Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2017

We are a people of words. We say that G-d creates the world with words, and we don’t just take those words at face value. We interpret them; and in doing so, we add more words. It is for these reasons that all of this year’s High Holiday sermons will revolve around the concept of “words,” albeit sometimes with more of an “interpretive” connection to that topic.

On the High Holidays we recite lots of words. We come together as a community and stand before G-d with words as our offerings. The priests and the Prophets, the sages and the rabbis, the poets and the writers, and the generations of our people have added their words to the liturgy. Words are sacred; they are not easily discarded. Therefore, our High Holiday Machzor, or Prayer Book, has grown and expanded over the centuries. You can define a people by what it saves. Jews save words. We never discard our religious books, we bury them in a geniza, an underground archive.

Among all those words, is there one that is more important than the others, one that we find is repeated more often? What is the most commonly used word in the Torah? (pause) You might think, “It has to be ‘G-d,’ or maybe ‘love.’” It is neither G-d nor love – it is the word…“and.”

In Hebrew, that word is a single letter – vav! One letter, one word, and it is repeated again and again. And G-d said; and Abraham went, and Sarah died, and Moses sang. It is at the beginning of almost every sentence in the Bible – one word – “and!”

One Midrash suggests that the word “and” represented by the Hebrew letter “vav” was the mark that G-d put on Cain’s forehead after he killed his brother Abel. Why a vav? What kind of mark is that? Why write “and” on Cain’s forehead?

Cain thought of himself as separate from his brother. After being confronted by his murder of Abel, he asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” G-d’s answer was the mark of the vav, the “and.” G-d wanted a sign that said, not just to Cain, but to everyone who saw Cain – you are your brother’s keeper. You are connected to and responsible for each other. It’s not just about you….It’s about you, and everyone else.

That is what is so striking about Rosh Hashanah. It is clearly the Jewish New Year, but it’s not just about us, about Jews. Rosh Hashanah doesn’t celebrate the beginning of the Jewish people, it celebrates creation, the beginning of the world, of all humanity. It is about you and me as Jews and about everyone else.

Rabbi Akiva taught that the essence of Torah is “love your neighbor as yourself.” Self and neighbor. The essence of the Torah is “and.”

The Book of Jonah, which we’ll read on Yom Kippur, isn’t at all about the people of Israel. It’s about the people of Ninevah – foreigners, non-believers. Jonah didn’t want them to do well, he didn’t want to help them or to be the instrument of their redemption. He wanted them to fail. Even though Jonah didn’t love the people of Ninevah, G-d did. Jonah ran away and said to G-d, “leave me alone,” and G-d answered, “It’s not just about you, it’s about you and others.” Yom Kippur is not just about repairing the self, it’s about repairing the self and the world. In the words of Dara Horn, a local, Jewish novelist and Harvard professor, “what I want from the world matters less than what the world wants from me.”

Every Hebrew letter has a numerical equivalent. The Hebrew letter “vav,” which means “and,” also represents the number 6. The Book of Genesis says that Adam was created on the 6th day of Creation, the day of the vav, the day of the “and.” G-d said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” And, G-d created woman, and through Adam and Eve, all the world’s population. And and and and and, because to be fully human means to be connected with and involved in the lives of others.

Our definition of who we are in the world has been marked of late by angry rhetoric and partisanship, by a rigid dichotomy that divides our country. It seems our vocabulary has been limited to “either/or.” Being moderate used to be the most popular political faction in America. In 1993, moderates made up 43% of Americans. By 2013 this figured had dropped to 34%. The extremes, on the other hand, rose from 10% to 23% over the same 20-year period. (from We have a hard time reaching consensus, making compromises, and building coalitions because we seem to have forgotten that it’s not just about me, my wants, my party; it’s about us, our needs, our country. It appears that we have lost a sense of what it is that unites us, the delicate art of the “and.”

In the 12th century, the great Torah commentator Rashi, and his grandson, Rabbenu Tam, had a disagreement about how to place the mezuzah on the doorpost of the home. Rashi said that the mezuzah should be placed vertically because the Torah teaches, “You shall speak of them…when you rise up”. Rabbenu Tam believed it should be in a horizontal position because the Torah teaches, “You shall speak of them when you lie down.” It became the custom to put up the mezuzah neither standing up nor lying down, but slanted – right in the middle. It’s not about you or me; it’s about us. At the entrance to some Jewish homes is a mezuzah, the shape of the vav, the symbol of us, of compromise, a sign of the “and.”

Our Torah and Haftarah readings for Rosh Hashanah teach us the transformative power of “and.” In tomorrow morning’s Torah portion, we’ll read about Sarah’s conception and birth of Isaac, as well as her casting away of Hagar and Ishmael. Despite being the matriarch of Judaism, Sarah was still human. Her fear of competition with Hagar temporarily blinded her ability to think of anyone beyond herself. This led to real plight for Hagar and her son, Ishmael. Having run out of water, Hagar thought that her son would die from thirst and didn’t want to see him suffer. Then the whole situation is transformed, a rebirth of possibilities, as soon as G-d revealed the “and.” It’s as if each “and” in the verses opened up new doors for Hagar. “And G-d opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; so she went and filled the container with water, and gave water to the boy. G-d was with the boy and he grew; he lived in the desert and became a hunter.” (Gen. 21:19-20)

In the Haftarah for the second day of Rosh Hashanah, from the Prophet Jeremiah, we’ll read, “A voice is heard in Ramah, a wail, a bitter cry. Rachel is crying for her children, refusing to be consoled, for they are no longer here.” But the passage doesn’t end there. It continues – “Your children will return from the land of the foe. AND there is hope for your future.” V’yesh tikvah.

In the Torah portion for the second day of Rosh Hashanh, we’ll read another story of the “and,” the Binding of Isaac. Forget for a moment about Abraham and what would have motivated him to walk his son up a mountain, tie him to an altar, and hold a knife over his head. Focus instead on Isaac, bound, with a knife poised above him in his own father’s hand, knowing that the G-d of Abraham, his G-d as well, had commanded it!

Abraham and Isaac walked up the mountain together, but Abraham walked down alone. The Torah doesn’t mention Isaac again until he meets Rebecca several years later.

The question we often ask is what motivated Abraham to go up the mountain, how strong his faith must have been. A more intriguing question, I think, is what Isaac did immediately afterward. His father had just tried to kill him. After that, how did he manage to get down the mountain and go on to build a relationship, marry, have children, and create a life? When life’s losses and difficulties confront us, how do we?

I believe the answer lies with the word, “and.” Isaac’s experience could have led him to give up and give in. We would have understood. But he didn’t give in, he didn’t say, “never again will I hear the sounds of joy.” He didn’t take the altar or the knife as the final word. He grieved his loss and he knew despair, but it didn’t end there…Isaac heard the sound of the shofar. He didn’t put a period at the end of his trauma…he put a comma, then wrote, “and.”

This year, let us remember the vav. If we take with us only one word from these next 10 days, may it be “and,” the symbol of us, of connection, and of hope.