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Rosh Hashanah Sermon

by Rabbi Dorit Edut

“Hayom Harat Olam – Today is The Birth of the World”- as we say in one of the most famous prayers of Rosh HaShana.  According to our tradition, the world was actually created on Rosh HaShana – and what a powerful image that is as we face a new year. It is definitely like birthing a new world – filled with new energy, new possibilities and projects, new things to learn, new hopes and ideas.  For our family, the image of birth and a new world has a very deep meaning as we anxiously and excitedly expect the birth of our first grandchild in the next couple of weeks, God-willing – a what changes that will bring to our family!

Yes, Rosh HaShana  is certainly an awesome and auspicious time for each of us,  and as Jews, we know it is a time for us to look inward at ourselves, examining what we have thought, felt, and done in the past year – and where we are heading, where are we developing if we continue on this path.  In a seminar I attended this past year, we were each asked “What do you love about your life?” – and then given the assignment of asking others we knew what they loved about their lives.  Giving it a slightly different twist, I thought as we begin this new year at Rosh HaShana, we could ask ourselves, what is it we like or love about being Jewish – especially in the 21rst century? What is it that in these days when assimilation is rampant and the Jewish community no longer lives in cohesive units that keeps us identifying ourselves as Jewish in some way and even coming to the synagogue to celebrate the start of our Jewish New Year? Why do we continue – and moreover HOW does this happen that after more than 4,000 years we are still here? There must be something that keeps us going, that we deeply cherish that is our own raison d’etre, our reason for being in existence.

A few years ago, the Dalai Lama, worried how his own people, the Buddhist people of Tibet, might yet survive under Communist Chinese rule, especially while he, their spiritual leader, was forced into exile.  He came to the leaders of the Jewish people in the West and wanted to know what the Jewish secret of survival was – and this he wrote about in the well-known book The Jew and The Lotus.  In searching for this answer he met with major scholars and leaders from all the different movements in Judaism today, from Orthodoxy to Jewish Renewal.  In talking, for example, with Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, a modern Orthodox rabbi, the Dalai Lama heard about the importance of the Covenant between God and the Jewish people, that has been specified as a voluntary act with the initiative being more than ever on the human side- we will uphold the Covenant even if God did not do so  in the Holocaust.  There is much to learn about both Judaism and Buddhism from reading  this book and contemplating the similar dilemmas we face living in a predominantly secular world.   

Modern Jewish historians have also probed this question of continued Jewish existence, coming up with some interesting answers. Some have said that Jewish existence , illogically , depends on the repeated cycles of persecution; Jews awaken to their identity, bond together as a people, and stubbornly cling to Judaism when under attack. Another theory says that Jews have developed special abilities to preserve their culture in all kinds of conditions; yes, adaptations have been made but holidays, rituals, languages and texts which emphasize Jewish values have been preserved throughout our history. A third theory posits that certain beliefs, values, customs and laws have enabled Jews to survive and kept Jews separate from the rest of the populations where Jews have lived; for example, the emphasis on education gave the Jews a high level of literacy, even during the downgrading of general education during the Middle Ages, and helped to catapult Jews into top professional fields once the universities opened up to them in the Enlightenment Age.  Finally there is the theory which the Torah presents – that there is a supernatural protection or intervention, that it is God who repeatedly insures our survival, even after much destruction and turmoil. 

        These theories may help to explain our continued existence, but I don’t think they really looked at what Jews LOVE about being Jewish, what we really enjoy or are attached to if we are totally honest with ourselves.   I’d like to offer you my answers, but feel free to come up with some of your own.  The first thing I love about being Jewish in the 21rst century is probably most obvious to everyone – it is the chance to be a female rabbi- a childhood dream of mine that once seemed impossible.  Yes, back in the 1950’s, when I was growing up, my rabbi told me the best I could do was marry a rabbi and become a rebbetzin! Thanks to the feminist movement and the foresightedness of our Jewish leaders, women in our day and age can become rabbis, cantors, Torah scribes, consultants on Jewish law, witnesses for rabbinic courts and signers of legal documents, and even mohalot – women who perform ritual circumcision.   While I know that these roles may still feel a little odd and uncomfortable for many people who grew up unconsciously associating these roles only  with men, our children and grandchildren do not have such preconceived ideas; I am sure that when they are adults  in a generation, this will no longer be an issue and women will comfortably be accepted in these positions as naturally as they are in most other professions today. To me it feels like getting reconnected with a stage in our history when women like Deborah and Miriam could be prophetesses and judges, musicians and singers in the Temple, teachers and interpreters of Jewish law.  For too long women’s voices have been silenced and their full participation banned. Now we are opening a new chapter where women can not only write their own Torah commentaries and midrashim, but can become  integrated and equal partners with their male colleagues in Jewish intellectual and spiritual leadership.  My own role model was my maternal grandfather who was the president of the Jewish community of Luxembourg – and somehow I think he and my own parents would be happy to see me and all the 800 plus  female rabbis and cantors that serve congregations  across America today. 

The second thing that I love about being Jewish in the 21rst century is that we live in a time of tremendous creativity in Jewish life, especially in the arts. In the field of music alone, our services are being recreated with lively new melodies by  modern composers like Debbi Friedman, Craig Taubman, Dudu Fisher, and Shomo Carlebach and   “the maverick” of congregational music Cantor Sol Zim, as well as by others who have given new twists to old melodies and Hasidic niggunim. If you  look at the catalogs for The Source of Everything Jewish or  Alicia Nelson’s Tradition, Tradition you can see the gorgeous new art pieces being produced for all kinds of ritual objects by artists in Israel and in the USA. Jewish theater – and even Yiddish theater – is alive and well in every major city in the USA, Israel and Europe, while Jewish film festivals are of such high quality now that their entries often become part of the big screen as well as Netflix offerings.  And as the People of the Book, we are not only producing great writers – such as Naomi Ragen, Amos Oz,  Elie Wiesel  and Mitch Albom – but offering the Jewish perspective in print on every subject on the planet, both with gravity and humor.  New Jewish magazines and websites abound, also covering the political and religious spectrum.  Jewish cuisine has also flourished so that one can find Jewish cookbooks, restaurants and specialty products related to all the different countries where Jews have lived, with a dizzying number of  kashrut symbols for the whole spectrum from glatt kosher to eco-kosher.  Culturally and spiritually, too, there are all kinds of new entities and practices appearing, such as JACS which helps Jews with substance abuse issues, Jewish World Watch which does both political and social action work on global issues like Darfur, and Eylat Chayim which offers lively  courses and  unique Jewish spiritual experiences in a year-round adult camp setting.  New ceremonies are being created for all kinds of lifecycle events such as becoming a grandparent, getting a driver’s license, healing from a divorce, and transitioning into menopause. And while most of these innovative projects are originating in the USA or Israel, through the new connections of our web-linked world, we are learning about and from the Jews of many different parts of our planet today.

Finally, I am thrilled to live in an age of such openness that we are able to talk and share our Jewish spiritual and cultural life with so many other peoples and faiths. There seems to be a genuine interest for many non-Jews  in our beliefs and way of life. For some, it is a way of tracing the origins of their own Abrahamic faith and in the process we all become much more aware of our shared values and ancestry than of our differences.  For others, it has led them on a discovery that Judaism is what speaks to them from some deep place within their hearts and they bravely decide to pursue this path to conversion and an active life as new members of our people.( I have had the great privilege already to be present at seven such conversions in the past three years.) This inclusiveness of Jews and Jewish life in America also ranges from, on one end of the spectrum, the intense and deeply moving experiences of those non-Jews who visit Auschwitz or the many Holocaust Museums in this country or are, like the children and teachers of the Ozarks, who were so moved to produce the movie Paperclips, telling the story of their study of the Holocaust and the unique memorial they created. And ,on the other end of the spectrum, we find the Jewish characters and themes appearing in popular TV shows and movies, while Yiddish expressions like “schvitzing, schlepping, and kvelling” are heard in the mouths of seminar leaders, radio and TV personalities, and your next-door neighbor.  Every time I have some new evidence of how much Jews and Jewish life is becoming integrated into our greater American life, I momentarily stop in amazement and appreciation – after all it is only 63 years since my own mother stood on the deck of the Queen Mary as it passed the Statue of Liberty, and thanked God for having been one of the few who survived the hatred-fueled extermination plans of the Nazis in Europe.

Our age has been rightfully compared to the Golden Age in Spain when Jews and Muslims lived together peacefully and both cultures flourished. Today, being Jewish in the 21rst century, in the United States of America, I feel blessed to be Jewish at this great time of life – to be an ordained woman rabbi, to be stimulated by the renaissance of Jewish culture, and to be witness to the interest in and integration of Jewish ideas and customs by the non-Jewish world.

So with this great joy and appreciation on this Rosh Hashana, it seems to me that the words of the Psalm 100 ring true now more than ever:

        “Ivdu et HaShem B’simcha –

        Worship God in gladness;

        Come into God’s Presence with shouts of joy;

       Acknowledge that Adonai is God;

      He made us and we are His, His people, the flock He tends.

      Enter His gates with praise, His courts with acclamation.

     Praise God!

     Bless God’s Name!

    For Adonai is good;

   His steadfast love is eternal; His faithfulness is for all generations.”


        As we go forth into the Eseret Y’mai Teshuva – the 10 Days of Repentance which leads us up to Yom Kippur – let us each find in ourselves the answers to what we love about being Jewish and turn ourselves in that direction again, the one that puts us back in relation with God and the deep love of life. Shana Tova  U’Mtooka – A Good and Sweet Year to each of you!