Here we are, once again, together for the High Holidays. Here we are, once again, gathered as a congregation: for worship and for celebration; for inspiring prayers and for beautiful music; for heartfelt meditation and for serious introspection. With the worst of the pandemic hopefully in our rear-view mirror, so many more of us are together in-person than in the past couple of years. And, from our time apart we have learned that we can gather as a congregation, and feel each other’s presence, both physically in the same room and remotely via the internet – and
although we cannot all see each other, we can nonetheless feel that we are one community joined by invisible lines of connection. Personally, I am deeply honored to be a part of the Sinai community and to share this holy day with all of you.
For some in our Sinai family, 5782 (the year now ending) was a difficult year. Sadly, a number of our Sinai members died during this past year. Some of our members experienced the tragic loss of a loved one during the last 12 months. Some of our members were stricken suddenly with illness that had changed their lives. Some of us suffered the pain of watching our friends suffer. Some of us gave up our homes to move into assisted living. Some of us lost our jobs. Some of us lost friendships or marriages. And within our congregation we experienced the pain of upheaval and change in a way that left some of us angry, some bewildered, some saddened, and many of us uncertain about the future. For many in our Sinai family, 5782 was a difficult year.
At the same time, for many in our Sinai family, 5782 was a wonderful year. We had lots of weddings this year. A number of our members welcomed new children into the world, and new grandchildren, and new great-grandchildren. A whole class of young adults were called to the Torah as b’nei mitzvah. Dozens of our kids graduated high school, or graduated college. Some of us made new friendships. Some started a new job or got promoted. For many in our Sinai family, 5782 was a wonderful year.
5782 was for some of us a difficult year and for some of us a wonderful year – and for many of us it was both.
Now, here we are, once again, together for Rosh Hashanah. Here we are, once again, gathered as a congregation: for worship and for celebration; for inspiring prayers and for beautiful music; for heartfelt meditation and for serious introspection. Rosh Hashanah: a day for taking stock; a day for reflecting back on the year that is now ending and from projecting forward on
the year that is now beginning. Rosh Hashanah: a day for letting go and for holding on.
Our prayerbook says “Hayom Harat Olam”. We usually translate the phrase “Today is the birthday of the world.” But the verb in Hebrew really means to be pregnant. And so, our gathering here, on this Rosh Hashanah, is our way of saying that in spite of the challenges we face, individually and collectively, the world is pregnant with goodness, pregnant with hope, pregnant with possibilities.
A friend once commented to me that Judaism in general, and synagogue life in particular, is a kind of antidote to the struggles and challenges of everyday life in our world. That observation isn’t a kind of naïve or simplistic outlook that claims if we would just pray hard enough, everything would get better. Rather it is an outlook undergirded by a more sophisticated understanding, namely: the world and our experience of it will only get better through a lot of hard work – but we need to find the strength and wherewithal to do that work, and we need moments of respite to regroup and re-energize; and the synagogue provides us the context and the rest and the inspiration that re-energizes us.
That’s why we come here, to this sanctuary, on this Rosh Hashanah – because it offers us what we need to face a challenging world for another year; because it provides us community and “fellow travelers,” it provides us Torah and moral guidance, it provides us meaning, and inspiration and uplift. We come here because we want to believe that the world is pregnant with goodness, pregnant with hope, pregnant with possibilities.
To be sure, we each come with our own needs, our own predilections, our own expectations. And, it turns out, the synagogue service has something for each of us.
One of my favorite stories is an old story about a young anthropologist who wanted to research the phenomenon of individual piety and personal spirituality among Jews. So, she went to a little shul on the Lower East Side where a group of older Jewish men gather every day to daven Shacharis (to pray the morning service).
She began by interviewing Mr. Schwartz. “Is it true, Mr. Schwartz,” she asked, “that you come here every day for the morning worship service?”
“Every day,” he replied, “I wouldn’t miss it. It’s the highlight of my day.”
“My goodness,” she continued, “it must be so uplifting to have such a fulfilling prayer life and feel so close to God.”
“God??,” said Schwartz, “Who said anything about God? I don’t even believe in God.”
“But don’t you come here each morning,” she asked, “Because you want to talk to God through prayer?”
“Look lady,” said Mr. Schwartz, “if you want to know about talking to God, then you should go over there and interview Mr. Goldberg. Goldberg comes here to talk to God. Me, I come to talk to Goldberg.”
Like Mr. Schwartz, we also come here on Rosh Hashanah to “talk to Goldberg”. We come for the relationships, for the connection. We come here because this is where the Jews are today. For many Jews, attending Rosh Hashanah services is our way of standing up to be counted as part of the community. This is our annual opportunity to reconnect socially and culturally with our Sinai community; and through it to the larger Jewish community. We need the community, and the relationships, and the connectedness. Our Jewish tradition stresses community and interrelationships – not only because it provides us with a human context in which to celebrate life’s gifts and cope with life’s challenges, but also because we know that none of us can repair the world alone, but together we can make a difference.
That’s why we come here, to this sanctuary, on this Rosh Hashanah – because it provides us community and “fellow travelers,” and more. Rosh Hashanah is also our annual day for cheshbon hanefesh – for taking account of our existence and re-examining our character. Today is our day to take stock of our lives – to reflect on and reinforce that which is good and right and true in our lives; and to reflect honestly about where we have missed the mark or fallen short of being our best selves. Rosh Hashanah is our day for personal, ethical renewal – a day for recalibrating our moral compass.
I suppose that we could do the same reflection or introspection sitting at the lakeshore watching the sunrise over the water; or sitting quietly at home in front of a warm fire sipping on a favorite beverage. But we come here for a specific kind of renewal. We might call it re“jew”venation. The renewal that we experience here, in the synagogue, on Rosh Hashanah, proceeds from the assumption that Torah and the teachings of our Jewish tradition have something important to say about how to live life correctly – morally and responsibly. Through our synagogue experience we are reminded of the values of justice and equality, of patience and tolerance; we are reminded that every person is created in the Divine image and therefore of infinite worth; we are reminded of the teachings of our prophets and their vision of a better world. We hear it in the words of Isaiah calling to us across the generations “to unlock the shackles of injustice, to loosen the ropes of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free … to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house…”
That’s why we come here, to this sanctuary, on this Rosh Hashanah – because it provides us community and “fellow travelers,” it provides us Torah and moral guidance, and more.
Like Mr. Schwartz, we come here on Rosh Hashanah to “talk to Goldberg”. And like Mr. Goldberg we come here to talk to God. Prayer is our medium. Prayer is the vocabulary we use to express our conviction that the world is pregnant with goodness, pregnant with hope, pregnant with possibilities. Prayer is the vehicle we use to express our optimism that there is something Ultimate in the universe – – that there is something beyond our individual selves and even beyond our collective potential.
When we allow ourselves to be immersed in prayer, when we try to be keenly aware of our entire being (body, heart and mind), then we just might feel as though we can connect with that Ultimate something. And when we do connect, we will likely become aware of two seemingly contradictory feelings. On the one hand, by connecting with the Ultimate One we become more keenly aware that we are not the center of the universe. In the privacy and honesty of our prayer we can safely confront the awareness that “the world does not revolve around me,” that my experience of the world is not only about me. By connecting to the Ultimate One we become aware that we are only a very small part of something that is far greater and far grander than our individual selves. Connecting with the Ultimate One can make me feel very small indeed. And on the other hand, just because we are able to feel connected to the Ultimate One, we feel as though we are an important part of the larger whole with a unique role to play. Our prayerbook says: “Many of our works are in vain, and our days pass away like a shadow…how can we look upon ourselves as higher than the beasts? Yet from the beginning, O God, You set us apart to stand erect before You.”
We might think of our prayerbook as a whole menu of metaphors for how we can understand ourselves during these Days of Awe. And each of us, each time we come to these Days of Awe, might choose a different item from that menu, might relate to a different metaphor. We can think of the prayerbook as a buffet of ideas and images and each of us chooses the one that speaks to us most profoundly this year.
One metaphor is the metaphor of God as strict judge and us as “guilty” defendants. But it is not the only metaphor.
Another metaphor is of God as a loving Shepherd and we as the sheep passing under his staff.
Yet another metaphor portrays the ephemeral nature of our existence: “Each of us is … a flower that will fade…a particle of dust floating on the wind” but we can be comforted even in our fragility by the fact that we are connected to the Ultimate and Everlasting Holy One.
Still another metaphor imagines God depending on our conduct. The prophet Isaiah says: “The God of all being is exalted by justice, the Holy God is sanctified by righteousness.”
We each come here on this Rosh Hashanah with our own needs, our own predilections, our own expectations. So, our prayerbook contains many ideas, many images, many metaphors that we each might find something uplifting and inspiring.
So tonight, on this Rosh Hashanah, I invite you to “talk to Goldberg,” to connect socially with our Jewish community – to feel included, needed and appreciated. I invite you to engage in Cheshbon Hanefesh to reflect on and reinforce that which is good and right and true in our lives; to reflect honestly about where we have missed the mark or fallen short of being our best selves. And I invite you to talk to God, to use your imagination, activate your soul, and strive to feel connected to something Ultimate – to feel uplifted in spirit and to feel that you have a unique role to play in the larger whole of existence. Tonight, I invite you to community, Torah and prayer… I invite you to open your hearts and souls and, now, to open your prayerbooks and rise, in body or spirit, for the call to worship.
View our 5783 Erev Rosh HaShanah service sheet by clicking here.