Rabbi David Gelfand: Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779
I must begin this evening with an apology. For nearly a decade when I was a rabbi in the Hamptons, I prayed for nights like this. I know where the Jews are tonight, many of them. It happens, well, about seven times every nineteen years. The way the lunar calendar cycles. And because of that, it kicks the High Holidays early. Some people ask me if I like it. It’s not a matter of like it or not like it. As a rabbi, it’s going to happen. And yes, when I was out east, I used to like it when it came at this time. It’s okay. Next year Rosh Hashanah is like October 1st.
So, oy, it’s Rosh Hashanah again. It seems that these Yamim Noraim, the High Holy Days, show up faster and faster each year. The older we get, the quicker the years pass by, and this one was surely no exception. I mean, really, weren’t most of you here for Rosh Hashanah just a few months ago? I mean, really? It was a year ago? Remember when we were kids, little kids, and the time between one birthday and the next was forever. You know, like when you were four and a quarter, four and a half. I love this one. A kid said to me the other day, I’m five and seven eighths. I couldn’t do the math.
I’m sure that every one of us has an experience in which the passage of time seemed to slow down and move in slow motion and other times when it went by so expeditiously. A few months ago I was talking to a woman in her late eighties whose husband had just died in his mid-nineties. All but the last twelve months of his life, incredibly in good health and with full mental acumen. She and her husband had been married for seventy years. When he passed, she turned to me and said, it’s unbelievable, Rabbi. It seems like we just met yesterday. How marvelous.
So, since you’re here, let me ask you a question. How was this year for you? Was it quick? Or was it slow? Was the year now ending a year of simchas, or sorrows, or a mixture? What is different about your life now than it was when we ushered in the year now ended?
There are a myriad of ways to measure the passage of time. Personal and familial, through friends and work, things that happen where we reside or our neighborhood or here in the city. Or we can look at time through the lens of our nation or the world all about us.
The Hassidic master, Rabbi Yerachmiel Yisroel Danziger, once suggested that the only moment that really counts is the present one. The past is gone and the future is never in our control. All we can do is hold onto Hayom, today, and make the best of it. Whether time flies by or creeps, we need to be grounded somehow in the present and only then can we truly move into the future.
For we who live in the Jewish community, no matter what our backgrounds or even our faith at birth, Jewish traditions speaks to us of this and then yearning to be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year. American tradition, as in the Declaration of Independence, speaks a similar language, speaking of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In an excellent new book, a collection of 72 – a very Jewish number – essays about immigration and the American experience. Immigration, as it says, an American greatness, edited by scholar Andrew Tisch and Mary Skafidas. It explains as our shared commitment to democracy, opportunity, freedom of expression, and equality. How Jewish. That’s our dream, our aspiration. And its demonstratively particularistic and universal way.
As Rabbi Brad Hirschfeld wrote this week, it is the story of Adam and Eve, and it is learned through the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Agar, Ish, Isaac and Ishmael. It is the story of appreciating our uniqueness and that we are also always part of something much larger. Whatever makes us unique as a people and as peoples, or as nations.
Rosh Hashanah is not the birthday of the world but in children’s stories. It is, however, theologically and in our prayers, the birth of the world and that’s a little more complex. It celebrates the birth of humankind as we sound the shofar, dip some apples in honey, and sing songs, recite prayers and hear stories that speak of our behavior and of our relationship with God.
Throughout our high holy days, we are either engaged with or shirk from our relationship with God. Often we are not sure about defining or even understanding God and our relationship with Her… or Him. Our Torah tries to prep us and the recent Torah passages as we read the latter partition of Deuteronomy as summer ended, in the words of Moses and his great orations before he died and the children of Israel who were about to enter the Promised Land.
Just a few weeks ago, we read of the possible change of leadership. No, tonight is not about mid-term elections or elected officials, or the surrealism that is all about us in political realms. For that you’ll have to come back. The Torah discusses the possible future appointment of the rulership over the Jewish people. No, this is not about contemporary Israel issues tonight. For that you also have to come back. It seems from the text of the Torah and rabbinic commentaries, that God was reluctant for the Jewish people to have a king. You must remember that for the children of Israel, they wanted a king of flesh and blood like all the other nations around them, some 3000 and more years ago. But the real king of the Jews is God, the ruler of the universe. And the idea of the rulership of God is central to the theme of Rosh Hashanah and its liturgy.
So if you don’t mind my asking you a question, how is your relationship with God going? How’s that been working out for you this past year? Makes us a little uncomfortable to think in those terms usually. Maybe you can make a last minute deal with God to do something new, to deepen your relationship and make sure you get in the Book of Life. Perhaps you’re, well, a little reluctant to disrupt your habits, your regular routines, and aside from a few minutes maybe to pray or decide to come to Synagogue more often, which you may or may not do, well it’s okay. Judaism is really behavioral more than theological at its core.
But my job tonight is to remind you that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are all about change and renewal and that can come with change, including a renewal of a relationship with God. Remember, Rosh Hashanah is about the birth of the world and as well, the story of Abraham of which we will read tomorrow morning.
Rabbi David Ibn Zimra, the Radbaz, who lived in the 16th Century, was asked about this Rosh Hashanah/God relationship stuff, and he shared this amazing story that speaks to us tonight in these sacred moments and gives us a perspective as we begin to journey through these High Holy Days. There was a Jew who had been working on an estate for a non-Jewish nobleman. In this feudal society, the noblemen were like kings and had absolute authority over everyone. And this particular nobleman became angry with this particular Jew. He had him thrown in jail and he discarded the key. “You are in there for the rest of your life.” Years passed. The nobleman couldn’t even remember what he was angry about, but he didn’t want to, well, give up his power. So he said to the man, “Jew, I feel very generous today. I’ll give you a gift. One day of freedom.” And then he thought about this and said, “And I’ll be extra generous. It doesn’t make a bit of difference to me which day you pick.” The man had been in jail for years. As a young man, he had been observant of Jewish traditions. But the days and seasons had come and gone, and on Passover, there was no matzoh. On Sukkot, there was no sukkah. On Rosh Hashanah, there was no Shofar to be heard. He was not even allowed a prayer book or a bible. So what he had to decide was, given the choice as to which day he should choose for his freedom, he thought to himself, what’s the most important day I could choose? Having been an observant Jew, Judaism played into this. So if you were him, what day would you choose?
He thought to himself, my favorite holiday is Passover. How I loved Seder with my family. If only I could have one more Seder. But if it was late spring or summer and he chose Passover with his family, it would be a nine or ten month wait. The holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, I should ask for that one off, he thought. But the truth be told, I don’t get fed very well in here. Fasting wouldn’t be so hard, but on the other hand, that’s not for another six months.
And the 16th Century Rabbi taught, this isn’t hard at all. The day I want off, the day I want to be free, is today.
So if God hasn’t been on your calendar since last High Holy Days or maybe you kind of skipped that part then and maybe now is the when, maybe now is a good time to begin. Or one other midrash.
For Moses’ closing speech at the end of the Torah that we read but yesterday here, what did Moses really have in mind as he delivered his farewell address to this people? I imagine a scenario which went something like this. Standing on the shores of the Jordan river, the people of Israel knew that the end was near, but so was the beginning. Listening to their teacher, Moses, they could sense the urgency in his voice. Soon the nation would depart for the Promised Land, but Moses would remain behind to go up alone on the mountain to die. Moses spoke to the people: Atem nitsavim hayom kulechem lifney Adonay Eloheychem – “You are standing before a God, the God of all of you today. And before you, I have set before you either life and prosperity or death and adversity. Choose life.”
The people knew that there was something special about this day, but they were not quite sure what it was. What did Moses mean when he said they were now standing in the presence of God? I mean, hadn’t some of them been at Mt. Sinai with God? Had they not fashioned a covenant with God at that time? Had God not been with them in their wanderings in the desert? And what did Moses have in mind when he repeatedly said, Hayom, today? In this one Torah portion, Moses used the word Hayom, today, ten times. And that passage is always read right before Rosh Hashanah. To remind us of the importance of this day, which of course, is every day.
Stooping down, Moses embraced a child and whispered, “My child, every day is Hayom, today. That is the most important lesson I can teach you. Today is the most important day of your life. Today you stand in the presence of God, but tomorrow and the morrow after that, well, who is to say? Your challenge is to know that wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, what really matters is today.”
At this time of year, there are many distractions as there are at every time of the year. And this year the holidays have come on our regular cycle calendar, a little on the early side. Today, tomorrow, what’s the difference. I have no yesterdays, wrote a poet. Time took them away. Tomorrow may not be. But I have today.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to a friend in a time of sadness, “Pray do write to me. A few lines soon are better than a three decker novel months from now.” We wait too long, we wait too long to speak words of forgiveness that should be spoken and to set aside hatreds that should be banished. We wait too long to express thanks, and too long to give encouragement. And we wait too long, sometimes, to give comfort. We wait too long to express our concern for parents, siblings and dear ones. We wait too long, sometimes, to read books, listen to the music, or see the art waiting to enlarge our minds and to enrich our spirits and to expand our souls. We wait too long to utter the prayers that are waiting to cross our lips. And we wait too long in the wings when life has a part for us to play on life’s stage.
God is waiting for us to begin. God is waiting for us to begin to do now all the things for which this day and this new year are meant to be. So what are we waiting for? What, in God’s name, have we been waiting for?