Hayom harat olam. Today the world is pregnant, as we will recite six times on Saturday and Sunday. Not the traditional translation, I know, but a more accurate one. The world is pregnant with a new year, one upon which we will place our hopes and our dreams.
As I scramble with last-minute Rosh Hashanah preparation, I am placing a whole lot of pressure on 5781 to be a better year. And as all parents know, you cannot force your children to be better; you can only love them and nurture them and provide the environment in which you hope they will thrive.
That environment is the one that we create. If we want an environment of health, we have to create that. If we want happiness, we must work to make others happy. If we want truth and justice and fair treatment for all people, we need to foster that atmosphere in the neighborhoods and cities and nations in which we live.
So yes, on Rosh Hashanah we celebrate God’s coronation with the sounding of a horn and music and liturgy of depth and grandeur. But we must also focus on working harder, even in the diminished capacity in which we find ourselves, to nurture 5781 and greet her in a way that reflects our highest values. Hayom harat olam.
You are walking through the world half asleep. It isn’t just that you don’t know who you are and that you don’t know how or why you got here. It’s worse than that; these questions never even arise. It is as if you are in a dream.
Then the walls of the great house that surrounds you crumble and fall. You tumble out onto a strange street, suddenly conscious of your estrangement and your homelessness.
A great horn sounds, calling you to remembrance, but all you can remember is how much you have forgotten. Every day for a month, you sit and try to remember who you are and where you are going. By the last week of this month, your need to know these things weighs upon you. Your prayers become urgent.
So begins my go-to book at this time of year, Rabbi Alan Lew’s This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared. The book is filled with stories that help illustrate the journey of this part of the Jewish year, the arc that begins with destruction, Tish’ah Be’Av, and spirals upward through rebuilding, coronation, repentance, and celebration.
Rabbi Lew’s essential message is this: if you pay attention, if you are in fact prepared, the holiday odyssey is so much more powerful. We have the opportunity before us to change our behavior for the better, and in doing so change the world for the better.
The key to this betterment is preparation. Being ready. God tells Moshe to be ready before he ascends Mt. Sinai to get the tablets. (Ex. 34:2):
Vehyeh nakhon laboqer, ve’alita vaboqer el har sinai. Be ready by morning, and in the morning you shall ascend Mt. Sinai.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are something like Mt. Sinai. That is the gravity with which we should approach these days. And we have to be prepared, just like Moshe.
I know that the young woman whose bat mitzvah we celebrated today prepared extensively for this day; she read the entirety of today’s Torah reading. (Kol hakavod!)
What does it take to make a Jewish adult?
No bat mitzvah or bar mitzvah happens without extensive preparation. Learning to read from the Torah, learning to chant parts of the service, preparing a devar Torah to deliver to the congregation.
However, that is really only the icing on the cake, the finished product, as it were. In order to reach that point, a child must spend years learning Hebrew, learning about Jewish practices and customs and law and holidays and values and texts. A Jewish child learns from her or his parents, watching them engage with Jewish life, participating in preparing Shabbat and holiday meals, helping to put up a sukkah, searching for hametz, coming to synagogue with them, observing them acting on Jewish values of gratitude and humility and compassion. A Jewish child learns to question: Why do we do this? What does this mean? Why is this night different from all other nights? Didn’t we say, “Next year in Jerusalem” last year?
In all, 13 years of preparation, of investment of time and money and will, go into making a Jewish adult. And then she is not even really an adult yet. There are still more years of learning and growing to do. A lifetime, in fact; I’m still not sure if I have made it to adulthood.
It can be very easy, too easy to merely roll up to the High Holidays, to the Ten Days of Teshuvah, without preparing. Sure, you figure, we have a family meal, my suit is dry-cleaned, we have our High Holiday tickets, and so forth.
But those things are not so important. What is really important for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? Three simple things – items that you know because they are identified in what you might call the centerfold of RH and YK services: the Untaneh Toqef prayer, right after we ask the grave question of “Who will live and who will die in the coming year?”
Utshuvah, utfillah, utzdaqah ma’avirin et ro’a hagezerah But repentance, prayer, and charity remove the severity of the decree
And I think that this year, knowing that we will not all be gathered together with our collective energy in the same physical space, we need this preparation more than ever. More than any High Holiday cycle in your lifetime. We need it to ensure that this High Holiday season will have meaning. We need it because the world seems so off-kilter right now, and we are going to be really grateful for the spiritual framework of this time. So I give you these three things to think about in the two weeks you have left before Rosh Hashanah:
Teshuvah / Return or Repentance
Rambam, arguably (everything in Judaism is “arguably”) the greatest single interpreter of Jewish life. He writes the tractate Hilkhot Teshuvah (the laws of repentance) as a part of his halakhic compendium Mishneh Torah while serving as a court physician in Cairo in the 12th century. Among the ideas about teshuvah that he emphasizes is the idea that our lives are in the balance in this season. We must look back on our deeds of the past year, and consider that we have equal amounts of merits and transgressions; they balance each other out. And it is our task at this time to ensure that we are working a little harder than usual to make sure that we lean into the “merits,” to make sure that the balance tips the right way.
That is why, Rambam says, we begin sounding the shofar in the month of Elul. We do it every weekday morning at the end of our Shaharit service (if you need a little more shofar in your life right now, you can tune in on this Zoom link every weekday morning at about 8:10 to hear it). I’m also blowing it on the roof of Beth Shalom during ELC pickup.
The shofar’s call, says Rambam, cries, עוּרוּ יְשֵׁנִים מִשְּׁנַתְכֶם! Uru yeshenim mishenatkhem! Wake up from your slumber, you who sleep! The shofar reminds us that we have to be prepared; to stretch ourselves, to do better in this season.
Now is the time to reflect on your actions in the last year. To ask for forgiveness where necessary. To attempt to mend broken relationships. To work a little harder at living Jewishly, at pursuing Jewish values, at fulfilling mitzvot, the holy opportunities of Jewish life.
And that, of course, leads us to…
Tefillah / Prayer
Folks, I have to remind you all of something extraordinarily important about this season: even though we are meeting virtually, even though this may not feel like being in synagogue, it absolutely is. This is real prayer. I know, it’s not ideal, but it is what we have right now.
So make it real prayer. Daven. Shuckle. Meditate. Sing. Do it all in earnest this year. Even if you feel like you have never successfully prayed before. Now is the time. I am proud, and you should be too, that Beth Shalom’s services have remained uninterrupted since March. You can join us every day, so that you can be a little bit more prepared.
A government survey in late July revealed that nearly 30 million Americans claimed that they did not have enough to eat. Those households include one in three of those with children. A food bank in Memphis reported that they had served 18,000 families between March and August, ten times more than in the same period last year.
There is a need right now, more so than in recent memory. The virus has caused a tidal wave of unemployment, and people are hungry. Fortunately, there is a temporary halt on evictions, but with family budgets stretched thin, there are many who may not be able to buy food.
Give to charities now, particularly food banks. It’s good for those who need to eat, and it’s good for your soul as well.
This is really a simple formula: teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah. But investing in those three things will help you be ready.
Bat mitzvah is not just about showing everybody that you can read Torah or lead services or give a credible devar Torah. It is about being ready, about paying attention, about acting on the holy imperatives of Jewish life. We celebrate with our bat mitzvah family today, but we also acknowledge that the task before us, in this season in which we really need some teshuvah / return, in which we crave normality, for a return to something resembling life as we used to know it, that task is harder than ever.
But you can make it happen. You just have to pay attention, listen to the sounding of the shofar waking us up from our slumber, seek forgiveness, pray, and commit some of your economic resources to the benefit of others if you can.
And then you’ll be ready. And God knows that we need to be prepared this year as we enter 5781.
As I stand here today, filled with pride as my daughter was called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah, I cannot help but think about how, just a few weeks after you were born, we were at a Shabbat dinner at Temple Israel of Great Neck, and I was leading the song based on the words of Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, “Kol ha’olam kulo, gesher tzar me-od, veha’iqqar lo lefahed kelal.” The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the most essential thing is not to fear at all. She was so tiny; I was actually holding her in one hand.
Our lives are, in fact, moving forward along that narrow bridge. And nothing has reminded me of the precarious nature of human life more than the coronavirus pandemic, which has brought a new level of fear back into our day-to-day existence like no other experience in recent memory.
But you, Hannah, you hold the future in your hands, along with all your peers. And we will depend on you lo lefahed – not to be afraid.
When Hannah and I sat down back in the winter to start working on her devar Torah, we reviewed the entirety of Parashat Ki Tetze, which she chanted this morning, we encountered the mitzvah, the holy opportunity, that is referred to in rabbinic literature as “shilluah haqen.” If you find a mother bird in a nest with her chicks, and you want to take the chicks as food, the Torah requires us to shoo away the mother bird, so she will not see you taking her chicks. If you perform this mitzvah, the Torah says, you will be rewarded with long life.
I reminded Hannah that this is my favorite mitzvah. “I know, Abba,” she said.
So why is this my favorite mitzvah? Many of you know that I am a vegetarian, and I certainly do not go about looking for nests and chicks to eat. Rather, it is because the mitzvah of shilluah haqen speaks to so much of what we value as Jews.
First, it relates to a principle that Hannah spoke about earlier: that of tza’ar ba’alei hayyim, the prevention of cruelty to animals. We value the life of all of God’s creatures: maintain life, says the Torah, and you are rewarded with life. Compassion even for God’s smallest creatures is a reflection of the qedushah, holiness in the human spirit.
Closely tied to that is the sense of wise use and respect for the resources that have been given to us. We do need to eat, and many people like to eat animals. So we can do that, provided that (a) we ensure that the mother bird lives to create more life, and (b) that she does not suffer the emotional stress of watching her children taken from her.
And the third item is related to a story that the Talmud tells about this mitzvah. A character named Elishah ben Avuyah, who receives the finest rabbinic education from the best teachers of the ancient world, including Rabbi Akiva, loses his faith. He witnesses a young boy climbing up into a tree to get some chicks from a nest. The boy shoos away the mother bird, fulfilling the mitzvah of shilluah haqen, and then falls from the tree and dies. He does not receive the Torah’s promised reward of long life. Elishah’s entire theological framework falls apart. He becomes the most famous apostate in Jewish tradition, referred to often only as Aher, “the other,” because he othered himself.
What value comes from this story? Why did the rabbis include this and other tales of a famous apostate?
The value is that Elishah ben Avuyah is the outlier. That we can, in fact, maintain faith even in the face of evidence that shakes our understanding of the world. Despite what it says all over the Torah, we know that sometimes bad things happen to good people. And vice versa. Jewish theology (and I am saying this in full acknowledgment that Rosh Hashanah is three weeks from today) is not so simplistic.
Our tradition still holds a great appeal for many of us. Why? Because even though we often understand that literal readings of our text do not always hold up, nonetheless, this ancient framework, which we have upheld for a couple thousand years, is still quite valuable in nurturing and sustaining us.
Hevreh, we are facing challenges unlike any seen before in my lifetime. The pandemic, of course. The resurgence of anti-Semitism, which yielded the bloodiest attack on a synagogue in American history, just a few blocks from where I stand. The ongoing scourge of racism, coded and overt.
And, thrown into the mix is the ability that bad actors possess today to spread falsehood so easily.
Many of you may have heard of QAnon for the first time in recent weeks. I am actually ashamed and embarrassed that this deliberate attempt to manipulate people with the most outrageous types of conspiratorial falsehoods has made it to this level of visibility.
In a related vein, I am concerned that when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available (bimherah beyameinu / speedily in our days), many people will not receive it due to misinformation. A recent poll indicated that 40% of Americans say they will not get the vaccine; some will refuse it because of their concerns around vaccine safety, which have been thoroughly debunked, and some are convinced that the coronavirus is just a hoax.
And, lest you think that online falsehoods are limited to a gullible American audience, you might be surprised to know that in the United Kingdom, people are attacking telecom workers who are putting up infrastructure for the new 5G data network, because manipulators online have convinced many that 5G technology actually causes COVID-19 sickness.
We the Jews know the dangers of the widespread dissemination of such falsehoods. The infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Russian forgery originally published in 1903 that supposedly documented the Jewish conspiracy for world domination, was a pretext for state-sponsored Russian pogroms. (It was later published by Henry Ford in the US, by the way.)
It was the falsehoods that Adolf Hitler published in Mein Kampf, and later screamed into a microphone, that enabled the Sho’ah, the Nazi Holocaust that murdered nearly a third of our people during World War II.
It’s easy to lose hope, like Elishah ben Avuyah. This is not the way the world is supposed to work. This is not what God promised us.
But I am going to remind us all that Elishah is an outlier. He succumbed to the fear that God is not with us. We must remember that the forces of lies and chaos have always been there, and it is up to us, to the righteous ones, not to lose faith, not to succumb.
The real value of our tradition is not the literal reward of “long life.” Rather, the real value of our tradition, as well as that of Christianity and Islam and really every other major religious tradition, is the essential behavioral values that are held up by our traditional texts for us to pursue:
The value of compassion, as exemplified by shilluah haqen.
The value of truth (Exodus 23:7): מִדְּבַר־שֶׁ֖קֶר תִּרְחָ֑ק / Middevar sheqer tirhaq. Distance yourself from falsehood.
The value of humility (Isaiah 57:15, which appears in the haftarah on Yom Kippur morning) : מָר֥וֹם וְקָד֖וֹשׁ אֶשְׁכּ֑וֹן וְאֶת־דַּכָּא֙ וּשְׁפַל־ר֔וּחַ לְהַחֲיוֹת֙ ר֣וּחַ שְׁפָלִ֔ים וּֽלְהַחֲי֖וֹת לֵ֥ב נִדְכָּאִֽים׃
… I dwell on high, in holiness; Yet with the contrite and the humble — Reviving the spirits of the humble, Reviving the hearts of the contrite.
The value of community: Kol Yisra’el arevim zeh bazeh (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 27b). All of us are guarantors for each other. We are interdependent, and we must behave as such. And that goes not only for our Jewish neighbors, but for all of them.
The value of freedom, and we have a whole 8-day holiday dedicated to that (Pesah): the responsibility not only to protect our own safety and freedom, but to guarantee those things for others.
The value of tzedakah / charitable giving, for which the Talmud tells us that there is no limit.
And so forth. You know, some people might criticize religious practice as arcane at best, and irrelevant or potentially dangerous at worst. You might have heard people say that all wars have been caused by religion, etc.
But I’ll tell you this: if we follow it, if we commit ourselves to performing the mitzvot, our tradition drives us to be better people. Religious practice, and Jewish practice in particular, living Jewish values, will help create a better world, one marked by the “long life” of which the Torah speaks. And if we lose our faith to the forces of lies and chaos, the world will descend into an unholy pit, from which humanity may never emerge.
So I turn to my daughter Hannah on this day, and implore you thus:
The world that we need you and your peers to create is the one that is hopeful, not hopeless. That is filled with compassion; in which we act with humility; in which we strive for truth and justice in all our dealings; in which we always remember that our essential task in life is to remember the qedushah, the holiness of the other, and act on the Divine imperative to raise the total amount of holiness in this world.
והעיקר לא לפחד כלל
Veha’iqqar lo lefahed kelal. And the most essential thing is not to fear at all. Now build that world.