Rosh Hashanah sermons 2021

Erev Rosh Hashanah

The legendary king Theseus ruled Athens. In gratitude for his heroism, his people turned his ship into a memorial in the harbor. Over the years, its wooden planking began to rot. Seeing this, the Athenians replaced the rotting planks with fresh ones so that future generations would continue to enjoy visiting the ship.

The story became the basis for a famous thought experiment: once you begin replacing the planks, is this still the same ship of Theseus? To put it another way…can things stay the same even after they experience change? This question has special meaning for our community today.

Rosh Hashanah is all about change. Its Hebrew name (literally: Head [of the] year) hints at this. The word shanah, meaning “year”, has the root letters shin, nun, hey. That same root can also form the words l’shanot, “to change”, or “change” itself, shinui. 

Every year has a regular cycle of changes as the seasons progress. And each year has its own unique potential. Jewish tradition is very consistent: this dynamic quality is a Divine gift! And while we commemorate it on this festival morning, it’s also part of our daily liturgy. 

In the morning blessing for Creation, we recite the passage: Ha-m’chadeish b’tuvo b’chol yom tamid ma’asei Bereshit. We praise God, “the One who renews, in God’s goodness, daily and always, the works of Creation.”

A few weeks ago, Lorel gave us a teaching on this passage. She reminded us that we are ma’asei bereshit, too! We are part of Creation, and as such, we are made anew each day. One constant aspect of the human condition is that we change. T’shuvah – repentance – is a key part of that idea. 

T’shuvah is more than a promise that we CAN change: it’s an imperative to do so! It’s a holy paradox: the great constancy in our lives is change itself.

This is how Jewish tradition offers one answer to the question of the Ship of Theseus: “can things stay the same even after they change?” Yes, they can. All things change at some level. What’s important is to find holiness in the change – and to engage openly with it. As we do so, we connect with our Divine nature: our deepest being. This helps us to see that we’re always ourselves, even (and especially) as we experience change.

That said, there are other ways to answer this question. I’ve recently been corresponding with Professor Noson Yanofsky at Brooklyn College, who teaches on this exact issue. He reminds us that change is true not only for people, but also for groups. While universities cycle their student body every four years, and their faculty and staff every few decades, we still see them as the same institution. Yanofsky says that this is possible because their core properties remain the same – their key qualities remain constant.

Over this past year, our leadership and I have been asking questions about Beth El’s essential identity. In Yanofsky’s language, what are the “core properties” of our community? What are the beliefs and values that define us? How will we express and demonstrate them in 5782, following Lorel’s retirement, and in the years to come?

We’ve been working together to see this transition as an invitation to start a process of discernment. We are taking a hard look at who we are and what we value so that we can choose a path that will keep us strong, united and vibrant. 

There’s a classic Hasidic teaching that captures the spiritual nature of this work: Rabbi Zusya said, “When I come to stand before the Heavenly Court, I’m not worried that they might ask me, ‘Why were you not more like Moses?’ What I worry is that they might ask me: ‘Why were you not more… like Zusya?’ ”

Our task isn’t to struggle to make ourselves into something we’re not. Instead, it’s to become ever-more ourselves; to renew (“l’chadeish”, like in the blessing I mentioned earlier) our community, guided by our key principles.

This was the inspiration for the Beth El Visioning Committee’s project, about which Jim spoke last night. In many ways, our Vision Statement is a distillation of our core properties. It’s who we are and who we want to be. I offer it again, here:

Congregation Beth El is joyful, participatory Judaism.

We sing, learn, laugh, and pray together, and celebrate our varied backgrounds, identities, and experiences. 

We connect with Jewish values and traditions as we strive to create a more just future for ourselves, our children, and our world.

This vision places relationships at the center of Beth El, both between our members and also to Torah in its grandest sense: Jewish text, values and culture. And I love that it includes laughter – that’s emblematic of the authentic, personal nature of our relationships!

I’m very grateful to the Visioning Team for all their hard work. It’s necessary for us to express our values and principles. We also know this is not sufficient. So I’m grateful, as well, that our new Strategic Action Group has begun the next step in this process. Their task is to take the core properties from our Vision Statement and help our leadership integrate them into all aspects of our community’s life. I’m looking forward to our continued partnership together in this work!

On a related note, I’m proud and excited to share something new with you.

Rabbis are generally trained more to preserve traditions than to serve as change agents. However, I know that an important part of my role over the next few years will be to balance remaining true to our existing sense of self while also encouraging us to see ourselves in new and healthful ways.

A few months ago, I successfully applied to become a fellow of the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI). This is a two-year program that teaches Jewish clergy to bring healthful and sustainable innovations to their communities.

One of my first CLI assignments was to define my congregation’s best qualities: those core properties that we wish to nurture over the coming years. I named three:

A culture of engagement. This is more than attending services or doing a social action project: it’s how our members invest time, energy and passion in creating and maintaining and expanding our community. We see this as our congregants claim ownership of our programs.

A culture of curiosity. We encourage each other to grow as we explore our connection to Jewish life and culture openly and freely, from experimenting with personal spiritual practices to new recipes, from poetry readings to beer tastings. We always seek to deepen our relationship to Judaism and to each other, knowing that this makes us whole. 

A culture of caring and unity. We strive, quite actively, to support each other across physical distance, generational divides, and backgrounds. It’s when we say to someone: “Because we’re both a part of Beth El, I feel that we’re connected.” 

Each of these three qualities are clearly embodied in our community through our members. We each have a role in keeping them a vibrant part of Beth El. There’s a Hasidic teaching that expresses this very point:

On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Mendel entered the House of Prayer. He looked at the people who had gathered from across the region. “What a fine crowd!” he said. “And I want you to know that I can’t carry you all on my shoulders. Every one of you must work for themselves. And that is how we might continue together.”

Ultimately, it falls to you – to our members – to continue to embrace these values of engagement, curiosity and caring. No one can sustain them as effectively and as meaningfully as you can. This is true wherever we are in life’s journey.

We need our elders to share the wisdom that comes from years of experience. We need our empty nesters and retirees to lend us their sustaining energy as we cultivate the next generation of leaders and learners. We need our parents and professionals to bring their full skillset to us, helping us to stay fresh and on the cutting edge of modern Jewish life. And we need our students to share their curiosity with us, inspiring us with their insights and their joy at growing up in the warmth of our temple home.

If you don’t identify as one of those categories – we need your engagement, just as much! And if you don’t know where your skills could best be used, ask me or Jim. Ask anyone on our board.

This isn’t always easy. A year-and-a-half of wrestling with COVID has left us overwhelmed and worn out. I am deeply grateful to the many people who, nonetheless, stepped forward to help us not only to continue, but to thrive! And this leads to a final holy paradox. 

As we give, we find ourselves receiving, as well.

Time and again, our members have told me that they were refreshed by serving on committees and helping with our programs. In answering the call to help sustain us, they found their relationships with one another deepened and enriched. This is a very real way that we can see ourselves renewed, daily, along with all Creation.

Three days ago, in our Torah service, we read: “This thing is very close to you – it’s in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it” (Deut. 30:13). The process of engagement is more than accessible. It’s integral to who we are as individuals and as a community. And it’s all the more powerful when we invite new people to join us in our work, in our study and in our celebrations!

This is our community’s answer to the question of Theseus’s ship: “How will we stay the same as we experience change?” We do this when we allow our core principles of being caring, curious and engaged to guide us, deepening the relationships that weave us together. And those connections are strengthened as we continue to engage, wholly and with open hearts, in the life of our community at every level.

There is so much that we love to do together – and we do these things well! I know that we will continue to learn, to laugh, to sing, to share meals (speedily and in our days) through the years to come. 

We will navigate this time of change healthfully as we hold one another close. Each of us is integral to maintaining this kehilah kedosha, our holy community, that blends engagement and curiosity and caring to make a wondrous and wonderful whole. That is our shared strength and that is the holy spark that will keep our light blazing brightly for generations to come.

L’shanah tovah u-metukah – may this new year bring health, uplift and joy to you, to our community and to all who dwell on earth.

Rosh Hashanah

Rabbi Chayim of Zans, a great Hasidic teacher, told this tale on Rosh Ha-Shanah:

A man once lost his way in a great forest and wandered alone for a long time. After a while, he saw another person! His heart lifted – surely this traveler could tell him the correct way forward!

When they both met he said, “My brother! Tell me the right way through these woods, because I’ve been lost here for days!”

“I wish I could tell you,” replied the traveler, “because I’ve also been lost here for many days. What I can tell you that the way I came from doesn’t lead out of the woods; it’s only thickets and rocks and mire. So now that we’ve found one another, let’s find a way forward together.”

After finishing his story, Rabbi Chayim used to say: “My community, I can only tell you this – now that we have united, let’s find a way forward together!”

This is a story could well be about us. This is who we are right now. We’re wandering in the woods, trying to find our way forward in uncertain times. While we might not know exactly where we’re heading, this new vantage point of 5782 is a moment to review the wilderness through which we’ve been passing. 

Speaking for myself, I’ve been dragged down more than once in the mire of loneliness during COVID. I’ve gotten tangled in the confusing thickets of trying to connect online. And I’ve tripped over the rocks of trying to make everything feel “normal” for myself and for my children. I know that I’m not alone in having experienced these challenges.

One powerful lesson from the story is that we are on this journey together. Each of us has wisdom to offer our fellow travelers. Everyone has insights into difficulties and “thickets” that they have encountered that might trip up other travelers. And when we decide to go on together – when we offer the best of ourselves to our companions – we weave ourselves into a profound gift: we form a community. 

Jewish tradition teaches us, from the Torah through the Rabbis, from medieval teachings to Hasidic stories, that one of the greatest resources that we have in tough times are the relationships that we share with one another. This is our strength.

Lisa Breit made this point about our community clear to me in a recent email:

“I’ve been reflecting on the work of the Visioning Team, the musicians of Shabbat Rinah, the Shir El event, the tunnel of messages for Lorel…and much more. This made me reflect on the depth of heart, talent and cooperation in our community. We all worked on things remotely during a pandemic…conceived, created, trusted each other, communicated, with nary a face to face meeting, and the result was far more than the sum of the parts. This happens all over Beth El all the time. It deserves to be articulated.”

Amein v’amein. And even more, it deserves to be celebrated! When we collaborate, when we reach out to one another, we strengthen the relationships that are the very fabric of our community. And as we do so, whether it’s for study or a shared project, we often find a deeper sense of meaning and delight.

One of our spiritual tasks in 5782 is to recognize that creating and maintaining our connections to each other and to our community is more than important. It is a profoundly holy aspect of Jewish life that has been a sustaining thread through the challenges faced by each generation. Lisa makes the additional point that this work is all the more challenging – and all the more rewarding – when we accomplish it in the shadow of COVID.

Let’s come back to the story of the two people in the woods. Part of its elegance is that there is no single hero. The two people are on the same level. Both are lost, and both have equally valuable information to share. Each one knows about a place where they’ve stumbled. 

When these travelers decide to unite – to become a fellowship – they complement each other. They support one another along the way, each from their own strengths and perspectives. And as we navigate the dark forest of our own day, let’s hold close to their example. 

The deep gift of being in community is that we both give and receive. Sometimes we can offer our guidance to others. And, sometimes, it’s our role to receive another’s support. There’s a beautiful story from the Talmud (Berachot 5b) that illustrates this idea:

Rabbi Yochanan had a student who fell ill. He visited him and spoke with him. Rabbi Yochanan said, “Give me your hand.” They joined hands, and Rabbi Yochanan helped his student to stand…now returned to health!

Some time later, Rabbi Yochanan fell ill, himself. His friend, Rabbi Chanina, visited him and spoke with him. Rabbi Chanina said, “Give me your hand.” They joined hands, and Rabbi Chanina helped his friend to stand…now returned to health!

The other Rabbis wondered: why didn’t Rabbi Yochanan heal himself? Why did he need Rabbi Chanina to come to him?

The answer, they said: prisoners cannot free themselves from prison.

Everyone depends on someone else to lift them up from their low points. To paraphrase one of the great British social philosophers, “we get by with a little help from our friends.”

The strength of our community flows from the relationships we share. We know that the true measure of a congregation’s longevity – what keeps it strong – is the connections between its members. It’s how our joy is magnified when we celebrate together. And it’s also how we lend each other our strength in hard times, times like these, when we might feel lost in the woods.

Beth El is a community of people who have chosen – with mindful intent – to accompany each other on a shared journey. To engage and to grow together as we learn about ourselves. To explore the history and the lessons of Judaism. To open our hearts as we lend the best of ourselves to our davening – to our rituals. To open our hands as we engage in tikkun olam together, healing the world. To dare to grow beyond who we are to who we dream we might become

In 5782, we must continue to invest in the relationships that form the foundation of our community, both for our own sake and also for the sake of those around us. Let’s keep sharing our strength and not hesitate to speak up when we’re in need. There’s any number of ways we can do this. Here’s just a few to inspire your creative process.

Each day, choose a specific person – or family – to whom you could extend your care. Drop off a surprise meal. Send a card. Give a call. While the weather lasts, invite a group for a backyard gathering. You could even start outdoor chaverot – gatherings! And I, along with leadership/staff, are more than happy to offer guidance and support.

In this new year, let us draw ever closer. Let us affirm all that we share – the connections that have sustained us so well for so long. And let us continue to lend one another our insights as we continue to navigate the many challenges of the woods that we are traversing.

As Rabbi Chayim said, let us look for the way forward together. Shanah tovah u-metukah – may this be a sweet new year for you and your loved ones, for our holy community and for all who dwell on earth.