High Holy Day Sermons 5782 by Rabbi Andrea
Erev Rosh Hashana Sermon
In preparation for this holiday, I conducted a survey.
I asked on social media a randomly selected group of Jews whether they knew what Rosh Hashanah was about.
I got a variety of answers, each somehow correct, but none of them 100% correct:
“It is when we blow the shofar?”
“Honey is involved: apple and honey ... Honey-cake!”
“Oh, I know that! On Yom Kippur, it is forbidden to eat”, or “Rosh Hashanah, it is always too late to eat!”
All true, but Rosh Hashanah is about something else.
So I asked another question: What do we celebrate on Rosh Hashanah?
This time there was a consensus. Everybody agreed that Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year's Day.
Except that answer is not the correct one.
Because according to the Biblical text (Exodus 12), the first month of the year is Nisan, the month of Pesach, in the Spring.
The Bible remarks: Pesach must be celebrated during springtime.
Which makes sense. The rebirth of nature after the Winter parallels the process of liberation of the Jewish people. This is clear and stated.
Rosh Hashanah is a more complicated matter.
There are in the Torah references to the day of the blowing the shofar on the first day of the seventh month (which is the month we are in now: if the first is Nisan.)
There are references to the holy gatherings at the Temple in Jerusalem on such a day.
But only later, putting together Psalms and references from the prophetic literature, we somehow extrapolate the importance of this day: the first of the month of Tishri.
Because this day was the beginning of the jubilee, the periodic rest of the Earth and the year of liberation for the slaves.
It was a New Year's Day and a very important one.
So what's going on?
How come we have two New Year’s Days, one in the Spring - 1st of Nisan, and the other in the Fall, today?
The fact is that for us Jews, the Exodus from Egypt is the beginning of our particular history.
Hence we consider the month of Pesach the first actually Jewish month of the year.
But in the Fall, we mark a universal moment, the anniversary of the creation of Adam and of Mankind, to which we all belong.
In the liturgy of today, we do not make mention of the Jewish year and almost nothing of Jewish history. It is a universal holiday, not an exclusively Jewish one.
We declare that today it is the birthday of the universe: for all Mankind!
And we pray for a good year ahead for the entire world. So the first day of Nisan is the Jewish New Year, while today, the 1st of Tishri, is the world's New Year.
But again, the matter is obscure. Two New Year's Days in one year?
It becomes clear when you consider the Jewish calendar. It is based on the moon. The moon's cycle is 29 or 30 days, and so are the months in the Jewish calendar.
Yet, we cannot base ourselves on the moon only. If a Jewish month is around 29 1/2 days, twelve times that number gives you 354 days. But the solar cycle is longer. Every year, the Jewish lunar year falls 11 days behind the solar cycle, and if unchecked, this may lead to celebrate Pesach in the Winter, which cannot be.
As I have said, the Torah commands us to celebrate Pesach in the Spring. This is the reason why we add, every so often, an extra month to the Jewish year.
The Jewish calendar is based both on the cycle of the moon and the cycle of the sun.
And this is something we have to ponder about.
As a people, we Jews are often compared to the moon. Sometimes the moon disappears from the sky.
In times of persecution, it hides and then it returns.
When the Romans forbade the observance of the Jewish calendar, the Rabbis used to communicate with each other at the beginning of each new month with the formula David Melekh Israel Khai ve Khatam. David (and not the Romans), King of Israel, is alive and endures. You may not see David or the moon, but he's alive and standing. Like the Jewish people.
Our calendar is not determined by the moon only. The life of our nation, like the lives of all the nations, follows the rhythm of the season, that is of the sun. Pesach must be in the Spring, a season that comes every year, at a time set by the sun.
Jewish time, and the Jewish worldview, encompasses both the lunar year, the particular - and the solar year, the universal.
Judaism gives a mission, a task and land to the Jewish people. But at the same time, Judaism has proclaimed that all humans have been created in the image of God.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the situation we Jews live today: in the tension between the particular and the universal. During the months of the pandemic, we had seen a part of our people being very particular, rejecting modern science and carrying on a lifestyle, mass Simchas and celebrations, even when it was very dangerous and literally mortal. That way, the absolute particularistic way is - let me say it openly - contrary to the basics of Judaism.
But on the other hand, we also are under pressure from the universal side. There are those who ask us to conform to the rest of the society, those who look at us with suspicion and malice, assuming we are the fifth column of some enemy; those who want to cut our ties to Israel, a state that they think is an anomaly or should not exist at all.
We live this tension between the particular and the universal, between the cycle of the moon and the cycle of the s
The lesson that comes from our calendar is that the two must be together. For our calendar, for our time, we need both. We celebrate our freedom, on Pesach, and today - because we are free to do it! - we pray for a year of health and prosperity, of safety and progress, for all humanity.
We defend the right of Israel to exist as a democratic state and as a Jewish State.
We teach the new generations that being a good Jew means being a good human being and not being afraid of our identity.
As we well know, this balance between the particular and the universal is not always understood. The prejudice never ends.
But only if we are not afraid nor ashamed of being Jewish can we be part of mankind and be fully human. We must never give in to the pressure to conform. We must never renounce our loyalty to our heritage and to our community.
Too often, we believe that to be part of mankind, we must forget that we are part of the Jewish community and of the Jewish people.
There is no contradiction between being Jewish and being part of mankind. Indeed, today we pray for a good year for all humanity!
But we pray in the Jewish way, on a day set according to the Jewish calendar!
The great American writer, Cinthia Ozick, wrote a marvellous piece about the shofar, one of the mitzvahs of Rosh Hashanah; let me quote from her.
"The shofar has a broad end and a narrow end. If you begin by blowing in the broad end, you get nothing. But if you blow in the narrow end, you get a sound everyone can hear. Judaism may seem like one small tradition in a large world. But those Jews who have spoken from our tradition have been heard throughout the ages and throughout the world".
By blowing in the narrow end, we offered a universal message, we affirm our faith in humanity, and we pray for a good year for all Mankind.
And while we wait to hear the shofar tomorrow, this evening, we pray.
Rosh Hashana Sermon
This year's Rosh Hashanah is different from other Rosh Hashanahs.
Some of us are at home in front of the computer. Some of us are here in shul. That is quite a strange arrangement; we never had anything similar before.
Each of us knows someone who is or has been a victim of the pandemic. We never had so many friends and families to mourn on Rosh Hashanah. Also, each of us knows someone who has contracted the illness - and thankfully has recovered. But the feeling of relief is tainted; it is not complete relief. The pandemic is still going on.
This is the time of the year when we look for God. We are usually a bit reluctant to admit that we need God's help. On Rosh Hashanah, we take in our hands a book of prayer and - sometimes out of faith, sometimes out of curiosity- we try to read its pages. We try to pray.
This is the day when we talk to God. Or at least, we try.
But there's a problem with God.
God is everywhere, we are told. Yet God is nowhere to be found!
We are told that we can see God's hand in the beauties of nature, in beautiful sights such as glaciers on the mountains, the storms on the sea, or the marvel of a rainbow.
For each of these occasions, there are blessings, brachot, that our tradition teaches us to say. The beauty of nature is a way to perceive God.
But this year, we know that nature is under attack. Glaciers are melting. Hurricanes are more devastating than ever. Our planet is suffering. Over the last months, we learned of violent storms and hurricanes, temperatures rising to abnormal levels, and destructive rainfalls. Perhaps we are the last generation who can appreciate particular natural beauties on our planet. The earth is changing for the worse; real tragedies happen under our very eyes. We look at the future with fear. We ask where God is. And there is no answer.
We are told by the Biblical Prophets and by great philosophers that God is at the side of human beings, especially those who suffer and those who demand justice.
So we look for God in the voices of the oppressed, those voices who demand to be heard, those voices demanding justice
But this year, we have seen how easily demands for justice have morphed into desires for revenge. We hear offensive generalisations about the responsibility of all white people. We see Jewish people and Jewish buildings attacked and threatened. Increasingly, and despite our protestations, we Jews are counted as white, therefore oppressors.
When people demand justice, we Jews empathise. Our God demands justice. When we Jews hear the voice of the oppressed, we hear the call of the Divine.
Not this year, though. We are told that we are "white adjacent", that we are privileged, that Jews have -allegedly- fared well. We are told that we are now "relatively prosperous", that we are not oppressed anymore, and perhaps have never fully been oppressed. We are informed that we have become oppressors.
This is not how the Biblical prophets preach. There is nothing holy in black or brown people harassing ultra-Orthodox Jews in the streets of New York. God is not there.
And what about our families, our own community? We are told that we can feel God when we feel empathy; relations between human beings are the gateway to the relation with God.
We are told that we feel God when we reach out to others and build a community. We know there is holiness in establishing connections, in breaking the walls of isolation.
Communities can be holy. A synagogue is traditionally called "kehillah kedosha", holy community, for a reason.
But, this year, we have felt the burden of solitude and the pain of loneliness. More than any previous years.
There have been moments when we felt abandoned.
Those from whom we were expecting supports were elsewhere, precisely when the isolation hurt the most.
We are told that being in our community is a way to experience holiness. But this year, we have rather experienced isolation and loneliness.
We search for God, and we don't find him.
Moreover, we feel exhausted.
One day the news about the pandemic gives us hope: cases are dropping, people get the vaccine, so we can start making plans for when the contagion will be over, we can dream of social interactions without masks, without social distance, as it used to be...
And then, the following day, we are told that it's too early, that the numbers are not really dropping; that the vaccine works but up to a certain point, that other shots are required and who knows when we will be safe again. Never, perhaps.
This Rosh Hashanah is different from all the other Rosh Hashanahs, because it is a Rosh Hashanah with so little hope.
Hope is terribly difficult this year.
The pandemic has deprived us of hope.
But we must not give up.
Losing hope is a luxury that we Jews cannot afford!
Our faith is based on hope.
We are commanded to never forget that we have been slaves in Egypt. That God made us a free people. How did we endure slavery? How did we survive during the years of oppression in Egypt?
Our ancestors never lost hopes that slavery could end.
The same attitude sustained us during other dark periods of history.
How did we survive during the Middle Ages when Jewish communities were constantly under threat of being expelled?
How did we survive during the time of the Inquisition in Spain? The basic observance of Judaism (Shabbat and bris) were outlawed.
How did we survive under the boot of Stalin and his Communist cronies? In the Soviet Union, you could be deported to Siberia for the crime of spelling two sentences in Yiddish!
We Jews have overcome the darkest times of our history because we refused to give up hope.
Hope makes us Jewish.
We are here, proud of our heritage because Jews like us, in previous generations, have kept their hopes alive.
We are the free Jews that the persecuted Jews have imagined and hoped for while suffering pogroms, expulsions, persecutions.
Not by chance, "HaTikvah" "The Hope" is the national anthem of Israel, the Jewish State.
So let us think about our past, to our history. Let us connect to the previous Jewish generations, those who did not lose their hope.
Think of the sound of the Shofar.
There are many reasons why we blow the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah.
The Shofar connects us to Abraham, to the very beginning of Judaism. We blow the Shofar to remember the day when Abraham learnt that God does not demand a father to offer his son in sacrifice (which was common practice those days for the pagans.)
Abraham, too was on the point of following the practice, but God Himself intervened through an angel that this is not the way God expects to be worshipped.
That was the beginning of Judaism. That is what the Shofar reminds us of: the ram that Abraham sacrificed in place of his son.
Fast forward some centuries to Biblical times. When the Jews lived in their own land, the Shofar was blown in an important moment of public life
The Shofar announced the new moon, the induction of new kings, the Jubilee year, the liberation of the slaves.
The Shofar was the sound of liberation: when debts were cancelled, slaves were allowed to return to their homes, when prisoners were pardoned.
There's something else. The Shofar was also blown in times of war. We are all familiar with the story of the conquering of Jericho; the sounds of the shofars made the city's walls fall.
In ancient Israel, the sound of the Shofar was the battle-cry; it was blown for signifying the start of a war.
Even today, some blow the Shofar for war-related reasons, but they are not Jewish. They are Evangelical Christians who want Israel to adopt a belligerent stance for all their theological reason. You can see them during pro-Israel demonstrations. I am very grateful to them. I appreciate Israel being supported, but about this thing of the Shofar, they got it totally wrong.
First of all, because they forget the social meaning of the Shofar, the sound of liberation.
But, mainly, because for us Jews, the Shofar is not a battle cry against external enemies any more.
It is a call for attention, as in Biblical times, but for another kind of battle. The battle against complacency, passivity, and lack of hope.
Since Medieval times, indeed, Rabbis and thinkers see the Shofar as a wake-up call.
We don't go to war at the sound of the Shofar, but instead, we fight against our own spiritual laziness.
The State of mind we all have fallen into during the past year
We have forgotten how much hope there has been in the past history of the Jewish people.
We have forgotten how much we are in debt towards the previous Jewish generations and their hopes.
Hence, we lost hope, and we live in a sort of spiritual lethargy.
We must resist this inclination. We must learn (or re-learn) to look at the future with hope.
The sound of the Shofar is a powerful tool to reconnect us to Jewish history, a history of hope and liberation, whose roots are back in the times of Abraham.
The sound of the Shofar can shake us off from our complacency.
It wakes us up. It reminds us we have a thousand years of history based on hope, and we cannot give up our hopes for a better future. We owe it to our ancestors.
This year the sound of the Shofar must be a wake-up call
This year the sound of the Shofar must give us hope for a world without the pandemic.
This year the Shofar will truly sound for our liberation and our hopes.
ken yehi ratzon, may it be God's will and let us say ‘Amen’.
Kol Nidre Sermon
Adon Olam, Lord of the universe, here we are:
Your people, the Jews. Like every year, we congregate, some of us virtually, some other in synagogues, real places. Like every year, we grab a prayerbook; we try to remember the prayer; Like every year, we recognise the melodies; and those here look around the room searching for familiar faces. Like every year, we try to think about You, Eternal Our God. Because You are our God; and we are your People.
But being part of Your people is not easy.
The pandemic has hit all the religious minorities, including us. This virus, COVID, with all its variation, has changed our services, the times when we think of You. Now the religious services take place, half in synagogue and half in cyberspace. There's almost no Kiddush. We have to restrain ourselves in singing. So many new rules to think about, and hardly we can focus on the reasons why we're here.
We find it hard to think of You, Sovereign of the Universe.
COVID has ravaged Israel, the Country we consider our own. People there are still suffering because of the pandemic, and the consequences are felt in the economy. And what about the defence? True, Israel now has new allies. But -as COVID was not enough- long time enemies are still active, and they are getting stronger and stronger, week after week, day after day. The most serious analysts warn: the question is not "whether" there will be the next war. The question is "when".
Are You still protecting us, Rock of Israel?
Things are no better for Your people here, among us British Jews. Our community was once known for its members' generosity, especially when most were immigrants, newcomers to this Country. Now enmities and tensions come regularly to the surface, and deep wounds are inflicted on our community every time.
In a way, there's nothing new. We are quite a quarrelsome lot of people, we always argue. But the pandemic has made us more sensitive and, at the same time, more salacious. At times certain tensions seem just to be without an end.
And what about threats from outside our community?. The number of our enemies just keeps on increasing.
We have traditional enemies, the narrow-minded nationalists, the Fascists. They cast doubts on our loyalty to the Country we live in. They fantasise about our role in Capitalism, in Communism, in the media, in the banking, even in immigration. They call people to hate us. Some people fall into their ideological traps. We are scrutinised for our connections with Israel in a way that British citizens of, say, Swiss or Belgian origin never experience.
Others are hostile to us because of religious faith, out of bigotry. This is terrifying because religious bigotry is like a wildfire; it still burns even when you manage to contain it. These people, the bigots, are now in power in Afghanistan. They are actually cheered by some sectors of the UK Muslim community. Many UK citizens, men and especially women, are afraid. And we Jews, also, are afraid.
And then there are new enemies. Those who look for "privileged" and "oppressors" to blame for everything. Increasingly, and despite every evidence, they frame us as privileged, or "white adjacent".
What a bitter irony. A few decades ago, we were fighting against Mosley's blackshirts; or marching for civil rights in Alabama. And now they call us racists, worse than the Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan. They slander our faith. They claim we Jews found our identity on feelings of racial superiority. They say that we benefit from structural racism or patriarchy. They say that Jewish institutions support -or worse organise- Islamophobia.
These fantasies are now taught at Universities. What an irony, An ideology born out of a need for justice has become the platform to air old antisemitic stereotypes.
Sovereign of the Universe! There are now Jewish students in British Universities, young men and young women of Your people hiding their identity for fear of being identified as Jews. The generation of our grandfathers had lived through such fear. We thought it was over. But we were wrong. What is going on? Jews who have to hide that they are Jewish? In 2021?
Ha-Kadosh Baruch-Hu, see how hard it is to be Jewish? Antisemitism never stops, neither decreases. Synagogues, the engines of Jewish identity, the places where we feel Jewish... are too often not accessible. Zoom and YouTube? We tried them. They are a substitute for the real thing.
How demanding, how difficult it is to belong to Your people!
Avinu Malkheinu, tonight is Kol Nidre, and I want to be honest. The difficult part of being a Jew is not only to have to deal with antisemitism; or our community's internal strifes. The difficult part, this evening, is that I have to look unto myself, I must examine my deeds of the previous year, and I have to acknowledge my failures.
You see, Eternal Our God, I like being Jewish, despite all the difficulties, internal or external. Still, honestly, I find Jewish morality so hard.
These things that we will repeat over and over during the next 25 hours. That no one is perfect - me included. That everybody has transgressed - me included. That every Jew - I included- must apologise and be open to forgive. These are the Jewish teachings I don't like.
The more I think about it, the more I realise how truthful the foundations of Jewish ethics are. And I know how spiritually rewarding is a good Jewish life. It's all true. And in the same time, it is so discomforting for my personal pride. I don't like to think about my own failures. You know it, Sovereign of the Universe. Because You have created me this way.
I also know that You, Eternal Our God, have created this day for Jews like me: we, who find it difficult to look inside themselves and to deal with our own mistakes and failures. This is the day when apologising is easier. This is the day when we all acknowledge how imperfect we are. This is the day, also, when we recognise how great is the potentiality You have planted into us. We are the only creatures who can feel regret, who can apologise.
We are the only creatures who can change.
Creator of the Universe, You have given us human beings such a great power: to amend our mistakes, to begin anew. And so, this evening I realise I don't want to waste this great gift. Not this year, not this Yom Kippur. I ask for Your help to be honest when I look at my previous deeds.
I commit myself to do the best that I can to repair what I have damaged, amend my mistakes, and fix what I have broken.
In short, I commit myself to become a better Jew, and I hope You'll help me.
G'mar Chatimah Tovah.
Yom Kippur morning Sermon
Young David had just turned 18 when he had a big fight with his father, one of these fights following which the son leaves home for good.
David jumped on a train and went away. He did not have a destination in mind. He wandered around the United States, moving from one city to another.
After one week of such a life, David started to feel some regret, so he emailed his Mum.
If Dad will permit it, I would like to come home. I know there's little chance he will. I'm not going to kid myself. I remember he said once, if I ever ran off, I might as well keep going.
All I can say is that I felt like leaving home was something I had to do. I wanted to find out more about life and about me and the best way for us (life and me) to live with each other.
Please don't reply to this email.
I don't know whether there is an internet café in the city where I am heading.
But I know that in a few days I hope to be passing our place. If there's any chance Dad will have me back, please ask him to tie a white cloth to the apple tree close to the railways, the one that is visible from the train.
I'll be going by on the train. If there's no cloth on the tree, I'll just quietly and without any hard feelings toward Dad, keep going.
As soon as David sent the email to his Mum, he started feeling anxious. He had a knot in his stomach. As he took the train that could be the last leg of his journey, David felt the knot becoming stronger and stronger. He could hardly bring himself to imagine the apple tree of his childhood home, for fear it would be bereft of the white cloth. As he sat down next to the window that would deliver his fate, an elderly gentleman sat in the seat beside him. To calm down the incredible tension that he was feeling, David started a conversation with the gentleman. Meanwhile, the sight out of the window was becoming increasingly familiar. David knew that his childhood home was soon in sight, and so the apple tree.
But he couldn't look. He was too afraid the cloth would not be there-too afraid he would find, staring back at him, just another tree, just another field, and turned quickly away.
Desperately, he nudged his travel companion beside him. "Mister, will you do me a favour? Around this bend on the right, you'll see an apple tree. I wonder if you'll tell me if you see a white cloth tied to one of its branches?"
"Son," the man said in a voice slow with wonder, "I see a white cloth tied on almost every tree.
It is a wonderful story, very popular in religious circles.
It is easy to identify with young David. After all, we all have experience of quarrels with spouses, relatives or friends. The story of young David is the story of a man who tries to bridge a gap.
In this story, family relationships are a metaphor for the relationship with God. A person had a relationship with God; then, he went down the path of sin. Now the same person is looking for a sign from God that the relationship is still possible; a small sign, small like a piece of white cloth...
But I think this story tells us something else.
Let's think, for example, of the sacrifices. In Biblical times, there were sacrifices for many purposes. One of the most common was the burnt offering, which was offered -the Torah says, in one point, "for the Lord", that is, for the benefit of the Lord.
At first sight, this expression makes no sense. How can we imagine that God benefits from a sacrifice? The Talmud answers this question reporting a discussion among Rabbis about the creation of the Moon. As it happens, the sacrifice "for the benefit of the Lord" is the monthly sacrifice for Rosh Chodesh, for the new Moon.
The Rabbis imagine the Moon upset because God has given her a minor status if compared to the Sun. Therefore the Lord institutes a sacrifice of atonement because He knows that one of his creatures, the Moon, is rightly upset and He, God, Himself, needs atonement.
It sounds extremely radical, but it is properly Jewish. God is looking for atonement. God knows that the relationship with his creature has been damaged, and it needs reparation. God has been wrong and now He is looking for atonement.
It is the greatest difference between Christianity and Judaism. In Judaism, we human beings protest against God, which is unheard of in Christianity. Mainstream Christianity preaches that the world, especially the social order, is fine as it is. God is blameless; man is wrong (because of the original sin).
Protesting with God, argumentation against God are typically Jewish activities. And it makes sense. It is everyone's experience that when a relationship deteriorates, there is never a single culprit. Responsibilities are never fully defined by one side alone.
To us Jews, this also applies to our relationship with God. We Jews have a direct relationship with God. We address God without intermediaries. In such a direct relations, feelings of frustration and disappointments comes naturally on the surface. In fact, our religious models are well known for their tormented relationships with God peppered with discussions, bursts of rage, and reconciliations. Our religion authorises us to argue with God because we believe that God's creation is not perfect.
The world is not perfect. We do not accept it as it is. Indeed quite often, we ask God to do more! Our faith, our religion, teaches that God is perfect, but his creation is not!
Part of the experience in this world is suffering, failure and disappointment. Among the reasons we used to bring sacrifices in the past, there was also this: God needed to be forgiven. God has allowed evil to happen.
Let's look around this room today. How many relationships have been interrupted or have deteriorated. And if we are honest, we have to take at least part of the blame. We all have a share of responsibility.
In the same way, many of us legitimately resent God. Because our feeling have been hurt, because our career is not going as it should, because our relatives are not behaving as we expect, because our health has become frail precisely when family needs us.
Yom Kippur is the day of Teshuva, of repentance. On Yom Kippur we can we look at our past, find what went wrong and make amend. And on Yom Kippur we can expect God to do the same
It is not blasphemous, quite the contrary! It is very Jewish, asking God to do teshuvah. Asking God to return, because we have not heard from Him for too long, Like the young David in that story, God has decided to go away, to take care of others, to protect others, to make his presence felt elsewhere and not by us.
Let's look around this synagogue. We are all dressed in white like all the trees that David did not dare to look at from the window's train. We have adorned our house in white because we want God to return.
Because today is Yom Kippur, day of reconciliation, day of atonement, we say to God: "Return, return to us! Help and sustain us for the next year. We're not upset with You anymore, on the contrary: how sad is our home without You. Return to us God, and let us live together"