Message for Erev Rosh Hashanah
We Greet the New Year with L’chayyim.
L’shanah tovah! We are pleased to be sharing this erev Rosh Hashanah with a new prayer book! In recent years, every stream of Judaism has produced new machzorim, so this time it was our turn.
There are many beautiful prayer books for Rosh Hashanah. One of my favorite machzorim is published by Koren. It is a nice study edition, in Hebrew and English, with extensive commentary by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Britain’s Orthodox union. In the introduction to the commentary, Rabbi Sacks mentions that in Judaism, the number seven, when applied to time, always denotes k’dushah, holiness.
As any student in our religious school knows, we recognize this significance each week as we celebrate the ‘pause’ from creation that is Shabbat, the seventh day; we also remember sh’mitah, the Sabbatical year, is the 7th year, and Shavuot, that celebrates the giving of the Torah, falls 7 weeks after Passover. Less known is the fact that, in the Torah, Rosh Hashanah is the 1st day of ... not the 1st month of the year, but the SEVENTH month.
The seventh month is holy, and its holiness is directly connected to the idea of creation. Rabbi Sacks concludes:
“the holiness of (the) seventh […] is marked by a cessation of work. It marks a period during which we cease creating and remember that we are creations. We stop making, and remember that we are made. We, the universe, and time itself are the work of a hand greater than merely human.” (Sacks, p. xiii)
The central prayers of Rosh Hashanah stress the idea that God is the creator and sovereign of the universe. Our new machzor uses many metaphors in the English translations to express the central ideal of God as melech al kol haolam, literally “King of the Universe.” We may not believe the creation story literally; however, the story of creation and Divine providence are metaphors, ways of communicating a deeper message. The deeper message is the answer to why the universe was created. The important question is, “what is the purpose of creation.” In other words, what does it mean for us that the world was created? What life lessons does Judaism teach us by means of these ancient stories? And for us tonight, what are the implications of seeing Rosh Hashanah as the anniversary of creation?
I would suggest three main teachings from which we can learn that Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the creation of the universe.
1. The first lesson is that we are created free to choose our own destiny. Judaism is the religion of the free human being responding to the God of freedom. As you know, the Torah teaches that we are created “in the image of God,” b’tzelem elohim, meaning that, like God, we also CREATE. Human beings express their creativity in the material culture, in paintings, sculptures and music –opera, in particular, where all the arts come together, if I may say.
But really, the essence of our Divine image is best expressed in what we make of our own life. In this sense, our choices create our life, and those in turn impact the lives of those around us.
Rabbi Sacks teaches “Our life is the single greatest work of art we will ever make. ” The process that we call teshuvah, “repentance,” is how we go about putting our life together, bit by bit. In one of his musicals, Stephen Sondheim once wrote
Every moment makes a contribution,
Every little detail plays a part.
Having just a vision's no solution,
Everything depends on execution:
Putting it together-
That's what counts!
Art isn’t easy.
Well, neither is life. Teshuvah is choosing the act of re-making ourselves –not entirely new, but a bit closer to our own ideal, closer to our best self. Judaism teaches that we can do this at any time but especially at this time of the year, together with our fellow Jews, in community.
Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” So it is with our lives: One day, when we pass on, we will simply abandon it -unfinished. On Rosh Hashanah, we step back from our life like an artist stepping back from her canvas, and we try to see what needs changing, improving, for the painting to be complete. We must know, however, that no matter where we might be in our life’s journey, it will never be complete –as long as we live, year after year, we have work to do. We are free to choose how to proceed, but our greatest work of art is never complete, and as long as we live it must NEVER be complete.
2. The second lesson we learn from the idea that the world was created is that time has boundaries: our time is limited. There is nothing new in saying that life is short, but Judaism stresses that life ON THIS EARTH is all we have. Judaism seeks God in the here and now. I cannot tell you how many times non-Jewish visitors ask me the question: “what do Jews believe happens after we die”. The short answer is “we do not know;” but what I often want to tell them is, “what difference does it make?” Life is lived in the here and now. The great Jewish teacher Hillel the Elder once taught, im lo achshav, eimatai, "if not now, when?” We don’t have the luxury of waiting until some distant future when people will behave as they are supposed to. It is up to us to make life happen while we are alive, beginning with ourselves. The urgency of Rosh Hashanah’s message is that we choose our future within a limited number of years. Let not another year pass without learning that this life is all we have, and that our striving to be better human beings needs to be done here, now.
So, we are free to choose in which way we want to take the work of art that is our life, always aware that we DO NOT have all the time in the world. These two lessons take us to our third lesson, the most Jewish of them all.
3. The third and final lesson learned from the idea that Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of the world is that every breath we take is a gift from God which we call life, chayyim.
“Life is not something we may take for granted,” Rabbi Sacks teaches, “If we do, we will fail to celebrate it.” The special addition to our Amidah, the standing prayer, stressed this fundamental Jewish idea,
“Zochrenu lechayyim …, remember us for life, O Ruler who delights in life, vechotvenu ... and write us in the book of life for Your sake, Oh Living God, elohim chayyim.”
There is no doubt in my mind that chayyim, life, is at the center of our tradition. Judaism is a tradition that celebrates life. You may say that we are TRULY pro-life –pun intended. We drink to l’chayyim!
You all know it (sing): To life, to life, l'chayyim …
Obviously, in the show, “Fiddler on the Roof,” the characters went through some tough times, yet celebrating life was not new to them. It’s TRADITION! It is in our nature. The Jewish people should have the right to be pessimistic about the future, yet we have always perservered-. (stuck isn’t grammatically correct, but I’m not remembering how to fix)
Celebrating life is also one of the great contributions that Judaism has given to the world. It is our contribution to what it means to be human being. Life may present us with hardship and disappointment, yet the Jewish people have showed the world that being human means being resilient, and always trying to see the positive aspects of life. Our tradition encourages us to live with hope in our hearts, and to say l’chayyim as often as possible.
As we begin a new year, let us remember that we have choices and that our days are counted. Join me as I say: “To all the good times and the not-so-good, may we say” l’chayyim.
Let us acknowledge to God how thankful, how lucky, how happy, and most of all, how humble we are to be alive one more year. To all this and more, may we say l’chayyim.
As we begin a new year, may we have many opportunities to enrich both our own lives and the lives of those around us, and may we say l’chayyim.
At the very beginning of 5776, may we face the New Year with the hope and courage, with the strength and resolution of knowing that we may always answer with a loud, cheerful, resounding, l’chayyim.
Shanah tovah, happy and healthy New Year!