The Universal and Particular
Next week we will be observing Rosh Hashanah. I look forward to greeting each of you at our magnificent High Holy Day services at the Artani Theatre at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC )in Little Tokyo, Downtown Los Angeles. Our New Year’s observances are different than many other cultures. Most are big celebration with fireworks, parties of wild abandon and some even parades. Our New Year begins with introspection and culminates at Yom Kippur, our day of atonement. Our ancestors recognized that if we are going to really start afresh in a New Year that we cannot bring the hurts, grudges, resentments, sins, and impurities with us into a new calendar.
These two holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur work hand in hand. They rely on one another. Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of creation has with it an emphasis on universalism. Its themes are a celebration of human dignity for all people. Yom Kippur, ten days later focuses on the individual, on the particular. It is a time of rebirth for the individual person who at the close of the gates of Heaven at Neilah, can now enter the New Year as a new you! You can’t have one without the other because then you get a skewed view of this Season. Rosh Hashanah and its themes and prayers and reflections move us from the universal to the particular and by end of Yom Kippur we move from the particular back to the Universal. You can see this pattern in the Torah and Haftarah portions for the High Holy Days.
On Rosh Hashanah we will read from Gensis 21 and 22. The first is the story of Sarah and Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac and Abraham. We will learn about difficult family dynamics which is universal. We will learn about the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham that he will father many nations since Ishmael becomes the link to the Arab nations and Isaac to the Jewish people. And in Genesis 22, read together with Genesis 21 we learn about the value of children in our lives and what we must do to protect them. These are universal themes: Parents who must protect their children, many nations tracing their ancestry to Abraham. On Rosh Hashanah God answers the prayers of Hagar, Sarah, and in our Haftarah, Channa. God is not the exclusive God of just men or just Jews. But God hears the prayers of all people and all nations. Our Haftarah on the second day reminds us however in a particularistic way that God does love the Jewish people too.
Contrast that with Yom Kippur Torah readings which remind us about our specific covenant with God. “You stand before Me this day….” This is our particularistic Jewish covenant with God and the way in which we must “stand before the Eternal this day”, one to one, to ask for atonement for our wrongdoings, to renew our covenant and to be reminded in the afternoon how we, the Jewish people must live out our ethical and moral worldview in everyday life. This is reinforced by the prophet Isaiah in the Haftarah of the morning service reminding us that our covenant with God means nothing if we are so focused on the ritual that we forget how to act in the world caring for the hungry, the naked and the poor. The afternoon portion teaches us “Be holy for I Adonai your God is holy.” The Jewish way of being in the world is definitely a higher standard. We are reminded on Yom Kippur of that standard and as we enter the New Year, forgiven, cleansed and spiritual purified we are sent on our way with a reminder of how we should act in the New Year. But the Haftarah on Yom Kippur returns us to the Universal in contrast with the Haftarah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. The story of Jonah reminds us that repentance, teshuvah is necessary but this is not only a Jewish ideal but God’s compassion extends to all people even the sinful people of Nineveh. It teaches us that even though Jonah is the chosen prophet of God, God is still responds to all people.
Thus our holy days work together beginning with the Universal on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur we atone in very specific, particularistic ways. Their message speaks to us of the importance of being a moral and ethical human being in everything we do. The holy days teach us to rise above our baser instincts and act in the world accordingly. This is the Jewish task. And this is what we remind ourselves of and pray for during this High Holy Day season.
I look forward to sharing this New Year time with you. Join us to kick it off with Selichot, this Saturday night, Sept. 20 for a great “Nite at the Improv” as we explore through improvisation, the Biblical stories of the High Holy Days creating our own modern Midrash. It begins with Havdallah at 7 pm at Kol Ami.
I hope to see you there.