Sermon: Rosh Hashanah 5772 by Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell

Rosh HaShana 5772

Temple House of Israel, Staunton, VA
Temple Beth El, Harrisonburg, VA
29/30 September 2011

To everything there is a season
And a time to every purpose under heaven
Ecclesiastes 3:1

Sue Levi Elwell

I am so very happy to be here with you once again, celebrating my seventeenth Rosh HaShana with you in the Shenandoah Valley. As many of you know, I am here because of Rabbi Lynne Landsberg’s invitation, so many years ago. I feel deeply blessed to have returned to this bima to begin another year with you.

As we began our service tonight, I asked each of you to return to the events of the past year, to recall where you have been, what you have done, how you have fared over the past twelve months. Those days are gone forever. We are now in a new moment, a new day, a new year.

This week, I was challenged to think about time in new ways. A dear friend and I spent an hour experiencing a newly acquired art piece by Christian Marclay entitled The Clock that is currently on view at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. This ingenious, engaging and compelling installation addresses the question of our relationship to time, how we measure it, how we number and mark our minutes and our hours. This 24 hour long, masterfully constructed cinematic collage is coordinated to the local time in every venue in which it is shown. We walked into a dark room and sat down on couches and literally watched time pass, viewing snippets of film showing men and women from across the world checking their watches, reading clocks, and exclaiming about time left, time spent, time lost.

Tonight, each of us made time to mark the beginning of this new year. How did we manage that? How do each of us relate to time? How do we begin our days, and then meet our appointments as the day stretches out? Some of us are blessed with reliable biological clocks that rouse us from sleep and shake us into each new day. But most of us rely on alarm clocks or preset cell phones or coffee makers whose bells and whistles, music and aroma interrupt and demand the end of our deep or fitful sleep. Throughout the day, most of us are checking our watches or clocks on the wall or on our computers, consulting a wide range of devices to help us order our days, meet our commitments, begin and end projects, and take care of bodily needs. How often have we looked at the time and exclaimed, “I need to eat!” Or “look what time it is! I need to go to sleep!”

How different was our ancestors’ relationship to time! Every day, they measured their days by the sun’s journey across the sky, and every evening, they watched the moon rise. They enumerated each month by the moon’s predictable and marvelous phases, watching as this far away light expanded and contracted, waxing and waning, month after month, season after season. Too many of us have lost our connection to the natural cycle of time. With electricity and stimulants, we turn night into day. Streetlights and florescent bulbs flood artificial light into both outside and inside spaces that would naturally be dark and mysterious or menacing. And during the day, when the sun is bright or perhaps filters through clouds, we turn day into night by pulling down shades or blocking out the light with heavy curtains and sedatives.

On Rosh HaShana, we Jews reclaim our relationship to time. We intentionally gather together to hear the sound of the shofar, to be woken up to the possibilities of presence and service in the year that lies ahead.

Our ancestors called this day the birthday of the world. For children, and for many of us who are no longer children, birthdays are magical dates on the calendars. We count down towards our birthdays, consciously or unconsciously measuring and evaluating the activities of our days. We adults often use our birthdays as targets for achieving particular goals. By the time I turn 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 or 70 or 80, I want to …

The psalmist teaches, “limnot yamenu: teach us to number our days,” (Psalm 90:12), also translated as “Make known to us the best way to count our days.” The verse concludes, “ so that we may develop hearts of wisdom.” We count in order to use our time wisely. And we count today to set forth priorities for the year that opens us before us.

Today, we are here to celebrate a shared birthday, a birthday of the earth, the planet, the cosmos. This is the uber-birthday, the birthday of time and consciousness. This is a birthday of every creature who ever lived. This is a birthday that has been celebrated throughout time by everyone who has, at any time during their lives, connected with Judaism.

On this day, we step not away from but into our lives, and into a greater consciousness. On this day when we celebrate the mystery and the glory of Creation, we wonder anew at God’s wisdom and power. And as we reclaim wonder and awe, we also reconsider our own place in creation.

We have come together tonight in this sanctuary to share in what is called “avodah,” or sacred service. The Hebrew word avodah has several meanings. We often think immediately of sacred service, as in, “I’m going to services.” But there are many layers to this seemingly simple Hebrew word. The noun avodah, ayin, vet, vav, daled, hey, means work, labor, toil, action. It also means service, employment, occupation, profession; it also means creation, piece of work. Finally, avodah means worship, divine service, liturgy.

So if we ask ourselves, what is our avodah, we are asking, “what is our work in the world?” And we are also asking deeper questions: “how do we serve in the world? How do we express our appreciation for the gift of being alive?”

This is, I believe, a perfect time for us to consider this question. I began with thoughts on time. How do we pass time? How do we number our days? Do we get up in the morning with dread, or with excitement and anticipation about the opportunities that will unfold in the day ahead? Today is a day to re-evaluate our lives and our choices and to reclaim that regardless of the complexities of our lives, each of us chooses, each day, how to approach the time that we are given. Will we begin our day with a sense of service, of giving, of opening ourselves to possibility? Or will we shut our eyes and ears and hearts against the cries of the world?

Opportunities for service begin with the most basic tasks: cooking and cleaning. In the last week, I have been moved by the power of the simple provision of meals to family members. One longtime friend, an excellent cook, lovingly provides beautiful, nutritious meals to her large family, day after day. Another friend, Karen, has suddenly become the guardian for twin teenagers, a brother and sister who were orphaned when their single mother died of cancer several months ago. Karen is learning how to cook so that she can provide hot meals for these kids when they return home from school each evening. This is sacred service, not simply the act of shopping for and preparing and serving each meal, but the clarity of doing so with intention that fuels the act. Sacred service is fulfilling the commitment to care for and nurture those we love.

And then there are those who cook for strangers: the cooks in schools and hospitals, in diners and restaurants and factories. How often do we acknowledge their service, their care, their work that literally sustains us?

Sacred service: from cooking to cleaning

Perhaps you are familiar with the tale of the rabbi who cannot be found when it is time for the Rosh HaShana prayers to begin. His followers spread out through the town to look for him, and finally find him, sweeping the dirt floor of the tumble-down shack of a poor, ill, elderly widow. “Rabbi,” they say, “we require your presence at the synagogue!” The rabbi straightens up and looks his followers in the eye. “The Holy One requires my presence here. I will join you in time.”

Cleaning. How often do we consider the holiness of creating and maintaining domestic order?

Years ago, I read a theological reflection on drying dishes that deeply affected me. The anthropologist Barbara Meyerhoff interviewed an elderly Jewish woman, Rachel, asking her about her European childhood. “Now I did not like to wipe the dishes because the towel was so rough, it didn’t feel good, and I did not know how to explain this to Grandmother. The towel was thick, tough, because everthing had to be sturdy, not refined like if it would be in a rich house where they got everything soft. So I rebelled against that. The job was not well done. I’ll never forget that, how my grandmother, she took me aside one day. She did not reprimand me in front of everybody. She began first all around with praises. “Ruchele,” she says, “you know you are a beautiful girl” (and maybe I was), “Ruchele, you know you are carrying a holy name. And according to your name, you have to be perfect.” Well, she gave me all that until when I looked at her, my spirit was rising and rising, higher and faster until I forgot all about that sturdy towel and my hatred for it. The towel, it was straight from the peasants, you could make rugs from it. But after that speech, I was transformed into a different person. The towel became soft as fine linen and I loved to wipe the dishes. And always before me, when I was wiping the dishes was the name of the holy mother Rachel, and I thought, “She’s right. I am that woman.’ That, that is what I call domestic religion. It makes the adrenaline flow. It changes your entire view on things.”

Each of us, like Ruchele, is named after a holy ancestor. Some of bear names that make it clear. Some of us spend our lives looking for that name, and that ancestor. Others of us understand that our very presence here, on this day, connects us with a people and a tradition that, in some mysterious way, names us and claims us. Our presence here today reminds us that we are connected with a large and diverse and ever-growing family of those who are given the gift, every year, of beginning again. Our presence here today reminds us that we, like Rachel, can be ennobled and empowered by changing the way we engage in the dailiness of our lives. Whether wiping dishes or preparing meals, or sweeping the floor for someone who cannot care for him or herself, we are engaging in holy work, sacred service, avodat kodesh.

As I wrote this sermon, these words, by the poet Marge Piercy, echoed in my mind. I share with you this excerpt from her wonderful poem, “To Be of Use”:

The people I love the best
Jump into work head first
Without dallying in the shallows
And swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
Who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
Who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
Who do what has to be done, again and again.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
Has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.

Do we take up the work of the word, as “common as mud”, and respond when we, like those who prepare food, like Ruchele, like the rabbi in the tale, are called to be present? Do we “harness” ourselves, “an ox to a heavy cart”/ pulling “like water buffalo,” doing “what has to be done, again and again”?

Ecclesiastes teaches, “L’col zman v’et l’col hafetz tachat hashamayim: for everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.”

May the sound of the shofar on this Rosh HaShana awaken each of us to the preciousness of each moment, each hour, each day.

On this birthday of the world, may each of us consider how we can serve in this new year.

May 5772 be a year in which we reclaim the power and the holiness of caring for others with simple gifts that ease others’ burdens.

May this new year be a year in which we harness ourselves to hope.

1 I continue to search for a source of this story. If you are reading this and can help me, please let me know: slelwell@urj.org
2 Barbara Meyerhoff, Number Our Days (NY: A Touchstone Book/Simon and Schuster, 1978), 235.
3 From Circles On the Water: Selected Poems of Marge Piercy, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982, 106.