Rabbi Debra Rappaport for AARC, Erev Rosh Hashanah 5783
Why are you here? I invite you to please check in with yourself in this moment with
the question: why are you here tonight? If you’d be willing, please raise your hand for
as many of these are true for you:
I am here…
Because this is what Jews do on Rosh Hashanah
Because someone invited me
Because I love singing with other people
Because I love seeing my community, and this is when we gather
Because my soul needs this
Because my heart aches and I’m hoping for solace
Because it’s commanded in the Torah
Because my heart aches and this is a place I can sit with my feelings
Because this is where I talk with God or my higher power
What else? [because this is what our parents and grandparents and those
before them did]
All of the above?
There’s a story from early modernity, when Jews started having a choice about
whether to go to synagogue or not. Someone who was not so sure about whether
she wanted to go asked a couple friends: “Shmulik, why do you go to synagogue?”
Shmulek answered, “Nu, to talk to God!” Hmmm, she thought, not so sure about that
God thing, can’t be proved through modern science. “Moishie, why do you go to
synagogue?” she asked. “Nu? To talk to Shmulek!” he answered! So many reasons
bring us together for Rosh Hashanah! Jews have been gathering for this day since
the Torah (Lev 23 and Num 29), when God told Moses to proclaim to the Israelites:
בַּחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֜י בְּאֶחָ֣ד לַחֹ֗דֶשׁ יִהְיֶ֤ה לָכֶם֙ שַׁבָּת֔וֹן זִכְר֥וֹן תְּרוּעָ֖ה מִקְרָא־קֹֽדֶשׁ׃ In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion
commemorated with loud blasts. You shall not work at your occupations; and you
shall bring an offering by fire to יהוה.
The biblical commands for Rosh Hashanah are to remember (and/to) hear, to listen
to the shofar, and to not go to work.
So what’s the significance of the shofar, and what is this about remembering? The
sound of the shofar says “wake up! This is your life, this is it!” Rosh Hashanah is also
called Yom ha Zikaron – the day of remembering. “Remember who you are!
Remember what matters!” it says; “remember, you have choices! Wake up,
remember, you can change!” It’s also Yom haDin, a day of judgment, which calls us
to the work of teshuvah – to reflection, repentance and change – so that our behavior
aligns with our values.
Over the next 10 days, we’ll spend time immersed in rituals and imagery intended to
wake us up: “This is your life,” says the shofar, “this is it!” Some of our prayer
language praises the wondrousness of Creation, some bewails our lowly state; in
some we take responsibility; in some we ask for help. We will hear members’
reflections on big questions of life. We hope that by the end of Yom Kippur (or
Sukkot and Simchat Torah) we’ve been spiritually cleansed and renewed,
reconnected with our truest selves, and can move into winter with renewed joy and
Tonight, I want to begin with our setting, in this congregation, in the turning from
5782 to 5783. I’ll start with a little bit of my own reflection on this moment for all of us
as citizens of the planet and of this country; mostly I’ll talk about community and why
we need to do the holy work of living together.
Though we’re just meeting, and it’s my first time in Ann Arbor, we share some
context. Most of us are still figuring out how and when to come out of pandemic-
induced isolation. Isolation continues to take a concerning toll on mental as well as
physical health; our children lost the normalcy of school for too long. Loved ones
have died since this community was last together in physical space. Some of us
have had major life changes, some for the good, and some not of our choosing.
We humans are all in new terrain. With escalating disasters of flood, fire and draught
that would have been unimaginable a generation ago, not to mention all the ways
humans are violently dehumanizing one another, we need to CHOOSE LIFE like we
never have before. Not by doing ever more and faster. But by taking opportunities
like these High Holy Days to wake up to our actual connectedness and interbeing
with all humans and all life on earth.
I believe every one of us is already doing the best we can manage toward healing
and justice, and simple kindness. And, we’re confronted every day with relentless
heartbreaking news around the world, in our country, and for the earth herself. I
name some of these “headlines” as a way of naming the wider discourse from which
we arrive here, for our holy days. Many of us ache with a longing to make things
better, and at the very least to make meaning of what’s going on. Each one of us
holds part of that call, and we hold the questions together.
Very few of us, I imagine, are arriving already in a contemplative state of being. Our
lives are busy, fast-paced, governed by our fast-paced minds. It takes time to settle
into heart-space. If I invite you to hold in your mind’s eye a four-strand braided
challah perfectly roasted with golden sesame seeds on it – your mind is right there
with me, right? Our minds can see it and maybe even smell it instantly. But if I invite
you to feel the joys and the vulnerability of being human, can anyone get there
instantaneously? So we give ourselves this time, and many modalities, and many
different voices, including the shofar, to enter into this deep reflection.
Most of us are steeped in the waters of this country, the values of independence and
self-determination. We think, “Okay, I can wake up, remember, reflect and turn on
my own, or maybe even more thoroughly with some close friends and maybe a
therapist.” But can you? Will you? Why would you do that when you don’t have to?
Contemplating and taking responsibility for our lives in a real and deep way – waking
up, turning and returning – is the most important thing for our lives and our world.
And it’s terrifying. Sometimes life’s circumstances force that reckoning upon us. The
High Holy Days give us a chance to practice, to prepare, to build our support
systems – in the context of community.
The very act of questioning why Jews pray as a community goes back more than a
thousand years. Jewish philosopher Yehuda HaLevi’s The Kuzari (written in 11 th
century Spain in the Arabic language) presents a dialog, in which the king of the
Khazars (an Asian tribe that converted to Judaism in the eighth century), interviews
representatives of each of the three major religions, so he can discern which is the
The Khazar king asks the rabbi: If everyone read their prayers for themselves,
would not their soul be purer and their mind less abstracted?
The Rabbi responds:
Common prayer has many advantages. In the first instance a community will
never pray for something which is hurtful for the individual, while an individual
sometimes prays for something that is to another’s disadvantage.
One of the conditions of prayer, craving to be heard, is that its object be
beneficial to the world, and not harmful in any way.
Another is that an individual rarely accomplishes their prayer without slips and
errors. It has been laid down, therefore, that the individual recite the prayers of
a community, and if possible in a community of not less than ten persons, so
that one makes up for the forgetfulness or error of the other. In this way a
complete prayer is gained, and its blessing rests on every person. For the
Divine Influence is as the rain which waters an area, sharing its general
I wanted to share that complete quote, because of the authors absolute certainty that
prayer is essentially meaningful and serves to bring functional benefit to the pray’ers
and their community.
Yet there’s something deeper that calls us to community: our utter vulnerability as we
wake up to the human condition. Alan Lew says it best in This is Real and You are
“The first thing we do during the High Holidays is come together; we stand
together before God as a single spiritual unit. We do this out of a very deep
instinct… We need each other deeply. Here in the full flush of the reality of the
life-and-death nature of this ritual, here in the full flush of our impotence as
individuals to meet this most urgent emergency, our need for each other is
immense. We heal one another by being together. We give each other hope.
Now we know for sure – by ourselves, ain banu ma’asim, there is nothing we
can do. But gathered together as a single indivisible entity, we sense that we
do have efficacy as a larger, transcendent spiritual unit, one that has been
expressing meaning and continuity for three thousand years, one that includes
everyone who is here, and everyone who is not here, all those who came
before us, and all those who are yet to come, all those who are joined in that
great stream of spiritual consciousness from which we have been struggling to
know God for thousands of years. We now stand in that stream, and that is
first thing we do.”
Lew’s brilliance is in naming how impossible it is for anyone to feel competent in the
face of life’s reckoning AND that together as discrete communities of Jews, we’ve got
Specifically, here we are as the Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation. This
community is in its own tender time of transition. You said goodbye to your beloved
rabbi, Rabbi Ora, just a few months ago. “Who is this person, this rabbi, in front of us
now?” and “Who are we as a community?” might be questions you’re sitting with. I
can’t imagine the range of the questions you’re holding. But I do know that each one
of you holds an essential piece of this community’s waking up, remembering, and
returning to the essence of who you will be going forward. Singing, praying, sharing
kavanot together during our services provides a shared foundation for what will
unfold in the year ahead. I don’t want to suggest that our shared experience in
synagogue is enough to weave the fabric of real community. That requires shared
endeavors, and responsibilities toward one another, time, goodwill, and much more.
You are already a community. And from what I’ve seen over the past few months(especially with the Davening Team), you are in really good hands with your lay
leadership and engaged members.
So where are we? Each of us is here tonight for different reasons. Together, we have
entered an energetic flow of prayer and of peoplehood that extends geographically
around the world, back and forward in time. Our actions of waking up, remembering,
and turning are held and supported in the archetypal energy of holy space and time.
Facing the profound limitations and finitude of our human condition is terrifying – and
yet the process actually functions to free us up from the habits of mind and heart and
our habitual actions that hinder us from living deeply, fully, joyfully. There is deep
purpose in all this: The Torah says: “Today I place before you life and goodness, or
death and wickedness. For I command you this day to Love YHVH and walk in God’s
ways…” (Deut 30:15-16), Choose life, the Torah implores, not just going through the
motions. Be awake for it!
We begin the year with gratitude, celebration, and song. When we start with love and
connection, appreciating even the smallest good in ourselves and others, we can
create space where it is safe to feel what we need to feel – the whole range, laughter
and joy, tears and mourning. And space to know what we need to know. To make
amends where we need to make amends.
May we soften to what’s real and wake up to an ever deeper more authentic knowing
of connection and love. Shana tova.
We continue with the Aleynu, originally written for Rosh Hashanah: It is up to us to
offer praises to the Source of all, to declare the greatness of the author of Creation,
who gave to us teachings of truth and planted eternal life within us. V’Ain Od, there is
nothing else, none Other, on page 1202/1204, please rise.