Rabbi David Gelfand: Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780
Welcome to a new year, the year of 5780. A new year of any kind sounds good these days, as the state of the world has just been a little too much with us.
How hard it is to listen to the news, at the talking heads, and not get upset locally, nationally, internationally. We live not only in interesting times, but in challenging times. So I have posited before you, on the cover of the Chronicle in my New Year’s message, posters, emails – why do we each… each need a new year? More often than not, we don’t even look for good news anymore.
Now, did you read about the public schools in Akron, Ohio? Where students parade around with hugs and high 5s with the staff, dancing to Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” blaring in the hallways. And showered with compliments and a buffet of breakfast foods, all at the behest of basketball superstar LeBron James. James has helped reduce class sizes with extra teachers, runs after school programming, and tutors for any child who needs one. And in addition, the root of the problem more often than not, they give incredible attention to every parent which educators there see as the key to success – opened with skepticism as it was deliberately aimed at helping the irredeemable, the biggest troublemakers, they are, in fact, reigniting dreams, and changing the face of urban education.
Or did you read, or hear about the Israeli Women’s Lacrosse Team who recently gave the world an inspiring lesson in sportsmanship. They competed recently at the 2019 Women’s Lacrosse Championship in Canada. Well, where else would it be? [LAUGHTER] In the playoffs against Kenya, the Israelis won 13 to 4. That’s not a normal lacrosse score. Instead of rejoicing, however, the Israeli players were disturbed, realizing they had had an unfair advantage as they wore regulation sports shoes with cleats while their Kenyan opponents were skidding all over the place wearing old, worn out sneakers. After the game, three young Israeli players called their parents to ask if they could pay for new shoes for the Kenyans. And then they all joined in. One father was in a real position to help, a sports doctor, and he called the coaches, and the other parents, and, well, they found a sports store to stay open all night, and the next day their new friends received new cleats. The scene was filmed on YouTube. Before the event, understandably, the Kenyan lacrosse team had about 100 followers. After it was seen on YouTube, hundreds of thousands of followers. Small gestures can make a huge difference. As Leonard Cohn would say, through the cracks can come light.
Why do we each need a new year? Because in a world such as it is we need to be reminded, with too much darkness around us, what Pirkei Avot teaches in those two stories. In a place where there are no leaders, strive to be a leader. Rosh Hashanah is a time for soul searching, and for soulful reflection. It’s a time that calls for truth telling and intimacy, if we will allow ourselves to be honest with ourselves. If we are honest, in the year now ended, some haven’t been battered; some have lost loved ones; some have faced life threatening illnesses; some become disabled; some have been painfully hurt by loved ones; some have been painfully hurt by family members. Some of us have lost jobs, some of us have had relations break up. Some of us have been damaged by broken promises, and some of us have had hearts broken by lies and life. And that’s before we look outside, and confront a broken world [5:00] and crumbling societal structures, and leaders that have shown us how far from perfect they are. Or to say it differently, while we travel out there – and all of that comes to us through social media, and through the news, and through the people that we talk with – we travel not only out there, but we travel in here also. The problem and the challenge is if we are honest, sometimes we deceive ourselves, and we betray our souls.
My classmate, Rabbi Mark Levin has shared, we look to the moral traits of honesty, strength, courage, and adversity, character, charitableness, to not only discover where we have fallen short, but how we have made excuses and deceived ourselves to justify our conduct. Too often we are quick to cut corners, corners on relationships – child and parent, lovers and spouses, friends, co-workers – and then we justify what we’ve done to others inside. Rabbi Levin reminds us that soul destruction follows deception. Tragically we can, in the world in which we live, hide behind the ills and the darkness of the public world where deceit reigns, and lies are made acceptable, and vision is replaced with blame and attacks on others. Marginalization of the other people into “the other” denies not only their humanity, but also ours.
Rabbi Levin teaches, lies are made acceptable by hordes who join in the chorus that black is white, up is down, and dishonesty is honesty. But the soul deep within knows, the soul shrinks at our attempts to corrupt it. Self-confrontation is the most difficult moral process. Consider your ideals, both gained and sacrificed. You don’t need to answer to me. God wants us to answer to ourselves. How tarnished are we? Hope only disappears with our final breath, but nothing is gained without honest reflection, and nothing is gained without being responsible to the values we espouse. Nothing is gained if we aren’t willing to turn from the crowd and stand up for what we believe in.
From where and when did this annual call to integrity begin? You won’t find this holiday in that Torah. If you look in the Book of Numbers, the first day of the 7 th month will be Yom Teruah, Shofar blowing day. That’s it. No songs, no sermons. No apples and honey, no book of life. On the first day of the 7th month it will be Yom T’ruah, Shofar blowing day. That’s it. It’s not called Rosh Hashanah. So what’s it all about, Rabbi?
2600 years ago, 586 Before the Common Era, the Babylonian Empire conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and exiled the leaders back to Babylon. In the middle of the city there rose a great man made mountain, and atop it was the Tower of Babel at the very center of the city. It was called Bab-el, the Gate of God, the place where it was believed by the Babylonians that Earth and Sky touched.
And on the first of Tishrei, that is now what we call Rosh Hashanah, the Babylonians celebrated their holiday of the new year by renewing their covenant with Marduk their patron God, who crowned the Emperor with a second name as the Son of God, Ruler of the Universe. Our clever ancestors, some 2600 years ago, saw this festival, and they borrowed it. [10:00] They washed it up and cleaned it off. They got rid of the pagan symbols. It was, for them, a response against paganism, and against nationalism. We are not to crown an earthly king as god. Each one of us, we are taught, is created tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. So today we gather to crown God symbolically, as the ruler of the universe, Melech Al Kol Ha’aretz we’ll sing tomorrow morning, and we will sanctify our people, our community, not to conquer others, but to conquer ourselves, and to serve an ideal that all people are created in the image of God. And that there is a oneness in humanity.
Let me try it a different way if that was too historical for you. In this short story, written up this week by Rabbi Mark Angel, called The Last Channel, Italo Calvino portrays a man who has been deemed to be insane. When this man watched television he kept clicking his remote, and at some point he started to no longer just do it at the TV – he started, when he went out into the street, to take his remote control, and he clicked it at buildings, and at stores, and at banks, and at signs, and at people. He claimed he was not crazy. In his defense he stated that he kept clicking the remote because he simply didn’t like what he saw. He was looking, we might say, for the true program, a program without drivel and artificiality. He asserted, there is an unknown station transmitting a story that has to do with me, my story. The only story that can explain to me who I am, where I came from, and where I’m going. And he flashed his remote control button everywhere he went, looking for the real me. He wanted to turn off the chaos, the craziness, the violence, the senselessness all around him. And he was convinced that if he somehow kept clicking the button, he would eventually find the right channel.
While the man in Calvino’s story seems to have crossed the line between sanity and insanity, I get it, and I’m guessing, so do you. Don’t we all wish we had a remote control that we could click and make things alright? The right picture, the right leader, the right world, the right parent, the right child. Wouldn’t we like it?
In a sense, Rabbi Angel reminds us, we do have a remote control. Our remote control button doesn’t look like this, it looks like a Shofar, because it is a Shofar. The original Shofar comes from the story of the Akedah that we read tomorrow morning, the story of the so-called sacrifice of Isaac. Okay, he didn’t get sacrificed. The story teaches that God doesn’t want child sacrifice, we say. Remember, the child is bound on the altar, and then Abraham noticed a ram caught in the brambles by its horns, and he offered the ram as a sacrifice in lieu of Isaac. And so the Shofar that we blow is to remind us of that story. The Shofar’s essential sound is the base sound of Teruah, and the Torah refers to Rosh Hashanah as Yom Teruah, remember? Not Rosh Hashanah. In there, it’s Yom Teruah. The Shofar is alluding to something that is mysterious and profound. The sound of T’ruah is the one that sounds like a plaintive cry. It doesn’t say anything. But its sound is to remind us of human suffering, of feeling that are hurt, of pains in the heart and of the struggles of the soul. It is meant to be a remote control button to penetrate beneath the surface of the busyness of our lives, to hear a clarion call of protest against the imperfections of the world, and the unjustness that so many suffer from. It is a cry, a plaintive cry – to cry, you can do better. You can be better.
Why do we need a new year? We need to be awoken because we have become desensitized to the pain, the struggles of so many. We tend to look other ways, and we tend to rationalize, and we tend, as well, to be immobilized by fear. Pittsburgh was 11 months ago. We used to feel comfortable with some security, and now we cannot have enough.
The Shofar is our call, our seasonal alarm clock as it were. Maimonides taught, awake from your slumber, ponder your deeds, and return to God. And Saja Gaon taught the sounds of the Shofar ought to produce a shock and a warning, get moving, do it. Just do it.
We each need a new year, and it doesn’t matter what the date is on the secular calendar, or that it’s Sunday night, and some of our friends are in some strange other place I used to know all about. We each need a new year, the Shofar reminds us, it’s later than you think.
Why do we need that new year? Because Rosh Hashanah was never meant to be about recounting the insanity of yesterday or today’s news, but to consider what we’ve become in the past year, and what we remain sensitive to, to examine what we care enough about to put up our hand and move ourselves, and to be counted for.
As our teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us, pray not alone with your voice, but with your feet. March for causes that we know will make a difference. Gather to contemplate the gap between our ideals and our behavior. That’s what we’re here for. It’s about soul searching and moral integrity, because we need both, or nothing will get better, he said.
Who among us has not been mired down unable to find the magical remote control button this year. I mean, even when you turn it off, it’s still there. We are mesmerized like a moth to the light, by the lack of leadership and the ills of the world.
But we are here to give pause, and to think, as it were, from 10,000 feet up about bigger pictures and about how… how things could be made better. Not because we simply sing of them, or pray for them, but because we make plans to do better.
We come together to affirm life. Judaism gives us tools to assist us. Prayers, T’fillah, as a script to call out to God. We are given a kehilah kedosha, a sacred community to keep us from being self-righteous, and tzedakah, we are called upon to do the right, just thing. So let us remember our values, and have the courage to do better in the new year.