September 16, 2012: Personal Fundamentals (Rosh Hashanah Evening)


Let me tell you about my first High Holiday sermon. When the Jewish Community of Stowe, Vermont, hired me as its spiritual leader in January of 2001, I lacked formal training and experience. All summer long, I agonized over my speech. I spent hours and hours revising draft after draft. Finally, I was ready. Then, just before Rosh Hashanah, the planes hit the Twin Towers. Suddenly, I, like Rabbis throughout the country, found myself scrambling for something to say that could even remotely address the anguish we were all enduring. I jettisoned the product of my painstaking work and scrawled furiously on a yellow pad. What I remember most about that first High Holiday service was the congregation’s spiritual hunger and focus. What mattered most was that we came together for companionship, for consolation, and for hope.

In the months that followed, the entire country—indeed, the entire world—came together. The division between red and blue—so bitter just prior to 9/11 after the contentious Supreme Court decision that decided the presidential election earlier in the year—simply melted away. I learned a number of important lessons that Rosh Hashanah. Among them, I learned the limits of preparation. I learned the importance of appreciating every single precious moment of being alive. Most of all, I learned that in the face of life and death, 99% of our mundane preoccupations amount to a hill of beans.

It should not take a tragedy to compel us to focus on the fundamentals of life. Indeed, the basic purpose of the Days of Awe is to remind us that life in the face of death must mean more than the satisfaction of personal needs and desires. The Shofar sounds the alarm on Rosh Hashanah: “Sleepers, awake from your sleep; slumberers, rouse yourselves from your slumbers. Examine your actions, O you who forget the truth in the empty details of daily routine, you who waste each precious year in emptiness that neither profits nor saves.” (Maimonides, Hilchot Tesuvah 3:4) Throughout its solemn liturgy and ritual, Yom Kippur hammers home the message of our mortality. For example, the traditional worshipper wears the kittel, the white shroud that she will wear again in the grave. Moreover, her prayers reflect her final moments on earth. They culminate with the proclamation of the Shema, the final words of the final service of Neilah, which she will proclaim again on her deathbed, the final words of her lifetime just before she dies. But we do not die. We are resurrected. At the end of the day, the single blast of tekiah gedolah calls us back to life. At is as if we are given a chance to live over again.

The High Holiday prayers jolt us out of the commonplace, additionally, in the manner that they present God. On Rosh Hashanah, we proclaim Him—and he is definitely a He on the day that marks the creation of the world—“King of Kings, who unfurled the heavens and established, the earth, whose throne of glory is in the heavens above, and whose majestic Presence is in the loftiest heights.” (Aleinu prayer) As she chants these lines, the service leader prostrates herself on the floor, symbolizing abject humility. Lofty depictions of the Almighty leave many of us unresponsive, or, worse, alienated. As one theologian puts it—and I hope she’ll forgive me for quoting her, because she gives voice to how many of us feel—“There’s nothing personal about ‘Adonai, the Lord.’ It’s so distant. It’s so out there. Who cares?” Even worse than a remote God is a judgmental One: “we pass before Him as a flock of sheep, as He determines the life and decrees the destiny of every living creature.” (Untaneh Toqef prayer) Accordingly, at the beginning of worship the service leaders approach the Bimah haltingly from the back of the sanctuary, as if in fear and trepidation. Pompous rituals and imperial images of God tap into our worst childhood fears of wicked tyrants looking for ways to torment us. If children only learn of a cruel, punishing God, they may grow up never setting foot inside a synagogue again.

Fortunately, Judaism manifests a multitude of ways to relate to God. You would receive a skewed impression of Jewish worship if you attended religious services only on the High Holidays. The High Holiday ritual is dramatic precisely because it is extraordinary. The complete liturgy for the rest of the year includes a breathtaking array of divine Names, some of which are feminine—not just “Lord” and “King,” but also: “Father,” “Mother,” “Healer,” “Redeemer,” “the Compassionate One,” “Source of Blessing,” and shechinah, the feminine divine Presence. Often, different observances favor different epithets. For instance, Qabbalat Shabbat, the introductory service welcoming the Sabbath, abounds with references to God as Lover, such as: yedid nefesh, “the soul’s desire,” our simply dodi, “my Beloved.” It’s not that God changes depending upon the occasion. After all, God, who exceeds the limits of comprehension, also exceeds the limits of language. God, who is infinite, surpasses any and all finite labels. God doesn’t change, but we change. On Shabbat, we emphasize God’s immanence, because we seek divine intimacy. On the Days of Awe, we emphasize God’s transcendence, because we seek divine judgment.

Yes, that’s right, we want to be judged. We want a world that comprises absolute standards of right and wrong to which we can hold ourselves accountable. Once, a man died and found himself standing in a line before two gates, one leading to Heaven and the other leading to Hell. “Now, choose a door, choose a door,” said a bored usher. “You mean I can choose either door?” asked the man. “There’s no final reckoning, no answering for my behavior on Earth? “ “That’s right, now move along. People are dying and lining up behind you.” “But I want to confess my transgressions!” protested the man. “I want to come clean!” “We don’t have time for that kind of thing. Now choose a door and keep the line moving!” So the man entered the gate leading to Hell. The truth is, we want to be taken seriously. We want to know that our decisions matter, that Someone up there is watching over us, even when no one else is looking, that Someone will remember us, long after others have forgotten. (Harold Kushner, Who Needs God?, p. p75)

I reached the nadir of my spiritual life one Yom Kippur, years prior to 9/11. I remember slinking outside the side entrance to the sanctuary of the synagogue I would later join, overcome by the emptiness of my life’s preoccupations. Jews don’t believe in Heaven and Hell the same way Christians do, but I had a personal conception. I saw myself on my deathbed, looking back with remorse on all the missed opportunities, but now it was too late to take advantage of them—that would be Hell. Then I envisioned another scene, in which I was dying contented, fulfilled, and at peace, knowing that I had done my best to make a positive difference in the world during my lifetime—that would be Heaven. As I listened through the door, I heard the Torah reader chanting the Maftir that we will hear tomorrow morning: “See, I have set before you this day blessing and curse, life and death... Uvacharta bachayim! Therefore, choose life!” I mark my lifelong teshuvah from that precise moment.

How do we choose life, when we are not in the grip of death? “The entire world hangs in the balance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” cries Maimonides, “halfway between innocence and guilt. If one individual commits one additional sin, he presses down the scale of guilt, causing his own downfall and its destruction. But if one individual performs one good deed, she presses down the scale of merit, causing her deliverance and its salvation.” Our challenge is to carry the weightiness of our precious choices, not just during the days of Awe but throughout the year. Our goal must be to recall what’s truly important in life, not just when our lives are stripped bare in despair, but when we are busy with the multitude of mundane tasks that fill our days. “I will return My hand upon you, purge away your dross, and take away your slag,” cries God. Only a transcendent God can do that—a God who lives outside of ourselves. “Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?,” echoes the poet Mary Oliver.
”Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (“The Summer Day”)

It’s been many years since 9/11. It’s been even more years since the Yom Kippur day when I felt my life caving in. We can’t confront the precariousness of existence, or search for opportunity amid tragedy, or contemplate the supreme purpose of our lives, at every moment. It’s not humanly possible, nor does God demand it. However, if we shouldn’t face mortality at all moments, we should face mortality at certain moments. Now is such a moment—Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Days of Awe, the first day of whatever time remains in our lives. ”Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”