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Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5782

09/15/2021 10:57:03 AM


Shanah Tovah.

          The setting: somewhere in the Judaean Desert.

          The time: 3800 years ago.

          The principal characters: Abraham, founding father of the Jewish People.  And his and Sarah’s only son: Isaac.

          The story goes something like this.  A Heavenly voice calls out to Abraham.  And shockingly commands him to offer up Isaac on a mountaintop. 

          Isaac is no dummy.  On his way up the mountain he plainly sees that they have everything needed for an altar.  All that’s missing is the creature to be sacrificed.  

When Isaac inquires, Abraham cryptically replies “God will see to it.” 

Isaac gets its, and knows he is doomed.

          We’re surprised, then, that there’s a happy ending at first glance.  God intervenes and sends a ram to be sacrificed instead.  And to celebrate, we’re still sounding ram’s horns to this very day.   

          But what if Isaac didn’t actually survive?

Like the rabbis of 2000 years ago, who conjured up a number of alternative endings to this narrative, I can’t stop thinking about how this story might have turned out differently.

          Rashi, of 11th century France, invokes one such legend, noting that the Binding of Isaac is read on Rosh Hashanah with the hope that God will remember “the ashes of Isaac” as an inspiration toward granting forgiveness to the Jewish People in successive generations.

          “The ashes of Isaac” – is such a haunting image, calling to mind a sort of “walking dead”…walking because we know that Isaac survived.  But dead – because apparently something of Isaac did actually die on the top of the mountain.

          17 months into COVID-19….after we have endured so much, lost so many, and come so far….and then to encounter the delta variant….we too are like Isaac: we are the walking wounded, and the living dead.  Some part of us has died because of this massive trauma.   

Our job on Rosh Hashanah is to bring ourselves back to life.  We’ll reflect this morning on how to do that, in terms of our relationship to ourselves, to the ones we’re closest to, and to the wider world.

          Let’s begin with the question of tending to ourselves. 

          Even if we weren’t diagnosed with COVID, we’re all recovering from COVID.  We’re all scarred from quarantine and social distance.

          In a time when it is not yet safe to fully return to normal, how can we return to ourselves, and bring ourselves back to life?

          Judaism teaches that the necessary pre-condition to life, and returning to it, is breathing.

          Tomorrow, we’ll read the story of the first human beings.  They were brought to life because God breathed life into them.

And in traditional Jewish practice, one of the first prayers we recite every morning is Elohai Nishama, giving thanks to God for the breath that is newly restored to us as we come back to life every day upon waking.  The passage concludes by praising God “in whose hand is every living soul, and the life-breath of all creatures.”

          God restores us to life, with the gift of breath.  We can receive that gift, by intentionally focusing on it.

          Practicing meditation is one path towards this breath work.  There’s a vast literature suggesting the physical and emotional benefits of meditating.  I’m a big fan of the practice, myself, and I’d love to share the basics with you.  Reach out to me if you’d like to chat about that.

          But meditation isn’t for everyone.  We can also reacquaint ourselves with our breath by walking in nature, doing yoga, or exercising. 

          As we recall that first moment when God breathed life into humans, Rav Tzadok haKohein of 19th century Poland teaches that the blowing of the shofar is a commemoration and re-enactment of the bestowal of life breath.  This year: may our blowing of shofar remind us how important it is to slow down, and breathe…so as to create a pathway to bring our bodies and souls back to life.

          During this season of teshuvah, we can also bring ourselves back to life by reviving relationships with others.  Teshuvah doesn’t just mean repentance.  It means “return”.  To do teshuvah is to return to, and renew, relationships with the people that matter most.

          Teshuvah in this sense is the art of returning home.  Not to a location, but to the people who know us so well that they can help us put ourselves back together. 

The Sfat Emet of 19th century Poland notes: “The essence of teshuvah does not address any one individual sin; rather, one must return to and reconnect with, one’s very roots.”

          But the Pew Research Center warned us a year ago that the pandemic was disrupting our ability to engage with loved ones.  41% of those surveyed by Pew described missing family and friends and worrying about losing touch with them.     

          These findings were echoed in my own doctoral research and the data shared by our congregation: 75% of you reported feeling more isolated after the onset of pandemic.

          As we enter 5782, it’s time to give new thought to our social circles.  Some of us have already returned to socializing.  But for those who haven’t, it’s time to begin.  We are social beings, and we thrive, and are revived by, our connection to others.

          Commenting on the life-saving power of friendship in her novel Beloved, Toni Morrison wrote: “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.” 

          In this year in which we have all been shattered, now is the time to reconnect with dear ones, because they are uniquely suited to help us gather up our pieces, so that we can revive ourselves, and put ourselves back together in the right order.

          There is also a third path toward bringing ourselves back to life during this season of renewal.

          Writing in his 1993 book The Private Self, psychologist Arnold Modell argues that one antidote to loneliness is “a passionate investment in something outside the self […]  Interests are something to live for; they make it possible to survive […] environments in which the solace afforded by human relationships is utterly lacking.”

          When we engage in something that matters, we bless our lives with meaning and purpose.

          The synagogue is of course one such avenue!  Join us for weekly Torah study, and connect with friends old and new as we explore the life of the spirit in worship that is both clergy and lay-led.   

Or perhaps this will be the year you are called to become more involved in civic advocacy and racial justice work.  It’s not too late to join Cantor Becker and the devoted congregants who are actively partnering with our Movement’s Religious Action Center in its Racial Justice Campaign and its Civic Engagement Campaign.

Closer to home, consider getting more involved in our interfaith food bank, or join our devoted congregants who care for temple members by providing occasional calls, rides, or meals.

As we seek to move into the 21st century, we’re excited to announce our partnership with The Tzedek Box, a non profit app that will make it even easier to track the acts of kindness that we do in the year ahead.  We’ll share more details in the coming days about how everyone (with or without the app) can join in this work, as well as our plans to celebrate our cumulative community service at the end of the year.

The medieval mystical text, the Zohar, establishes a reciprocal relationship between the brokenness of our fragile world and the brokenness of our inner spirits.  When we repair the world, we ourselves become repaired in the process.  The text notes that “Rabbi Elazar said: The Holy One allows for the fixing of the world and for the parallel repairing of the spirit of humanity, so that humanity might extend their days forever.”   

On this COVID Rosh Hashanah, we are all like Isaac, hovering somewhere in between life and death. 

May we commit, during this sacred season, to choose life, and take concrete steps to bring ourselves back to life; to bring our most cherished relationships back to life; and may we be moved to revive our sense of obligation to the world around us.

Rabbi Naomi Levy prays: “Show me how to put my pain into perspective.  Teach me to have faith in the new day that is coming.  […]  Give me the strength to resurrect my weary spirit.  Revive me, God, so I can embrace life once more in joy, in passion, in peace.”

And similarly, our siddur proclaims: Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, Mechayei haMeitim – blessed are You, Sovereign of Space and Time, who revives the dead and brings us back to life.

Shanah Tovah

Fri, February 3 2023 12 Sh'vat 5783