Rosh Hashana 5777 day
Private Act Publically Done
Rabbi Larry Freedman
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
There’s a lot of preparation for Rosh Hashana that we, the staff and Board and volunteers and I do for you. And every year, as part of my preparations I remember what you do for me.
When I am preparing, I know I am preparing for a big crowd and I’m very mindful of that. I want to respect how everyone comes out for Rosh Hashana. I’m always astonished that while we have so many fun, uplifting things going on in the synagogue week in and week out that you miss, you’re always here for this week; you come out for the most serious week. It always humbles me. Because so many of you are here, I am always on the lookout to understand why and what motivates you. I know that guilt motivates some people. I think that is a terrible motivator but for some people it works. But beyond guilt, what else is going on?
Let’s see if we can talk about what is happening here so that we can all understand better why we all attend and maybe we can encourage those folks who don’t to come back. I’m going to offer a few ideas I’ve been learning.
First off, I’m thrilled and amazed that you’re here because this, gathering here, is a huge act of faith. We arrive dressed up anticipating -what exactly?- something. Maybe spiritual uplift, nostalgic warmth, theological challenge, personal growth, personal ethical challenge or something else. There are many reasons. What an act of faith that is. You come looking for something and you have no guarantee it will happen. Yes, you’ve done this before but past performance can never be a guarantee of future returns so there is an act of faith here. I’ve been reading a series of Talmudic lectures by Emmanuel Levinas. In one of them he speaks about prayer and Jewish life as similar to the artistic impulse. Just as an artist doesn’t really know what the end product will be, he proceeds anyway. Indeed, the artistic impulse, this desire to create something is simply that: a desire. It is inchoate, unformed until the first sketches are made and then the work begins not on the finished product but what will become the final form for no artistic act ever comes out fully formed at the very first moment. The final form is the artist’s play between the intangible idea and the concrete world. So it is with us.
We come here looking for something, something different to each one of us, yes, but something. We want something and we are brave enough to come here and create it. It starts out as a vague idea and will become something by the end. Just what, we don’t quite know but we are here to create it all the same.
As I mentioned last night, the new machzor is designed to allow you to have that creative space. Different readings, different styles, different theologies all in one book in the effort to allow you to find the words that speak to you and your unique spirituality.
Here’s another reason I suspect you’re here and a good example of the way our machzor works. Turn to page three, if you will. You’ll see that page three is in blue. That is a sign that it is for personal reading, personal study. As you’ve seen this morning there are times when you may prefer to linger on a page or skip ahead. You may even find it more uplifting and rewarding to ignore the rabbi’s sermon and find passages that speak to you more. I’m okay with that.
On page three you’ll see a text from the Roman era with commentary from around the 6th century followed by medieval commentary followed by words from the 20th century. This is a conscious attempt to bring in a wide range of voices. And what does this text say? It begins with the quote from Mishna, “On Rosh Hashana all the inhabitants of the world pass before God like b’nai maron.” I think we all understand that Rosh Hashana is the beginning of the ten days of repentance and that we appear before God but what are b’nai maron? The Talmud helpfully tells us that in Babylonia it was pronounced “amarna” not “maron” and that someone said it was like the ascent of Beit Maron and somebody else said, no it means like soldiers in King David’s army.
Okay, perfect. Makes more sense. Not really. So we go to Rashi, a famous commentator from France who is actually helpful. Amarna has something to do with sheep passing through a small gap to be counted one by one. The ascent of Beit Maron was very narrow and so walkers went one by one. And David’s army? Here Maron means something to do with lordship and David’s soldiers passed one at a time to be counted. Three metaphors. You are sheep being cared for and counted lovingly, every last one. You are hikers making your way on an arduous narrow path one by one, but determined. You are soldiers, ready for battle, filled with responsibility and each single soldier important and accounted for.
Our final commentator points out that you can choose your metaphor but the bottom line is this: each one of us is important, each one of us is accountable. As we pass through these days, there is no hiding. We, each one of us, is seen and counted and judged and we alone are responsible for our actions.
Why are you here? Because you are brave enough to be counted. Because you who might tremble at your own honesty say, I have done good and I have done wrong and I am prepared to acknowledge that. You will not hide. You are willing to make that lonely journey on that arduous path. You are ready to be acknowledged and prepared to fight the wrongs you have done. You are ready to know that in the end, after 10 days, you will be cared for like an innocent little lamb. That is why you are here. Because you are strong and you are honorable and you will admit fault with a brave face and not be the coward who runs from this battle.
But wait, there’s more. It turns out that you are not alone. You are with us. We are all here together. In Torah study, we’ve been reading about King David and King Solomon. One of our texts for study is Me’am Loez, an 18th c. commentary coming out of Turkey. There is a comment appearing as Solomon dedicates the Temple in Jerusalem. In his dedication he asks God to listen to the prayers of the community. That’s fine but the question is raised: what about the prayers of the individual? Well, according to Me’am Loez, there is a hierarchy. Prayers for the entire community have more merit before God than prayers for the individual. In part, I suspect, because they are not selfish prayers but also, Meam Loez tells us, that when you pray for the whole community, you are including some very good, top notch people there. You include many righteous people and the prayers that include the righteous are difficult for God to ignore. And even if you did not have righteous people among you, surely you have some very good people among you and those people with their ordinary good deeds become a very powerful petition before God. God cannot ignore so many good deeds among the community and therefore cannot ignore the prayers that arise from the people who have done those good deeds. So, Meam Loez teaches, if you want to pray for health, pray for your health and the health of the community. If you want to pray for strength, pray for your strength and the strength of the community. Together, we are more powerful and God cannot resist our prayers. Mind you we don’t always get them answered as we want but that’s another sermon. For now we understand that God will listen to our prayers because God cannot ignore the community. Just dwell on that teaching for a moment. We, all of us together, determine God’s actions. We insist God hear us; a Jewish notion that we are not powerless during these days. Humble, yes, but not weak.
Why are we here? Because together we are powerful. While all of us have made mistakes, we have also done good deeds and God cannot ignore that. Alone, you’re on your own. Alone you take a chance but together? We’ve got your back. Together we have the strength to stand before God, confess our sins, beat our chests and yet know that we are not being left out to dry. Together and only together, we get a fair hearing from God. As for ourselves, as individuals, would we have the discipline, the strength of character to have a ten-day period of introspection? Few of us would. But together, together we agree to these days. Together we accept our ancient practice. Together we will make it through these days and what’s more we’ll celebrate them. Together we sing the songs, read the prayers, reflect on the readings in our machzor. Together we can get that done and only together and that’s why you are here.
A pitch for one more thing we can do together, alone. You all have cards promoting the 10 Q project. This is something you sign up for online and each day you receive an email with a thought-provoking question. As we enter in to these ten days of reflection, here is a chance to reflect privately, together. You answer the questions privately and after Yom Kippur they are sealed away. Next Rosh Hashana you’ll receive your answers back. This is a wonderful chance to join in a communal effort of tens of thousands but in your own way.
We come together to celebrate the new year in our own way together. We have a machzor that has us all enjoying the same tefillot but in our own way reading what we want to read. Why are you here? Because you are an individual and part of a community and there is no better place to be than with your own thoughts amongst your people and your family and your friends. Shana tova. A very good year to you and to us all. May we all be blessed to step out of this sanctuary feeling refreshed and renewed and strong ready to face these next days.