month of reflection leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and it is the perfect time to recapture that bold spirit.
We sometimes make the mistake of thinking about cheshbon nefesh, the spiritual accounting we’re asked to perform this time of year, as if it involved simply toting up our deeds and misdeeds, like so many beads on an abacus. In fact, we have the opportunity to do so much more: we have the opportunity to dream. What could we be, what could we accomplish, if we put aside all the minor setbacks and worries that have chipped away at our confidence and resolve, making us doubt our ability to accomplish great things? What could we do if we stopped indulging in criticism and negativity, in worrying what others might think? When he made his ’61 speech, John Kennedy surely knew how foolish he would look if the U.S. failed to put a person on the moon in a decade. Somehow that didn’t stop him.
Recovering a bold spirit is vital not only for us as individuals, but for our countries and our institutions. A year ago, the institution I lead, United Synagogue, undertook sweeping changes and committed itself to achieving difficult goals. These include nothing less than helping our synagogues transform themselves into powerful, vibrant centers of Jewish life. Could we fall on our faces? Of course. But in the last year, one day after another, we’ve done the hard work of trying to bring our dream to fruition. We are far from finished. Yet we’ve seen progress, especially in the necessary but sometimes painful transformation of our own organization. My hope for the coming year is that we maintain our resolve, keep setbacks in perspective, and see just how far we can go with the new focus and tools we’ve developed.
As we prepare for the New Year, it might do us all good to remember Neil Armstrong, a humble yet determined man who set himself the outrageous goal of stepping on the moon. He knew he could have failed. And he tried anyway.