(Sermon delivered on First Day of Rosh Hashana 5779, Sept 10, 2018)
These days of awe, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, are truly the most exciting days of the year for me. Everything seems magical. We’re in a different prayer space; everything is covered in white; the melodies are familiar, comforting and haunting. More than any other day, today the memories of past High Holidays come flooding back. I feel nostalgic. I miss some of those past years. And I also feel tremendously blessed.
I think I can remember every Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur since I was five or six years old. I remember the places the services were held in, the rabbis and cantors who led the services, the books we used, some of the foods we ate, and interesting, unexpected events that occurred each year – like the time a flame shot out of the ceiling and the synagogue had to be evacuated right in the middle of the Rosh Hashana evening service. That was in 1994, in Skokie Illinois. The Gabbai of the shul panicked. Red in the face, he climbed on top of a table and screamed, “everybody remain calm!” The Torahs were all taken outside. Fire trucks came. And we were allowed back in, and were able to continue the service about an hour later.
I’ve spent High Holidays in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Illinois, Jerusalem, Sderot, Bnei Brak, Ḥatzrot Yassaf, Kibbutz Bror Ḥayil, Netanya, Gothenburg Sweden, and here. Each year, Rosh Hashana is more special than the previous year’s because I consciously try to take those memories and bring some of those details to the new Rosh Hashana. So I’m not just remembering, I’m reviving the memories.
In general, I find that as I grow older I become more and more nostalgic for the ways things once were, and bemoan those things which are disappearing. You might share many of these sentiments. How many of your school-aged children or grandchildren are still taught cursive in school? I cherish every hand-written gift or card I get, and cherish the time it takes me to pen cards and letters to family and friends. I type much faster than I write by hand, but handwritten letters have a certain ‘neshama’ that typed ones don’t. When schools supply students with laptops and tablet computers and ask me to sign a waiver relieving my child’s school of liability in the event that my child accesses inappropriate content on that school-issued device during class, I think back to my years in school when we weren’t even allowed to bring with us a simple calculator. Recently I’ve started to listen to music on LPs again. The music, with a little crackling or other unintended artifacts here and there, has a ‘neshama’ that playing an MP3 file downloaded from the Internet lacks.
I guess if you put it all together – writing by hand, listening to records, roasting my own coffee beans – you could say I’m somewhat of a hipster.
But aren’t all Jews hipsters? We read Torah from a hand-written scroll written on animal hides sewn together with animal sinews, and sound an alarm by blowing through the actual horn of a ram! We put the Torah scroll back in the ark singing the words, “Ḥadesh yamenu k’kedem” – bring back the days of old – because Jews are hipsters. It’s something we’re proud of.
I believe the reason we do this is similar to the reason I mentioned for cherishing old items and methods. The mostly-inexplicable ‘neshama’ we sense in those LPs, fountain pens, and hand-written letters. In a similar way we COULD be holding our High Holiday prayers in someone’s basement, entirely in English, reciting them in a plain reading voice without any of the melodies. Technically we’d be fulfilling our obligation to pray that way too. We could read the text of the Torah in English translation as well, off of a tablet computer instead of using a scroll. We could listen to a recording of a shofar instead of hearing the real thing. Any of those methods might deliver us the dry ‘content’ of Judaism, but in doing so we’d definitely be missing out on their ‘neshama’. And as far as our Judaism is concerned, it’s the ‘neshama’ in the actions which makes them so essential to our lives as Jews. They give deep meaning they gave our lives. We hold onto them dearly, even after thousands of years, because we want to extend their eternal values into the future.
While enjoying the nostalgia, it is important to remember and be thankful for the great progress the world has seen and is seeing, especially in areas of medicine, equality, multiculturalism and accessibility. None of us want small pox to come back. At least in this part of the world, hardly any people are dying of AIDS now, unlike the plague it was when I was in my teens. We are proud to live in a country where all people are to be treated equal regardless of wealth, profession, race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.
The world seems to be steadily moving on an upwards trajectory. At least, that is what I would have confidently said until these past few years.
We’ve been proudly saying ‘never again’, ‘never again’ at every holocaust memorial since 1945. Never again. And yet, look around. Modern democratic countries where political parties with known links to Nazi organizations steadily gaining power. Even in our own city we now have someone like that running for mayor.
In Syria, civilian men, women and children are being gassed by their very own government. When they try to seek refuge in other countries they are denied entry, met with stiff quotas or hermetically sealed borders. We still remember when it was like that for us. “None is too many”, the immigration agent said in 1939 when asked how many Jews would be allowed into Canada after the Holocaust.
And let’s not forget, it’s not just happening in Syria: Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia, Cambodia, Sudan, Yazidis – the list goes on and on, and I’m not sure what the civilized world ever does to stop the killings. The world certainly doesn’t seem to care about all the terror attacks occurring in Israel while we’re busy trying to negotiate peace. Terror is slowly starting to rear its head here in Canada as well, as we’ve seen with the car rammings in Toronto and other incidents.
And as we speak, south of the border, thousands of children being separated from their parents and interred in barbed-wired camps, for the sole sin of trying to seek a life of basic means for their families. This surely has been going on for many, many years; yet only now we’ve become aware of it. But this cannot be happening in 2018. It is inconceivable.
Judaism does not let us turn a blind eye. Ever. It is reported in the Talmud (B. Shabbat 31a) that some time between 30 BCE and 10 CE, a gentile approached my namesake Hillel the Elder and said to him, “I wish to become Jewish, but on the condition that you will teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.” Hillel accepted him for conversion and then fulfilled his promise by saying to him, דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד – “that which you hate, do not do to another. This is the entire Torah, the rest is mere commentary – go and study it.”
Furthermore, we don’t have to be actively participating in persecution to be blamed for it under God’s law. It says in the Torah, “Do not stand in your fellow’s blood” (Lev. 19:16). Or as the Talmud states – “Silence is akin to agreement” (B. Yevamot 87b). We cannot be complicit. We must take a stand. Each and every one of us.
We can make things better. And we must.
First, we must read and listen to the news from real, reliable sources. Not fake news. Ask the real experts in the fields. Listen to our hearts’ moral compass. And we all must be activists. Lobby. Talk. Donate money. Write letters. And vote.
And at the same time, we must never ignore our own small circle of influence in the interest of involving ourselves in a bigger circle. Injustices are occurring right here, right in our own neighbourhoods, in our own communities. We have to be involved and do something about that too.
Remember, every life saved is a whole world being saved (Mishna, Sanhedrin 4:5). Every life improved improves the lives of all the people that person will later come in contact with, and all their descendants. Additionally, everything is interconnected, everything affects everything else. Goodness radiates out, as does evil. When neighbourhoods are healthy they help heal other neighbourhoods, which in turn make the city healthier and the neighbouring cities. Then the whole country, then the neighbouring countries, and eventually the whole world. Every little part helps. When the general direction of the world is towards freedom and equality, it rubs off even on those not yet there.
The High Holidays are surely the most appropriate time to make a solemn resolution to do something to fix the horrid injustices of the world and keep the world moving forward, not backward. One cannot hear the innocent cry of the shofar – the purest yearning of the pained soul with no words to describe its pain – without being moved. “Who will live and who will die” doesn’t mean to sit back and nervously watch, but rather it’s a call to action. Read it, “Who will live and who can we save from dying.”
I believe in humanity. And I believe in the Jewish people. We are blessed to have the Torah, our community and our customs as our moral compass. When I wish you all a Shanah Tovah, I truly believe that’s what it can be. We can make it that, together. May all people be written and inscribed in the book of long, healthy life, and may none of us know any more sorrow, ever.