Sermon: Rosh Hashanah 10/2/16
The “New Year” is a movable thing, even in our culture. What we consider the New Year on the calendar begins January 1st, but schools begin their new year in September, as does our church. In the Jewish tradition, they also have different versions of a new year, but Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of their calendar year (year 5777, if you’d like to know). The name Rosh Hashanah, however, does not mean “the new year,” nor “the beginning of the year,” but “the head of the year,” the time when all things, our feelings, our fortunes, and our fate comes to a head and are invigorated with new life.
The biblical name for this holiday is Yom Teruah, literally, “day of shouting/blasting,” sometimes translated as the Feast of Trumpets. As you heard in the readings, two of the largest themes are God the King, and Judgement. In synagogue, they will read Genesis 21, the story of Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac, their son, with whom God tested Abaram’s faith. I’d love to tell you all about the holiday, but it’s very intricate, with so many aspects that I’ll have to keep to the essence of it for our purposes.
Rosh Hashanah begins a ten day period of examining the life that one has lived over the course of the past year, and articulating hopes and prayers for the year ahead. After the ten days is over, Jews will celebrate Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Rabbi Irving Greenburg beautifully pronounced the difference between these two holidays when he said, “Rosh Hashanah is a day of judgment with mercy and Yom Kippur is a day of mercy with judgment.”
I thought about that for a while after I read it. Rosh Hashanah, judgment with mercy, is when we take stock of ourselves, and the judgment is our own. After some reflection, surely all of us will come up with a few instances we can think of when we could have and should have done better, when we missed something important, didn’t do something that, looking back on it, would have really made a difference. And for those things, if we have a conscience and are properly self-reflective, we are sorry.
And Yom Kippur, “mercy with judgment,” well, that’s when we bring all that sorry and put it at the feet of the Universe and say, “have mercy,” before God, Goddess, the Great Spirit, or the Karma of the Universe that will judge what was in our hearts when we went astray from our path.
As Unitarians with diverse beliefs, not too many of us hold with the concept of “sin,” or having to be forgiven by some supreme being for those we commit. (Of course if you were raised Catholic like me you might always have it in the back of your head that you need to confess all the sins you still feel guilty for.) If we don’t believe that the Bible, or the Torah or the Koran, is the end-all and be-all guide to how we live our lives, then “sin” becomes a murky thing. What we do know, as humans and Unitarians, is the concept of right and wrong. We don’t need anyone to tell us that it is right to be compassionate, or not to kill or steal. Any maybe some of our perceptions of right and wrong differ, but that doesn’t really matter here. Because Rosh Hashanah is about looking back at our actions over the course of the last year, with our own conscience looking over our shoulder…and in our hearts we know what we’ve done or haven’t done that we regret, and wish we could change.
This is a good time for a new year, and our seasons support this change. It makes more sense to me, that we should go into the new year just after the world has given birth to a harvest, and humans are preparing for winter. Isn’t this the perfect time to gather all your courage, take stock of both your accomplishments and your failures, and wipe the slate clean to begin again, to get it all out into the light, while it remains, and let it go? It feels right to self-reflect, and make resolutions now, to gird yourself with renewed strength, before the dark descends, and our strength is tested in the cold.
No one likes to admit they’re wrong or that they’ve done harm, at least in public. But Rosh Hashanah isn’t about admitting anything in public, it’s about the private struggle we have within ourselves to make things right. That can be making it right with God, making it right with the Universe or just making it right within our own conscience, I think it’s much the same thing. The work to make it right is what counts. And the Jews are really good at this…their liturgical year is almost a series of rites of passage that take place every year, that guides their soul through the seasons. Marking the changes within themselves and the world around them, binds them together with deep faith and trust, which transcends the mundane world and works directly with the Divine.
And the blowing of shofar is something that is supposed to be transcendent, a tool that lets all the expressions of regret, joy, longing, loss, and renewal be released into the world. Lubavitcher Rebbe says, “We each have times when there is more than we can say, when words cannot communicate the feelings that we have in our heart.” That’s why we blow the shofar today, to say what we can’t possibly say.
Rebbe goes on to say, “Everyone feels special about the High Holidays – “Days of Awe.” The feelings that we experience are our souls’ natural response to the heightened spiritual climate of the times.
The Torah commands us to give expression to the upsurge of these feelings, to call out from the depths of our soul, tapping the essential spark of G‑d that lies at the heart of our beings. Unspoken, above thought, this call resounds in the piercing sound of the shofar.
“Wake you sleepy ones,” ancient Sephardic philosopher Maimonides tells us the shofar is saying. “You who slumber… and forget the truth in the vanities of time. Look to your souls.”
The simple, artless call of the shofar reflects the inner outcry of a Jew’s deepest spiritual potentials. The shofar’s call is not an intellectual statement. Like feelings that are so powerful they cannot be expressed in words, the shofar communicates a message too intense to verbalize. Within the depths of our hearts lies an unlimited spiritual potential; the very core of our being is our Divine soul, an “actual part of G‑d from above.” This potential cannot be grasped in conscious thought, for it is unlimited and unbounded as is G‑d Himself.”
I love this imagery…using the shofar to send all those powerful feelings out into the universe…too intense to verbalize. I think we can relate to that. And I think there are plenty of times when intellectual statements just don’t give us what we need, spiritually, especially in a denomination like ours who likes to call reason and intellect to the table as much as mystery and/or divinity. But it’s the same reason we love to hear Randy play, and we sit here through the postlude; we are drawn to that which soothes our soul, but words do no justice to. That’s when we feel the real effects of the growth of our being, I think: in the sound of trumpets, in the music, in the quiet…but rarely in the intellectualizing.
Judaism is one of our “sources” as Unitarians, but I want to make it clear that we are not trying here today to culturally appropriate anything or diminish their beliefs in any way by our quite possibly clumsy interpretations of one of their deeply spiritual High Holy Days. I think that their long history and traditions have a lot to offer us as Unitarians; for reflection and inspiration, but also for the symbolism and rituals that mark life’s passages in their liturgical year.
As a Pagan, (and Pagans are notorious cultural appropriators), many of the rituals of Judaism fit right in with the personal rituals of change that we perform, and they can be powerful tools for soul work. So I want to respectfully appropriate two of the best elements of Rosh Hashanah: the shofar, and another practice called Tashlich.
So, I hope you’ve started thinking about all your “sins” because I’d like us all to take part in a double ritual; one that takes place together, and one that we do alone, loosely according to Jewish tradition, but with our own flair. At the end of this sermon I will ask for a moment of silence for you to gather your thoughts, just a beginning, concerning what you might have done in the past year that weighs on your soul. Even beginning this work can be beyond words, so after a moment of reflection, Neil will sound the shofar three times. And I while he blows the shofar, I’d like you to think about all of the past regrets and mistakes being blown away by the mercy of a universe that, for some reason, seems to want us to succeed and to be a force of good in our world.
And then, when you go home… Tashlich. think harder, think about what has shaped who you are, what kind of person you want to be, and how you might accomplish that in some small measure over the year to come. This is traditionally done on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, so if you want to make this part of your spiritual practice today, that’s great, but if you want to take a few days, I think that’s ok too. So you take a piece of bread (and I just happen to have a challah bread up here, which I have blessed) and put it in your pocket or hold it in your hand while you think about the past, your regrets, and what you wish you could change. And you put all your guilt about it in the bread, ask for mercy from the universe, and toss the bread in “living waters,” which can be an ocean, river, or stream…anywhere water moves and renews itself.
This seems like a simple and perfect way to symbolically clean our slate for the year to come, and I’ve already decided that I’m going to boost the symbolism for myself by pulling over on Fish Island on my way home, walking to the just the right spot on the bridge, and tossing my bread into the water so the current pulls it under the bridge. Maybe I’ll bring my own horn to blast a good one into the harbor for all the things I can’t verbalize. You can call such rituals silly, or superstitious, but I’ve found that intention, and action, even if it’s only symbolic, brings us one step closer to our goals, and feels like progress. It’s soul work, and it works when you work it, however that may be.
On this Rosh Hashana, the head of the year, may we find the strength to be honest with ourselves, face our fears and failures, make amends in our hearts, think about what we can do to be better people in the year to come, and cast off our guilt into the flowing waters, that they may be carried away, leaving us renewed and invigorated as we enter the new year.
We will end with a moment of silent contemplation, then Neil will do us the honor of blowing the shofar.