Joint Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781/2020
Rabbi Ari Sunshine, Rabbi Adam Roffman and Rabbi Shira Wallach
Congregation Shearith Israel
From the day Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden of Eden, they lived together East of Eden, tilling the earth, raising children and struggling to stay alive.
After those many years of struggle, when their children were grown, Adam and Eve decided to take a journey before it was too late and see the world that God had created.
They journeyed from one corner of the world to the other and explored all of the world's wonders. They stood up on the great mountains, treked across the vast deserts, walked amid the mighty forests, and traversed the magnificent seas.
They watched the sunrise over the endless wilderness and saw it set into the boundless ocean. All that God had created they beheld.
In the course of their journeys, wandering from place to place, they came upon a place that seemed so familiar. They came upon the garden of Eden from which they had been exiled on the very first day of their lives.
The garden was now guarded by an Angel with a flaming sword. This Angel frightened Adam and Eve who fled.
Suddenly they heard a gentle imploring voice. God spoke to them: “My children, you have lived in exile these many, many years. Your punishment is complete. Come now and return to my garden. Come home to the garden.”
Suddenly to the Angel disappeared. The way into the garden opened and God invited them in. But Adam, having spent so many years in the world, had grown shrewd. He hesitated and said to God, “You know it has been so many years. Remind me, what is it like in the garden?”
“The garden is paradise,” God responded. In the garden there is no work. You need never struggle or toil again. In the garden there is no pain, no suffering. In the garden there is no death. In the garden there is no time: no yesterday, no tomorrow, only an endless today. Come my children, return to the garden.”
Adam considered God's words. He thought about a life with no work, no struggle, no pain, no passage of time, and no death. An endless life of ease with no tomorrow and no yesterday.
And then he turned and looked at Eve his wife. He looked into the face of the woman with whom he had struggled to make a life, to take bread from the earth, to raise children, to build a home. He read in the lines of her face all the tragedies they had overcome and the joys they had cherished. He saw in her eyes all the laughter and all the tears they had shared.
Eve looked back into Adam's face. She saw in his face all the moments that had formed their lives: moments of jubilant celebration and moments of unbearable pain.
She remembered the moments of life-changing crisis and the many moments of simple tenderness and love.
She remembered the moments when a new life arrived in their world and the moments when death intruded. As all their shared moments came back to her, she took Adam's hand in hers.
Looking into his wife's eyes, Adam shook his head and responded to God's invitation. “No thank you,” he said. “That's not for us not now. We don't need that now. Come on Eve,” he said to his wife. “Let's go home.” And Adam and Eve turned their backs on God's paradise and walked home.
It’s interesting, that on this evening, when we celebrate the creation of the universe, we don’t usually recount its story. Not tonight, not tomorrow, not the next day. Ironically, Rabbi Ed Feinstein’s beautiful retelling of the exile from Eden might help us understand why.
In his version of the story, God reopens the gates, allowing Adam and Eve an opportunity to return to the perfection He created for them before they corrupted it. And yet, they refuse, deciding instead to make their own way in the world.
Why? Because what they realize after a long period of struggle and hardship is that there is more meaning, more possibility, and more humanity in a world that is imperfect. In Eden, there is no conflict, so there is no growth. In the garden of the Divine, there is nothing to work for, because everything is provided for you. In the realm of the Godly, there are no problems to solve, and nothing to build.
It may seem like the world we live in right now couldn’t be farther removed from Gan Eden or a conventional definition of paradise, and yet what drives us isn’t a return to idyllic isolation from a complicated and demanding world, but rather a way to ground ourselves so we can engage fully with that world.
Like Adam and Eve after the fall, we live in a world where we are called, day after day and year after year for 5780 years and counting, to help reinvent and recreate in partnership with God. Every morning, before we say the Shema, we praise God for being m’chadesh b’tuvo b’khol yom tamid, ma’aseh bereishit—the one who is constantly renewing and re-creating our world, and charges us to do the same as much as we are able.
We are the ones who, inspired by the teachings of our Torah, decide what sacred space is, where we learn, how prayer is offered up to heaven, and how we lift each other up right here on this earth. This year, we have truly recreated all of these experiences anew.
We have been challenged to find connection with each other and with God, despite the awful circumstances in the world around us.
And how have we fared in these endeavors?
We have re-defined the possibilities of sacred space. We already knew we could find it in our synagogue building while doing things such as davening or learning or packing sandwiches for the sandwich drive, and experience it while outside the walls of the shul studying Torah together in a bar or restaurant, delivering Shabbat meals to some of our homebound seniors, or enjoying a weekend away at the Family Retreat or a week and a half on a congregational mission to Israel.
But did we know before this year that we could also create and enter sacred space when we assemble in our little boxes on a Zoom screen, and form daily or Shabbat minyanim, share a meal in a virtual breakout room for Shabbat Across Shearith, or assemble for Havdalah online every weekend with a number of congregants joining in from their homes with their own Havdalah sets?
We have expanded our notion of where we can learn, and developed our tech skills even when many of us felt we had none, connecting with teachers and fellow eager learners in accessible and versatile mobile classrooms for adults and children of all ages, and learning a lot of patience (and how to mute and unmute!) along the way, looking forward to the day when we can again discuss and debate with our fellow students across the table from one another.
We have broadened our perspectives on how we can offer our prayers to God. In the absence of our ability to gather in one room for a minyan, we have greeted each other warmly onscreen, turned to digital versions of our liturgy when we didn’t have siddurim handy, met the powerful emotional and ritual need of reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish for our loved ones, and even figured out how to sing together as a group without ACTUALLY singing together with our fellow worshipers.
And we have innovated ways to lift each other up amidst the peaks and valleys of our lives, extending virtual embraces whether celebrating a Bar Mitzvah or a bris or a baby naming, or offering heartfelt condolences to mourners at a funeral or a shiva while others quietly listen in rapt attention to the warm memories being shared.
One common thread links all of these experiences together, and that is community. Whether we are in each other’s physical presence, or seeing each other’s faces online, or even some of both, we can create a powerful sense of sacred space, we can learn and grow together, we can worship and break bread together, and rejoice or mourn together. In this we draw strength from the precept imparted to us at creation--lo tov heyot he’adam levado, we do not go through life alone, but with companionship in community.
And it’s this last point that we’d like to emphasize on this erev Rosh Hashanah, as we begin this season of High Holy Days together--not in our beautiful sanctuaries, in the seats that some of our families have occupied for generations-but in a way none of us could have possibly imagined a year ago-spread out across the city in our own homes, very far from Gan Eden.
In Rabbi Feinstein’s story, Adam and Eve decline the opportunity to return to Eden. It may be paradise, but it’s not home. Because, you see, as humans we also get to define what home means to us. Home isn’t defined by perfection. Instead we may define it in its broadest sense as a place where we feel loved and valued, comfortable and comforted, where we experience joy and laughter, where we break bread, where we struggle and where we grow. No matter how crazy the world is around us, those constants remain. For Adam and Eve, companionship was the key to these constants being realized. And with that in mind, I’d like to ask each of you to reach into your High Holy Days Box and take out and unwrap the special gift we’ve included for you. I’ll give you all a moment so you can untie the ribbon and take out what’s inside the box. As you can see, we’ve given you a compass. A compass will always point out your “true north” and let you know where to find it, even if you’re lost in a forest filled with trees and can’t see which way to turn to get home, or just feeling lost in a world that feels decidedly un-Eden like. Friends, throughout these High Holy Days, before each private Amidah prayer that we recite, we hope you’ll try picking up this compass to orient yourselves eastwards toward Yerushalayim in your prayers, as well as link yourselves symbolically, along with your fellow congregants wherever they may be located, to the unfailing true north of companionship and community which you can count on here at Shearith Israel, where we are so much more than a building. We are a strong, vibrant and caring community where we hope you will always feel that sense of home I just described a few moments ago. Whether we’re online as we are right now, in person as we hope to be very soon, or some combination of both, we remain, Shearith Israel, here for you in good times and bad, a community where you can Enrich Your Life, Elevate Your Soul, and Embrace Your Judaism. We look forward to establishing new relationships and connections, and strengthening longstanding ones, as together we journey forward into this next chapter of creation, the as yet unwritten story of 5781, one which we hope will be filled with sweetness, growth and good health for all. Shana Tova, and Shabbat Shalom
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share