Davey’s High Holiday Sermon
Davey Rosen – Rosh Hashanah – 5778
Creating your Book
We sound the shofar and declare hayom harat olam – today is the birth of the world.
I’ve developed a bad habit of reading twitter before going to bed. I read it for the news. And the news is terrible, as if the world is broken.
What can I do? What can we do?
Sometimes I just want to ignore it all and go along with my daily routine.
Jewish tradition recognizes that life can feel overwhelming at times, and we have our traditional texts to serve as a guide. Not commanding personal belief, but offering ways to take action.
Rosh Hashanah translates to the beginning of change. We are marking a time of change – changing into a new season, moving from summer to fall, and taking time to change as individuals and as a community.
According to rabbinic tradition, Rosh Hashanah marks the birth of the world, and parallels Shabbat, the seventh day of the week. Our earliest source for Rosh Hashanah is in our Bible. In the book of Leviticus we read, “in the seventh month, on the first day, there shall be a solemn rest for you, a sacred ceremony commemorated with the blast of the ram’s horn. You shall not work and you shall bring an offering to God”
“You shall not work” – like on Shabbat, we change our schedule to mark this day as significant. We’re doing that now; we’re here, at this service, praying as a community. But we no longer make “offerings to God” through animal sacrifice. With the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem the ancient rabbis replaced the Rosh Hashanah animal sacrifice with the call for deep, personal introspection and a commitment to change.
After blowing the shofar this afternoon we will read the words “the world’s birthday is the day when all its creatures are called to judgement.” Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Ha-Din, Judgement Day. The rabbis of the Mishnah considered this day as a time when God as king passes judgment upon the Jewish people.
I struggle with the literal concept of God as a king passing judgment. But I’m open to the idea that these words are metaphorical. And so I ask myself, what does our tradition mean by judgment? Our actions are being evaluated through our own process of reflection on the many ways we have sinned.
The word we repeat over and over again for sin in Hebrew is ḥet. Het literally means something that goes astray. It is a term used in archery to indicate that the arrow has missed its target.
Sometimes we miss the mark. Rosh Hashanah provides the space for us to recognize those moments and to commit to not making the same mistakes again.
How does Rosh Hashanah help me address the realities of a world that is broken, highlighted by the news we consume? Professor Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote that the Bible tells us punishment follows when God’s commandments are not followed. For example, if taken literally, climate change could be viewed as a Divine punishment, as explained in the Bible, if mitzvoth are not followed the earth will be “devastated by sulfur and salt, beyond sowing and producing no grass growing in it” (Duet. 29:22).
Eisen shares that many Jews today, “have difficulty with Deuteronomy’s (the Bible’s) conviction” that the problems of climate change are a form of divine punishment and the Earth will be healed “when Israel repents and returns to God.”
We can’t simply ignore the problems in this world, because humanity creates the problems and humanity must address the problems.
I am at fault – I drive my car to work almost every day when I could easily ride my bike. Or each time I use a plastic fork I could use a reusable fork.
The Day of Judgement is a day to recognize we may have missed the mark, but we can learn from our mistakes and improve ourselves and our world.
Repentance – recognizing we have missed the mark
And return – committing to not making the same mistakes again.
Making change can feel intimidating. Often, our default is to wait for someone else to solve the problem. But we are empowered by our tradition to know that, “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Avot 2:21).
Rembert Browne, a writer with Bleacher Report, was covering the Colin Kaepernick story, and he reflected on how difficult it can be to try and make change because of the negative reaction one may receive, “To be a work-in-progress is nearly unacceptable, because the currency that drives our culture is not self-improvement, but instead the ongoing erosive process of each person, on each side, designating who is wrong and who is right.
As Jews, we value repentance and return, which honors that each one of us is a work-in-progress. We may miss the mark, but we are called to do better in the future.
There’s a story about a rabbi, the great Chassidic master, Menachem Mendel of Koztk, the Kotzker Rebbe, who had studied for many, many years and had adoring students who loved to learn with him. And then, one day, he disappeared. He disappeared for 19 years by locking himself in his library. For 19 years he separated himself from his community, he hid from the challenges of the world.
After 19 years he walked out of his study, and stood at the steps of the Beit Midrash and asked his students, “What are you doing?”
His chassidim, his students, looked up at him and said “Rebbe, we’re doing what you told us to do, we’re learning Torah.”
The Kotzker Rebbe responded, “Don’t learn Torah, be Torah. Choose to make your life into a book. Make your life a holy sacred text about how the world can be brought to wholeness, wisdom and peace. Make your life in to a book about commitment and intention and meaning so another generation can choose to gather and read your book and understand that life has purpose.”
When we blow the shofar today, think to yourself:
If we were all practicing repentance and return, what would be the news that we would read at the end of the day?
What will be your book? How will the world learn from you?
May you be inscribed for a year full of goodness and kindness.
Arnold Eisen quoted from his blog
Rembert Brown quoted from his article
Koztker Rebbe story adapted from Rabbi Ed Feinstein