Sermon on Erev Rosh Hashanah 5778
There is a book that many of my rabbinic colleagues read every year as part of their High Holiday preparations. It’s called “This Is Real, And You Are Completely Unprepared” by Alan Lew.
It is a wonderful guide to this season of the Jewish year, spanning from Tisha B’Av to Sukkot. Every year I pick it up, and every year I find myself putting it down without reading the entire thing.
Here’s why. Early in the book, Alan Lew claims: “God’s mindfulness of us is the sine qua non of this holiday season. If there were no consciousness out there aware of us, responding to us, this whole round of holidays would make no sense at all.”
For me, this is not true. These Holy Days cannot only be about God’s awareness of us and response to us. Exploring and caring about our relationship with and awareness of God is but one wayto observe these holidays.
Other ways, which I believe are equally valid, involve exploring and caring about our relationship with others, or with the health of our planet. And perhaps for many of us, it’s about exploring our relationship with our own selves, looking deeply within, taking an accounting of our past and present, and looking forward to the future, considering how we will live our lives in the coming year.
These Days of Awe are indeed a time of heightened spiritual awareness. That awareness can include God and does, for many of us. God’s presence, God’s comfort in times of sorrow and stress, these are what help us deal with the vicissitudes of life. But do not feel alienated from these Holy Days if God does not play a role in your personal theology.
Because there are many ways to experience Rosh Hashanah, and some of these are embedded in the several names of this holy day.
We can begin with the best known name, the one we use most often, Rosh Hashanah. It literally means “head of the year.” We can look at Rosh Hashanah as a day of looking forward, a day of beginnings, of rebirth. This dovetails nicely with another name, Harat Ha’Olam, the birthday of the world.
And we can look at Rosh Hashanah as a day of mindfulness, a day of remembering, a day for us humans to be completely human and take a long deep look within ourselves. This is why one of the names of this holy day is Yom HaZikaron, the day of remembering. This name invites us to look inward.
Once we have taken a long look inward, we can look back and review who we were this past year, what we want to continue doing and what we want to replace with something different. This is why the span of the holy days is called the Days of Repentance. But lest you get distracted by the word “repent, “think of the word in Hebrew: t’shuvah. It literally means “to turn.” We can look at these days as a time of turning, from one reality to another, from one perspective on the world to another, from the person we were yesterday to the person we want to become tomorrow.
This inward review, what we call a cheshbon ha’nefesh, an accounting of the soul, can help us make choices about what matters most and what we can do without.
One of the names for this holy day is Yom HaDin, day of judgement, and if you want to think of it as a day that God judges us, that’s fine. Harder, I think, is to judge our own selves with complete honesty and openness, recognizing our responsibility for our actions, not flinching at what we see but rather using it as a stepping stone to what we want to see when we do this review next year.
And it is a day of listening, hearing the prayers emerging from our own hearts, the liturgy of the synagogue, and the sound of the shofar, which is why it is also called Yom Truah, literally “day of shouting / blasting.” We will listen to the blasts of the shofar, clear and loud. And we will listen to the still small voice that speaks to us in the quiet moments, guiding us, helping us become our highest selves.
The ten days of the High Holy Days are also called the Days of Awe. Awe as in awesome, as in full-of-awe, as in, Holy Wow.
My friend Rabbi David Evan Markus has yet another name, the Days of Meaning. These days are indeed a time to ponder what is meaningful in our lives. Especially this week, having weathered a hurricane and at the last moment discovering how incredibly lucky we were. We all experienced trauma, whether we sheltered in place, became refugees, or were still up north. Events like Irma force us to look at our relationships with friends and family, neighbors and strangers on the road, and with ourselves and with God. As too do these High Holy Days.
All of these names hint to relationship – relationship with our own selves, our own truths, and with the Divine spark within.
The Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr wrote a book called “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,” which this year has been, for me, a wonderful companion while preparing for these High Holy Days. He writes,
“Whatever this Mystery is [i.e. God], we are definitely in on the deal! True religion is always a deep intuition that we are already participating in something very good, in spite of our best efforts to deny it or avoid it.”
As someone who has struggled with my devotion to the rational mind, this message speaks to me. Despite my best efforts to not believe, I have discovered that my deep participation in the enterprise of Judaism has taught me to suspend disbelief and set aside my rational mind, because I do indeed believe that I am already participating in something very good.
Richard Rohr continued: “In fact, the best of modern theology is revealing a strong “turn toward participation,” as opposed to religion as mere observation, affirmation, moralism, or group belonging. There is nothing to join, only something to recognize… as a participant.”
And that, I believe, is the primary message of the High Holy Days. It is an opportunity to recognize our role as participants in the great personal enterprise of being oneself, and simultaneously experiencing something greater than ourselves.
Part of it involves recognizing our failings over the past year, and making atonement, to ourselves, to the Divine, and to others whom we may have hurt. But this process, although primarily enacted in a public setting, to wit, in the synagogue, is a deeply personal one. Because although we are sitting here shoulder to shoulder with one another, this night and the following days are meant to be explored individually, each of us in our own heart.
The liturgy is here as a guide, a tool to be used in this process. Our machzor,the prayerbook for this season, provides a wealth of material to be explored. Some of it will speak to you, some of it will not. That’s because this is an individual process. We each see through our own personal lens, and will understand the words on the page and the music we hear differently.
One way to do experience this is to set aside belief and think instead about personal transformation. In other words, instead of asking “Do I believe this?” we can ask of a prayer, “Where is this trying to take me? What can I glean from this prayer for myself?”
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to use the next ten days for your own benefit. Unlike the tape in Mission Impossible that self-destructs after 5 seconds, this book will remain in your possession for ten days. Then it will disappear until next year.
It is filled with metaphor and poetry. If a metaphor bothers you, if you don’t particularly like to think of God as a king, then don’t. But don’t let that metaphor dampen your ability to pray in a meaningful way.
The anthropologist Barbara King says that the metaphor of God as Sovereign Ruler is not meant for us to picture a man on a throne. It is meant to help us feel our own relative smallness in relation to the cosmos, to invoke a sense of humility and service, while at the same time suggesting that there is Something in the vastness that imbues our existence with meaning.
“As with any metaphors,” she wrote, “we need to remember that these are not definitions of God; they are poetic entryways into an experience of Something both within and around us.”
Coming from that perspective, we can understand, along with Rabbi David Teutsch, that the prayer book does not stand on its own. In the introduction to this machzor he said:
Drawing from the living wellsprings of the Jewish past, this machzor does not stand complete in itself. It invites the addition of prayer, poetry and insight that will continually renew these words. Most of all, it invites the active engagement of mind and open-hearted encounter that will lift these words off the page and allow them to soar.
I invite you to join me in this open-hearted encounter with the prayers and music, the sights and sounds, and the silences, of these Holy Days.