Erev Rosh Hashanah Message

Rabbi Michal Woll

Rabbi Michal Woll
Photo: Stephanie Rowden

Rosh Hashanah may be the most complicated of our holy days, for its identity is fractured. In biblical tradition it was simply “day of blowing the horn.” Over millennia other purposes and themes have been layered upon it – the new year, the day of judgment, the day of remembrance, the day of crowning God, the day the world was made. I was inspired some months ago to focus this year on the last one – RH as the anniversary of creation, and tomorrow we will read a traditional alternative to the conventional torah reading – the first chapter of genesis, the original creation story.

Jews don’t seem to need to argue so much with this version of creation. One possible reason is that our tradition recognizes that the world is constantly being recreated and renewed. We sang at the opening of the service – chadesh yameinu kekedem – renew our days as of old, like at the beginning. We find in the morning liturgy: b’tuvo m’chadeish bechol yom tamid ma’aseih v’reishit – with divine goodness you renew, each day, continually, the work of creation. We too are renewed each day, reminded with the elohai neshamah – each morning we find a pure breath, a clear soul, ready for a new imprint that we make with our daily lives.

And our obligation following the second biblical creation story – the expulsion from Eden, which will be read and discussed a few weeks from now – is not to atone for the mistake of Adam and Eve but to strive to repair the gap between the world as we find it and the original vision of paradise. Unfortunately our job is not as easy as God’s was. God exclaimed: let there be light, and there was. As we will sing in the morning – baruch she’amar v’hayah ha’olam – blessed is the one who spoke and the world was. Wow – like magic. In fact, this moment is imbedded in the common language of conjuring and magic. Abra-cadabra is not merely gibberish syllables, but Talmudic Aramaic. A’bra – I create – the same root as the first line of torah – breishit bara elohim – in the beginning god created. Dabra – I will speak – related to the most common phrase in torah – vaydaber adonai el moshe – and God spoke to Moses. Abra cadabra – I create just as I speak.

We will need much more than magic words to fix our broken physical environment and social structures. Yet, we know our words are powerful. While it may seem that only the later verses of baruch she’amar can relate to humans, Jewish tradition, as well as modern psychology, tell us that we all create worlds with our words.

Sadly, our words and the worlds they create are often more destructive than creative. As we enter these days of repentance and explore the ways in which we might repair and renew our own lives, we should note how common it is for our shortcomings to involve our words –what we say, or neglect to say, to those around us, or to ourselves; through the stories we tell, about others and about ourselves, and the choices we make about what is public knowledge and what is private information. Psalm 34 reminds us the one who seeks a good long life guards their tongue. The rabbis knew how tempting and widespread are our challenges of speech and remind us more often than daily. At the end of the Amidah, the moment that just passed, after reciting the liturgy and standing in silence, is a meditation containing this prayer from the Talmud– Adonai, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceit. I am not sure which is sometimes harder for us –not speaking at all or choosing our words wisely, but each time I reach that passage I am always a bit amused by a message seems to say, “I am now about to leave this holy space, this safe cocoon of silence, oh man,

Of course the rabbis knew nothing of electronics and technology and over the years I have explored this theme and the risks and benefits of our communication systems, from the dangers of email to the insufficiency of virtual community. It is easy to be bombarded or hypnotized or paralyzed by the volume of unfiltered thoughts landing in inboxes and on blogs and comment pages, One of the hardest aspects of the difficult politic environment we are living in, flamed by a summer of war, is the failure of civil discourse and the ease with which clashes of ideas become personal attacks. It can feel futile to be to take care and be mindful of our words, hard to imagine that softer speech can make a difference. But it can. Especially to those closest circles of loved ones and community, who long for nothing more than a place to feel safe and loved, seen with an eye of compassion, and heard, ideally with an ear that understands we are doing our best. In 5775, let us all strive to offer our best.

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