בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן
Berosh hashanah yikatevun, uvyom tzom kippur yehatemun.
On Rosh Hashanah their decree is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
That is our traditional story surrounding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – the Book of Life. As our tefillot / prayers continue throughout the day, we will continue to invoke this story.
This is the fourth and final installment in the “Back to Basics” series, inspired by the limited nature of our lives due to the pandemic. On Day One of Rosh Hashanah, we covered halakhah (Jewish law), on Day Two we discussed minhag (Jewish custom), and last night we spoke about Jewish values. (You can also listen to these as podcasts.) The final installment is about the Jewish story. Halakhah, minhag, values, story. These are the basic elements of Jewish life.
You might have thought that this piece of the basics of Judaism would come first. After all, the first thing we learn about being Jewish is that our heritage comes with a story. We learn stories from the Torah in Hebrew school. We remember the Exodus from slavery in Egypt at the Pesah seder table. We light Hanukkah candles to remember that a small band of Jewish rebels fought off the idolatrous invaders and restored the Temple in Jerusalem, and so too do we have an obligation to enlighten the world. We get a day off every seven days because God rested after six days of Creation. Even those of us with zero formal Jewish education know the stories about the Garden of Eden, Joseph (thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber), Moses (thanks to Hollywood). The Torah and pop culture are intertwined in ways we do not even notice.
On the other hand, story serves as a beginning, and also the end; I have heard that Jewish life is something like a Moebius strip – as you follow its path, you always return to where you started. In engaging with our tradition, we always return once again to our story, our history, our culture, and we are reminded that sharing our story with others will lead to a better world: Wouldn’t it be awesome if the whole world observed Shabbat? Wouldn’t it be absolutely amazing if everybody were to gather around a holiday table and say, “Let all who are hungry come and eat”?
And let’s face it: story is the most interesting part. For most of us, that is.
I have a slight confession to make here, although many of you probably have noticed this already. I’m not really a story-telling rabbi. Some rabbis are more inclined to pepper their sermons with good stories that lead to a moral. I am more cut-and-dried, more inclined to lay down the brief, pithy Talmud Torah than long form stories. (If you were on our Zoom service on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, you may have noticed that I tried to tell a joke and totally bungled it.)
But I am very fond of the fact that, no matter how we break down theologically or sociologically or demographically, we, the Jews, are still united by our stories. Even though we approach many things differently, the Torah is the Torah; the Talmud is the Talmud, and disagreeing over the meaning of a phrase or the halakhic import of a certain read comes with the territory. As fractious as we are, we still share our stories.
And you know what? As long as we continue to tell our stories, they will protect and save us, just as they always have.
Think about this: what is it that enabled Jewish people to survive the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the Inquisition, the Shoah? What enabled Jews to manage being alternately exiled and welcomed, dispersed and ghettoized, massacred and delegitimized? What empowered us to look past the anti-Semitism, century after century, land after land? What encouraged the Zionists to build a modern nation in an ancient land? What has enabled this very community to pick itself up from its grief and move forward, after 11 of our friends and neighbors were brutally murdered by a white supremacist with an assault rifle?
Not history. If it were up to mere history, the Jews would have disappeared thousands of years ago. Our history is littered with destruction, dispersion, forced conscription, pogroms, and disillusionment.
No, what gave us the strength to survive was that these stories fill our lives with meaning. We mustered the courage to press on by the promises given to Avraham and Sarah, Rivkah and Yitzhaq, Rahel and Ya’aqov and Leah and Yosef. We have continued to teach our stories to our children, so that, generation after generation, their eyes were lit with the richness of our wisdom, the power of our tales, the inspiring personalities of our bookshelf.
One of the more curious things that we do as Jews, on the festival of Sukkot, is to parade around the room holding aloft the four plant species identified in the Torah as the symbols of the season: willow, myrtle, palm, and citron, also known as the lulav and etrog. And what do we do whilst parading?
We say, “Save us.” “Hosha’na.” And we say that over and over and over, and in between chanting “hosha’na,” we add tiny story fragments, a couple of words each. They always go by so quickly, because the piyyutim are long, and late in the service so everybody’s hungry and wants to get to lunch. But they include reference after reference to the Torah and to midrashim. Just a few brief examples:
We chant this on the second day of Sukkot:
הוֹשַׁע נָא אֶֽבֶן שְׁתִיָּֽה, הוֹשַׁע נָא
Hosha’na even shetiyyah, hosha’na.
Save us, Foundation Stone, save us!
The Even Shetiyyah / Foundation Stone was the mythical piece of rock, located at the top of Mt. Moriyah, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, from which, according to midrash, the world was created. It holds a special power that we continue to invoke to this day.
Here is another one:
כְּהוֹשַֽׁעְתָּ טְבוּעִֽים בְּצֽוּל גְּזָרִֽים. יְקָֽרְךָֽ עִמָּֽם מַֽעֲבִירִֽים. כֵּן הוֹשַׁע נָא
Kehosha’ta tevu’im betzel gezarim, yeqarekha ‘imam ma’avirim, ken hosha’na.
As you rescued this people from drowning by splitting the deep sea, Your glory crossing with them, so save us!
This is a clear reference to the Israelites crossing the Sea of Reeds, accompanied by God, an example of how God has saved us in the past.
There are literally hundreds of these types of references, some more deeply coded than others, in endless liturgical poems used over the holidays, not just for Sukkot, but around every holiday.
The message is clear: our stories save us. When we are in trouble, when we need something to hold onto, we lean into the rich assortment of tales that have inspired us and given us a meaningful framework for thousands of years.
Now, I know I have a few armchair skeptics out there in Zoom-Land right now (and you may actually be seated in armchairs!) who are thinking, or perhaps even remarking out loud, “Come on, Rabbi. The stories of the Torah are not true. They conflict with the scientific record. There’s no archaeological evidence of the Exodus, or that the Israelites were actually enslaved. Do you really think that Moshe took dictation from God on Mt. Sinai?!”
To you I say, “I’m happy you’re listening!” and then, “So what? That is not the point.” History and story are not the same thing. Scientific truth and the foundational stories of an ethnic or religious group are not in the same category; they answer different questions. Science tells us that the universe is 14 billion years old, following a Big Bang in which all matter was violently expelled from a single, infinitely dense point, and ultimately cooled to the point where atoms and molecules and (at least in the case of one particular planet) life formed through a series of fascinating phenomena.
But science does not tell us that we need a day off every seven days, because God rested on the seventh day of Creation. And science does not provide us with the wisdom to raise our children to be human beings, or to seek the common good, or to behave with integrity, or to remember the needy, or to pursue justice. Science teaches us facts; our stories teach us not only how and why to be Jewish, but also how and why to aspire to be the best humans we can be.
Our story, the Jewish story, may not meet the standard of scientific fact, but they are ours. My teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Neil Gillman, taught me the value of what he referred to us as “myth.” Not myth in the sense of falsehood, but the series of stories that help us explain our world, the lens that helps us make sense of the information we take in. Every nation, every ethnicity has its own myths.
That is why the contemporary tools of biblical criticism, which cast doubt on some of our stories, do not trouble me. No matter what scholars may say about our foundational myths, they continue to frame my life and yours in holiness.
Some of you may be aware that there is a new translation out of the memoirs of Glikl, a Jewish woman who lived in Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries. I’ve been captivated by her story for many reasons, among them the fact that stories of and by women are too few and far between on the Jewish bookshelf. Glikl was born in the 17th century to a wealthy family, and she is not only literate in the sense that she can write her own memoirs in Old Yiddish, but also she is Jewishly literate, peppering her language with quotes from the Torah and rabbinic text. She writes about her family’s ups and downs, about intrigue and marriage and of course anti-Semitism, which is very much a part of her world.
One of the captivating aspects of her work is the way in which the Jewish story nourishes Glikl.
Throughout the seven books of her memoirs, which cover 28 years from 1691 until 1719, she weaves Yiddish folktales, Talmudic stories, and personal anecdotes into the details of her family life. She unspools lengthy yarns to teach us a moral, like the value of patience, and then she tells the tale of how she and her mother both gave birth around the same time, and one night their babies were confused and the entire household was in an uproar. She expands the story from the Talmud about Alexander the Great’s search for the Garden of Eden, to teach us that we should be satisfied with what we have. And she urges us to settle our personal accounts during our lifetime, a notion particularly salient for these days of teshuvah, repentance.
Glikl’s memoir is not only a fascinating slice of history, a particular moment captured in remarkable prose, but also a testament to the power of story. As we listen to her unspool her tales, we also see how the Jewish story supports and nourishes her and her family, how Jewish rituals and holidays, drawn of course from our story, are very much a part of her everyday existence.
Ladies and gentlemen, I know that right now, things might seem much worse than they have ever been. I know that these Ten Days of Teshuvah / repentance, starting with Rosh Hashanah and concluding today (at 7:47 PM) have been nerve-wracking for reasons I do not need to enumerate. But underlying the threat of chaos and anxiety about the future, I know that over the past week, in the back of my head, I have been praying for life. Zokhreinu lehayyim. Remember us for life, God. And even though the story of the Book of Life should also fill us with awe, I must say that it has been comforting to me to be able to share these melodies and stories, these High Holiday sounds and ideas, with all of you, even virtually, over these days.
Our story, the Jewish story, offers us comfort and meaning and protection. It holds us together in a way that halakhah cannot. It continues to brighten the eyes of our children and inspire all those who listen of all ages. And our rituals and customs and values bring us back again and again to our story.
What do we do when we recall a loved one? We recall their story.
It has often been observed that the hyphen on a memorial stone or plaque stands for a whole lot. A short, straight line. But none of our stories are straight; they contain twists and turns and loops and dead-ends. And it is up to us, the living, to recall all of those twists and turns in the lives of those whom we remember.
In the context of this pandemic, we have lost 1,000,000 people worldwide, including over 200,000 here in the United States, including members of this community and even a past president of Beth Shalom. And millions of people have lost their jobs; many more are living with less. The spiritual and economic pain from which we are all suffering is immeasurable; the deep frustration at our elected officials, and our fellow citizens, for their various failures is palpable.
When all is said and done, many, many people around the world will have died alone; many will be buried in overwhelmed cemeteries without any kind of funeral or eulogy. Many will have left this world in a way that their story remains unfinished, or untold.
Back in August, the city of Detroit memorialized its coronavirus victims by putting up huge photos of them in a city park, so that people could drive through and see their faces. There were 900 portraits in the exhibition, accounting for more than half of the 1,500 city residents who had by then died of the virus.
A face is not a story, but in its lines and contours you can perceive quite a bit about a person. It was a moving tribute; the very idea brings tears to my eyes.
Ladies and gentlemen, we will likely have many months to go of isolation, of sickness and death. But we also have the gift of memory – remembering those we have lost; remembering our lives before the pandemic, remembering that humans are awfully clever, and will ultimately turn this time of sadness into one of rejoicing.
Although Yom Kippur is a Yizkor day, a day on which we remember those whom we have lost, and a day of gravitas as we seek repentance, rabbinic tradition tells us it is also a day of rejoicing; rejoicing at the fact that we know that if we work hard at the former, we will achieve the latter.
It is memory which may bring us salvation. It is memory which will bring us joy.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, morning service of Yom Kippur 5781, 9/28/2020.)