Shana tova and welcome. Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, also known as the High Holy Days or High Holidays. This 10-day period is meant to be introspective – thinking about the past year, and planning how we can make this coming year better for ourselves and for everyone around us.
Every year, on Rosh Hashanah, we come together to sing with each other, to hear the shofar, and to make some space in our lives for holiness. Everything about the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, really is awesome. The word “awe” in Hebrew has two meanings, both awe and fear. There’s another word for fear, pachad, that has to do with being scared of something, but this is a deeper kind of fear, intertwined with awe. How can Hebrew use the same word for awe and fear? Aren’t those two totally different feelings?
Rabbi Vivie Mayer, who led your High Holiday services 3 years ago, described it to me like this. Imagine yourself standing either on a beach looking into the horizon, or in a field gazing up at the stars. As you gaze deeply into the beauty in front of you, you may be struck simultaneously with a sense of wonder and majesty, while at the same time feeling SO small in relation to that vast expanse. Gazing at the beauty is the feeling of awe, feeling so small is the emotion of fear.
On Rosh Hashanah, we contemplate the Almighty with both awe and fear. The days are meant to be awesome, as we think about our amazing gift of life and we crown G-d as king for another year. Many of our prayers today are about how we desire for G-d’s presence to be felt here on earth – We want to feel the presence of divinity in our lives. But at the same time, Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment for humanity. Today, we are judged for the coming year.
“On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” According to tradition, today is the day that we get inscribed into the Book of Life or the Book of Death. During the intervening days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we have the opportunity to change this decree based on how much introspection, self-work, and charity we do.
So as we pray joyfully together, let us improve our personal decree and prepare ourselves for the hard work of teshuva and repentance that lies ahead.
Many rabbis around the world today will be using their pulpit somewhat like a bully pulpit, speaking about problems that we face in America, in Israel, in the Presidential election, or the myriad other topics related to current events. While those are vitally important topics for all of us, I’ve chosen to speak today about Rosh Hashanah and Torah, and I leave it to you to form your own political opinions. As an American, I believe in the separation of church and state. The state should provide us access to material health and wealth, and religion should provide us access to spiritual health and wealth that will aid us in our material pursuits.
Judaism is an amazing, incredible religion with so much to be proud of. Aside from the Hindus, Judaism is the longest continuously practiced religion in the world. Why has Judaism stood the test of time? There are many sociological and historical answers to this, but a big part of Judaism’s flourishing through the generations is the incredible wisdom and spirituality inherent in the faith. Unlike any other religion I know of, Judaism has guiding wisdom for literally every facet of life, from how to tie our shoes in the morning to how to transact business to how to be in relationship with divinity. Our tradition offers us practical laws for the home, for education, for business, and for how to realize the best version of ourselves. There are Jewish laws, or mitzvot, which can help guide us through any decision, and offer us constant opportunities for introspection, taking a pause from the busyness of life to connect with the Source of All.
The holidays, themselves, are opportunities for introspection and growth. Today is the first day of the month of Tishre, which is also known as “yareach eitanim” – the moon of the mighty ones. Over the next month, we will renew and refresh ourselves to spiritually prepare for the year ahead by charting a path for growth and success. This will help us realize our inner might and strength.
All morning we’re reading prayers that may provoke in you feelings of guilt about things you’ve done this year. As an aside, I know that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are especially important for American Jews; but I invite you to celebrate all of the other Jewish holidays with us, none of which are so heavy! Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Chanukah, Tu B’Shevat, Passover, and Shavuot are all celebratory and joyous festivals! (haha, pause) But now back to Rosh Hashanah and guilt and judgment. And we all know all about Jewish guilt, that’s the emotion every stereotypical Jewish mother instills in her children.
There are, of course, very legitimate reasons to worry, to have guilt, to feel bad. There is a certain truth to the statement, “you better finish your vegetables, because somebody in the world is starving right now,” even though you have no possible means to deliver the food to them.
While it is true that we should do something about changing a bad situation, like hunger or poverty, the one way of not doing anything about a situation is to feel guilty about it. Because when people feel guilty about a situation, they often experience those feelings without doing something practical to change it. They resort to all sorts of symbolic methods of expiation. They go to confession if they’re Catholic, they fast on Yom Kippur if they’re Jewish, talk to their friends – they do all kinds of things which will be ways of actually not doing anything about the problem, but trying to feel alright about it instead. And when guilt never moves beyond the realm of feelings and emotions, it becomes destructive because it never solves the problem.
Instead, we need to have a different attitude toward our mistakes and to our misdeeds. Walt Whitman always admired animals because they do not lie awake at night and weep for their sins. Animals are practical, in the real sense, as are children, who haven’t been taught this extraordinary hang-up of guilt. Because, If you’ve done something wrong or you’ve made a mistake, and somebody makes you ashamed of it, and guilty, you run around licking the sores of your wounded ego, because you feel your pride has been hurt. The first thing to understand is, that it is not a serious failing in a human being to make mistakes. Everybody has to make mistakes, there is no way out of it. You can’t learn anything unless you make mistakes. Freedom, means, basically, the freedom to make mistakes.
There’s plenty of precedent for this attitude within Jewish tradition. The Torah is filled with stories of great people who made mistakes. Moses, himself, was not allowed to enter Israel because of his mistakes. The stories we read about our patriarchs and Judges and prophets and kings are all about humans, flesh and blood people. What made them great was not that they lived perfect lives, but that they learned from their mistakes.
I’d like to take a look at today’s Torah portion that we’re about to read. For decades, Abraham and Sarah tried to have a child, but she was barren. Imagine her guilt and shame. Abraham, needing an heir, was given permission by his wife, Sarah, to have a child with her maidservant, Hagar. Try to imagine the depths of Sarah’s guilt – that she allowed her husband to take another woman to bed with him because of her own limitations and inadequacies. I think that’s something we can relate to…when something is too difficult or seemingly impossible for us, we might give up and say, “forget it, get it done some other way, and don’t involve me.” Unfortunately, this is only a temporary fix. As we’ll see in the readings, Sarah grew jealous of Hagar and her son. When Isaac is born, Sarah proclaimed, “God has brought me laughter – tzechok! – and all who hear of it will share my laughter, too!” Only a few verses later, when Ishmael, Hagar’s son, metzachek, the same root word, “shares in Sarah’s laughter,” she tells Abraham to expel both him and his mother. I think that this extreme reaction was caused by Sarah’s lingering feelings of guilt, despite the fact that she bore a son! Despite her miraculous, divinely aided childbirth at age 90, Sarah remained jealous of Hagar, seeing her and her son as living reminders of her own guilt.
Guilt isn’t the only topic in today’s reading. As I was preparing all of my sermons for these High Holidays, I was trying to come up with some theme that I could use to tie them all together. As I looked at today’s Torah portion, the theme of birth jumped out at me. Today is the day that the world was born, harei harat olam, and it’s also the day we read about the birth of Isaac, our patriarch. I think that the rest of the holidays also line up quite nicely with Jewish lifecycle events. Tomorrow we’ll read about Abraham binding Isaac as a sacrifice, so my sermon will be about coming of age, the Bar Mitzvah, and the importance of choices. On Kol Nidre, the night before Yom Kippur, we make lots of vows and commitments, so the theme of “wedding” seems to fit well. And finally, Yom Kippur is traditionally seen as the day that we rehearse our death. Today I wear this kittel, this white robe, as a joyous symbol of purity, but on Yom Kippur, I will wear it as my burial shroud.
Today the world was born. The book of Genesis teaches us that before the world was created, there was only tohu va’vohu, formlessness and void. For some, that’s what life may have felt like before having children, but once you have a child, your life takes on a new purpose. You used to be the focus of your life, but now your child becomes your primary concern. You watch him or her slowly grow up, start to crawl, walk, speak, and run. You teach them and you learn from them. You share holy moments with them.
A Chasidic teacher of mine in Jerusalem said that the closest we probably get to hearing G-d’s explicit name is when we look into our children’s eyes. And he was sure that when a child says, Mommy, Ima, Aba, Tati, it’s probably the closest we’ll ever get to hearing G-d’s true name pronounced. So we should just hold onto those moments, he said, stronger and stronger, because hearing that name resonates so strongly inside of us and carries so much meaning.
What was it about your child calling you mommy or daddy for the first time that made you feel so much joy and fulfillment?
As I’ll continue to discuss tomorrow, I think the parent-child analogy fits well with the God-human relationship. Just as a parent loves to be acknowledged and respected, so too does G-d want that from us. This is why on this day of the birth of the world, and the day of judgment, the central prayer is HaMelech, when we declare G-d to be our King, our Father. As we thank G-d for all the blessings in our lives, and as we aim to become the best people we can be, G-d must feel like a very proud parent to us all.