Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2016 / 5777
I have been a rabbi for two and a half years now and have been a religious school teacher since I was 17. These experiences mean that I am very familiar with the way that we introduce upcoming holidays to our religious school students. These holidays, which are the products of thousands of years of Jewish history, ritual, and thought, have to be boiled down into sound bites that even the smallest of our kids can internalize. It’s a challenging task, and what we come up with often reveals a lot about our own biases toward the individual holy days.
For example, when we talk about the High Holy Days, we often refer to Rosh Hashanah as a “happy” holiday and Yom Kippur as a “serious” holiday. These descriptions most likely come from the fact that Rosh Hashanah is associated with round challahs, lengthy lunches, and apples and honey, while Yom Kippur is associated with fasting. When characterizing these holidays, we often use the frames and explanations that we heard as children. Our teachers and our rabbis have told us that Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world. What lovely and relatable idea for little Jewish minds and hearts! In contrast, Yom Kippur is the day that we say we’re sorry- sorry to God, sorry to our families, and sorry to our friends. For all of us who were either mischief makers or dedicated over achievers- or both- the idea of a day dedicated to apologizing is much less fun than a world-wide birthday party.
I wonder sometimes if, when we casually say that Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world, we ever take time to think about what that means. Are we telling our kids and ourselves that Adam and Eve were created on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei? And, just in case you were wondering, the Jewish tradition doesn’t associate Rosh Hashanah with the first day of creation- but instead with sixth day of creation, the day when Adam and Eve were created. So technically, Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of Adam and Eve who were meant to represent both the pinnacle and the completion of creation.
On top of all of these complications, we have to decide whether, when we say that Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world, we truly mean that God created the world in six days 5777 years ago. This question takes us down the entirely different path of thought as we decide for ourselves the way that we understand the relationship between God, Torah, science, and history. We also need to consider the fact that when we call Rosh Hashanah the birthday of the world, we are actually forgetting the other traditional titles given to the day. In fact, our tradition ascribes other names and meanings to the holiday. Rosh Hashanah is also a, zichron tru-ah mikra-kodesh, a “memorial proclaimed with the blast of the horns” and Yom HaDin, a day of judgement. Zichron tru-ah mikra-kodesh is my favorite appellation for Rosh Hashanah because it produces the most creative translations and interpretations.
Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of the American Reform Movement, used the arrival of Rosh Hashanah to launch an annual retrospective of the year’s events in his newspaper, The Israelite. In 1858, Wise called the holiday, “a day of memorial’ of ‘blowing the alarm trumpets.” In the September 10th 1866 edition of the New Orleans Daily Crescent, a reporter explains that Rosh Hashanah is known as both “The Beginning of the Year” and “the Feast of the Trumpets”
A day of memorial that is marked by the sounding of the cornet, trumpet, or shofar (depending on the era into which you were born) might sound like a confused title- prompting us to ask how the sounding of shofars is connected to the act of remembering. Thankfully, our tradition provides us with the answer.
In his “Catechism for Jewish Children,” the prominent 19th century rabbi, Isaac Leeser, answered our question by writing, “This day being the first of the year, we are to acknowledge anew the Lord our Creator as our King and God. We therefore blow the cornet at the appointed time, as a testimony of our renewed allegiance; for thus in the land whence our forefathers came was it customary to do, when appointing a chief--they blew the cornet, and shouted "Long live the King." (I Kings i. 39)”
The sounding of the shofar is the alarm clock that awakens us from sleepwalking through our lives and reminds us of who we are and who we are meant to be. It is a sound that is so primal and powerful that we remember that there are forces in this universe that we cannot control or even understand. The day that the shofar is sounded is when we take time to remember that part of our identity as Jews is to be in relationship with those forces.
The last name for Rosh Hashanah that we’ll cover tonight is Yom HaDin, the day of judgement. At first hearing, it is a title that many modern Jews will have trouble with. The idea that there is a heavenly judge making an account of our sins and good deeds is contradictory to the more palatable, more appealing God that we often speak of who supports and comforts us as we go through our lives. But, if we turn once more to our ancient books, we learn important and illuminating details about this traditional concept. Our main source for this exercise is the Talmud Yerushalmi, the Jerusalem Talmud. The big brother of the more well known and much more substantial Babylonian Talmud, the Talmud Yerushalmi is a collection of rabbinic writings and commentaries that was produced by a group of scholars in the land of Israel in the first centuries of the Common Era. When the rabbis of the Talmud Yerushalmi considered the idea of Rosh Hashanah as Yom HaDin, the day of judgement, they recorded what they imagined this day of judgement would look like:
"Rav. Phineas and Rav Hilkiah taught in the name of Rav Simon: When the ministering angels gather before the Holy One and say, “Master of the universe, what day is New Year’s Day?” [God] replies, “Are you asking Me? Let us, you and Me, ask the court on earth.
Rav. Hoshaiah taught: When an earthly court decrees, “Today is New Year’s Day,” the Holy One tells the ministering angels, “Set up the judicial dais. Summon the advocates to defend and prosecute. For My children have decreed that today is New Year’s Day.” If, however, the court has decided to…[advance New Year’s Day to] the next day, the Holy One tells the ministering angels, “Remove the judicial dais, dismiss all the advocates, since My children have decreed, “Tomorrow is New Year’s Day."
In the rabbinic imagination of the first centuries of the common era, Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgement, was neither a life and death trial where our eternal fates hang in the balance nor a Santa Clause-esque scene of a powerful figure pronouncing each of us naughty or nice. Instead, it was more like a voluntary audit where the heavenly hosts were happy to be flexible if our availability changed.
In today’s world, we are often very quick to reject the idea of receiving anything but validation from our religious traditions, but we should consider the value that comes from being in a relationship- whether it be with God or with our community- that helps us to be better and to look beyond what we currently are to what we could be. We lose out when we craft a religion that reflects only our own values and beliefs. Religion is meant to help us stretch, to introduce us to and contextualize us with the wisdom of past generations, and to help us develop the insight and experience that allows us to create wisdom that we can pass on one day.
Asking ourselves whether we’ve truly lived up to our ideals in this year, now ending, is healthy. It reminds us that we are not the center of the universe, that as much as we may think so, we are not all knowing, and that our actions can, and in many cases, our inaction does impact our world.
Whether we know it as the birthday of the world, a zichron tru-ah mikra-kodesh, a memorial day marked by the sounding of the shofar, or Yom HaDin, a day of judgement, Rosh Hashanah is a powerful, complex, and holy day, and we shouldn’t let its joyous exterior blind us to its inner meaning.
On this Rosh Hashanah, we stop and honor the fact that a year of our lives, a chapter of our stories, has come to an end. We take this time to sit still and remember everything that has happened since we sat together a year ago. We use this day to decide how and what we will change in the year that we’re beginning tonight. We come together to remind one another that we are not the first people to stumble, love, achieve, weep, soar, and live and that we should be grateful for the wisdom that we have inherited. We use our services as time to think of those who have come before us and all those that we pray will come after us. On this Rosh Hashanah, we take time to take stock of our lives, our relationships, our hopes, and our fears.
The same Isaac Mayer Wise whom I quoted before as calling Rosh Hashanah, “a day of memorial’ of ‘blowing the alarm trumpets,” had one of his Rosh Hashanah sermons published in an 1881 collection of the the best sermons of the most eminent rabbis in the country. I’ll close tonight with Rabbi Wise’s description of this holy day.
He wrote, “This is Israel's New Year, brethren; and what a mountain is in space that is the New Year in time. It is an elevation, and those who stand on its summit may survey the area below. New Year is an elevation in time, and those who place themselves upon it may look backward and forward, to the right and to the left, to survey the past and cast a glance upon the future. Therefore, in the divine words of Scripture, I call on you: "Go out and stand upon the mountain before God." Come out of the dismal cave of self-delusion, self-conceit and sinfulness; out also of the vulgar habits of indulgence ...and self-forgetfulness; also out of the dismal cave of grief and affliction and fear and apprehension; and stand high upon the mountain in the clear and transparent atmosphere of truth, light, godliness and holiness; and stand before God, the Eternal and Omniscient, who looks into the recesses of the heart and beholds the very motive of your volitions; the All-just and Almighty, who gives to man according to his ways and the fruits of his doings. Come out and stand upon the mountain before your God…”
I wish us all a Shanah Tovah, a good and sweet new year filled with meaning.