Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777
Rabbi Laila Haas
As the sun has now set on the past year, the anticipation of a new year builds within us. New opportunities, new accomplishments, new chances, and new blessings, all await us as we accept the gift of another year. On the Eve of Rosh Hashanah, we take time to reflect on the state of our souls. Did we devote enough time to the well-being of our spirit? Did we engage ourselves in acts of loving kindness? We take time to reflect on our relationship with God, with our fellow man, and with our world.
On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the work of creation. When God created this world, He did so in a beautifully choreographed movement. Through His speech the world came to be; every detail, Divine. After each day of creation, God reflected on all the work that He had done. He created a place of harmony, love and mutual respect. And God said, “Ki Tov“, this is good.
And yet, the world seems to be a tough and angry place. We have strayed so far from creation. Many of us are hurting. Many are afraid. Some feel lost and adrift. We are concerned about the state of affairs of our world, our communities, and our relationships. On this Erev Rosh Hashanah, as we anticipate our new journey, we enter this holy dwelling place, seeking God’s wisdom.
From where can we draw the strength to move us through this valley of fear and uncertainty to a place of redemption and hope?
Time and again our people have found themselves in this same place; seeking wholeness in a broken world. The pages of our Torah and the chapters of our historical narrative familiarize us with our ancestral journey from fear to faith, from the realm of the unknown to the land of promise. The Israelites fled the harshness of Egypt, a place of bondage, and found themselves free from the grip of Pharaoh. As soon as they took their first step upon the sand of freedom, they exchanged one fear for another. They became enslaved to their own fear of the unknown. They did not know what redemption would bring.
Then our ancestors experienced miracles and began to learn about God, an all knowing, compassionate God. A God who heard their cries. God championed Moses to lead them to a place of promise. Then our people stood at the base of Mount Sinai. While Moses, was atop the mountain preparing to bring down God’s Torah, the Israelites allowed fear once again to lead them astray and they built the golden calf. But it was faith that brought them back to the base of the mountain and they accepted the gift of Torah with an open heart.
It was in that moment, that an unbreakable chain of tradition was formed; linking every generation, you and me, to that moment of revelation at Sinai. It is the strength of that chain that empowers us. Our ancestors did not know where their path would lead them; they were uncertain of the scope of danger, and fearful of what they would encounter. It was on their journey that they developed a faith walk—learning as they traveled that their path would twist and turn but at the core would be a strength that would forever sustain them. As a result of their experience, they discovered what it meant to live with faith.
Faith is not the starting point of a journey, it is the feeling that develops and evolves as we traverse the multiple terrains of life. It is in the moments of awe and wonder; the moment when God suddenly feels close that we begin to understand the depths and meaning of our own faith.
“Be strong and courageous” our Torah teaches, “do not be afraid or terrified, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” From the book of Proverbs, we learn, as we travel our life journey, we will fall seven times, but we get up. It is not in the fall that we find ourselves, it is in the rising up. We gather our strength, we are put together by our courage, we are empowered by our conviction and we are led by our faith. Trust in your faith.
We do not dwell in the valley of death, in the valley of fear or in the valley of uncertainty. We rise, we walk through these valleys towards hope, and promise. Tonight, the first night of this New Year, let us look within ourselves and say “I am going to take the first step of my faith walk tonight”.
We do not walk alone. Sometimes we hesitate to reach out to others when we find ourselves lost or afraid. The feeling of vulnerability can be overwhelming and uncertainty prevents us from moving forward. It is in those moments when the support and encouragement of others can be transformative. When we feel comfortable to remove our masks and reveal our true selves; that is when we create authentic relationships and build a stronger community.
“We are born for community”, our sages taught. Communities around our country are struggling. The images on television show violence in our streets. There is so much senseless death and injustice. Civilized discourse is hard to find. Anger has replaced joy. We are scared. We are afraid of what tomorrow will bring. We are angry because of what yesterday has denied. We find strength to overcome those fears when we open ourselves up to others and chart a course towards understanding and love.
As members of Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, we have an obligation to repair the world; repair our communities, repair our relationships, and repair ourselves. It is our responsibility and we own it. It is taught that within all of us is a yetzer tov, and a yetzer rah. An inclination to do good and an inclination to do evil. God bestowed within us the ability to choose whether we will be guided by the pursuit to do good or seek to do evil.
Our yetzer tov, our inclination to do good, grants us the strength to come together in love and in fellowship to make a difference in this world. Joy has the power to diminish the impact of fear within our communities. Building bridges of hope and understanding will bring a sense of shleimut, wholeness, to our fractured world.
Wholeness, though, does not mean that every piece fits perfectly back together again. The Kabbalists, the mystics of our tradition, explain that in preparation for creation, God contracted the divine self to make room for the creation of the world. His Divine light became contained in special vessels. The Divine light was so intense that it burst forth, shattering the vessel into millions of shards. That is the origin of “tikkun olam”, the concept literally means, we are to work together as a community, relying on others, to help bring each piece of those holy shards back together again.
If you have ever been to the site of an archaeological dig, the most incredible part, is watching the archaeologist piece together the ancient pottery shards found beneath layers of earth. Each discovered piece is glued together, as the vessel begins to take shape. But not every piece is present. After a certain period of time and depending on the history of the vessel, the archaeologist will fill in the holes with new pieces of pottery, to hold the shape of the vessel so it can be displayed and studied. Those pieces mixed with the original ones are significant as they make it possible for the vessel to be restored to its original design.
As we work to bring wholeness to splintered communities, to broken hearts and to fractured relationships; we add our own pieces to the overall shape of the world that we are working to create. Yes, there is brokenness in our world. Yes, there is distrust and fear in our world. There is an incredible amount of good, love, and kindness that exist too. People do good each day to enhance the quality of life for people they do not even know. We cannot lose sight of that. We cannot diminish the power we have to transform the circumstance in which we currently find ourselves. Each of our strengths, our gifts, and our intentions for good serve as those pieces used to fill in the original design that God created.
As your rabbi, I am proud of all that you do to help better the lives of others by the causes you support, the mitzvot you engage in and the lessons you teach your children about humility, and respect. I am proud of our congregation, Temple Emanu-El, as we are actively engaged in helping to transform the lives of people in our community and the community at large. Remember this week to bring food to fill the shelves of our local food pantries, and help feed families who are in need. Contribute to our 10-day campaign, those dollars will go directly to organizations whose mission, is to better the lives of the people they serve.
I love seeing our children raising awareness for projects that are important to them, and giving back to their community as they prepare to become Bar and Bat Mitzvah. A few months ago I received a letter from one of our children, a 6-year-old girl. Inside the envelope was $14.00 and a note: “Rabbi Haas, this money is from my tzedakah box. I raised it selling dreidels at my dreidel stand. Please give it to someone who needs food, clothes and water. You’ll know who they are.” Next to her words, was a picture she drew of two people hugging with the biggest smiles on their faces. This simple act of kindness and tzedakah, is a precious reminder of the joy we can bring to this world when we reach out to help others.
This year, as we begin a new, take the time to build new relationships, and engage intentionally with our community. You will find it to be meaningful. As we deepen our connections with each other, you will find that your spirit will reap great reward. When we break down the barriers that divide us, we will grow in understanding and tolerance. When we open ourselves up to others, we will be led by joy and not by fear. When we rely on one another, care for one another, nurture one another and sustain one another, not only will we find strength, we will help to create it for others. As we begin this new year, together we will walk upright through this valley of fear and uncertainty.
When we conclude a book of Torah, we say the words: Chazak, Chazak, V’nitzchazek, meaning: be strong, be strong and strengthen one another. Be strong, and lift ourselves up. Be strong, and reach out to help others. Strengthen one another; so we are motivated not by our fears, rather, by our responsibility to help bring this world back together again.
Esa Einai, El Heharim, Meayin Ya vo Ezri?
I lift my eyes to the mountains, what is the Source of my help?
My help, comes from Adonai, Maker of Heaven and Earth.
Every morning we are offered the opportunity to partner with God in the work of creation. Our tradition teaches, every new day brings with it the opportunity to create the world anew and renew ourselves. To have the opportunity each day to begin again, empowers us and propels us forward even when we find ourselves lost and afraid. When we are in place of uncertainty, unable to find a lit path to guide us forward; knowing that we can begin again, and that God is there waiting for us, encourages us even when the destination seems too distant to reach. Every new beginning carries with it its own set of unknowns and uncertainty. There is risk anytime we venture into the realm of something new. We cannot know if there are pitfalls. We cannot anticipate every bump, twist or turn. It takes faith to accept the gift of a new year and the opportunity to begin again.
“This is what the LORD says— he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; “say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear. I have summoned you by name. You, all of you, Israel, are mine.”
When God created us, man and woman, He breathed into our nostrils and from His spirit gave us life, gave us purpose, gave us meaning. God brought us to life with an intimacy that modeled the close connection we would share with Him from that moment forward. God granted us the ability to know and understand, the ability to discern, and the ability to imagine. God fashioned within us a soul, distinguishing one person from the next. Placed within us a heart; an organ devoted to love—that we might know and experience love—as it flows through every part of our being.
We were created with such intentionality, every part of us a result of a Divine blue print. It is humbling to think that our body, our heart, our soul, our spirit are all gifts from God. He created us, fashioned us, breathed life into us—all of us. All of us created together. Created as one humanity, with one destiny, to bring God’s Kingdom to the world. God created us with the intention to pursue His work on earth and to bring about the glory of God in the communities in which we live. The relationship we share is mutual, God depends on us, as we depend on God.
The High Holy day liturgy reminds us of this sacred covenant, describing our relationship with God: we are your people, you are our King, we are your children, you are our Father, we are your flock, you are our Shepherd, we are your beloved; you are our friend. Trust in your God, for God’s steadfast love is eternal.
For centuries the words of the 23rd psalm, have been spoken by our people when fear inhabits the heart, when pain and loss assail us, or when the desire to feel God’s presence is needed most. They are words that provide comfort and strength to the those who speak them.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil: for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life:
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears.
O God, shepherd us into this New Year 5777.
As we begin our journey, we ask that you illuminate its pathways with your Divine light. When we come upon the valleys, be with us. When we rise and ascend great heights, rejoice with us. As we take the first steps of our faith walk tonight may we be inspired by Your will and walk towards wholeness and hope. As we partner with You, O God, in creating this world, may we have the great blessing of saying, Ki Tov, this is good!
May it be a year of joy and peace for us and for our world. Amen. Shanah Tovah.