Rabbi Mark's Sermon - Erev Rosh Hashana 2011

Shana Tova.  Happy New Year. Good Yontif to everyone. Welcome to your High Holidays and another new year!

Welcome to everyone. Whether we see you each week or periodically or this is your first holiday season with us, it is my pleasure to invite you to sit back and enjoy the flight. Our flying conditions are favorable, and we should be able to roll out the beverage carts once we are at a comfortable flying altitude.  

My name is Rabbi Mark, and, together with my co-pilot, Cantor Linda, it is our pleasure to welcome in the Jewish New Year together with you. We’re also joined this holiday season by our dedicated flight crew, who will be assisting us in this year’s flight pattern of services: our Rabbinic Intern and congregant Batshir Torchio, as well as our congregant Jeff Dielle, and our choir of angels. And, a special thank you to all those who have worked so hard to maintain, update, prepare, and serve our community in this year’s preparations: our Board, our stage manager, Henry Haertel, our volunteers, and all of you.

I have a regimen that I begin each holiday season. It involves prayer, eating better, spending time with colleagues, reflection, and exercise. In my attempts to spend more time at the gym to prepare and train for our challenging high holiday service schedule, I often get a special treat. I get to watch TV. At home, it just doesn’t seem to happen that much - either I’m too tired, or I have to vie for time in between kids’ movies, or something else from my rabbinic, husbandly, or fatherly roles vies for my attention. Watching TV at the gym sometimes feels luxurious. 

Recently, it was hard not to see the High Holidays reflected in almost everything from clothes commercials to major news items, even in infomercials. I was biking home one evening last week, and I even heard the marching band that practices across from Lake Merced playing Avinun Malkeinu. Each job has its rewards and hazards, but one of the job rewards and hazards of a rabbi is seeing life in all its array through a particular lens. Anyway, an infomercial came on selling a powerful treatment at a center for a serious illness, and it read, "Call us now for your 'life changing information packet.'” And I thought, yes, that’s what the Jewish holidays are all about -- they are a life changing information packet that shows up in our mailbox each year.

This information packet asks us big questions: “Why are we here?  What is our purpose? What can we do to restore our relationships with G-d and with those we love?” It also soothes us if we’ve had a rough year, sweetens our sour spots with a dollop of honey, even invites us to see that inside of an apple if we cut it just the right way, carefully, we can see the picture of a star. At the same time, it invites us to say goodbye to the year that has passed and to prepare ourselves for the year to come. And it has the power to bring back memories of those we love, miss, and long for.

Those are the “Why are we here?” moments, but as to why are we here -- here, particularly at B'nai Emunah -- it’s likely that some unique experience has brought us here and that, if we take time, we could share this experience. I’d like you to consider this holiday season to either seek out someone new or someone you see often but haven’t spoken much with, wish them a happy and healthy new year, and ask them, "What brings you here?"

When I used to travel down South for rabbinic work, I always loved reading church billboards -- you know the ones, that advertise intriguing sermon titles or questions -- and one of my favorites was an answer to the question of why we are here. It read as an opening for an invitation to join in worship, "There are some questions Google just can’t answer.” Perhaps this is why you’re here. Or perhaps it’s to be with friends, family, community. Maybe to talk and pray to G-d or, as the old one goes, to talk to someone else. Maybe you’re here simply because you feel we’re supposed to be here -- "Rabbi, really where else would we be on Rosh Hashanah?" Maybe it's for comfort, or solace, or maybe some combination of all of the above. Whatever it is, it would be hard to find on Google.

Miraculously, we return each year, here, to Rosh Hashana, the literal “head of the year.” I was recently watching again the movie The March of the Penguins, narrated by Morgan Freeman, documenting the amazing birth, journey, life, and death of the Antarctic emperor penguins. It begins, miraculously, “Though their path may be a bit different each year, each year the penguins return to the exact same place of their birth, 70 miles from the sea, to the exact same location, to the place that they were born.” Watching this movie with my rabbi lenses on, it was hard not to say, “Yes, just like them, though our path may be a bit different each year, we return each year, somehow, to this same place, the same place where it said that ALL began.” According to tradition, Rosh Hashana marks the birth and the beginning of life and existence as we know it. As a young father, the movie also choked me up not just because it’s the penguin dad who has the rare and unique responsibility of sitting on the egg but because it captures the true essence of the fragility of life which comes to the forefront at the beginning of our year. In one scene, the literal life of a new baby penguin depends on “the pass,” that is the passing or short rolling of the egg from mom to dad. If either messes up just slightly, then the egg immediately dies from the gruesome temperatures and surroundings. In a similar vein, Jewish tradition teaches us that not only our lives but the lives of others, the whole world, hang in balance as we figure out how to better roll our eggs and take care of them.

Sometimes life can be forgiving, but sometimes it can be so cruel. How does the penguin survive in the end? It relies on the strength of the entire group and on making a connection, on beginning a relationship. The group, referred to as a "waddle", is so important that it almost takes on a separate life form, for without its formation the individual is said to be unable to survive the harsh conditions of life. We, the Jewish people, have not only survived the harshest of conditions but are thriving. Isn’t it amazing that we are here despite it all. I believe that, in some part, this is because of the resilience of our group, the almost separate life form of the Jewish waddle. We express this best through the power of community; it’s as community that we support, challenge, nourish, and comfort each other.

At Rosh Hashana, we all return in some way to our beginnings, to our memories of those who are no longer with us, to our present moments with our loved ones, to a lookout where we can see the year that has passed and perhaps get a glimpse of what’s to come. And we do this together as a community. The High Holidays without community leave us wandering off, isolated, and even in danger just as the penguin who takes his or her own route from the group is left vulnerable and, literally, life challenged. Of course, from the vantage point of the New Year, we may only have a glimpse of what is to come, and we never really know; that’s why Rosh Hasahana is called Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment. Nevertheless, we are asked to do our best and to make plans but ultimately face the truth of the Yiddish phrase, "Mann traucht Gott laucht", “We plan and G-d laughs” and, I just have to add, “and sometimes cries.” From The March of the Penguins, from Our Own March, we can take many lessons one of which I distill to be: "We are all part of something larger; we each have a responsibility to the whole; and, no matter what, we have to say 'thank you' for our experience up to this very minute of life itself." Thank you for this year -- this is in large part what our lengthy liturgy is about. Thank you.

Sometimes, though, depending on the cards we’ve been dealt, we may not feel like saying "thank you." Life is hard and full of tzurres. I love that line from Tevia in the Fiddler, “G-d, I know we’re supposed to be the chosen people, but would you maybe mind choosing someone else?” One of the shofar’s purposes is to wake us up both to the message of gratitude and to the acknowledgment that this is sometimes hard to internalize. It is our jubilant call to celebrate life and to be thankful, tekiah, but it is immediately followed by the broken sounds of wailing, of tears, to acknowledge and express hardship, sh'varim-teruah.

This year has seen lots of storms: natural ones, political ones, economic ones, physical, personal, communal, and national ones. It has left many isolated, lonely, depressed, sick, imbalanced, out of work, low on funds. We know this story too well. It’s the story of our nightly news.  At Rosh Hashana, we acknowledge this story, and, at the same time, we grasp on to stories of hope, promise, and future. I heard one recently about a person who approached her rabbi and said, “Rabbi, I want to ask G-d so many questions, but I’m afraid. I want to ask, 'Where are you G-d? Where were you in the hunger, poverty, war, and suffering in our world?'” And the rabbi says, “Why don’t you just ask?” And she replies, “I'm afraid to ask because I think G-d will turn to me and ask me the very same question: ‘Where are you? Where were you?’” To celebrate Rosh Hashana is to not be afraid to ask the question!

At the literal rosh, or “head", of the year, we are asked to use our heads and our hearts to ask our questions and to act. Beyond saying thank you, this is another purpose of our liturgy, and why it has so many prescribed words for this season. This is in some way the season of lots of words. It’s not enough to say sorry once; we say it over and over and over. Our words, though, whether in prayer or in greeting each other, combined with our heartfelt intentions are in many ways our most powerful weapons. This is one of the lessons I take from this famous story with which I’d like to conclude this evening. It is a story that may be familiar to some but bears hearing over and over. It goes like this:

“Everywhere he went, the Rabbi heard the same thing, laughter. All over town people were whispering and laughing. He knew that Shmuel was at home crying. Shmuel had done a foolish thing. Sarah had watched and laughed and then told her friends, and her friends told their friends, who also laughed. Word spread about Shmuel’s foolishness. All were laughing. All over town laughs could be heard in stores, in the street, everywhere, as they passed on the story of what Shmuel had done. Meanwhile, he was at home crying.  

"That night the Rabbi heard a knock on the door. It was Sarah. 'I don’t know what to do. Shmuel was my best friend, and now he won’t talk to me. All he says is you hurt me.'  The rabbi understood; he had a plan. He said to Sarah, 'Meet me tomorrow at noon at the very top of the town clock tower. There I will teach you a great secret. But you must do one thing; you must bring a pillow with you. Without a pillow, I can’t teach you anything.' She was confused, but she trusted the Rabbi and his strange instructions.  

"At noon they met at the tower. They looked down over the whole village. The Rabbi asked her to rip the pillow open. As soon as she began to tear, the wind began to grab the feathers and carry them away. The Rabbi took the pillow out of her hands. He shook it. The air was filled with feathers.   The wind carried them throughout the town. The Rabbi then said to her, 'Now, go and gather them up.' She said, 'That’s impossible; no one could do that.' The Rabbi then said, 'Go and gather up the story about the foolish thing that Shmuel did.'  'That’s impossible; no one could do that.' She was silent and then said, 'I understand.'”

We are all creatures of words; that is how, along with gestures, we communicate to each other and to G-d. Just imagine how many words each of us says, let alone types or texts, each day, and let alone the words of our prayers at the beginning of the New Year. Our words can be dangerous.  The rabbis say they are more powerful than a sword because, while a sword can only hurt someone standing near, words can hurt someone from far away. Our words can also provide comfort and happiness.  

Tonight we began the Aseret Yemei Tshuva, the ten days of returning or repentance, as we make time to examine and renew ourselves, our deeds and words, our relationships, our roles in the community, and our connection to that which is sacred and holy in our lives. It's true, as we all stand at the top of the clock tower, it seems impossible to gather up all the feathers, but at Rosh Hashana we give it a try and we work on ourselves so that next year we can be better. We have to because this life-changing information packet, these melodies, this reminder of the fragility and worth of life, and this season of rethinking our words have just landed in our mailboxes without a return address.

Tomorrow, I'd like to share with you one of the ways the Jewish people and we, I think, can weather the storms of the upcoming year. I’ll share with you the Jewish version of the iPhone (I call it the we-Phone.), my summer Tahoe-mountain moment, the eternal message of “obladi oblada,” my profound feeling of love, and a real cracker jack prize, designed especially for this year, that can provide us with support when life, as it sometimes does, rocks our boats.

May we all waddle gracefully into this New Year, encouraged for life and huddled close for support, as we return again to our Ultimate Source of Being. Shana Tova Tikateivu. Happy New Year. May we all be inscribed for life.