Rosh Hashanah Day 1

  1. L’shana Tova U’metuka – I wish everyone a good and sweet New Year.
  1. I want to begin by welcoming everyone home. We come from many different places but here we are all home. We may have last been in a synagogue yesterday, last Shabbat, last month, at the end of last season or perhaps we have not been in a synagogue since last year. But I welcome everyone. I welcome those who may be coming to synagogue for the first time in many years. I welcome those of you who are young, and those who are old and all those of ages in between. I welcome those who will be here only three days and those who will join us only for three hours.  I welcome you to synagogue if you have doubts about why you are here, about why you should pray and if you have doubts about God. I welcome to synagogue today both saints and sinners, both scholars and novices and even those who are not sure why they are here but their presence in shul today makes someone they love happy. Look around you. The people sitting next to you, behind you, in front of you, are not really all that different from you. So take a moment to say hello and since we will be together for these holidays, introduce yourself and your family so that for these days we can all be sitting with friends.
  1. I want to begin with a story, one of my favorite stories, of a man named Itzik who lived in Cracow. One night he had a dream, a castle, a river and a bridge. The voice said to him: “Itzik, the river is the Danube, the castle is in Budapest and under the bridge is a treasure that is waiting for you….. (Tell story)
  1. The reason I like to tell this story is because it has a moral, a teaching that we learn from Itzik and his dreams. The moral of the story is: The treasure is in Cracow but knowledge of the treasure is in Budapest.”  Sometimes, in order to know the treasure that we have, we have to travel far and wide to realize its value and to appreciate its place in our life.
  1. I am guessing that our experience of the High Holy Days is probably off to a rocky start. From the moment we arrived, took our seats and picked up the Machzor, we probably started wondering, “What we are doing here?” This book, this Machzor, for most of us, is very strange. The prayers it contains are long and complicated and often it is not clear what these prayers are trying to say. Even if we have come to shul all our lives, this service would still be filled with words that are unfamiliar and prayers that are difficult to understand. Rosh Hashana is not just another service at the synagogue. It is a pageant, a performance and a ritual that places each of us as the central character and the prayers we recite call to each of us in unique and different ways.
  1.  But, for the experienced davener and the novice alike, this prayer book, this Machzor, is filled with much that instills within us feelings that are not always so pleasant. Some of us may be confused by the long Hebrew passages that are between familiar prayers. Some of us may be angry at the rampant sexism and nationalism that fills these pages. Some of us may be doubtful that a God who seems to depend so much on praise might have some kind of an influence in our lives, and some may find the words of prayers downright disturbing, and we may wonder, “if there is a God that could do all these terrible things, then why would I want to pray to that God?”
  1. So a few comments as I begin. First of all, we are not the first Jews in history to have these problems; some of these prayers have been the source for many questions and concerns over hundreds of years. For a time, Jews were afraid to ask the difficult questions about prayer and they were afraid to change the Machzor since the prayers within the book seemed so old and were considered to be an inheritance from our ancestors. But Jews of old were not so different from us Jews who live in the here and now. We ask the same question, if our ancestors could find meaning in these old prayers, why are these prayers so difficult for us?
  1. Rabbi Morris Silverman, and the committee that authored our Machzor, had to make many difficult decisions. The minutes of their meetings tell us that most of the time the committee opted to keep the prayers in their original Hebrew but changed the translations so that they would be more palatable for modern Jews. The first edition of this book was published in the 1940’s, before we understood the horror of the Holocaust and before we experienced the establishment of the State of Israel. It was reprinted in 1951, a world in which genders were carefully defined, divorce was still a shanda and nobody dared to talk about child abuse, civil rights and religious freedom. The great fear was atomic war, not terrorism or rogue states.
  1. But all the style and historical issues aside, we come to shul and we want to pray. But these High Holy Day prayers in the Machzor seem so problematic. Even the most iconic prayers for Rosh Hashana, make us at best, a bit queasy, and at most, very uncomfortable with what the prayers say and how they say them. Some of us have been saying these prayers for so many years that we really don’t look at them anymore. But it is not enough to chant the words we pray, they are supposed to become engraved in our hearts. When we take a good hard look at these prayers, we find ourselves starting to become unsure about if we want these words so engraved.
  1. There are many examples. We can start with the Unetane Tokef which we will recite in just a few more minutes. Our Musaf service today and tomorrow features a prayer teaching us that on these days, God decides who shall live and who shall die. Is this decision really set at the beginning of the year? For the rest of the year are we just playing out the fate that has been determined over the next ten days? And then it tells us that Teshuva, Tzedaka and Tephilla can avert God’s severe decree. Does this mean that if tragedy and sorrow visit our homes, that we did not pray enough? We didn’t repent enough? We didn’t give enough to Tzedaka?
  1. One of my colleagues had these issues rise right to the front of his mind one Rosh Hashana as he looked out at his congregation and saw an 11 year old girl, sitting near the front, whose mother was dying of metatastic breast cancer. What does this little girl experience when she recites this prayer? Will she go home thinking that all the efforts of doctors and family will be of no avail, that her mother’s fate has already been determined? And when her mother died the next week what did that little girl think? Did she learn from Unetane Tokef that perhaps she didn’t pray hard enough? Perhaps she was not sincere in her repentance? Perhaps she should have given more Tzedaka?  Unetane Tokef is one of the central prayers in our Machzor. How do we answer this little girl’s questions and how do we answer our own questions?
  1. Take a look at Avinu Malkeynu. Do we really envision God as a king, sitting on a throne up in heaven? Is God that old man in heaven deciding who will be granted pardon or not? Sometimes I think we look at God as some kind of a divine Santa Claus, whose job it is to grant the wishes on our list. The list of prayers that make up Avinu Malkeynu imply that God is arbitrary with God’s bounty. And then, who elected God to be the King of the Universe? Shouldn’t God be like a President rather then a King? And what is this about God being male? What if God is female? Or if God has no gender at all? Why is this prayer so medieval and so sexist?
  1. On Yom Kippur we will recite the Al Het, the list of 44 sins for which we repent. But what if we didn’t do all these sins? Why should I feel guilty about the sins of other people? What is this guilt thing that the Machzor wants to place upon me and that I have to literally beat myself up over things I don’t think I have ever been guilty of?
  1. And finally, there is Kol Nidre. The prayer that people come from high and low to hear. Hearing the Hazan sing the words can bring us to tears. We really want it to mean something, but the words read more like a contract then a prayer. Does this prayer get us off the hook for promises that we have made, or promises that we will make in the year ahead? Does this prayer imply that Jews don’t keep their promises? Whatever it may have meant to Jews living in Spain and Turkey, what meaning is it supposed to have for us, that we should gather by the thousands to hear Kol Nidre chanted each year?
  1. When we sit in our seats and open our Machzor, we find ourselves standing at the gates of prayer. What we find before us, as we enter the gate  – we find that we are confronted with a maze. We try to navigate the maze but all too soon, we find ourselves lost, alone and maybe angry. Where are the directions, where are we supposed to go, when are we supposed to stand and when do we sit? What page number are we on? Where do we buy a Machzor GPS to help us navigate through the maze?
  1. When we look in the Machzor and we say we are lost, we are not referring to the television show that ended last season. Although for some of us, prayer leaves us as confused as the famous last episode of LOST.  If we are to find our way, we first have to ask, “What do we usually do when we feel lost? What do we usually do to find our way home?”
  1. There are several options. We might try to return to the last place where we were sure of our location. That strategy does not work so well in the spiritual world. We cannot grow if we keep going back to the place we feel secure and comfortable. Growth is only possible when we move forward. Another strategy to use if we are lost could be to just sit down and wait for someone to find us. This strategy, however, also does not work in the world of prayer; it is possible to wait all of our lives and still not be sure of which way to go in prayer.
  1. When we are lost in prayer, the best  thing that we can do is to continue to explore the uncharted territory around us. There will be lots of things that are unfamiliar and perhaps we will make some mistakes along the way, but eventually, if we don’t give up, we can find ourselves at home in a new world, a world that gives us a deeper understanding of who we are and where we want to go in life.  Instead of feeling lost, we should see our time in the Machzor as an adventure and use that time to explore the uncharted wilderness, and discover for ourselves what prayer has to teach us.
  1.  What happens when we feel alone in the maze of prayer? We are, after all, Americans. We are trained from an early age to be loners. We idolize John Wayne, Sylvester Stallone and maybe Kevin Costner. If we are to make our way through life, and through prayer, we feel like we want to do it all by ourselves. All we should need to find our way should be talent and ingenuity. These should help us  to get through whatever life throws our way. Judaism, however, sees life differently. We live in a community. We pray with a minyan. What is good for the community, Judaism tells us, is good for our self. Selfishness is not a part of our faith.
  1. Judaism understands that there are many different ways to pray and our religion does not require us to offer only verbal prayer. When the great modern philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel walked with Martin Luther King Jr. for civil rights in Selma, Alabama, he said of that day that he felt like he was praying with his feet.  When people run to help others, when they comfort the mourners and visit the sick, when they go out of their way to help a neighbor and they take someone who does not drive to the doctor, to the grocery store and to synagogue. These are people who pray with their feet.
  1. And there are many other ways that Judaism allows us to pray. When we give money to those in need, when we give clothing to the poor, or even if we don’t have something to give, if we “only” give our friendship and our support, we are praying with our hands. When we lend someone who is unsure on their feet, our arms in support, or when we feed someone who can no longer feed themselves, our hands become our prayer.
  1. And when we speak up for Israel or when we protest against hatred and bigotry, when we object to injustice and demand civil rights, when we inspire others to share their ideas to help make the world a better place for everyone, this is how we pray with our minds and our ideas.  Over the course of a year, over the course of a lifetime, Every Jew prays in a way that is unique and right for whatever the situation may be.  At different times in our life we will discover that sometimes we will pray with words, sometimes we will pray with our feet,  sometimes we will pray with our hands and sometimes we will need speak to God through our ideas. As long as we can share our prayers, we will never be alone
  1. What if the maze of prayer makes us angry, what should we do? Again, we ask ourselves, what do we usually do when we are angry? Do we yell, complain or throw things around? I guess you can do all those things but I don’t think that they will change the world or our soul very much, throwing things will not help us find our way. Psychologists tell us that when we are angry, we should begin to ask questions, because collecting information helps stop the bad feelings and puts us back in control of our lives.
  1. If prayer makes us angry, we need to ask some good questions and make a serious effort to seek the answers. Judaism is centered on study and study is considered a form of prayer. We find in the Talmud the question, “What should one do if one is studying Deuteronomy in the Torah and then suddenly realized that it is time to recite the Shema? Do we need to stop and say the Shema, or does our study of the text count as praying?” The Talmud maintains that study does indeed count as prayer.
  1. The late Chancellor of the Seminary, Rabbi Louis Finkelstein used to teach that when he prayed, he talked to God, and when he studied, God spoke to him. We may not always know the right questions to ask and we may not always get an immediate answer, but there is comfort in knowing that we asked good questions. In Judaism, we are taught never to study alone. We are to study in Hevruta, with study partners.  When we share ideas and issues with our partners, only then can we enrich each others learning. And, by the way, there is no law in Judaism that when we are praying, everyone has to be on the same page. What is important when we pray is to encounter our prayers, not keep up with everyone else. When we pray, we don’t have to leave any page until we have contemplated it enough and are ready to move on.
1.       How then, should we understand the prayers in our Machzor that are so problematic? In the case of Unetane Tokef, as much as we like to be in control of our lives, sometimes life gets us anyway, with or without Teshuva, Tzedaka and Tephilla.  There are times that these three may strengthen us when disaster happens, but Teshuva, Tzedaka and Tephilla don’t stop the worst from happening. Additionally, as far as the claim in Unetane Tokef that only God knows who will live and who will die, in our modern world we human beings now have the machinery and the technology to keep human beings alive for months if not years. Sometimes we are the ones, looking at a loved one hooked up to that machine and we have to make the decision, should life go on or should our parent, spouse, or, God forbid, our child  be allowed to die? Perhaps Unetane Tokef should be our reminder that life and death decisions are not easy decisions. What if Unetane Tokef is telling us that we need to make our wishes about life and death known to our family. The prayer reminds us that we need to write a living will, set medical proxies and let our family know when we will want to live and when we should be allowed to die. It is important that our paperwork on these life and death decision is in order. If they are not in order, Unetane Tokef reminds us that after the holiday, we need to address these important questions.
  1. In the case of Avinu Malkeynu, The prayer does not have to be sexist. We can look at God, not as our father, but as our parent and we are children of the Divine ruler. Like a parent, perhaps God cannot help us out of all our troubles no matter how much we pray, beg or plead. Perhaps all we can expect from our parents is to hold us when we are afraid and comfort us when we are broken until we are healed. If Avinu Malkenu can do that, then it will have a lasting impact throughout the year.
  1. What about Al Het? We may not like the fact that we are made to feel guilty for sins we have not transgressed, but in a Jewish community, we are all responsible for each other. We can’t drill a hole in the bottom of the boat and tell the others with us that they don’t need to pay attention to our actions; after all we are only drilling under our own seat! It may be unfair when someone else sins and our stock portfolio goes down, but if we chose to close our eyes to the abuses around us, we all will suffer the penalties that are the consequences of our refusing to care.
  1.  Finally, Kol Nidre has never been about the words. It has always been about the music. Music that has transcended time and location. For centuries we have understood the words to refer not to promises made to other human beings but promises made to God.  Promises to God, however are the most important promises of all, so we should think carefully about what we promise God in our moments of weakness and then, when we do make a promise to God, we should use the commitments we make to sharpen our willpower and strengthen our resolve.
  1. We should not be surprised that if we who are here only three days a year find ourselves confused by our Machzor. Only if we are prepared to put some time and effort into our prayers, can we learn to feel better about the words we pray and the about the God whom we address.  Practicing prayer, studying prayer, experiencing prayer will get easier, better and will have more meaning if we perform our spiritual exercises in our synagogue. The Machzor calls us to make this year count. To make it count by growing, each day, in our ability to pray.
  1. There is a great story of a Rabbi and a soap-maker taking a walk in the shtetl. The soap-maker says, “I don’t get it Rabbi, The Siddur has been around for hundreds of years and the world is still not a better place than it was before. The Rabbi pointed to a very dirty boy playing in the street. “I don’t get this either, said the Rabbi, how come, after all the soap that is manufactured in the world, this little boy is still so dirty.” The soap-maker replied, “That is not fair, the boy cannot become clean unless he uses the soap.” The rabbi agreed and responded, “and so it is with the siddur, it is only good if people will use it.”
  1. In Itzik’s dream, the river is a metaphor for life, the castle represents Torah and the bridge is the synagogue. The treasure of spirituality, of holiness, of prayer, is with us, close at hand, wherever we go and no matter what we may do.  But knowledge of the treasure is found right here in the synagogue. It is found when we dig into the resources of this prayer community. When we gather here to study, when we gather here to pray and when we gather here to celebrate a new year that is beginning. Let us resolve to spend the New Year learning together, sharing life together and helping each other discover the treasure that lies right under our nose. Let us discover God within our souls by visiting our spiritual home, where knowledge of God can always be found.
May we draw closer to God each day as we study and pray as a community and may the New Year bring us the health, the wisdom and the faith we will need to find our way through the world of prayer as we say. ..

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