Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5781
Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Congregation Shearith Israel
Some folks are called gym rats for their intense devotion to working out, or practicing their chosen sport or sports. My Dad, however, is what I’d affectionately refer to as a “shul rat”, someone who just LOVES to be in shul. It could be at his shul, Har Shalom in Potomac, Maryland, where my classmate and dear friend and a former member of Shearith’s rabbinic team, Adam Raskin, is now his rabbi. It could be when he goes and leads services for the residents of Revitz House, a Jewish senior living facility in Rockville, Maryland. It could be when he’s traveling in the U.S. or elsewhere around the world. Wherever he is, he wants to be in shul on Shabbat. In this regard, the circumstances of the COVID pandemic have actually provided him with a small but meaningful silver lining while he and my Mom largely continue to shelter at home. Because, you see, any given Shabbat morning, my Dad can hop on two, three, or as many as five online Shabbat services, joining the Shabbat community in shuls all around the U.S—and the difference in time zones sure helps with that! Ok, admittedly he has a few favorites, whether it be Har Shalom, or Shearith where he gets to watch his son do the rabbi thing, or Beth Am in Baltimore where my cousin is the rabbi, and a handful of others. But I get a kick out of talking with him and my Mom after Havdalah or on a Sunday and hearing him say, “I went to three shuls today!” or telling me that he went to shul with his sister, my Aunt Bette, that morning. Of course, Bette was sitting in her home in Ann Arbor, MI, and my Dad was in his home in Maryland. And yet they shared the same shul experience and it was as if they were sitting next to each other, able to kibitz about the rabbi’s sermon (chances are the reviews are usually fairly positive when they’re watching one of their children preach), and the tune that was used for Adon Olam. The world has gotten considerably smaller during these past six months.
Certainly my family’s ability to “go to shul” together online on Shabbat is not the only example of this. How many of you watching today shared one or more Pesach seders this year with friends and loved ones all over the country? Yes, it’s true we could say “dayenu” at this point to the problem of not being able to sing together on the same beat, but weren’t the “Zeders” of 2020/5780 pretty special in their own way, effectively expanding our Seder tables to include folks who wouldn’t all otherwise have necessarily been able to join us? And we can say the same thing about brises, simchat bat ceremonies, b’nei mitzvah, funerals, and shiva minyanim, where family members and friends from faraway places have been able to smile and celebrate onscreen with us, or comfort us with their presence, which even as recently as the beginning of 2020 would not have been considered as an option for people, let alone one that so many folks are now taking advantage of to draw closer to those they care about.
Finally, let’s not forget that this closeness has not been limited to the boundaries of the U.S. Back in June we arranged a virtual tour for our congregation of Gabrieli Weaving’s studio in Rechovot, Israel and store in Jerusalem. We got a glimpse behind the curtain of what I would argue is the best source in the world for beautiful tallitot, from which more than 2/3 of my 16 tallitot—not a misprint—come, and a number of our members purchased tallitot for themselves, their children or their grandchildren, including several of our Shearith B’nei Mitzvah families, after setting up personal shopping appointments. We were 7000 miles and 8 hours on the clock apart, and yet there we were, connecting intimately and forging or strengthening our bond to Israel and to Jewish ritual at the same time. And we wouldn’t even have thought of trying this a year ago.
Yes, the world definitely feels smaller than it used to feel. Our reach and capacity to connect with others has been extended exponentially, which has opened up new opportunities for us personally and professionally. But what are the implications of this for us going forward, as we continue to grind our way through a pandemic, but also prepare for its eventual aftermath? Does our ability to reach further challenge us to think about widening our circle of concern, or is this just a short-term way of thinking that should yield to insularity and parochialism once things “go back to normal” within our communities or in general with the practice of our Judaism?
Friends, I would suggest that the answer to this question is found in Jewish values, and it gets back to the very core of how we see ourselves as Jewish people relative to the rest of the world. Deeply ingrained in our traditional texts and our prayer liturgies are many reflections of this basic tension, the tension between particularism and universalism.
Take the Aleinu prayer for instance. It’s a prayer many of us know well and can sing along with, but how well do we really know it? You might know a little more about it if you watched my On Demand video clip on it on the portal, but otherwise feel free to check that and our other On Demand content out later. The prayer begins, “Aleinu l’shabeach la-Adon ha-kol, lateyt g’dulah l’yotzer b’reishit, she-lo asanu k’goyei ha’aratzot, v’lo samanu k’mishp’chot ha-adama, she-lo sam chelkeynu ka-hem, v’goraleinu k’chol ha-monam”—It is for us to praise the Ruler of all, to acclaim the Creator, who has not made us merely a nation, nor formed us as all earthly families, nor given us an ordinary destiny. In these opening lines of the Aleinu, as Jewish people we are called upon to praise God as the master and creator of all, BECAUSE God assigned us a different kind of responsibility and destiny in the world. Over the course of the full text of the two paragraphs of the Aleinu, we reflect back on God as the universal creator, and yearn for the day when we will be able “l’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai”, to establish the world in the kingdom of the Almighty, or, in modern usage, to repair the world according to God’s blueprint, a world that includes, as our machzor says in a comment on p.156, “the relief of human suffering, the achievement of peace and mutual respect among peoples, and protection of the planet itself from destruction”. And then, at the conclusion of the prayer, when we cite the words of the prophet Zechariah, we hope that the day will also come when our God will be acknowledged as the one God who is sovereign of all the earth. Once again, we are pulled back and forth between universal and particular aspirations.
Aleinu is actually one of a number of prayers in our High Holy Day liturgy that reflects themes that are both particularistic towards the Jewish people and universalistic towards all of humanity. This should not surprise us when we recognize that the rabbis saw Rosh Hashanah not only as a time of judgment for the Jewish people, but also as the anniversary of the birthday of the world and a time that all pass before God in judgment: in the words of the Mishna and the U’Netaneh Tokef prayer we recited earlier, “v’chol ba’ei olam ya’avrun l’fanekha kivnei maron”, ALL that lives on earth will pass before You like a flock of sheep. Judgment and accountability isn’t just something reserved for Jews, it’s something all human beings have to deal with. And on Rosh Hashanah, as Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman points out in his book “All the World”, we as Jews “appear before God in our capacity as universal man or woman, not simply as a member of the Jewish People. To be sure, says Hoffman, it is Jewish tradition that summons us here to synagogue today, but once here, “we appear naked before God as the human descendants of Adam and Eve in Eden. We are either worthy of continued existence in God’s world or we are not; and if we are not, we engage in teshuvah” (23). We come to terms with who we have been in this past year and attempt to recreate ourselves, and the world, in a better image going forward. Hoffman adds, “Passover is one bookend in Jewish time, the particularistic one, the High Holy Days are the other bookend, the universalistic one, recalling that as much as we are Jews, we are also members of the world community, with a mission to advance the well-being of the world in which we find our existence” (23). This is right in line with the Aleinu insight of appreciating our particular peoplehood while situating it firmly in the context of the universal human experience and consequently embracing our mission of contributing to the betterment of the world.
Clearly this universal stamp is all over our machzor, and all over these High Holy Days, even when we are in the midst of our peak season of focusing on our own distinctly Jewish practices and rituals. But this theme isn’t just found during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it’s found in our Shabbat liturgy every week of the year, in the Kiddush. The first paragraph of the Kiddush focuses on Shabbat rooted in the creation story—God created the entire world and all life within it, and then carved out a 7th day in the cycle to rest once the creative process was completed. The second paragraph of the Kiddush adds another component: it refers to Shabbat as both a memorial for the act of creation, and a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, noting “ki vanu vacharta, v’otanu kidashta mikol ha-amim”, “God chose us and sanctified us from all the nations” by giving us the Shabbat. In the Kiddush we move from Shabbat as a universal gift in response to a universal act, to Shabbat as a gift to the Jewish people as part of a particular act of redeeming Israel from Egypt. Clearly we would not have been redeemed from Egypt had we, and the rest of humanity, not been created in the first place. Every week, we are charged with holding on to both contexts of Shabbat when we recite the Kiddush.
So how do we navigate this particular vs. universal tension in practice? Well, as with so much else in Judaism, it’s a balancing act. On the one hand, we focus inwardly on the powerful mandate of building our own community, learning as children and as adults about our Jewish tradition, and turning that learning into active Jewish living, observing Shabbat and holidays, eating a traditional Jewish diet through the laws of kashrut, and engaging regularly in personal and communal prayer. And on the other hand, we focus our gaze outwards, looking to reinforce the bond we share with the rest of humanity and do our part to elevate those who need lifting up.
There’s a famous maxim from Pirkei Avot, one of our earliest rabbinic collections of wisdom literature from 2000 years ago. It is “Im Ein Ani Li Mi Li—U’ch-she’ani l’atzmi, mah ani”? If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I’m only for myself, what am I? It’s a compelling call for both particularism and universalism in our approach to living. But there’s also a third part of the maxim: “V’im lo achshav—eimatai”. This task of looking out for both our own interests, and those of others in the world around us, is imbued with urgency. We can’t put it off, says Pirkei Avot, because we’ll just keep coming up with excuses. So today I’ll offer you a pathway to fulfilling the mandate of helping others besides ourselves, by calling to your attention the impactful work of our Shearith Israel Social Action Committee, headed up by Mindy Fagin and Andrea Solka. Here are just a few of the things they’re currently working on:
This week I ordered the newest tallit in Gabrieli’s line, one of only 72 individually numbered special blue and white tallitot made in celebration of Israel’s 72nd birthday back in May. No, I didn’t need a 17th tallit—I just loved the design and wanted to support my friend Ori Gabrieli’s business as it suffers with no tourism during the pandemic. But it’s fitting in light of my comments today that the atara, the collar, of this tallit is embroidered with the words “V’ahavta L’rey-acha Kamocha”, love your neighbor as yourself, from the book of Vayikra, Leviticus. We do have to love and value ourselves and treasure what makes us unique, but even as we work hard to develop our particular Jewish identity, we have to value our neighbors and reach out and work hard to help them too. And in this small and very connected world we now find ourselves living in, when people all over the globe are struggling with the impact of the same pandemic, where geographic or perceived distance can be bridged in one Facetime call or online gathering, we have lots more “neighbors”. Two brothers, Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman wrote a catchy little melody back in 1963, the lyrics might be vaguely familiar to you: “It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears, It’s a world of hopes and a world of fears; There’s so much that we share, that it’s time we’re aware—It’s a small world after all”.
Zeh Olam Katan M’od. It’s a small world after all, so our reach can extend further than ever before, in our own backyards and beyond. But that just means there’s that much more we can do to pitch in. What do you say we get started? Im lo achsav, eimatai. If not now, when?
Shana Tova, and Shabbat Shalom.
Watch this sermon at vimeo.com/460269520
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