Image: Symbols of the New Year: pomegranate, apple, honey, and grapes. (Ajale / Pixabay)
I wish each of my readers a good and a sweet year in 5780, the year that begins at sundown tonight (Sunday.)
This is one of those Jewish holidays that commands us to step back from the world to whatever degree we can, to take stock, to regroup, to enjoy what we can and to make amends for anything we’ve done.
I know that for many of you, a day completely off is not possible. Maybe you are in a job you’ll lose if you miss, or maybe you are a new parent who hasn’t slept for a week and has to keep up with the needs of an infant. Maybe you are on disability, but you still have the tough job of being a mensch when life is really quite difficult. For all of you, I wish a bit of rest and a bit of peace.
For clergy friends who are in the midst of the annual marathon of services, I wish you health and strength to keep up with it all. I also hope that the people who like your sermons and the congregants who appreciate you are at least as vocal as the ones who don’t.
May 5780 be a good year for all of us, for the Jews and for the world.
Image: A child carries a shofar. (With parents’ permission, all rights reserved.)
The short answer: tradition!
The longer, more complete answer: A long time ago, before we had scientific method to explore the “how” of the world, a Jewish scholar used the text of the Bible to count back to the date of creation. Then the Jewish community chose to number the years according to “the number of years since creation.”
By that accounting, the birthday of the world is Rosh Hashanah. If we baked a cake for the world, it would have 5780 candles. (And we would have a fire on our hands, I imagine!)
Today we have science to explain phenomena in the world, and Jews do not rely on the Biblical text for scientific knowledge. Instead, we go to the texts for questions of meaning: questions science cannot ask or answer. We explore the text to ask questions like, “What does it mean to live a good life?” or “What should we do about suffering?” Those are questions science cannot address.
So why continue counting the years from a date we are absolutely sure wasn’t the date of creation? The answer is simple: it’s our tradition!
Not everyone can get to synagogue for Rosh Hashanah services. Because of my health issues, I will be able to attend in the daytime, but the evening services (in a hall where the chairs hurt my back) are impossible.
However, my synagogue streams services, and I invite you to join me for the evening service Erev Rosh Hashanah, Sunday night, Sept 29!
Services will stream at the Temple Sinai Community Facebook Page beginning at 7:30pm, Sunday, September 29, Pacific Time. I will be watching from home as well, so we can wish each other a “Shanah Tova!” before services begin.
The next morning, Rosh Hashanah services will stream at the same Internet address (see link above) at 8:30am and 11:30am Pacific Time. My wife and I will attend the 11:30 service in person, so I will not be watching the service from home.
Watching long distance is not ideal, but a whole lot better than nothing! I hope that some of you will join me in watching and participating from home on Sunday evening.
(23) And the Eternal spoke unto Moses, saying: (24) Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, shall be a solemn rest unto you, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns, a holy convocation. (25) Ye shall do no manner of servile work; and ye shall bring an offering made by fire unto the Eternal. – Leviticus 23:23-25
Image: Members of the Temple Sinai Community write messages of love and New Year’s wishes on paper covering anti-Semitic graffiti. (Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar)
How was your Rosh Hashanah?
Linda and I watched services at our congregation online for Erev Rosh Hashanah. I knew from experience that the seats would not work well for me, and we had an aliyah to the Torah the next morning. I love the flexibility that the online service gives us for managing such things.
The next morning, I woke to an email from the staff, titled: “Graffiti on our building”:
We received a call early this morning that someone wrote anti-Semitic slurs on the side of our building. The police have been contacted and we will have security on the premise. The graffiti will be covered when everyone arrives for services this morning.
While this is surely upsetting, this will not define our experience of coming together as a community today. Our strength and resilience will sound through our voices in song and prayer.
The graffiti will be covered with paper. We invite members of the community to write words of love and friendship as guiding lights for the coming year.
May this be the year that peace comes to our world.
Whoa! Not what we wanted for the new year, that’s for sure. Still, I marveled at the creativity of the solution. Instead of allowing the graffiti to stay visible, Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin chose to cover it with paper and then encouraged us to cover it with blessings.
This response was possible in a Reform setting. Cutting paper, hanging paper, and writing would all be problematic in a halakhic setting, but it certainly was a satisfying way for us to “talk back” to the person or persons who had done this. It also gave us a chance to model before our city that we choose love over hate.
Our responses included everything from “Shalom!” in a heart to “Go A’s!” (the local baseball team.) During services, painters came to cover the graffiti, and staff moved the paper indoors to the meeting hall. We painted over the bad and kept the good.
In case you are wondering what was written on the wall: it was ugly, it was obscene, and it was baldly anti-Semitic. Those words were written with the intent of terrifying us, of spoiling our joy in the New Year. We are choosing as a community not to focus on them, not to hold them up, because to do so would be a reward to the person who wrote them. Law enforcement knows what the words said, and an investigation is underway.
I’m happy to report that the police came immediately and stayed watching over us all day. the mayor showed up to support us, and local TV stations broadcast interviews with congregants. We felt loved by the city of Oakland. We did our best, with our graffiti, to love her back.
I teared up multiple times during the service, thinking how many times Jews have said those exact prayers after something dreadful happened. We aren’t the first Jews to pray in a vandalized building. We won’t be the last, alas.
Also, I was aware of the fact that not every religious group gets this treatment. In Charlottesville, the police department rebuffed the Jews who asked for help during the demonstrations this summer. I know that many African Americans have reason to be concerned by a police presence. I know that mosques in the United States face graffiti and much worse on a regular basis.
We are a long way from the ideal still, but I hope for the day when, in the words of President George Washington:
May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy. – Washington’s Letter to the Jews of Newport, August, 1790
Washington’s words carry some irony, of course. The enslaved persons on his plantation and elsewhere in the new nation could not “sit in safety” and many of them were “of the stock of Abraham.” Still it is my hope and prayer that just as those words are more true now than they were in 1790, the day will come when they are indeed accomplished.
May the day of peace for all those “of the stock of Abraham” (Jew and Muslim, and spiritually, Christians as well) and for all of every faith community come speedily and soon. Amen.
The new Jewish year of 5778 begins at sundown tonight.
It is customary to begin a new year – any new year – with hope and celebration.
I always think, on the new year, of something I once heard Rabbi Arthur Green teach: “For contemporary Jews, Rosh Hashanah is a lifecycle celebration. We arrive at that day and say, ‘I’m still alive.'”
But for many of the living this Rosh Hashanah, it’s a grim new year.
For people in the Caribbean, for people in Florida, for people in Texas and Louisiana, for people in Mexico, the new year begins with sorrows and difficulties. For some it begins with unimaginable grief.
For people with pre-existing illness, for people with disabilities, for people who may lose their healthcare or their children’s healthcare, this new year begins with a sword hanging over them. An evil bill is up for a vote in the Senate and it has a chance of passing.
For immigrants already in the United States, and refugees everywhere, 5778 dawns with painful uncertainty.
For the people of the island nation of Kiribati, there is painful certainty: today climate change is drowning their entire country.
So what can we do?
A line in the High Holy Day prayers teaches us:
“Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah avert the severe decree.”
This is not a magic formula for manipulating God or fate. This is a blueprint for alleviating suffering and making the world better.
TESHUVAH – Teshuvah means “turning.” It’s the Jewish word for repentance. Good people sin not because they are evil monsters but because they fail to understand how their actions or words impact others. We must put down our defensiveness and self-interest for a few moments and study the wrongs of our world. We need to study what Torah teaches us about each of them. Then teshuvah requires that we seek a plan of action to right those wrongs.
TEFILLAH – We usually translate tefillah as prayer. Clever Hebrew scholars will tell you that it is a reflexive form that actually means something like “self-reproach.” But let’s not complicate things: tefillah is speech. If we wish to “avert the severe decree” we must become strategic in our speech. We must use our voices for good: we must appeal to our lawmakers and we must tell the truth. What we must NOT do is use our speech to puff ourselves up, to be “clever” to make points, to stir up hatred for hatred’s sake. Sometimes this is a fine line to walk, but if we want to make the world better, we must control our own speech.
TZEDAKAH – The common translation is “charity.” But it is actually a very precise word that has its roots in “justice.” Tzedakah is money given for the relief of suffering or need. It is not “goods in kind” and it is not “volunteering.” The tzedakah that changes the world is an attitude about money that admits that whatever is in my bank account is there because I have been fortunate as well as hard-working. (Face it, there are plenty of hardworking people who have little or nothing.) The spirit of tzedakah is a willingness to share whatever good fortune I have with those who have less. For the very poor, that may be a penny. For the very rich, it may be a fortune. And it may take many forms, all of them money: it may be in charitable giving, or the portion of taxes that goes to provide services to the poor, or in the support of relatives in difficulty. It may be the willingness to forego unfair profit that would burden the poor. No Jew is exempt from the commandment of tzedakah. No one, Jewish or not, is “undeserving” of tzedakah if they are suffering or in need.
Teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah: if we want to heal this world, we must become aware of wrongs and resolve to right them. We must speak the truth, and only the truth in whatever way we think will actually make things better. We must be willing to share what we have with others.
This is how we will avert a future of suffering.
And this is my hope for 5778: that enough people will be willing to do these things that some suffering will be averted and the world will be better.
May this new year be a shanah tovah, a good year. Amen.
Image: “The Seven Days of Creation” by Laurie Gross Studios of Santa Barbara, CA. These tapestries hang in the sanctuary at Congregation Ohabai Sholom in Nashville, TN. Read more about them on The Temple website.
I had the pleasure of observing Rosh Hashanah in Nashville with Congregation Ohabai Sholom, also known as The Temple. One aspect of the service moved me beyond all others, and it caught me completely by surprise.
I arrived early and found a seat. The rabbis tell us that before prayer, we should pray that we pray well, so that’s what I was doing – at least, that’s what I was doing until jet lag caught up with me and I began to doze. I rested in a place between awake and asleep, relaxed and floating.
People began to enter, and as always happens with a big holiday service, they greeted one another and chatted: “Shanah tovah!” “How’s your mama doing?” “Oh my goodness, he’s grown so much!” “Can you believe this weather we’re having?” It was just small talk, but as I sat with my eyes closed, I began to cry.
They were southern voices, speaking with southern accents. They were in fact Nashville accents, the men’s slightly different from the women’s, all with a musical quality that sang to me. I cried because they were Jewish southern voices.
I have lived in California for 30 years, but I still have a strong Southern accent. At one point I tried to lose it, and someone tried to congratulate me on dropping “that ignorant sounding accent.” I immediately resolved that I would go to my grave sounding this way! After all, I spent the first 30 years of my life in the South; for better and worse, it is a part of my identity.
Jews seem particularly bothered by the accent. Some respond by complimenting me on my “cute twang” (I HATE that phrase) or tease me with exaggerated imitations of my accent. All of it serves to remind me that I’m Other, not one of the gang – even when it is intended as a joke or a compliment, it is distancing. I realize this is only a minor taste of what Jews of Color and other “others” encounter, but it wears on me. So far I’ve managed to be polite.
Sometimes it is funny. When I lived in Israel, Israelis would be puzzled by my insistence that I was m’Artzot-haBrit [from the United States.] They associated Americans with coastal accents from New York and Los Angeles. I learned to say that I was mi-TehnehSEE and then they’d ask if I knew Johnny Cash. That always made me laugh.
I internalized the idea that there are no Jews with southern accents. Certainly I didn’t know any rabbis with much of one (maybe the teasing got to them, I don’t know.) But on Rosh HaShanah morning, with my heart breaking over my brother, suddenly I was surrounded by a sea of beautiful soft southern speech, my mamaloshen [mother-tongue,] and all of it indubitably Jewish Southern speech. I wept, and was comforted.
Shanah Tovah, y’all.
Update: I am sorry to say that my brother passed away after a long battle with his injuries on September 3, 2018. I will say that the High Holy Days will never be quite the same.