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D'var Torah: Rosh Hashanah I


In many congregations, the rabbi gives several sermons or divrei torah at the High Holy Days, using the opportunity to address important issues around the Torah reading, pastoral needs, ethical concerns, social justice, Israel, the congregation, the Jewish world, and current political events. But at KI, the rabbi steps aside to accommodate other members who will offer their own commentaries and insights; so in this single d'var torah, I won't be able to address all the issues on the rabbinical agenda. But I'll take a little time at the end to relate a few elements of that agenda to themes I want to uncover in the Torah portion: themes of life and death and of hope.

I'd like to begin by reflecting on the Gevurot prayer, the second blessing of the Amidah, and its relationship to today's Torah reading. In the traditional version of the Gevurot, which appears in the Conservative machzor and siddur, there are no less than four occurrences when we praise God mechayeh hametim, who brings life to the dead. Our Reconstructionist machzor and siddur have changed these passages, instead praising God mechayeh kol chai, who brings life to all that lives.

Personally I have no problem with mechayeh hametim. To me it is an inspiring reminder that the cycles of life continue. This time of year, as the lushness of summer bursts into a final blaze of color, and nearly every plant either dies or at least appears barren and lifeless, it helps me get through the long Michigan winter to know that sooner or later, in March, maybe April, hopefully by May, buds and blossoms will grace the barren oak and maple limbs, and most everything that popped up in my garden this year, from blackeyed Susan and Queen Anne's lace to ragweed and Canada thistle, will be back.

I understand that the same cannot be said of my father and grandparents and great-grandparents, but I also know that I carry some part of them within me—in my genes, in my values, and even in my DNA. And from our prayer of the Thirteen Attributes, I know that the good works of our ancestors lives and is carried on through 2,000 generations.

But for now, I am ready to put these metaphysical speculations aside. Our Reconstructionist machzor praises God mechayeh kol chai, and for the High Holy Days, this is appropriate. For despite the dour reminder that the fate of those unfortunate souls who will die a gruesome death is being written and sealed, at least metaphorically, and despite the notion that Yom Kippur itself is intended to simulate a near-death experience, the High Holy Days at the core are not so much about death; they are, however, very much about life.

Our two Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah share a common motif of the continuity of life, despite the ever-present threat of death. For several chapters prior to our reading, for several decades of narrative time, God repeatedly promised Abraham that he would father a great nation. Yet by their 90th birthdays Abraham remained childless and Sarah was still barren. A desperate attempt to provide the promised line of descent through the Egyptian slave Hagar only created discord and rivalry, and Hagar was twice cast out into the wilderness. And once Abraham finally fathered a child with Sarah, God commanded him to sacrifice the boy. Nonetheless, the Abrahamic line did not die; the prophecy of descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky eventually came to pass. Isaac, for his part, witnessed the axe hovering above him as he lay bound upon the altar, and still he lived to tell the tale and ultimately to father a new generation.

Along the same lines, today's reading follows Hagar and her son Ishmael into the wilderness. Their supplies of water had been exhausted. In the blistering heat Hagar left her son in the so-called shade of a sinewy desert shrub. Then she wept and prayed that she could not bear to face her son's death. Needless to say her own life was in peril as well.

But then what happens? God hears the cries of Ishmael. The text doesn't bother to mention that Ishmael was crying. Still, God hears the cries of Ishmael, who then is rescued and told that he too will father a great nation. As for the courageous and uppity Hagar, the only biblical woman to ascribe a name to God, God opens up her eyes, she sees a well of water, and she and Ishmael are saved to live out their destinies.

The High Holy Days reflect this pattern of last-minute rescue. We are instructed to meditate on what we did this past year that contributed to making us sick, vulnerable, locked in, or out of control. And as we sit in this sanctuary, hour after hour, we are carried through a process of remembering forgotten moments, massaging unhealed wounds, and tapping into a network of inner resources and spiritual companionship that might give us the strength to change if we take full advantage of the opportunity. With high drama of gates that clang shut in our faces in the final minutes, we come out of it reborn to the full potentials of life, mechayeh hametim. We are ready to embrace whatever comes next, to dive deeply and enthusiastically into life, ready to roll up our sleeves and build a makeshift shelter in the back yard, ready to dance ecstatically with the Torah. We return to our work and our volunteer activities with a smiling face and a hopeful heart, unencumbered by the mire of guilt, regret, and unexpressed hurts and apologies, and this cleansed optimistic perspective carries us through the darkest days of winter, when we kindle the life-affirming lights that glow in illuminate the blackness of the solstice.

A key component of this radical re-affirmation of life is the confrontation with death. Like Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac, we stuck a toe into the jaws of death, and then turned around to embrace life. Walking out of the jaws of death is a sublime image. But what inspired it for me couldn't have been more ridiculous; namely an old Tweety-and-Sylvester cartoon. Tweety Bird had to flee from an upper story of a hotel, and Sylvester the puddy tat stood in the elevator shaft, opening his jaws like the elevator door. Tweety calmly entered, pushed the down button, pushed the up button a second later, and emerged from the bowels of the predator chatting with a mouse who thought Jefferson was still president. Like Tweety, those of us who come together at this time are choosing in essence making the choice to press the Up button and return to the light of a good and joyful life.

The past year in our congregation has seen more than its share of severe illness, sometimes afflicting people dear to us in the prime years of their lives. Yet time and again I have witnessed those among us who mustered the moral courage to fight back: first by clearly acknowledging the severity of the decree from their diagnosis; then by refusing to surrender to this decree, and instead choosing life. Choosing life, stepping off the elevator, in this case means keeping a positive attitude to treasure each additional day, to pursue the best medical care and most rigorous personal health discipline, and through the sheer will to live to keep beating the odds, one day at a time. It has been my privilege to work with some of these courageous souls this year, and it has renewed my faith in the work we are doing together at this season.

Still there is no denying the grain of truth in some of the bleakest words of prayer we utter today: some will live and some will die: some by fire and some by water, some by human brutality and some by events beyond human control. Eventually every one of us will celebrate our last Rosh Hashanah; hopefully not for many, many years to come. Yet still it is essential to remember that the inevitability of death is not the same as the loss of hope. As long as there is the next morning to watch the sun rise, the next visit from our dearest loved ones, the next phase of relief in the fluctuating cycles of a debilitating illness, there is reason for hope.

There's a story in the Japanese Zen tradition of a warrior chased by his enemies over a precipice, clutching to a bramble for dear life. If his hand slips or the bramble gets uprooted, he'll crash down into the rocky canyon far below; if he does nothing his enemies will cut him down. Suddenly he notices a plump ripe strawberry within reach of his free hand. He grabs it, pops it into his mouth, and delights at its extraordinary sweetness. This is the secret of hope, not to pray for a miracle, but rather to embrace the miracles that, in the words of our daily prayer, greet us every day and are with us every hour, morning, noon, and night. Those who treasure these daily miracles are the most fit to push back the tide, one day at a time, one breath at a time, sometimes prolonging a life worth living for years or months, sometimes only for a few precious days or minutes. Psalm 27, the Psalm for the Days of Awe, contains the prayer that I might sit in the House of Adonai all the days of my life. For those who live in this way, this prayer comes true.

But sometimes hope wears another face. Last spring before my father died at 92, he had resolved that his work in this life was complete and he was ready to pass on. He had been unceasingly devoted to my mother's happiness and well-being for all the years since her stroke. Now that her medical, financial, and personal well-being were in good hands, he could step back and do what he needed for himself, which was to end his pain and exhaustion. At first there was nothing in his medical chart that could fulfill his wish to die; yet within two months we buried him. While those two months were among the most emotionally wrenching of my life, accompanying him through unbearable anguish and loathing of life, once it was all over and I prayed, meditated, and mourned for him, I felt little grief and much relief. He got what he wanted, he made teshuvah, he had peace. One lesson of this bleak journey was that, whether we choose life or death, hope has extraordinary power to shape our lives. The will that brought my father to his grave is the same will that brought some of you back from affliction to be here today, with a heart full of hope.

Psalm 27 concludes: kavveh el Adonai, chazak v'ya'ametz libecha, v'kaveh el Adonai; literally: Wait patiently yet expectantly for Adonai; be strong and determined in your heart, and wait patiently yet expectantly for Adonai. This word kaveh—to wait patiently yet expectantly—conveys the essence of hope. Kaveh is the root of the word tikvah, and I find it appropriate that the State of Israel uses Hatikvah for its national anthem. Is there a more inspiring model of hope, of patient expectant waiting, than that of the pioneers of this land struggling to fulfill their dream? After sixty years they still wait for the days of perpetual crisis to pass and for full implementation of the ideals of the Declaration of Establishment of the State of Israel: complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex; freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture for all. So long as a Jewish soul still lives within a heart, and so long as an eye gazes longingly to Zion, our hope is not lost, they, and we, shall continue to wait, and to struggle, to realize the dream.

My favorite hope story is about the shlemiel who prayed for a year to win the lottery, until finally a voice bellowed down from the heavens: "Moishe, you gotta meet me halfway; you gotta buy a ticket!" At this time we face some formidable challenges; we need to buy a lot of tickets.

Let me begin with the congregation. With the aging of our long-time members, the passing of a fabled era in KI's history, and the economic challenges facing our families, our community, our state, and our nation, will we be able to sustain the treasure that is Kehillat Israel for the generation to come? Fortunately the tide is turning, and I'm pleased to announce that we have welcomed several new members in the past week. Still, the challenges may require more hours and better use of volunteer time, a willingness to dig deeper into already highly-taxed pockets to keep the roof and boiler intact and the chutzpah to knock on more doors for help, a fuller understanding that community stays together through thick and thin, even if in the short run we're unhappy with some decision, direction, or limitation, and a commitment to keep developing and upgrading leadership skills on the part of your volunteer stewards and, yes, on the part of your rabbi. I intend to rise to the challenges and know that you will do the same. Kavveh el Adonai, chazak v'ya'ametz libecha, v'kaveh el Adonai. We have hope, strength, and courage. We choose life. We will succeed.

I'm especially concerned about maintaining the high level of youth education that has been the hallmark of the KI Religious School since its inception, in the face of the ongoing decline of our school-age population. This year I will exercise leadership on behalf of a solution in the best interest of all the Jewish children of greater Lansing. Kavveh el Adonai, chazak v'ya'ametz libecha, v'kaveh el Adonai. We have hope, strength, and courage. We choose life. We will succeed.

There are no easy answers. We cannot afford to wait until God provides us a spring of water, a ram for the sacrifice, or a miraculous birth in our old age. Rather, as we strengthen our hope through prayer, inner spiritual work, and mutual support, we can meet the source of hope halfway; not only by buying a block of lottery tickets but, if necessary, even by staging our own lottery. Kavveh el Adonai, chazak v'ya'ametz libecha, v'kaveh el Adonai. We have hope, strength, and courage. We choose life. We will succeed.

Beyond the challenges facing our community, my concerns extend to the direction of our country in this time of war, economic crisis, and elections. It has distressed me greatly, as problems have grown increasingly complex and multifaceted, that our national political discourse, view of other nations, attitudes around war and peace, and approaches to problem solving have grown increasingly simplistic, based upon slogans, sound-bites, and appeals to our basest emotions. The time has come to evoke the model of our ancient rabbis. They crafted a Judaism that survived 2,000 years of exile on a foundation of subtle talmudic dialectics and loving attention to minute detail, not on a push to win votes, increase ratings, or gain market share. Over the years, I have heard from a number of you that political affairs do not belong in the synagogue. But I firmly believe it is my responsibility as a Jewish religious leader to raise issues of concern to our community, and to make sure that the legacy of our tradition be brought to bear where it is desperately needed. It's that sense of responsibility that prompts me to speak out at this time: when my great hope is that an America bloated by power and superficial pursuits can learn the lesson of a tiny people that has endured for over 3,000 years on the strength of its measured discourse, its commitment to justice, and its willingness to confront and learn from its own shortcomings. Kavveh el Adonai, chazak v'ya'ametz libecha, v'kaveh el Adonai. We will succeed.

We Jews have been holding on to hope ever since Abraham was promised to father a great nation. Like our half-brother Ishmael, we have opened the gates of heaven through our tears. We've faced many challenges, and even though God's face seems to have been hidden from us for most of these 3,000 years, still Am Yisrael Chai—we still live, we still flourish, we have arrived at another new year, a year full of potential for personal and communal joy, health, well-being, and peace. And so I invite you to join with me in a prayer of thanksgiving that our bodies carry the gift of life, that we have been sustained and kept strong, and that we have arrived together at this wonderful place and time, so rich in possibility for transformation, so ready to fulfill our hope: Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha'olam shehecheyanu v'kiyamanu v'higi'anu lazman hazeh.

— Rabbi Michael Zimmerman
October 2008





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