September 4, 2013: Rosh Hashanah Evening sermon


Let’s explore the three central themes of Rosh Hashanah: remembrance, judgment, and sovereignty. We call Rosh Hashanah “New Year’s Day,” but its oldest name is Yom Ha-Zikaron, “the Day of Remembrance,” from the following reference in Leviticus: “in the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe … [a day of] remembrance marked by the blast [of the Shofar]...” (Leviticus 23:44) Later, Rosh Hashanah became known as Yom Din, the Day of Judgment, as intimated in the couplet from Psalms: “Sound the Shofar on the New Moon! It is a statute for Israel; a judgment [day] for the God of Jacob.” (Psalm 81:4-5; bRosh Hashanah 8a-b) Finally, although Rosh Hashanah was never officially called Coronation Day, its liturgy is unusually replete with descriptions of divine majesty, such as in the Amidah: “we know, Adonai our God, that Your sovereignty, Your power and Your awesome Name reign supreme over all that You have created.”

The primary processes of Rosh Hashanah overlap. Sovereignty and judgment go hand in hand, as the solemn Untaneh Toqef prayer highlights: “this day all who walk the earth pass before You like bnei maron… You bring everything that lives before You under review, and You determine the life and decree the destiny of every living creature.” (The translation of bnei maron is uncertain, but most scholars consider the term a corruption of the Latin word numeron, meaning troops—we pass before the gaze of the supreme Commander like Roman soldiers.)

Furthermore, judgment is an outgrowth of remembrance. Rabbinic Judaism relates these two concepts through the operating metaphor of a book. It conceives of sefer ha-zichronot, the Book of Remembrances, in which all human deeds are recorded. A Beth Shalom poet imagines sefer ha-zichronot as follows: “a chapter for every year, each filled with exquisite detail of everything that has taken place, from earth-shattering to mundane, the generous and loving acts as well as every embarrassing, unkind, or pig-headed moment. Nothing left out, nothing glossed over.” The Talmud also introduces the image of sefer ha-chayyim, the Book of Life, into which we fervently pray that we may merit to be inscribed.

In classical Judaism, God is the Subject who performs all three actions highlighted on Rosh Hashanah: God remembers, God judges, and God is crowned the supreme Ruler of all creation. Those of us who are alienated by depictions in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy of God’s absolute agency—particularly male depictions!—might find Hasidic interpretations instructive, even inspiring. According to Hasidic thinking, divine sovereignty and human humility are the obverse of each other. Declarations about God are really statements about us.

God’s preeminence serves to remind us simultaneously of our inherent nobility and our inherent weakness as human beings. In a typical Hasidic parable, the king’s son has wandered so far away from the royal palace that he no longer remembers that he was once a prince. Thus, we too have forsaken the spark of divinity embedded within each one of us, and our primary task on Rosh Hashanah is to recover and reignite it. We are all “children of the Most High,” to proffer an interpretive translation of the obscure phrase bnei maron cited earlier. (cf. bRosh Hashanah 18a)

On the other hand, God’s supremacy also produces the opposite realization: that our power as human beings is limited. The concept of the heavenly Book of Remembrances underscores the fallibility of human memory. Similarly, referring to God as “Judge of all the Earth” (Genesis 18:26) is the Torah’s way of pointing out the biases and blind spots of all human judges. Awareness of human frailty is paradoxically empowering. If we remember that mortals are fallible compared to the one, true Judge, then the condemnation of others will matter less to us. We will have the courage to make unpopular decisions because we believe in them. If we hold to the conviction that every single deed is registered in God’s eternal memory—or, in non-theistic terms, unalterably woven into the fabric of the universe—then we will perform mitzvot even when nobody will ever find out about them. Conversely, we will refrain from indulging our destructive urges even when we think we can get away with it. We will be motivated not by public recognition but simply by the desire to do what is “right and good in the sight of Adonai.” (Deuteronomy 6:18)

We have discussed how Hasidism reinterprets God’s sovereignty, remembrance and judgment in a manner that strengthens ethical behavior. Actually, some sages go further, taking the responsibility for remembrance and judgment out of God’s domain and placing it squarely in human hands. It’s not so important that God remembers our actions and God judges us; what matters is that we remember our actions and that we judge ourselves. “God already knows the secrets of all living things,” proclaims the Yom Kippur liturgy. “Only let our words reach our own ears; let our thoughts enter our own hearts.”

Perhaps the most ambitious affirmation of the individual’s capacity to decree her own destiny is presented by the 20th century Hasidic Rabbi Netivot Shalom. He writes: “the Book of Life is opened on Rosh Hashanah, and every person, if she chooses, writes herself into the Book of Life.” What can Netivot Shalom mean by this astounding assertion? For one thing, it is not humanly possible to guarantee life for the upcoming year. Besides, who wouldn’t choose life, if given the chance?

In order to shed light on Netivot Shalom’s pronouncement, let’s turn to the insights of historian Yosef Yerushalmi, who explored the close connection between memory and meaning in his groundbreaking study entitled Zachor. According to Yerushalmi, people establish their identity and their place in the world by remembering past experience. The people of Israel ensured their survival throughout the millennia by preserving collective memory. “Only in Israel and nowhere else is the injunction zachor, “remember!,” felt as a religious imperative,” writes Yerushalmi. (p. 9)

Through continual reenactment and ritual, we relive in the present the pivotal experiences of our formative history. Any other nation’s concern for or indifference to crucial episodes in Israelite history is immaterial. For example, it makes no difference that the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt remains uncorroborated by any extra-Biblical source.* What matters to us as Jews is that we were slaves, God delivered us, and we stood together at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. Memory is not the same as history. The episodes of the past do not by themselves cohere into the story of who we are. Rather, we build our own story by molding our memory of past events into a meaningful narrative—even if they may not have “actually” happened the way we remember them.

The religious imperative zachor, “remember!,” applies just as strongly to our personal histories. How we choose to create meaning from experience either inhibits or fosters our development. Consider a major event in Beth Shalom history, the firebombing of the synagogue thirty years ago. We can dwell on the negative aspects of the incident, or we can develop a perspective that promotes our communal aspirations for solidarity and cooperation. Thus, one Beth Shalom member recollects how the disturbance drew us closer to each other and to our gentile neighbors: “all the memories are positive—of helping hands coming together to rebuild our sanctuary and how ‘by chance’ the Torahs were all saved.” “Memory is among the most fragile and capricious of human faculties.” (Yerushalmi, p. 5) It is impossible—thank God!—to remember everything. We fulfill the spiritual task of zachor when we focus on vital experiences and arrange them into a narrative that defines and enhances our core values.

Fascinatingly, all the holidays in the Jewish calendar commemorate seminal events in the collective history of the Israelite people, with the exception of the High Holidays. Instead, the High Holidays summon us to remember the essential experiences in our own lives. On Yom Ha-Zikaron, the Day of Remembrance, we recall not when our ancestors were enslaved in Egypt, when they crossed the Sea into freedom, and when God revealed the Torah to them; rather, we call to mind when we were trapped in prisons of despair, when we crossed our own barriers and surmounted our own obstacles, and when we received our own revelations of clarity and insight. According to one model, the last step of forgiveness takes place when “we have amended our grievance story so that the memory of the incident that used to cause us hurt and resentment is now situated within the larger context of our overall history, which emphasizes all the good that has come out of it—the new insights, the new growth, and the new opportunities.” (Frederic Luskin, Ph.D., Forgive for Good) Actually, constructing a personal narrative from the memory of experience in a manner that inspires and empowers us is not just the hallmark of forgiveness but the spiritual mandate in all areas of our lives.

Now let’s return to Netivot Shalom’s earlier pronouncement: “the Book of Life is opened on Rosh Hashanah, and every person, if she chooses, writes herself into it.” He continues: “every person on Earth was sent to this world with a unique role to play and a unique purpose to fulfill. If she commits herself to her particular assignment from now on—that is the process by which she writes and seals herself into the Book of Life.” Netivot Shalom concludes darkly: “As for those who avoid their set purpose, what role do they have left in the world?” We might soften his final intimation by saying not that people who fail to pursue their destiny are better off physically dead but that they are already spiritually dead.

According to Netivot Shalom’s conception, our great task in life is to discover and complete the individual mission that God has designated for us. Others put it differently—that our great joy in life is to invent our individual mission. It is interesting to ponder the different nuances between determining our lifework and discovering it. Either way, we realize our life purpose by enacting the story of who we are and where we are going. In light of Yerushalmi’s contention that memory and meaning are interwoven, we can recast sefer ha-zichronot, the Book of Remembrances, as personal narrative. Judgment becomes not so much a matter of condemning our transgressions but distinguishing those actions that conform to our personal goals from those that conflict with or deny them. The reward of being inscribed in the Book of Life is the opportunity to continue to fulfill our mission on earth. The Book of Life simply picks up the story where the Book of Remembrances leaves off.

Today we stand at the threshold between past and future. Today we turn the page to a new chapter. This is my prayer for all of us on Yom Ha-Zikaron, the Day of Remembrance. May the shofar blast remind us of our fundamental nobility, goodness and worth as human beings, as well as our inherent limitations and imperfections. May the shofar calls to “do what is right and good,” regardless of disapproval or praise. May the shofar summon us to judgment, not in order to be punished, God forbid, but in order to discern our primary purpose in life. May the shofar motivate us to fill the blank pages that lie before us with deeds that give meaning to our personal narrative. Leshanah tovah nikateiv. May we write ourselves into the Book of Life.

* The only Egyptian hieroglyphic discovered to date that references Israel, on the Merneptele stele, has them residing in Canaan, not Goshen.