Below is the text of my Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon for 5778. I use pictures to accompany my sermon as well.
Happy New Year. Shana Tovah to everyone. It is wonderful to see you tonight.
There is an urgency – clean out the old and bring in the new. That’s what we do this time of year. Rosh Hashanah. It’s a time to reimagine and renew and rethink who we are and how we will be in the world. And pray with all of our hearts that we can help our fragile planet change the course from the tohu v’vohu— the chaos of our times to the beauty of the Garden of Eden.
On Rosh Hashanah it is the blasts of our shofar that call us to wake up out of our stupor. Wake up to what we need to do to change ourselves and change the world. And if ever the world needed our help it is now.
Like many of you, I was shocked and incredulous at the hatred that has oozed out into the world and most especially in our country. I wasn’t shocked that the hatred exists. Nor that racisms exists. Nor that anti-Semitism exists, nor that homophobia exists or xenophobia exists- these hatreds and jealousies have always been around. But it all used to lurk in under the cover of white hoods and the gatherings in the back woods. It wasn’t polite to show all this in public. Nor was it acceptable .
) Instead what we saw in Charlottesville was out in the open, lit by the tiki torches, illuminating the hatred for all to see and hear. And these were young faces, angry faces. My friends this is our wake- up call like no other. Seeing the neo-Nazis marching through the streets, bearing arms, flags with swastikas unfurled, menacing Jewish institutions in our country, vandalizing synagogues and Holocaust memorials like what happened recently in Boston for the second time this year, is frightening. And taps into our Jewish reservoir of thousands of years of being the victim of such hate and violence.
The murder of Heather Heyer and injury of so many on that fateful day in August is a symptom of a great evil that has infected our country. And this is evil is perpetuated by a President that is deaf. He doesn’t seem to understand how his words inflame and give permission to the white supremacists, racists and bigots to march and perpetrate their brand of hatred. And we all must pay attention.
Charlottesville and its violence, was an attack on the Jewish community, on people of color and our country itself. An inside job of terrorism as that has the potential to be as damaging as anything Al-Qaeda or ISIS can do. This is pernicious this kind of hatred and racism. And it seeps into everything we are doing. And now these past few weeks it is focused on that young group of immigrants known as Dreamers—young people and children who were brought here by parents and have grown up here and only know this country as their home. Where will it stop? Muslims have been the targets, Trans people, Women, Mexicans, immigrants, Jews, Blacks, browns, Disabled people, it seems everyone is a target for their anger and it is blessed and fomented by policies of this Administration.
I am scared for our world. For our children and grandchildren. I am scared for our country.
But at the same time I take comfort in this community of Kol Ami. We have strength when we are together. We have experience in how to gather against such hatred. So I am glad we are together. In the solidarity of this community we heal and care for our souls. In the comfort of Kol Ami, among friends, among family we strengthen each other to face the future. Together at this holy season as we pray, sing and make teshuvah we bring comfort and support to one another and encouragement to one another. I am glad we are together to commit ourselves to a New Year of Life. I am glad we are together to put our collective voices as one. The urgency this time will help us change the story.
As the great founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl said, “Im tirzu Ayn zo aggadah—If you will it, it is no dream.” And tonight on Rosh Hashanah let us begin to dream of a new world, a New Year, recreating ourselves and our futures! It is urgent that we do so.
The Torah tells us Rosh Hashanah is Yom Terurah-the day of sounding the shofar.
3 Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: 24 Speak to the people of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of complete rest, a holy convocation commemorated with shofar blasts. (Leviticus 23:23-24)
With the sounds of the shofar we will usher in the rebirth of the world and the rebirth of our souls. We will refashion who we are and how we behave in the world. We will give birth to our new selves starting today.
You see the shofar and Rosh Hashanah is loaded with birth imagery: The shofar has a narrow mouthpiece and wider opening that resembles the birth canal, the air rushing through it to create a plaintive cry that is the breath of life, and the sound that we hear recalls the cries of labor.
Our rabbis taught that when the first human being was created, God breathed the first breath into Adam. And as the first human opened its eyes—the first sound it heard was the sound of its soul entering its body. What was that sound? What did it sound like the Rabbis ask? It was the sound of the shofar. When we hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah we are reminded of the very moment when our neshama, our soul entered us. The shofar gets into the fiber of our being urges us to awaken into a new year of life.
When we hear the notes of the shofar, Tekiayah shevarim, Teruah-the notes of the shofar remind us of our birth at some deep soul level (Newborn crying) and we are like newborns ready to answer the cries of labor with that first hearty cry of an infant’s lungs, fresh and ready for a new world.
The shofar is connected to this image of birth and rebirth through the great midwife of our tradition Shifrah. The story of Shifra and Puah the two midwives opens the book of Exodus with the first great act of resistance to the oppressive powers of Pharaoh. Their story is important for our times now. Shifra and Puah delivered the Hebrew babies in Egypt despite the Pharoah’s decree to murder them. Shifra’s name, according to the great Rabbi Rashi –shares the root with the word Shofar and means “the capacity to make something better, or to improve its quality”, and that is what she did: She made the lives of the Israelites slaves better and that of the world in her defiance of evil. Today we have as a remembrance of her acts of great resistance to evil, the shofar which calls us to do the same.
And if this birth imagery of the shofar and its connections to birth and rebirth hasn’t completely freaked you out yet—then just know this.
The word “Shafir” in Hebrew (the same root as Shofar and the name Shifra –Shin Fay Resh) means ‘fine’, but ‘mei shafir’ means the amniotic fluid that surrounds the fetus.
There is no getting around it…. The images and metaphors of this season is urgently sending us a message. This is the time for the world’s renewal and rebirth. This is the holiday for your renewal and rebirth. And the shofar is urgently calling each of us to that task.
It is calling to announce and remind us that today is Yom Harat Olam-the day the world was conceived. Yet another connection to birth imagery. And the Torah reading and Haftarah reading tomorrow morning will be about how God answered the prayers of our matriarchs, Sarah and Hannah and Rachel to bring them children and let them give birth. Could it be a clearer message? The birth of the world, the sounds of the shofar, bring us into life, just as God brings life into the world and into us at this season. Even when there is no hope, even when like Sarah and Hannah who were barren, infertile, both became mothers, Sarah a mother of Isaac and her people, and Hannah the mother of the great Samuel protector and defender of the Israelites.
And the shofar with its broken blasts and staccato notes, of shevarim and teruah tells us the time is now. The task is urgent.
Now more than ever I want to hear the sound of the shofar calling us to new life and to recreate our world and ourselves. The shofar sounds the first blast of the Shofar; Tekiah – Wake up you sleepers. Your birth is soon. Shevarim sounds the alarm; Teruah announces the urgency of task and calls us to action; and the Tekia Gedola gives us strength to sustain the effort. Each of the 100 notes of the shofar we will hear on this Yom Teruah- this day of Rosh Hashanah, this day of renewal is our 100 steps to a new world and a new you.
The great Rabbi Nachmanides, the Ramban in his discourse on the holiday of Rosh Hashanah links the word shofar to this verse:
“By God’s breath the Heavens are cleared. (shifra).”
This verse refers to the dispersing of the clouds to reveal the clear blue sky. The sounds of the shofar will make what was clouded over and concealed – revealed. The work of clearing out the last year—through repentance for our sins, that have clouded up our eyes and our hearts, the notes of the shofar disperses. The sounds of the shofar help us repent for not speaking up when we should have; for saying too much when we should have kept our mouths shut; for not being generous of wallet or spirit or kind enough to those we work with or live with.
And the shofar gives us a clarity to see beyond the clouds, to see to the blue sky beyond. The shofar helps us clear the clouds away and is the hopeful instrument of our rebirth. The shofar sounds-will remind you to return, make teshuva, and find your spiritual center again in our God, in our covenant. In these shaky times, the hatred and chaos push us away from one another. The shofar helps us draw near to each other and God.
The shofar is meant to stir in us our own desire to renew. While it also stirs in God the desire for compassion. The Zohar, the mystical book of our rabbis teaches, (Vayikra, Section 3, Page 99b) “The shofar below awakens the shofar above and the Holy One blessed be, rises from the glorious throne of judgment and sits in God’s throne of compassion.” And that is how God’s compassion is upon us and upon the world.
Even with all of this love poured upon us through the shofar-it’s hard in the world as it is today to heed the call. To feel the urgency of now.
Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet Refusnik, who made Aliyah to Israel and heads the Jewish Agency wrote these words after he was released from the Soviet Gulag and living in Eretz Yisrael:
In Freedom, I am lost in a myriad of choices. When I walk on the street, dozens of cheeses, fruits, and juices stare at me from the store windows. There are vegetables here I’d never seen or heard of, and an endless series of decision that must be made: What to drink in the morning, coffee or tea? What newspaper to read? What to do in the evening? Where to go for Shabbat? Which friends to visit?
In the punishment cell, life was much simpler, Everyday brought only one choice Good or evil, white or black, saying yes or no to the KGB. Moreover, I had all the time I needed to think about these choices, to concentrate on the most fundamental problems of existence, to test myself in fear, in hope, in belief, in love. And now lost in thousands of mundane choices, I suddenly realize that there’s no time to reflect on the bigger questions. How to enjoy the vivid colors of Freedom without losing the existential depth I felt in prison? How to absorb the many sounds of freedom without allowing them to jam the stirring call of the shofar that I heard so clearly in the punishment cell? And most important how, in all these thousands of meetings, handshakes, interview, and speeches, to retain that unique feeling of the interconnection of the human souls which I discovered in the Gulag? These are the questions I must answer in my new life, which is only beginning.
(Fear No Evil, Natan Sharansky, translated by Stefani Hoffman, Public Affairs, NY 1988, 1998)
It is no different for us. We too have to answer these questions. Among the busyness of our lives. Among the difficulties of the world around us. The hate and bigotry, among the pressures of work and finance, love and family and loneliness; among health issues and loss, our success and achievements, will we heed the urgent sound of the shofar calling us? Will we devote over the course of these next 10 days the time necessary to reflect and discern the inner truths necessary for our teshuvah? And will the shofar blasts we hear ,inspire us to action?
The blasts of the shofar cry urgently for each one of us to do so. It’s spiritual technology that is designed to wake us up to the tasks even though there are a myriad of choices around us.
Sharansky built a new life, literally for himself. He has served in the Knesset and as a founder of a political movement in Israel. He went from the Gulag, imprisoned as a traitor to the Soviet Union to head the largest organization of the Jewish people based in Israel but bridging the gap between the Diaspora and the Holy Land. All the time in prison his Judaism, even as little as he knew, sustained him. All the time in prison the strength of the Jewish people worldwide-working for his release, sustained him. And he was able with the efforts of many, and the political and social justice work of our people, to finally attain his freedom. A new life. An opportunity to start over.
We are granted this gift at this season to start over, anew. And we like Scharansky can be sustained in our own personal journeys by our deep connections with one another here at Kol Ami. You are not alone. When we act together, make a difference together, pray together, sing together, build relationships of meaning together we can sustain each other through these difficult moments in our personal lives and in the life of our nation.
Now more than ever we need each other. When bad things happen –we tend to hunker down, draw up the gang plank, pull the covers over our heads, isolate. We don’t feel like being with others. We withdraw. And yet, my friends, the shofar is calling us to act differently. It is calling us to find solidarity together; Strength and support together. It is the only way we can fight back against the Anti-Semitism, racism, and bigotry of our times. The Shofar is calling you and me. The time is now. The cry is urgent to strengthen this ourselves and our Temple community? Will you have the courage to re-imagine and reinvent yourself this year as Sharansky has done? And go on to live and work for a better world? Will you have the courage with me to reimagine our Temple and strengthen it for the world as it is now?
Many Americans especially in the latter stages of life, of a career or in retirement discover that it’s never too late to reinvent and reimagine themselves.
Folk Artists Grandma Moses was in her late 70’s before she began her painting career. Colonel Harland Sanders was in his 60’s when he launched Kentucky Fried Chicken. Actor Samuel Jackson didn’t have his first film til 46 and you know here in Hollywood that is ancient already!
This is sometimes referred to as “encore careers”, these second acts can reinvigorate you and give you a reason to greet each day with anticipation. .(Bits and Pieces)
From Roget yes, the fellow that created Roget’ Thesaurus written at age 73, to Vera Wang clothes designer, who used to be a competitive ice skater, we always have the opportunity to reimagine and renew who we are in the world. These examples are of people who changed careers or began a new business venture or began a new hobby that was recognized as talent.
I am suggesting that our Rosh Hashanah and the shofar call (bright color shofar) say to you “Don’t wait, become the person you want.” Become a better person. The shofar says, “Don’t wait.” “Look inside and listen to your heart.” The shofar sounds and says, “You can do better in the New Year.” The shofar says to us it is the time of renewal and rebirth. The shofar wakes us up to our potential to live our dreams in the New Year. Use this season as a time of reimagining and rebirth. Let the sounds of the shofar wash over you and into you to so that you may let go of the errors and sins of the past and re-invent, and renew your essence. Let the shofar help you jettison and clear away all that has been covered so that the beautiful soul that God placed within you can shine more brightly in this New Year.
One thing we know all too well. Life is short. Listen to that voice in you. The shofar is calling you to write your own inscription in the book of Life. The shofar is calling to you to take advantage of this season of repentance and renewal. Let the shofar wash you in love. Let the shofar wash you in hope. Let the shofar herald a renewed sense of self and lift up your spirits that the time of redemption is near. May the shofar guide your renewal of life. And may the Shofar sounds uplift you to true repentance, reflection,renewal and rebirth in 5778. Ken Yehi Ratzon. So May It be God’s will.