Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5780
by Rabbi Shira Wallach
Imagine that it’s November 1947. You’re sitting with your family, huddled around your radio, waiting with bated breath to hear the results of the UN vote on Resolution 181, which would give international sanction to the birth of what would become the State of Israel. What an extraordinary moment to witness—you know both the pain and struggle that have led to this day, and you know the vision and hope that blazed the path. When Theodore Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in 1897, fifty years earlier, he set in motion a critical movement to establish a homeland where all Jews could depend on safety above all else, an oasis of security in a world that could no longer guarantee our people the ability to pursue a life of liberty and dignity. As the specter of anti-Semitism darkened the world, Herzl’s cause became more and more emergent. The horrors of the Shoah demonstrated that we could no longer entrust the destiny of the Jewish people to anyone besides our own. In his pamphlet der Judenstaat, Herzl wrote: “We naturally move to those places where we are not persecuted, and there our presence produces persecution.”
The Jewish question, he posited, would have to be solved by our own gumption. And the world saw, decades later, just how right he was. But the post-Shoah urgency forced the Zionist movement to encounter an impossible choice: should they stick to the original vision set forth in our sacred Torah, securing our biblical right to the land to the west and to the east of the Jordan, up to the Golan and down to the Red Sea? Surely, if God ordained these borders, we would have Divine support in asserting this path. There should be no need to compromise.
But in the post-war proceedings, our leaders began to see that insisting on the ideal at the outset, instead of working to achieve it over time, would mean losing the opportunity to ever establish a Jewish State. After all, when the UN produced a map, based on the British Peel commission report, it looked like a checkerboard: carving up our homeland, limiting our access to our holiest city, Yerushalayim. Jewish cries from around the world rose in a desperate chorus: voices like the Mizrahi delegation to the American Congress, who declared: “[We] will never consent to the partition of Palestine because every particle of earth of this land, promised to us by the Torah and the Prophets, is holy to us.” Chaim Weizmann, who served as the President of the Zionist Organization, cried: “Zionism is a modern expression of the…ideal. Divorced from that ideal, it loses all purpose, all hope…”
How challenging this moment must have been for the leaders of the Zionist movement. To come so close to achieving a dream our people held in their hearts for so long, and yet to be faced with the possibility that that dream would not include sovereignty over our most sacred places, including Jerusalam and Hevron, the burial place of the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs.
Were the Mizrahi delegation or Weizmann wrong to demand the ideal? How could any reader of the Torah deny that the integrity of our land was not just our right, but our divine sanction?
But slowly, the truth emerged: that if Zionists didn’t accept the UN’s offer, their hope of 2000 years would be dashed. Jews would again be scattered to the corners of the earth, back to their tenuous existence of fear and hiding or disappearing into assimilation.
And so, after a painful reckoning, it became clear that we needed to take the offer. We needed to put on hold our dreams of the ideal, and take the compromise so that we could be safe. That’s why, when Jews around the world hunched over their radios on that miraculous day in November 1947, hearing enough “yes” votes to secure our rights to the land, we celebrated. Finally, we could begin to work through the tragedy and devastation that gripped us. Finally, we could feel like a people with power and agency to set forth our own path. Finally, we could live in our homeland, eretz tzion and, one day, yerushalayim.
More than 70 years later, with the hindsight that we have now, we know this was the right decision. But that doesn’t resolve the profound heartbreak that our forbearers felt when they had to put Divine dreams aside to make room for reality.
This wasn’t the first time that we’ve had to compromise.
When God created the world, God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the land of the ideal, the place where perfection dwelled. With God imminently present, there was no room for doubt or conflict or competition, all those things that make our lives harder and more complicated. But we learned very quickly that paradise is not for us, creatures of free will, who need to grow and progress and analyze and improve and learn. Our best chance to live our destiny was not in a utopia, but in a world where we must live with the entire range of human experience and create meaning and sanctity in our own language. It is the messiness and unpredictability of our lives that force us to take hold of our own stories.
The Torah lays out an ideal system for worship: the Temple and its sacrifices. With the help of the cohanim, the priests, we could bring an offering that would help us express to God our gratitude, our forgiveness, our devotion. God told us exactly how to communicate and so we could follow those directions exactly. We always knew how to be in step with God, so that God would continue to protect and guide us.
But then our temples were destroyed and our people were on the brink of despair. Without our central touchstone, we lacked both national unity and the ability to continue our dialogue with God.
The rabbis knew that if they continued only to mourn and lament the Temple’s loss indefinitely, they would lose the opportunity to establish an enduring Jewish practice that could protect us through this painful transition. And so, no longer having access to the ideal setup, they created and choreographed a system of prayer: morning, afternoon, and night, that would mirror the devout devotion of the sacrifices. Instead of giving up an object of great value to express our piety, like a cake of choice flour or a blemish-less ram, we would offer ourselves, our time, our concentration, our service. Vaani tefilati lecha Adonai—we, the contents of our own hearts, became the sacrifice. Though we are now very far away from the ideal approach to worship delineated in the Torah, our post-Temple world has forced us to come before God with open souls, engaged intellects, and empowered creativity. And in this way, we discover the power of our own voices.
Our rabbis, in their profound wisdom, gave us language to understand the relationship between these two paradigms—the ideal and the real.
The ideal, or in Aramaic, lechatchila, imagines a world like the Garden of Eden. Everything that we need in order to fulfill mitzvot perfectly exists within arm’s length. Keeping kosher is easy because we have access to all of the kosher food we need, we have kitchens equipped with two sets of everything (and two more sets for Passover!), and when we don’t have time to cook, we can easily find affordable and delicious places to dine or pick up prepared food. Speaking of Pesach, avoiding chametz is easy because every single place we go is empty of it. We don’t have to worry about craving bagels and pasta and doughnuts because we don’t see them over those eight days, and we definitely don’t see that delicious-looking baking tutorial on our Facebook feed. Shabbat is easy because we have the time to prepare meticulously, so that once the sun sets on Friday, everything is in its place. All of our food is prepared, all of our work is done. Every place we’ll need to go in order to celebrate Shabbat is in walking distance. We are free to spend the entire day reveling in the miracles of rest and togetherness because everything is perfect, just as it is.
Doesn’t that world sound nice?
Of course, if we could, we would choose that world. How beautiful does that life sound, where we never have to think about achieving perfection because it’s already in our grasp? And not just in our fulfillment of mitzvot, but in all other aspects of the holy lives we seek to create?
What if we never had to worry about the physical and mental health of our families and loved ones? What if we never had to worry about managing a perfect household in which we put a healthy, home-cooked meal on the table every night and our kids always cleaned their plates? What if we didn’t have to worry about whether we’ll be able to save enough money so that our kids can go to their dream colleges, and we’ll be able to retire before the age of 90?
And while we’re at it, let’s expand our aspirational universe, because God knows how we all lay up in bed at night, worrying about escalating rates of poverty and homelessness, deaths from gun violence, dangerous weather anomalies from an increasingly volatile climate and I could go on… for a world in which we’re supposed to aspire to and live according to the ideal, we find ourselves over and over in a situation that is leagues away from perfect. Taking cues from our most sacred values of equity and lovingkindness and the inherent dignity of each and every person, of course we wish we had the power to obliterate these sources of hardship. But if we commit ourselves to that level of perfection, we will fail every time. Believing that it is in our grasp to solve these insurmountable problems only leads to disillusionment, powerlessness, and defeat. We become overwhelmed and paralyzed and decide that because we can’t access the perfection we seek, there’s no use in even trying.
But Judaism gives us a remarkable gift.
The counterpart to lechatchila is bediavad: how we act when we can’t control everything. A brilliant rabbinic mindset that never allows us to lose sight of the ideal, and yet, gives us breathing room as we pursue lives of meaning and purpose.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the most important voices of 20th century American Judaism, wrote about the pursuit of holiness in Halakhic Man, the person who sees the world through the prism of Rabbinic Jewish law, not as a single-minded aspiration to the ideal, but as a cosmic joining of ideal and real. He wrote: “Halakhic man’s ideal is to subject reality to the yoke of [Jewish law]. However, as long as this desire cannot be implemented, halakhic man does not despair, nor does he reflect at all concerning the clash of the real and the ideal, the opposition which exists between the theoretical Halakhah and the actual deed, between law and life…Holiness means the holiness of earthly, here-and-now life” (29, 33).
He shares a beloved midrash, a rabbinic allegorical teaching, to illustrate the crucial and life-saving relationship between our people and our laws.
In Masechet Shabbat (88b-89a), the rabbis imagine a conversation between God and the ministering angels in heaven, arguing whether human beings, who are mortal and susceptible to failure, deserve the exquisite gift of Torah. The heavenly hosts cry: That secret treasure—You, God, would defile it by placing it in the hands of flesh and blood?!
God then tells Moshe to begin reading from the two tablets: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt! God bellows: Angels, were you enslaved by Pharaoh? Did I bring you out of Egypt with signs and wonders? Moshe continues: Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. God shouts: Angels, do you perform work and then need to rest? Again, Moshe reads: Honor your father and mother. God demands: Angels, do you have parents? And on and on.
Our tradition isn’t for creatures of perfection and divine imminence, for heavenly hosts that lack free will and never have to worry what will happen next. It is for those who doubt and fear and wonder why we are here on this earth. It is for those who are just trying to eke out a life of meaning and connection, purpose and sanctity.
Rav Soloveitchik continues: “The earth and bodily life are the very ground of halakhic reality. Only against the concrete, empirical backdrop of this world can the Torah be implemented; angels who neither eat nor drink, who neither quarrel with one another nor are envious of one another, are not worth and fit for the receiving of the Torah” (34).
Judaism doesn’t ask us to be perfect. It doesn’t WANT us to be perfect. If we were, then we’d be the wrong match for God and for Torah. And if our world were perfect, we would have no need for God, for Torah, or for one another. We need to come into conflict and encounter difficulty, we need to understand what it feels like to despair, to yearn, to break down, to lose faith in the world around us, because these are all essential experiences of being human.
And when we’re down there, in the pit of hopelessness and disillusionment, God doesn’t abandon us. God reaches down to us and says: Now you’re ready. Let’s build this world. I know about eternity and transcendence, you know about longing and imperfection. Together we can construct holiness.
In our world of bediavad, ideal and real establish a symbiotic relationship, oscillating back and forth between what is and what could be. Without a vision of perfection, without a window into heaven, we would never be able to conceive an aspiration of the ideal. We wouldn’t be able to imagine the attributes of a perfect world and set those always on the horizon. But without an acknowledgement of where we are, we would never be able to speak honestly about our needs, our missing pieces, our reality, and to think creatively about how to our live our values in an imperfect world.
Because we live in a world of bediaviad on Pesach, for example, we have to make intentional choices in each moment to renew our relationship with our story and our laws. We live in a society that mixes the secular and the religious. During the holiday, we are indeed constantly surrounded by delicious doughnuts and pizza and pasta as we go about our daily routines. Therefore we are also are given the opportunity to know that we can overcome our cravings in order to fulfill God’s laws. Understanding our reality, our rabbis gave us a ritual statement nullifying all chametz during the week of Pesach as afra de’ara, as dust of the earth. Our construct of bediavad creates this opportunity for a powerful shift in our mindset, one we would never have been given if we lived in the lechatchila world of the Torah, where in all of the land there was not a crumb of chametz to be found.
If we didn’t live in a world of bediavad, then we would not know illness and suffering. How we all long for the lechatchila in which our loved ones and sisters and brothers around the world would never have to contend with cancer or heart disease or depression or dementia or malaria or so many other terrible diseases that plague us. Faced with this bediavad case, our human compassion and ingenuity have been animated in order to increase the quality of life and dignity for all who suffer. We are forced to pool our best intellect and resources in our pledge to understand and treat these illnesses so that we can build a world of opportunity and lovingkindness for each and every person. And though sickness is a terrible price we have to have pay, think of how these medical advances have benefitted the world far beyond the original intent for which they were created. Medicine doesn’t only cure sickness, it also enables us to prolong life and elevate its quality.
And in fact, Rav Soloveitchik argues that this is how we bring about redemption: “…not via a higher world but via the world itself, via the adaptation of empirical reality to the ideal patterns of Halakhah.” In this way, “a lowly world is elevated through the Halakhah to the level of a divine world” (37-38).
God wrote the Torah FOR US, created the world FOR US, and is waiting FOR US to complete revelation as we live our lives through the lens of our tradition. Is it uncomfortable to know that we will never, ever, fulfill every aspect of Jewish law? Is it painful to admit that we will never, ever be the spouse, child, parent, sibling, employee, citizen… that we aspire to be? Is it crushing to confess that we will always miss the mark in some way?
Yes. But that’s right where we need to be.
Because then we have a choice to make. We can either quit while we’re ahead, knowing that we’ll always end up with something less than perfection or, we can revel in the discomfort. We can celebrate our endless quest to touch heaven while standing on earth.
And that is what Judaism wants us to do. To always be a little uncomfortable. Because out of that discomfort comes our best ingenuity, our most stunning creativity, our redemptive honesty.
Our rabbis (Ein Yaakov Taanit 1:11) tell a story about Yerushalayim Habnuyah, the rebuilt Jerusalem of the future. You might think that this Yerushalayim would embody only the vision of Yerushalayim shel Maalah, that heavenly Jerusalem that exudes idealized perfection. But instead, the rabbis teach us that God refused to enter this Yerushalayim until God could fill Yerushalayim shel Matah, the earthly Jerusalem, with the Divine Presence.
In this way, the rabbis teach us that Yerushalayim habnuah, the fully-realized dream of a rebuilt and reunited Jerusalem contains both Yerushalayim shel maalah and Yerushalayim shel matah. As Rav Soloveitchik taught us, it is in heaven’s longing for earth and in earth’s longing for heaven where holiness is found.
This year will be full of bediavads. We will continue to find ourselves in situations beyond our control that leave us floundering. Each day will bring new challenges in our homes, our jobs, and our relationships. Our beloved State of Israel will continue to fend off anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic attacks at the same time as she struggles, internally, to establish a government that will protect her security and allow her citizens to thrive. The political climate in our own country will continue to fuel divisiveness and hateful rhetoric, bringing us to the point where those on the left and those on the right can’t even talk to each other, much less think, that someone with a different opinion might have a useful or insightful perspective to share. And though we feel great distance from the ideal world that we seek, we cannot dismiss the extraordinary opportunities we have before us to bring life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness back into our midst, for we have the redemptive and creative power to do so.
I pray that in 5780, we finally come to terms with our inability to be perfect, to ever rise to our expectations for ourselves, in a world beyond our control. Rather, I pray that this New Year gives us the permission to be inspired by our imperfection and the sacred opportunity that it gives us to partner with God. May our discomfort lead to new creativity and discovery and may our longing bring us ever closer to a united vision of heaven and earth.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share