Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5781
Rabbis Adam Roffman and Shira Wallach
ADAM: vehigiyanu lazman hazeh.
SHIRA: Praised are you God, Sovereign of the universe, who has given us life, who has sustained us, and who has enabled us to reach this day.
SHIRA: This blessing of thanksgiving, the shehechiyanu, recited at the start of every major holiday on the Jewish calendar, helps us transition between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Like all ritual at its best, it is also a hyperlink, a portal that connects us to the highlights of our lives, filling us with the warm glow of sweet emotions, reminding us of the essence of what life is truly about and why it’s worth living.
But what does it mean to say this blessing today, on the start of this new year, when the distance between us and the fear and uncertainty around us feel so great?
ADAM: A story is told of the Bluzhever Rebbe, Rabbi Yisrael Spira, who was imprisoned by the Nazis in Bergen Belsen during the shoah. One year, on Erev Chanukah, after a particularly brutal day, one where many of his fellow Jews had been randomly shot, their bodies still lying on the ground as night fell, the Rebbe found an old shoe, made some oil out of shoe polish, a wick out of threads of a garment, and gathered others around him to fulfill the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah candles.
Rabbi Spira recited the first two blessings, marking the start of the holiday and thanking God for the miracles that saved our ancestors from destruction at hand of the Greeks.
Then, he paused for the briefest of moments and offered the final prayer—the shehechiyanu.
SHIRA: One Jew who witnessed this scene later came to the Rebbe and said bitterly, “I understand how you can make the first two blessings, but tell me Rabbi Spira, how can you, in this terrible place, with dead Jews lying all around us, make the shehechiyanu blessing thanking God for keeping us alive and bringing us to this time?”
The Rebbe looked at him and said “You know, I had the same problem. But then I looked around and saw these Jews in the worst of circumstances, surrounded by death and destruction, gathering together and insisting on fulfilling the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah candles.
I said to myself: for this alone one can and should make the blessing: “shehechiyanu v’kiyamanu v’higeeyanu lazman hazeh.”
No matter how grim the world around us becomes, no matter what challenges we face, (and make no mistake, the difficult times we are living through now in no way compare to the horrors of the Holocaust), when the New Year arrives we recite the shehechiyanu.
We give ourselves the permission to fully embrace not just the holiness of this moment, but also the life-affirming forces within us and around that have brought us to this day.
ADAM: Shehechiyanu: who has kept us alive
Breathe, in and out. Feel the air rush in and out of your lungs. Put your hand on your chest and detect your heartbeat. Tense and release your muscles.
The magnificent body that God made for you, before you even knew there was a ‘you,’ continues to breathe, to beat, to move, to eat. You have the ability to sense the waxing and waning of the moon, the rising and setting of the sun.
Today, we say shehechiyanu…we’re still here. Judaism insists that gratitude must come from what we already have, not what we are given. Pirkei Avot teaches: Who is rich? The one who is satisfied with her portion. We arise in the morning and say, Modeh Ani, thank you God for my restoring soul, for returning life to my body after a full night’s sleep.
Hineni, I exist. But is that enough?
SHIRA: Has it been enough for you, parents--who had to quickly figure out how to juggle work, school, and childcare, and not cry in front of your kids more than once a day?
Or for you, the homebound seniors, who have endured inexplicable loneliness, unable to visit in person with those who give your life meaning?
Or for your children and families, who yearned with all their hearts just for the ability to throw their arms around you, to let you know that you’re not alone?
Or for all of us, who have struggled with the fear of falling ill, or of breathing our last breaths alone?
Psalm 115 suggests a surprising answer to this existential question: Lo hameitim yehallelu yah. The dead cannot praise God.
Notice: what separates us from those who no longer walk this earth is not our beating hearts or our breathing lungs or our tensing muscles. It’s the ability to transcend, to rise. To take in, to acknowledge every single element in our lives, and then to send that gratitude heavenward as praise.
In Sefer Devarim, the Book of Deuteronomy, Moshe Rabeinu gives us a last glimpse of his vision of Life, before our ancestors crossed over into the Promised Land, and he crossed over into the World to Come. In this final, pivotal moment, Moshe pleads with us: uvacharta bachayim, choose life! Don’t just stay alive, choose a life that is resplendent with justice and love, goodness and blessing.
ADAM: Vekiyemanu: who has sustained us
The word kayam should be familiar to all of you; you’ve sung it many times before. David Melech Yisrael chai, chai vekayam. David, King of Israel: he is kayam, he is eternally sustained. And if you read the Bible, you’ll see that King David, despite facing countless enemies and obstacles, was a man of boundless energy, spry enough to leap and dance in front of the Ark of the Covenant, and prolific enough to write and score all 150 of the psalms.
But think about what King David had to keep him going--a direct line to a God that adored him, legions of women and men who loved him or were in love with him. And his destiny was never in doubt--he knew exactly where he was going and why because the prophets who anointed him and advised him made sure of it.
Good for him.
SHIRA: We face a somewhat murkier picture--an endless stream of how longs and what nexts and what fors. It makes even the simplest act of being kayam, of standing up and getting out of bed in the morning, feel as daunting as facing a giant without a slingshot.
This was our struggle too, until our 15-month-old hit a sleep regression, waking us up screaming at odd hours of the night. Soon enough, we were stumbling up the stairs in a zombie daze at 1:30, 3:15, 4:45am to pick her up before the 5-year-old woke up too. I challenge you to come up with a stronger adrenaline rush.
But it wasn’t only these moments that pulled us out of our stupor.
Feeling my heart burst with pride as Hannah suddenly realized how to ride her bike, without training wheels. Watching her face as she figured out how to read, how to build circuits, how to add and subtract, how to listen to music for its time signature, instruments, and themes.
And just a few weeks ago, as I rode my elliptical still asleep, I looked up and saw Adam come in the room holding Rebecca. She regarded me with her dreamy eyes and when I said “I love you,” she said it right back. When I stepped off, she held her body against mine in the longest hug I could remember.
These are the things that sustain us, that enable us to be here today. Not only the fun, easy, joyful moments, but the hard ones too-- all of these remind us that we CAN find meaning between the bookends of our lives. What prevents us from going numb is acknowledging the mere possibility that the entire gamut of human emotion and experience is out there, waiting for us.
So we must discover, with God’s help: how are we sustained? How do we find the strength to stand, lakum? To rise up? To be an upstander? To be outstanding?
And, with the strength that we have left after an exhausting year, how do we remain focused for whom and what we must sustain, to ensure that we, our family, our community, are always chai vekayam?
ADAM: Vehigiyanu: Who has enabled us to reach, to arrive at this joyous occasion.
The Hebrew verb l’hagiyah, is causative—it implies dynamic movement that results in an action, in our case, a destination.
The start of a New Year is a true moment of arrival. We have made it to this moment and we will not be denied the opportunity to celebrate it. You may be watching this service from a screen in your own home, but the moment is no less real despite the medium through which we are all sharing in the experience.
One of the things that amuses me on the twelve-hour flight to Tel Aviv on El Al is watching the plane’s crew figure out who speaks what language. But, of course, no matter how full the plane is with tourists from America and Europe, the first attempt at communication is always in Hebrew—after all, that’s part of the pride of bringing people to the Jewish homeland on our own national airline. Once, during dinner service, a flight attendant finally made her way to my row with my favorite part of the meal, the part served from a basket.
“Magiah lecha lechem,” she said to the person next to me.
“What?” he replied.
“You deserve bread.” Not “atah rotzeh,” would you like some, but, “magiah lekha.” This is something you paid for, something you are owed.
SHIRA: Our tradition teaches, and the blessing reminds us, that the cause we referred to earlier, the one who provided us with a reason to mark this day is God.
Hayom harat olam—God has brought us to the day in which we are obligated to celebrate the miracle of God’s creation.
Hayom te’amtzeinu—To prove that we are deserving of these gifts we face God’s judgement, denying ourselves the sustenance of life until we have proven that we are worthy of it.
And yet, each time, before we read from the Torah, we call out: V’atem hadevekim b’adonai eloheichem hayim, kulchem, hayom.
All of you, all of us, who have clung to Adonai your God, we are the ones who are standing here today receiving the blessing of the Etz Chayim, the tree of life.
As Rabbi Ovadiah ben Ya’akov Sforno remarks on this verse—it is because you have been wise enough to avoid the lures and temptations that might lead you toward the path of death rather than life, curse rather than blessing, that you have been granted this moment of reunion with our most sacred of objects in the presence of holy community.
This moment is ma’giah lanu, because with an effort that has exhausted even the most spirited among us, we have earned it.
ADAM: And not only this moment, but all the moments that are ya’gia, that are yet to come for all of us in this new year.
The moment where we gather members of our community for the first time in six months in our sukkah to share in a meal, even if it is socially distanced.
The moment when we set our table for seder and instead of one or two or three place settings, we break out the folding tables from the garage, squeezing every possible square inch of space out of our living room and dining rooms to accommodate family and friends.
The moments when our children enter their school without a mask on, when we can walk them to the front door to embarrass them with that final hug or kiss.
The moment when our personal and professional achievements, when our lifecycle events are celebrated not on a screen or in a parking lot, but in a banquet hall or at an office party.
Yes, even the moment when we attend a funeral and we can go up to the mourners without hesitation or reservation and comfort them with a loving embrace.
All these moments I hope, I pray, I know are magi’im lanu. And part of the joy that we feel on this day is the anticipation of all these blessings and more that we will celebrate together in this new year.
SHIRA: In Masechet Brachot, the Talmud’s tractate on blessings, the sages relate one more occasion on which we are commanded to stop and give thanks to God for a moment that we surely had been taking for granted, but no longer.
Rabbi Yehoshua said : One who sees his friend after an interval of thirty days recites, "Blessed you Adonai, Who has kept us in life, who has preserved us, and enabled us to reach this day."
ADAM: In the Wilderness of Sinai, the Israelites constructed a tent at the outskirts of the camp, one where Moses would consult with God, receive instruction and pray for his people. The Torah describes these encounters with words whose significance has grown tremendously over these past few months:
וְדִבֶּ֨ר ה' אֶל־מֹשֶׁה֙ פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר יְדַבֵּ֥ר אִ֖ישׁ אֶל־רֵעֵ֑הוּ
And Moses spoke to God, face to face, like a person encountering a dear friend.
When we can finally greet each other, friend and stranger alike, panim-el-panim, face to face inside our sacred tents--our homes, our synagogues, our beloved community of Shearith Israel, on that day too, we will recite the shehechiyanu.
And we will feel, I imagine, some of the same radiance that Moses and God felt as they beheld the fullness of each other’s countenance, no barrier, no obstacle, no mask between them.
ADAM: Shehechiyanu: Thank you God, for keeping us alive and helping us find reasons to live.
SHIRA: V’kiyemanu: For sustaining us and inspiring us to sustain others.
ADAM: V’higiyanu: For the blessings of today, and all the blessings to come.
SHIRA & ADAM: Amen.
Watch the sermon at https://vimeo.com/460295310
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