This morning, I’d like to spend some time talking about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the days in between, which all together are known as the Jewish High Holy Days. And I want to begin with an acknowledgement that although I’ve had a deep life-long respect for Judaism, and attended the bar and bat mitzvahs of many friends in my youth, I am not Jewish.
But Judaism, along with Christianity and other world religions and indigenous, earth-based traditions, is one of the many sources of our Living Tradition as Unitarian Universalists. We recognize the wisdom in them all. And so this is an opportunity to say, “There’s wisdom here! Let’s take a look together and see what we can learn.”
I also want to say something about our experiment with themes. September’s theme has been Expectation, and we’ve talked about having open minds and hearts as we begin a new year, and about some of what to expect during this interim period. And we talked last week a little bit about optimism, pessimism and “apocalyoptimism” when it comes to our expectations for a climate-changed future, and how our expectations for that future shape our creative capacity to imagine.
Starting next week, our theme will be Letting Go.
Today is a bit of a bridge week, for there are ways in which the Jewish High Holy Days touch on both expectation and letting go, as we’ll see.
The danger of talking about the High Holy Days as one thing is that it is easy for us to conflate two distinct holidays that begin and end that 10-day period in the Jewish calendar. So I want to begin by talking about each day separately.
Rosh Hashanah begins as the sun sets this afternoon. It marks the beginning of a new year in the Jewish calendar, the first (and sometimes also 2nd) day of the first month of Tishri. People wish one another a sweet new year, and dip apples in honey to symbolize it.
The main biblical story of Rosh Hashanah is the creation story, the story of Adam and Eve, which is a story of great potential, promise and expectation…and also a story of human frailty, disappointment and imperfection.
The main symbol of Rosh Hashanah is the shofar – the ram’s horn – which is sounded during Rosh Hashanah services, sometimes over 100 times. The shofar’s sound is not sweet or melodious, but jarring, meant to wake up the spiritually sleeping, to call the Jewish people to repentance, a call to turn inward to reflect, and to turn to God and to neighbors and friends and family to repent, to atone and to ask forgiveness. Our responsive reading this morning is a Rosh Hashanah reading, a call to turning, which is also called “teshuvah.”
This is the day on which, according to Jewish teaching, the Book of Life is opened, and the Jewish people have the next ten days to make sure their names are inscribed in it before it is sealed on Yom Kippur. They can help assure that by repairing relationships and making amends.
The central prayer of Rosh Hashanah is to ask God for a year of great things – a year of peace, a year of blessings, a year of prosperity. This is a prayer of dreaming big, of imagining and asking for what could be.
The last thing I want to say about Rosh Hashanah is about the ritual that ends its observance. After the service in the synagogue has ended, and after the big dreams have been dreamed, the congregation walks to a body of water for the ritual of tashlich. Tashlich means “you will cast” in Hebrew.
As a ritual, tashlich is, according to Rabbi Goldie Mildran, “the practice of standing before a body of water and tossing some [bread]crumbs, which represent the remaining sticky points within your persona that get in the way of your having [or] creating a good year.”
Traditionally that has meant the casting away of sins. According to some contemporary interpretations, that means the casting away of unhealthy patterns that make us fall short, including worry, fear, and regret. One rabbi has written a tashlich chant that includes the line, “I cast out my worries, I cast out my fears,” that her people are invited to chant as they release their crumbs on to the surface of the water.
Drawing on this wisdom, I want to invite you to take a moment to quietly think about what fears or worries or regrets might be keeping you from committing yourself fully to trying to achieve your highest ideals at this moment in your life.
And now I invite you to cast them away.
Yom Kippur will begin at sunset on Tuesday, October 8th and continue until nightfall on the 9th.
The time between now and then, the High Holy Days or the Days of Awe, is, again, a time to amend behavior and seek forgiveness, to repent of wrongdoing and repair relationships.
The main biblical story associated with Yom Kippur is the story of Jonah, which Lauren shared with us this morning.
This is the ancient story of the prophet who refused to follow God’s request that he go to Ninevah. Instead he traveled by ship toward the city of Tarshish, only to encounter a terrible storm and be thrown overboard by his ship’s companions once they realized that he had gone against God’s wishes and was thereby endangering their lives.
They tossed him overboard and he was swallowed by a whale and lived in the belly of that whale for 3 days and 3 nights before being spit up again on dry land. And only then, seeing that God had had mercy on him and had saved his life, did he finally agree to go where God had wished to send him in the first place.
Why the story of Jonah?
According to rabbinic teaching, the belly of the whale is symbolic of this time of turning inward this time of cleansing and taking responsibility for one’s actions. According to tradition, the story of Jonah is..
1. Read to remind us of God’s infinite mercy
2. Read as a symbol of turning or repentance
3. Read as a reminder that the whole world is in God’s hands, not just our part of it
The story is read, too, because there is a sense in which we are all Jonah. Yes, according to the Kabbalah, the mystical body of Jewish writings, this is the story of your life – of my life, too – and of all our lives. That news may seem suspect if you’ve never actually had the experience of having been swallowed up or spit out by a large sea creature. But there is a very elaborate explanation in the Kabbalah for how it is so.
Here’s my simple, non-rabbinical take, based on writings of some contemporary rabbis: We are all like Jonah in that we, too, hesitate at times to say “yes,” to commit ourselves, to make or follow through on promises. We, too, at times have failed to live up to our purpose, to be our best selves, to follow through in the mission that calls to us, whatever that mission may be. We, too, have sought to escape because we’ve been afraid (or for other reasons).
This is another opportunity to consider what it is that holds you back, what it is that keeps you from jumping into a new year with both feet to do what you are called to do.
The last thing I want to say about Yom Kippur is about the central prayer of that day, the Kol Nidre, which means “all vows.” It is chanted three times at the beginning of the Yom Kippur services. Literally translated, it more or less says:
“All vows, obligations, and oaths, by whatever name, which we may vow, or swear, or pledge, or whereby we may be bound, from this Day of Atonement until the next we do repent. May they be deemed absolved, forgiven, annulled, and void, and made of no effect; they shall not bind us nor have power over us. The vows shall not be reckoned vows; the obligations shall not be obligatory; nor the oaths be oaths.”
It is important to understand that the Kol Nidre refers not to the promises we make to one another, but to those that we make to that which is bigger than ourselves – to God, many would say, or to our highest ideals. What is really being said through its declaration is, “Whatever I promise YOU this year, God, please don’t hold me to.” It may seem strange to our ears. Why make a promise that you have no intention – or no ability – to keep?
According to some contemporary rabbis, the first real point of the Kol Nidre is to acknowledge our humanness and with it our imperfection. It is to say, “Look God, I’m going to make you these promises, and I’m going to try to keep them, but you’ll have to forgive me ahead of time, because I’m human, and imperfect, and I sometimes fall short.”
But again, why bother making the promises?
Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt helped me to understand the meaning of the central prayer of Yom Kippur by looking back at the meaning of the central prayer of Rosh Hashanah. He writes:
“You would think that on the awesome Day of Judgment [which is Rosh Hashanah]…we would pray for forgiveness… But…
“What do we ask? We ask that God perfect the world. We ask for unity amongst people. We ask for harmony. We ask for the destruction of evil and justice in response to righteousness. In short, we ask that God bring us the Messianic Age. It’s all lovely stuff, but at first glance, it seems a little out of place on Rosh Hashana.
“In fact, it’s exactly what Rosh Hashana is all about.
He goes on to say that at the time of the New Year, the real question is what are we going to do with the year ahead? Are we going to strive for the great or aim for the mediocre? Are we going to try to improve ourselves, our characters, our relationships, and the world? Or are keep on keeping on and hoping for the best?
Rosh Hashana [says Rosenblatt] is there to lift our sights, to remind us to dream. And to dream of great things – peace, love, justice…Why bother dreaming of anything less. By dreaming grandiose dreams, we remind ourselves that life really does matter. This is not just another year of drudgery. It is a year in which we can accomplish great things. We remind ourselves that we really do want another year, another opportunity to strive towards making a difference.
So the message of Rosh Hashanah, according to Rosenblatt, seems to be that we’re meant to live big. As Marianne Williamson, spiritual teacher and presidential candidate has said, “Your playing small does not serve the world.” [There is great wisdom in that, but by no means am I endorsing her candidacy.]
And yet we also know that if we dream big, we’re going to come up short sometimes, which leads us directly to Yom Kippur, celebrated 10 days later.
According to another rabbi, Hilary L. Palmer:
“…God wants us not to be afraid to make promises that we may or may not be able to keep. God wants us to say that we will reach the horizon, and try for it, though it is always out of our grasp.”
“That [she says] is what Kol Nidre is. Encouragement to try anyway. To promise anyway…God says…, ‘Promise again. If you fail I will forgive you again, but you might just succeed.”
According to another Jewish writer, Dina Coopersmith, “On Rosh Hashana, since the world starts anew, we can transcend our past limitations and reach for the stars. We can choose new goals and redirect ourselves toward greater purpose and meaning, as individuals and as a nation. We can choose life.”
“Rosh Hashana is the time to envision your future and determine how you want to direct your ambitions and desires…this year.”
So take another quiet moment to reflect with me…
What do you want most to accomplish in the coming year? As an individual? As a congregation? Dream big!
Now, in closing, take a deep breath and hear these words from the Kol Nidre, as interpreted by UU minister, the Rev. Mark Belletini…
We vowed, not so long ago, to live lives that added, not subtracted.
We promised, not so long ago, to live lives that matched our words,
Lives not hard and brittle with anger, but soft with letting go.
We made an oath, not so long ago, to live lives that reached for the stars,
And did not consist of strings of little disappointments,
Or fragments of the shattered dreams we once used as mirrors
To see how good we looked.
The days have flown quickly and they will flow quickly in the year to come.
Circumstance, stress and brokenness come to all – it is the human condition.
And thus I say before the witness of the blue sky bending above,
And before the nodding blue chicory flowers of early autumn
Still growing here below,
And before the clear eyes of children not yet born,
Children who will inherit the world from us,
That all the vows we will make not long from now,
All the promises we will make, all the unspoken oaths we will declare,
Are hereby cancelled, annulled, voided and made unbinding.
So may it be. Amen and Blessed be.