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Erev Rosh HaShanah 5783 Finding Sweetness In the Midst of the Bitter

09/29/2022 09:21:04 AM


Rabbi Jeffrey Brown, D. Min.


Our experience of Rosh HaShanah is grounded in all of our senses. 

         We listen to the blasts of the shofar.

         We touch the crumbles of bread that are tossed into the water for the ancient ritual of tashlich as we release ourselves of our mistakes in the year that has passed.

         The aromas of cherished recipes passed down through the generations are the signposts of our calendar, signaling that 5783 has indeed arrived.

         Most pronounced, though, is our experience of the holiday by way of the sweetness of apples and challah that are dipped in honey.

         Longstanding Jewish custom teaches that during the rest of the year our challah ought to be dipped in salt when we make Motzi…to remind us of the suffering that marks Jewish history.  Like the saltwater of the seder table, salted challah cautions us never to forget the scars that are a part of the historical Jewish experience.

As we enter this new year tonight, I must admit that I feel a bit suspended…somewhere in between salty bitterness, and the sticky sweetness that is pure joy.  I rejoice at the arrival of a new year, and all of the hopeful rebirth and renewal embedded in it.  But I cannot help but also acknowledge the toll that these last few years have taken.  I am kept up at night because so many around us are suffering.  Because of a global pandemic that still disrupts our physical and emotional well-being.  Because the fragile democracy of our country seems on the verge of being swallowed up by something insidious.  Because of war that persists internationally, and the threat of nuclear weapons attached to it.  Because of income inequality and racism and homophobia here at home.  And because our planet is crying out, in desperate need of healing from the greenhouse gas emissions that we unleash.  As the machzor says, ours is indeed “an alphabet of woe.”

          To privilege the sweet over the salty requires a superhuman faith in the possibility of hope, and the resilient belief that however difficult the present moment is: it won’t be the same tomorrow, or next month, or next year.  To have faith is to affirm that our suffering can be relieved, and that things can and will be better.

          The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks famously distinguished between optimism and hope.  Optimism, he taught, was a passive belief that the world would get better on its own over time.  But hope, he writes: “is the belief that, together, we can make the world better. […] It needs no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to hope.”

          I’m delighted to let you know that you will hear holiday greetings – and three short profiles of courage this evening - from three hopeful households in our congregation.  We asked each of them to say a few words about their own Jewish journey, and to reflect on their own experience over the last few years.  Where have they drawn strength as they sought sweetness in the face of that which is bitter?  Their words are reminders of the power of courage and connection that have enabled our community to thrive over the last year.   We are grateful to Catherine Metsch, and to Jay and Victor Muse, for their video greetings. And to Bonnie Sachs, who will be speaking from the bima later on in the service.

          An anonymous author once wrote: “A person reaches out in three directions: inward to oneself, up, to God and out to others.  And the miracle of life is that in truly reaching in any one direction one embraces all three.”

          May our time together during this holiday season inspire us to reach out.  Maybe it is a reach inward to the strength you discovered was hiding deep inside.  Maybe it is a yearning of the heart outward toward the Holy One who is the Source of Hope and of Healing.  Or maybe it is a reach across to your neighbor, the one who is sitting next to you, or in front of you.  Wherever you find your strength and hope: take the first step, which is always the hardest, and make the decision to reach out, for sweetness over bitterness, in the year ahead.

Fri, December 8 2023 25 Kislev 5784