Erev Rosh haShanah Sermon 2020
There’s a joke floating around the Internet, which I cannot take credit for but I am happy to share: ‘The question no job applicants in 2015 ever got right was, ‘so, where do you see yourself in five years?’’
Friends, I can tell you that none of us would have banked on this.
I’m standing alone on this bimah in an empty sanctuary and you are nestled at home; comfortably, I hope, with a nice hot drink and a blanket and something to remind you of Fall. Any other year, I would have welcomed you in our beautiful building and we would have shared a handshake or a hug. We would have sat together and sang together and broken bread together, blessed wine and noshed honey cake at the Oneg, with plenty of opportunity to schmooze.
Instead, here we are, staring at our screens, like we’ve been doing for the last seven months. We have to contend with the magnitude of our current moment, which contains both the pedestrian and the sublime. We have grappled much more deeply with the questions of living and dying this year; confronted with our own mortality and limitations. Each of us processes this pandemic year differently; each of us at our own pace and through the unique lens of our own experiences but all of us together—locked in a reality not encountered for one hundred years. Here we find our human species contending with one common thing.
The loss of our power.
Yearning for redemption.
‘Ozi v’zimrat Yah, vayehi li lishuah’ – ‘The Eternal is my strength and my song, the Eternal is my deliverance.’ This verse has sat with me for the last number of months as I implore it to lift me up. This line, from Exodus 15:2 launches us into the Song of the Sea, the ancient poetry from the Torah that describes, in strident, emancipatory terms, the victory of the Israelites over Pharaoh as they crossed the Sea of Reeds. This verse is transcendent in its ability to speak to us across the waters of time and space. In its rhyme, we can find an invitation to ponder our hope for redemption and our ability to force the hand of history to make it so. This one simple line is both a prayer of yearning and a declaration of independence. What in our life makes us free?
This verse speaks both to our collective liberation and our personal salvation and reminds us that these two are intimately connected. None of us are free until all of us are free.
These High Holidays, dear brothers and sisters, we will journey with that verse as we use it to prompt us to write letters: metaphorically or literally, if you wish. I will present you with three letters – each a time capsule to this unprecedented moment – during these days of Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur.
One, addressed to God.
The second, addressed to the human family.
And the last, addressed to the self.
In these, we will pour our heart, our learning and our (re)turning to the Source of Life. Our words and thoughts will tell our stories, woven into the master story of our People. We will cross our own Sea of Reeds. We will examine our fears as we wade into the waters, struggling to breathe, and we will sing of our hopes as we come through the narrows and climb upon dry shores. We will reflect how power affects us in this year of unrest and reckoning and how we wield it; over others and ourselves. We will consider the language and imagery of Divine power, during this era of the pandemic, and how we can make sense of it. If we understand our own power, we can work towards our own redemption.
Here, in holy community, we will hold each other. Yes, in this cavernous sanctuary, among the chasms of our loneliness and yearning, we will hold each other. Each of us at home, not a mere island, but bridges of connection—on our sofas, with our blankets, our creature comforts, the threads of normalcy that keep us tethered to what is and what should be.
As we fidget with Zoom and the mute button, stare at the tiles in our screen; our sacred intentions pixelated but not any less potent. This Rosh haShanah is unlike any other and as we write our letters and tell our stories, we will bear witness to this singular and difficult New Year.
‘Ozi v’zimrat Yah’ – ‘The Holy One is my power and song.’ That first redemption song, sung on the damp shores of a cleft sea, was a bearing of testimony. Witnessing is the act that confronts power as we sing ourselves into redemption. Being in the present moment, naming its injustices and cruelties, and naming our feelings of sadness, despondency, anger and loss is part of telling our stories and sharing our testimonies. Miriam witnessed baby Moses drift down the Nile. Moses witnessed the slave-master beating the Hebrew slave. The Israelites witnessed the cleaving of the sea, making way for their redemption. Even God’s Self is a witness; a witness to us, the children of the Holy One, the human species contending with our triumphs and failures. Now more than ever, we need to be ‘eidim’, witnesses, in the cosmic court of morality, goodness and truth.
The language of this season, of writing and recording in the Book of Life, of sealing and testimony, of the accounting of the soul, is not meant to be prescriptive, punitive or judgmental. It is meant to invite us into holy witness. It is inviting us to be the writers and authors of our own destiny.
‘Ozi v’zimrat Yah, vayehi li lishuah’. Imagine you have a time machine. You are able to go back to the time of the Exodus. Plenty of jokes have been made this year about the Ten Plagues and then some. But imagine you could go back there, to this mythical moment, and bear witness to the confrontation between Pharaoh and Moses; no longer abstractions of black letters on white parchment, but the gritty, lived experience of ordinary Israelites and ordinary Egyptians; disempowered and existentially overwhelmed by what they are seeing. The metallic stench of the Nile turned blood; throats parched with unrelenting thirst. The total invasion of vermin, of frogs, of lice; in every nook and cranky, in every vessel and pot, on every inch of skin. Then disease; crippling, feverish and lingering, and darkness; thick and disorienting. Death and violence everywhere; the social order upended. Healers fall ill, children die, and not even Pharaoh’s gold or necromancy can stave off disaster. The ancients did not know how long this would last; the pandemics of their day. They too weighed their power and found it lacking and prayed for redemption. At the Sea of Reeds, with the waves churning around their feet, ankles, calves, thighs, chests and chins, they had no choice but to bear witness to that moment where crisis and opportunity become one.
‘Ozi v’zimrat Yah, vayehi li lishuah’. Imagine you have a time machine. You can go back to January 2020. You could scroll back up the timeline of your life and erase these last seven, eight, nine months. Imagine there had been no news of an as-of-yet undiscovered pathogen. What pain, loneliness and despair would we have been spared. And what learning, resilience and wisdom may we never have gained? Record your hard-won wisdom with your mind’s eye.
‘Ozi v’zimrat Yah, vayehi li lishuah’. Imagine you have a time machine. You go deep into the future. You witness a world where the deeply familiar and the strangely new peacefully coexist. You see humanity in all its rich diversity; beautiful sparks of the Divine made flesh. You hear laughter, the clattering of water, the slant of sunlight, the lilt of song, the scent of flowers and joy and all good and simple things that we rejoice in. A soft hand holds yours and bids you welcome in a world where our lives have been reimagined and our world has been reconfigured, and you hear that one single shofar blast, proclaiming the fullness and flourishing of us all.
‘Ozi v’zimrat Yah, vayehi li lishuah’. We have a time machine. As 5780 folds into 5781, this is the time of our reckoning, repentance and repair. This is where we use the wisdom of our tradition to examine ourselves. Let us undertake this journey and confront ourselves, our society and our God with the questions so many of us feel burn on our lips. As we watch our world in so much pain, cruelty and untruth; as we watch the fires of racial enmity stoked and public trust eroded with every additional case of COVID-19, this is the time for questioning, for listening and for speaking. We will journey together and seal its garnered truths in our own time capsule as we write our letters on the tablets of our hearts.
2020 is nothing like any of us expected it to be. Among all the jokes and memes, the articles and op-eds, we will write our own stories, testify in the courts of our souls, search our hearts and sing of the sweetness and goodness that is yet to come.
We eagerly await our deliverance, as the water laps at our feet.
Shanah tovah u’metukah, a good and sweet New Year, full of healing and hope.