It All Begins With God: An Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Every year we join our fellow Jews around the world in making our annual pilgrimage to the synagogue in observance of the High Holy Days.  But what is it that draws us to this place on this night?  On any given Shabbat, with the exception of special events, there are far, far more empty seats in this sanctuary than there are those that are occupied.  But tonight, the seats that are filled clearly outnumber the seats that are empty.  It is not that we are alone in this experience.  The same could be said of most houses of worship – Jewish and otherwise – across our land.  The non-Jews too have their special days on which their people flock to their sanctuaries in numbers far exceeding their Sabbath worship attendance.

But why is that?  I know that if I were to go around this sanctuary right now and ask each and every one of you individually, “Why did you come here tonight?  What is it about the High Holy Days that draws you to the synagogue” that I would receive an extensive and varied collection of responses.  While as diverse as those responses would be, I suspect that the majority of them would have something to do with connecting with one’s fellow Jews or somehow affirming one’s personal Jewish identity.  “I do it because I am a Jew and this is what Jews do.  They go to services on the High Holy Days.”

Now I am sure that there are those of you who feel that way; that there are those of you who feel truly, in your heart of hearts, that “I’m a Jew and this is what Jews do on the High Holy Days” is reason enough to be here tonight.  But is it really?  At one time, maybe it was, but is it now?

I can tell you, not only as a rabbi whose rabbinic career is drawing to a close, but more importantly, as a Jew who has spent his life in the synagogue – and not just any synagogue, but in the Reform synagogue – no longer is that answer enough.  At one time, observing the High Holy Days if, for no other reason than “I am a Jew and this is what Jews do,” meant truly observing them.  It meant, not just going to a service here or a service there and feeling satisfied that we have done our duty to our Jewish identity, but it meant truly setting aside these days for us and our families as Jewish days; as days on which we withdraw from our engagement with the rest of the world and maintain our focus on who we are as Jews.

As a child growing up in New York City in the ‘50‘s and the ‘60’s, it was utterly unthinkable for my Classical Reform Jewish father to attend the Rosh Hashanah Evening service and then go to work on Rosh Hashanah Day, or to go to work after the Rosh Hashanah Morning service, and you could count on the fact that on Yom Kippur my parents spent the entire day in our synagogue, and they were far from alone in that.  And so it was with us children as well.  There was no question in my house as to whether or not I was going to school on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, even for part of the day, for I was not.  If I had even broached the question with my parents – a highly unlikely scenario – they would have had none of it.  Like my parents, I was not alone in this.  For all of my religious school friends, it was the same.  We were in the synagogue for all of the services, sitting beside our parents.

Yet if my parents and most of their contemporaries were asked back then the question I asked you this evening – “What is it about the High Holy Days that draws you to the synagogue?” – many of them, including my parents – or at least my father – would have given the same answer “Because I am a Jew and this is what Jews do.”  But that was then and this is now.  For many of my parents’ generation grew up as Orthodox Jews who later discovered Reform Judaism.  My father’s grandfather had been a noted Orthodox educator back in Europe.  Theirs was the generation that experienced both the agony of the Holocaust and the ecstasy of the birth of Israel.  Their Jewish identity was indelibly impressed upon them by the forces of history and family tradition.  Therefore a more active observance of the High Holy Days was a natural expression of their Jewish identity and a product of their experiences and upbringing.

But we are not them, for our experiences and our upbringing are not theirs.  Today, the number of Jews who set these days aside and make it clear to the rest of the world that “You are just going to have to do without me on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur” is dwindling.  And it will continue to dwindle, especially as so many of our children are raised in households which choose to send then to school rather than to services on the High Holy Days.

It is not that we are bad people, or even bad Jews.  It is just that with the passage of time, the world has changed and for many Jews, being Jewish and going to the synagogue on the High Holy Days simply because that is what Jews do, is no longer enough of a reason to seriously dedicate more than perhaps a portion of these days to that part of us which is Jewish.

Of course I am certainly prejudiced on this matter, but I believe that the High Holy Days, and indeed Judaism and Jewish life itself, are too important, too precious, not only to us as Jews but to the world, to be allowed to dwindle away into nothingness.  There is a good reason why we have survived for 4,000 years in spite of the efforts of all those who have tried to destroy us.  There is a good reason why we – who have always been so few in numbers – have made such a significant impact upon not only the history of humanity but upon the culture of humanity.  And that reason is to be found enfolded into the very fabric of the Judaism we have come to this synagogue tonight to observe.  It is inherent in Judaism itself and it is both expressed and promoted in our observances and our values.  It is the Jewish perspective on what it means to be a part of humanity.  It is the Jewish call for building a better world on the foundations of compassion and right behavior.  It is the Jewish expectation that we constantly strive to make of ourselves better people.

It is vital for Jewish survival that we come to acknowledge that in the 21st century, doing Jewish things because this is what Jews do is no longer a compelling argument for us to continue to pursue a Jewish life.  There are just too many distractions and to be quite frank, many of them are simply more appealing.  They touch us in ways that are deeper than blindly following some traditions because our parents and grandparents did so.  So if we are to keep our Judaism alive, we need to seek out a deeper meaning in doing so.  Something that moves us.  Something that inspires us.  Something that touches our hearts and our souls, and fills us with a higher sense of purpose.

But where can that be found?  Where should our search begin?  Perhaps we need to go back in time, to a time before the reason Jews did Jewish things like observing the High Holy Days was just “because I’m a Jew and this is what Jews do?”  When the reason Jews lived a Jewish life was more substantive than just keeping certain traditions alive for the sake of tradition; when Jews were bound to their Jewish identity by more than just a thin thread stretching back into their past but rather they were bound by golden cords that not only stretched back into their past but also wove intimately through their present and then travelled forward into their future.

So maybe we need to go back in time and ask those Jews “What is it, not just about the High Holy Days, but about Judaism itself that drew them to the synagogue and inspired them to live Jewish lives?”  While some of them still might say, “Because I’m a Jew and this is what Jews do”, most of them would say something different. Most of them would talk about something that we today don’t spend enough time talking about, or even thinking about, for that matter.  They would talk about God and their relationship with God.  For them, God was a real player in their lives.  They felt connected to God in ways that we have somehow lost.

Of course one of the reasons that they felt more connected to God was because they felt more dependent on God.  There was so much in their world that they did not understand.  Why some people were struck down by dread diseases.  Why, at a moment’s notice, a storm could utterly destroy the livelihood and even the life of a family or an entire village.  So much seemed out of their control and therefore must be in the control of another, and that other was, in their minds, God.  So they feared God, or more precisely, they feared offending God.  They even called these High Holy Days the Yamim HaNora’im – the “Days of Awe” with the Hebrew word for “Awe” being the very same word as the Hebrew for “Fear.”  So prayer was very real to them.  It was a desperate attempt to communicate with a Divinity that was present in their daily lives, and by so doing hopefully change their future for the better.

We are most certainly not that people and the God whom they feared has little if any place in our lives.  Yet we would be sorely mistaken if we were to convince ourselves that the only God they believed in was the God to be feared. Quite the contrary, for their God was anything but one dimensional.  From the very beginning of Judaism, God was, and remains, a colorful and complex character.  As the High Holy Day prayer describes God, Avinu Malkeinu – “Our Parent, Our Sovereign.”  Powerful enough to be feared, like a king or a queen, but also loving and compassionate, like a caring mother or father.  Yes, these Jews feared God but they also loved God.  For God was not just the deliverer of punishments but also the giver of gifts. The gifts of life, of health, of food, of love, of beauty, of wisdom, of truth, of understanding, of knowledge, and of the abilities to learn and to create.  Indeed, they clearly understood that when it came to Judaism, it all begins with God.  From the moment of our people’s birth, when God first called to Abraham, Judaism was primarily about establishing a positive, healthy, and mutual relationship with God.  Without God, Judaism must fade away, for God is the foundation stone of everything that Judaism stands for.  Without God, Judaism becomes a meaningless and empty exercise, as empty and meaningless as the words in the prayer book when read by someone who chooses to watch the clock rather than search for a personal connection to God in the prayers.  For our Judaism – and for these High Holy Days – to have real meaning, we have to accept that it all begins with God.

Most Jews would agree that there is no more important a text in the Torah than the Ten Commandments.  The power of the Ten Commandments has not only touched the soul of the Jewish world but of the Christian world as well.  Our two faiths share the Ten Commandments, or so we think.  But believe it or not there are differences between the way the Christians read them and the way we Jews read them.  For the Christians, the first commandment states “I am the Eternal your God who led you out of the land of Egypt to be your God.  You shall have no other gods before Me,” while for us Jews, the first commandment is “I am the Eternal your God who led you out of the land of Egypt to be your God”, period.  For us, it is the second commandment that reads “You shall have no other gods before Me.”  The Christian version is obviously a commandment.  It instructs to action – “Have no other gods before Me.”  But what about the Jewish version?  It appears to be a declarative statement – “I am the Eternal your God…” rather than a commandment.  Where is its call to action?  Well its call to action is implied and it is essential for everything else which follows; for all the other commandments to have any meaning.  The implied commandment is simply this:  Take this statement to heart and accept it as the foundation for all that follows.  Accept that God exists and that we as Jews live in a sacred relationship with God, and that all the other commandments, all the other expectations of actions and values that are found in the Torah and grow out of it across the ages, are but functions of that relationship between us and God.  They are there to define our role in that relationship.  They feed that relationship and in so doing draw us personally closer to God.

Over the past several years, I have found it odd indeed that people are interested in talking about and seeking spirituality but not so interested in talking about and seeking God, as if the two were completely separate experiences.  But they are not.  Spirituality is far more than just a good feeling about ourselves.  It is about our reaching out for God and God touching our lives.  How so?  Our tradition teaches us that we human beings are not like any other creature living on the earth for we possess something very special; a soul.  The soul was implanted within us by God in order to enable us to connect with God.  It is our divine umbilical cord, if you will, for it enables spiritual energy to flow between us and God.  But that spiritual energy does not flow freely.  It flows at our choosing.  We control how much or how little we receive; how wide or how narrow that umbilical cord is.  If it were solely up to God, the flow would be constant and vast, but God gave us the gift of free will so that we could choose how much or how little we would let God into our lives.  There is a Hasidic saying that “there is no room for God in those who are too full of themselves.”[1]  Sadly, for too many, that is exactly what has happened.  They have turned their control valve and limited the spiritual flow to a trickle, if not closed it off completely, and in so doing, abandoned themselves to being guided primarily or solely by their base animal instincts.  They have starved their souls from the spiritual nutrients they need.

But this need not remain the case.  We can open that value, reach out to God, and feel God’s presence in our lives.  We can feed our souls and in so doing grow as more spiritual and better human beings.  How do we accomplish such a feat?  That is what a better part of our Judaism is about.  It is about how we can connect with God and let God into our lives in beautiful and meaningful ways.  Through the Torah and our sacred teachings, we have been given the owner’s manual to the soul.  We have been instructed on how to awaken and strengthen our souls so that we can come to live our lives in an ongoing relationship with God.  Not just on the High Holy Days and not even just on Shabbat, but rather on a day-to-day basis.  For whether we realize it or not, our day-to-day lives are lived in a relationship with God.  However it is up to us what the nature of that relationship will be.  We can choose to live our lives through behaviors and attitudes which strengthen the bonds between us and God or we can choose to live our lives through behaviors and attitudes which weaken those bonds.  It is up to us.

This past year, here at Temple Emanuel, I taught a series of mini-courses on what our tradition calls MussarMussar is the companion to Halachah.  As Halachah constitutes a body of Jewish laws which lead us to right actions, Mussar constitutes a body of Jewish virtues or ethical perspectives which liberate our souls and enable us to adopt sacred and healthy life attitudes.  While Halachah instructs us about what we should do while living in a sacred relationship with God, Mussar instructs us about how we can better mold our attitudes so that they ultimately instinctually guide us into right behaviors and therefore transform our lives into an active partnership with God.

While the building blocks of Halachah are mitzvot – sacred actions – the building blocks of Mussar are middot – sacred values, sacred attitudes.  I am dedicating the remainder of my High Holy Day sermons to exploring various middot in the hopes that we will begin to understand that if we choose to strengthen our souls by taking on sacred attitudes, then that can lead us to living lives filled with sacred actions, which in turn will connect us more strongly to God and help us to grow into the type of people we aspire to become.

Once we perceive of our lives as being lived in a sacred partnership with God, then we will find that there are far more inspiring reasons to come to the synagogue on the High Holy Days than merely because we are Jews and this is what Jews do.

[1] Buber, Martin, TEN RUNGS:  HASIDIC SAYINGS, p. 102.

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Explore posts in the same categories: American Jews, Antisemitism, Change, Childhood Memories, Classical Reform Judaism, Connecting to God, Contemporary Jewish Identity Challenges, Existence of the Soul, God, Helene Karp my mother, High Holy Days, Jewish Ethnic Identity, Jewish Identity, Jewish religious identity, Jewish Theology, Love of God, Martin Buber, Middot, Mitzvah / Mitzvot, Mussar, Prayer, Raising Jewish Religious Awareness, Rosh Hashanah, Samuel Karp my father, Shabbat, Soul, Soul comes from God, Spirituality, The Soul as Energy, Yom Kippur

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2 Comments on “It All Begins With God: An Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon”

  1. Michael Phelps Says:

    Excellent thinking, writing and homily-delivering Henry, by my Irish-Catholic lights. Michael

    Sent from my iPhone


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