The Talmud teaches that Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment. But how can we be judged on the first day of the year? Wouldn’t it make more sense to be judged on the last day of every year? How can we be judged for things we haven’t done yet?
In yesterday’s Torah portion, we read that G-d heard Ishmael’s cry “b’asher hu sham” – from where he was at, and then G-d saved Ishmael’s life. One of the reasons that we read that Torah portion on Rosh Hashanah is to remind us that we’re also being judged “b’asher hu sham”, according to where our heads are right now. If we take an honest inventory of where we are right now, and make a plan for self-improvement, then the judgment is already made, you’ve made it for yourself. The Talmud teaches, “col mi sh’danim oto lemata, ein danim oto lemala.” Every person who is judged down here on Earth, meaning if you judge yourself on Rosh Hashanah, then there is no judgment from above, from the heavens. So the work really is on us. For this reason, the 18th century mystic Rebbe Nachman said that on Rosh Hashanah, we shouldn’t talk a lot…we should just be thinking good thoughts, dreaming into the year ahead of us. As we enter the second day of Rosh Hashanah together, I invite us all to think good thoughts, and share in the prayerful energies that surround us.
Yesterday my sermon was about birth because we read about the birth of Isaac. Today, I’m going to touch on the next major lifecycle ritual in the life of a Jewish person. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony is when we are recognized for the first time as adults in Jewish communities. As preparation for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah involves sacrifice and reward, we’re going to read one of the greatest stories we have on that topic.
Today’s Torah portion is called Akeidat Yitzchak, the story of the Binding of Isaac. It is one of the most difficult, perplexing stories in our tradition. Abraham was the world’s first monotheist, who abandoned the traditions and homeland of his ancestors because he heard the call from Hashem. In today’s Torah portion, G-d asked Abraham to make the ultimate sacrifice, saying “Please take your son, your only son, the one you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriyah, and offer him there to Me as a burnt offering.” When faced with this command from G-d, many of us would probably think, “No way! My son brings me so much joy, and I can’t even see the G-d who is asking me to sacrifice him.” Abraham wasn’t even told of a reward that would have incentivized him. But Abraham listened to G-d and heeded, and his reward for passing G-d’s test was that G-d “will bless you and multiply your seed like the stars in the sky and like the grains of sand on the edges of the sea; and your descendents will inherit the gates of their enemies’ cities. All the peoples of the world will be blessed through your seed, because you have listened to my voice.” Similarly, when we make choices, we don’t always know the outcome in advance, but the right choice can sometimes lead to plentiful rewards.
While Abraham got to make the choice, his son, Isaac, did not. In fact, Abraham tried to deceive his son so that Isaac wouldn’t know what was going to happen once they got to the top of the mountain. Children do not have the same capacity for choice as adults. That’s why our legal system doesn’t punish people as adults until they reach maturity. Becoming an adult means taking responsibility for our own thoughts and actions. We know that every choice we make has consequences.
In today’s American Jewish landscape, many force their children to attend Hebrew school against their wishes. For many of us, Hebrew school is the only time in our lives that we learn about Jewish history and holidays, the Hebrew language, and inculcate a Jewish identity by becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. After that rite of passage, Jews tend to decide for themselves how much or how little they will carry on their Jewish identities for the rest of their lives.
In today’s world, in 2016, being religious is a choice. It is no longer a given that we will follow in the traditions of our ancestors. Today, it is possible to live a very happy life without affiliating with any religion. But all of us here today are here because we’ve made the choice to live out and to carry on the Jewish traditions, trying to hear, to experience, and to bring out the holiness in our lives and in the world around us.
Unfortunately, there are some things that distance Jews from the tradition, prayer being foremost among them. To an outsider, it may look like praying is just talking to yourself, wasted words and thoughts spoken to a being who isn’t there to hear it. Today, we all made the choice to come to Synagogue and pray, and I commend you. For some of us, taking another day off of work may feel like a massive sacrifice, but the rewards are palpable throughout Rosh Hashanah and for the rest of the year.
I think that praying, pouring out our hearts to G-d, is actually something we all do naturally. I can’t explain why, but it seems to be a part of our makeup as humans. In every part of the world, in every period of history, people have been seeking divinity and asking it for help. We’re not always asking G-d for things in our prayers, in fact, we’re often just pointing out our gratitude and recognizing all the blessings that surround us.
In Ancient Israel, back when the Temple stood, people were definitely praying, but the main way to connect with G-d was through animal sacrifice. The way that Rosh Hashanah, as well as many other Biblical holidays, were celebrated was by bringing specific animal offerings to the Temple for sacrifice. The Cohenim, the Priests, were responsible for all the sacrifices and all the praying on behalf of the whole country and people, Israel. When the illiterate masses would come to the Temple for worship, they were expected to either repeat the special words after the Cohen, or just to say “amen” at the end. For the record, that tradition is carried forward to today. As long as one person says the prayer, and you hear it and say Amen, you’ve both fulfilled the mitzvah of saying that prayer.
After the Destruction of the Second Temple, it was no longer possible to offer sacrifices and to perform Jewish rituals in the Temple, the way they’d been done for a millennium. Rather than letting Judaism fall into the sands of history, a group of people who we refer to today as “the Rabbis” or “the Sages” completely re-imagined Judaism so that it could remain relevant and applicable wherever we are in the world. Since sacrifice of animals could no longer continue, the Rabbis “reconstructed” Judaism so that sacrifice of the heart, or prayer, would be the new way to connect with divinity.
For the next 2000 years, this all worked out remarkably well. Imagine what life was like before 1850. I argue that from the days of Ancient Israel to around 1850, life was pretty much the same. Since then, we entered the industrial revolution, and our technology and luxury have been increasing exponentially ever since. But go back to life before 1850. No internet, no tv, no refrigeration. Just like the Torah describes, life really was toil and hard work. For Jews, there were three proscribed times every day that everyone would come together and take a break from their toils, and that was for prayer. Synagogue life was often the most exciting aspect of peoples’ lives because otherwise they were doing grueling work in one form or another. Communal prayer, historically, was a thrice-daily opportunity to come together in joyous celebration.
So one of the reasons that prayer isn’t an essential part of life like it used to be is that we have lots of other things we can do to occupy our time. I recognize how it’s easier to relax and watch TV on the weekends than getting dressed up and coming to Synagogue, but one of the reasons I, personally, do this is to connect myself to these ancestors of mine. There’s an old Yiddish expression that says that “even the leaves are trembling on the Day of Judgement.” It’s nearly impossible for us to get into that mindset, that G-d really is controlling every event in the world, and truly deciding our earthly fate on this day. So while our ancestors were approaching prayer for different reasons, nonetheless, here we are saying the same words that our grandparents, and our great-grandparents, and our great-great-grandparents all the way back were uttering, and that’s meaningful because the words, themselves, are an opportunity to connect with our collective past. And while the import of these words may have dwindled over the generations, our feeling of connection and shared purpose remains.
Another reason we engage in prayer is because of the great melodies! How often do we get to sing with other people? As a lover of music, the melodies and tunes animate me. Even before I understood Hebrew and what it was that I was actually singing, I still loved all the music that happens during worship. So even if you don’t know what you’re saying, you can still enjoy the melodies and the feeling of singing with other people!
So connection to our shared Jewish past and our communal enjoyment of Jewish liturgical music may be two aspects of prayer that connect us to our neshamas, our Jewish souls. Yet both of these elements are “outside” of ourselves.
But prayer can also be a completely internal activity. Think of it this way:
What if we’re not talking to G-d outside of us, somewhere up in the heavens, but rather we’re speaking to that holiness that resides within each of us? I truly believe that each of us has a “spark” of divinity within us, also known as a higher self, or a deeper consciousness that we can tap into. When I pray, I’m looking inward, giving that holiness within me a chance to come out and reveal itself. Throughout services, we read all about G-d’s presence and majesty, and all the great things that we want G-d to do for us, like asking for peace or for unity and wholeness. But I offer you this tip – that you’re really asking yourself for all these things.
When seen in this light, the words of our prayers can elicit our deepest yearnings, or help us to see things in a new way. At every service, we have the opportunity to confront ourselves with life’s big questions. And we do it in a loving environment with lots of singing! Coming together in community, we support each other as we wrestle with life, death, and all of the good and bad things that happen in between.
In our society, most people acknowledge that cleaning yourself, taking a bath or shower, is a good thing. We also acknowledge that exercise is good and healthy. Many of us take time out of our lives to clean ourselves and exercise because they make us feel good, and we believe that cleanliness, exercise, and a good diet will keep us healthy and strong. Traditionally, that’s how prayer was understood, too; but for many of us, we don’t feel the necessity of prayer with the same urgency as cleaning ourselves or exercising.
When I was living in a Buddhist monastery, I distinctly remember a monk talking about this. He said, we spend 10 minutes a day in the shower cleaning all the dirt off our skin, so we should also spend 10 minutes meditating every day to clean us internally. Similarly, just as we spend time cleaning the inside of our house and getting all the dust and cobwebs out, so too must we clean inside of ourselves. And I really think that prayer can achieve the same goal of cleansing and renewal that meditation provides. Just like meditation or yoga, prayer is a practice. You may not have incredible experiences every time you pray, but the more you do it, the easier and more meaningful it becomes. Using Jewish prayer, we establish and deepen our relationships with ourselves, with our community, and with divinity.
If you think about it, everything we’re doing here today is countercultural. In contemporary American culture, the pendulum has swung away from communitarianism and toward individualism. We’re really good at satisfying ourselves, and we’re made to feel that material goods are what bring us joy and satisfaction, rather than our relationships with other people or our spiritual health. But that’s not true when we come to Synagogue. Here, people of all generations, and from all professions, come together in common purpose.
When we say or sing the words of prayers, or listen as others recite them, we’re living in the realm of the sacred, the holy, and the unknown. In order for us to access any of this, and in order for us to learn and grow, we start from three vital words: “I don’t know.” Uncertainty is an uncomfortable place for most of us, but here at Synagogue, we try to embrace the mysteries of life, the not-knowing. We sing and we contemplate, and we begin a dialogue with that holy consciousness within us. Rather than numbing ourselves to our emotions, we embrace them all and try to let them rise to the surface of our consciousness.
The Rosh Hashanah liturgy beckons us to introspect. The prayers are designed to move us to thinking about, “What were my mistakes in the last year? How can I do better in the year ahead?” Just as Abraham heard G-d’s call and acted, that’s the process that we’re inaugurating today for ourselves for the coming year. We must listen to our own inner voice, our inner call to holiness, the spark of divinity that pushes us toward sincere repentance and righting our wrongs, fixing our mistakes. When we choose to pray and open ourselves up to the divinity within us, we, ourselves, can become the agents of change. The power lives within us, and it is our choice to hear it.