Sermon: Rosh Hashanah 5773 by Rabbi Joe Blair

Rosh Hashanah 5773

Rabbi Joe Blair
10 Year Retrospective: What Matters?

Shana tovah, chag sameach.
Let me begin, please, but telling you what I am NOT going to talk about. Many or most of you have heard of the recent (just a few days ago) vandalism of the Islamic Center of the Shenandoah Valley, in Harrisonburg, in which that building was defaced with anti-Islamic graffiti and crude, insulting language. Lest anyone think that the Jewish community did not stand and speak out, I simply want to inform you that I wrote a letter of support to the members of the Islamic Center on behalf of the Jewish community, and apologized that we would not be attending their rally to show support, explaining that it was ONLY because it was on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. I went on to express my hope that our communities, the Jewish and the Islamic, could continue to work, together with members of the Christian community, towards improving our region and creating a better world for all of us.
I am not going to say any more about this now, simply because it is not the appropriate topic for today. Rosh Hashanah is a time of aspiration, hope, and looking towards the future.
Dwelling on the negative and destructive events of the past will not, in itself, help or strengthen us, allowing and encouraging us to take a deep breath, gird our loins, and step up to take the actions needed to make the world a better place – and that is the real focus for us of Rosh Hashanah and the Yamim Nora'im. So now I will turn instead to other matters. If you wish to speak to me after the holidays about this, or wish to work with me, and others, to repair this hurt to our neighbors and our community, I will welcome that conversation, and your participation in that endeavor.

Now, turning, at this time of turning and re-turning, to this holiday. We have come once again full cycle, returning back to the beginning of the year, the start of our calendar. It feels odd to me, in a way, to mark that turning of the wheel. We do it each year, but this time, for me at least, it somehow has a sharper feeling of poignancy, a deeper sting. Perhaps that goes with aging – I am, after all, now passing through my middle age - or perhaps it comes as a result of losses, or possibly from having seen it enough times to recognize the pattern, to feel its warp and woof, and to be able to know how it it is constructed, how it fits together, and how it unravels at the ends for each one of us at some moment. I have to admit that to be understand and to see the pattern is not yet, for me, to be resigned to it or to accept it gracefully, but this, too. is a stage along that path we as humans walk.
This moment marks the tenth time I have stood before you at this holiday. I can tell you sincerely that I am quite pleased to see you, and very happy that you are here to share this season with me, whether for the first time, or once again, for the tenth. I can honestly say that I am grateful for the opportunity to celebrate with you - each one of you – to experience this holiday, again, now. It is an honor, a privilege, and a gift to be welcomed to be part of your lives, and I am sensible of it, and thank you for it.
Collectively, you have come, in these ten years, to be my Jewish community, those with whom I mark the milestones and the rhythms of Jewish life – the extended family that I care about and for.
When I came here to serve as your rabbi ten years ago my goal and my vision was to build a stronger, more vibrant Jewish community, to help that community to be proud of itself and its' part in the larger community, to serve as a voice and face for that community where needed, to empower the members of that community each to find and refine their own Judaism, and to reinvigorate that community with the power of Torah: the power of Jewish learning, Jewish values, Jewish ethics and morals, and Jewish derekh eretz.
It is hard for me to give an honest assessment of how that goal has been met for a number of reasons. First, because it feels immodest to speak of the successes, especially in language that can be heard as me, claiming that “I” did it, “I” am responsible, when I really mean 'we.'
Second, because to speak of any failures might be seen as blaming those on the community, when the fault may in fact lie with me, either in formulating my vision, my communication about it, or my execution of it, rather than in those I sought to lead.
I am not sure how to overcome these dangers, so the best measure to assess where we are today as a community is likely to be the collective sense of the community. Nonetheless, I can say today that from my perspective, this community seems stronger, surer of itself, more comfortable and at ease with the larger community, and more able to live out the Jewish values it holds dear. And for all that I would wish for more (and those of you who know me, know that I do!), the level of Jewish knowledge among the members of this community, the willingness to engage with Jewish texts and thought, the Jewish skills and literacy of the youngsters in the Religious school and the regulars at services, all seem to me to be significantly increased over the time that I arrived, and therefore better. So, by these measures, I think that this community is stronger, more vibrant, and healthier. That matters to me, not only because it makes me happy to see that my goals and vision are progressing, but even more so because I see this community as proudly standing its ground, doing what is right, and serving to fulfill the mission commanded us as Jews to be 'a kingdom of priests and a holy nation' [Ex. 19:6], and thus serve as an example to the world. Are we perfect? Absolutely not. Can we do better? Without question. Are we on the right path? I believe so, and I hope that you agree with me and will work with me to continue as we have been doing. I recall the famous teaching in this context: in the name of Rabbi Tarfon “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task; and you are not free to desist from it.” from BT Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 2:21. In short, it will take time to accomplish our task, but we are not the last ones who will work at it – we serve as links in a finely wrought and beautiful chain of tradition that stretches back into the distant past, and forward into the unknowable future. Our task is to keep faith with the past, to do our best, and to build for the future.

SO now, in a more prosaic sense, how have we been doing this past year, and how does it seem to be shaping up for the current year? This is what it looks like to me.
Looking back, I see that this past year has once again been full of events, as were each of those years past; events running the gamut of emotions. Last year, just as this year has begun, I began my preparations for the High Holy Days under the shadow of officiating at a funeral for a person who tragically died far too young. This was followed closely by a B'nai Mitzvah, the annual Selichot & Havdalah service, and last year it was a Simchat Bat while this time it is to be a Brit Milah.
Last year there was a Memorial service, an unveiling, a wedding, and Shiva minyanim – all following the High Holy Days, and before the end of October. It is quite possible that we will be on a similar track for much the same pattern in the coming weeks and months ahead. And so on, through the year....

So my observation is that the years have acquired a feeling of repetition, a pattern that flows from one to the next. Not to say that they are all the same - not at all! But the outline, the shape of the years seems to me from this vantage point of life to be following a rough outline as the pattern – and the pattern is becoming recognizable, and even familiar.
And with that outline, we impose a sense of structure and a feeling of knowledge, and sometimes even control. We 'know' that the holidays will fall on these dates; that the congregation will hold events around them, and that we will make plans with that in mind. We 'know' what is planned, and what we will be doing – or at least, we think we do.
It is very much like the way that we read Torah. We have the overall story, and we know that at this point in the cycle we read this part, here we insert that holiday reading, then we repeat that section, and we go through the text week by seek, each year, in a pattern, a predictable and comfortable old friend.

As with Torah, so with life. [Pause]

But the analogy doesn't stop there. As with Torah – we return to the same point in the story, and we read it again (and again, and again, and again). But we find it is NOT STATIC, it does NOT stay the same. We know that the text on the page doesn't change from year to year, reading to reading, but it is a fact that the usage of words and the meanings that they convey do change over time. For example, the word 'weird' once meant something deadly and fatal Now it is used to indicate something strange or odd. To get a sense of it, note the weird sisters, the three witches, in Macbeth; I don't think he wanted us to consider them as odd ducks, but rather something otherworldly and dangerous, leading to death. Words change, usages change, and meanings shift. So what the text is telling us may evolve with the way our language moves and flows.

And more directly to the point, irrespective of any shift in usage – I – YOU – the Reader of that text DOES change – and NOT SLOWLY. We come to that text each time we encounter it from a different place.

This is exactly backwards to the analogy usually given: You have all heard it told that you can stand at the same point on the same river bank, and you are unchanged as you step in – but it is not really a repetition of an earlier experience when you do, because the stream itself has changed – hence the phrase, 'you cannot step into the same stream twice'. My point is that this is at least partially a false approach. The stream may have changed somewhat (our understanding of water may be different, it may contain new pollutants, the temperature may have changed); but whether the components of the stream have changed or not, YOU HAVE.

You are no longer the same- not the same set of cells, you are no longer the person whose memory contained only those events leading up to that earlier moment, you are no longer the person you were when you last entered that stream, or last read that text! The biggest change is in you!

This is what makes Torah a living document, and something we can talk about forever. There are at least as many readings of Torah as there are readers at that moment, and those readers change with time, so that each one of them may read that text in different ways as the stream of time flows along. In that way, just as we are constantly entering a new stream, and we are always in the process of becoming a new reader, there are an infinite number of ways to read the text, and we are always in that moment of encounter, along with everyone else who has ever been there at all! O M G, as they say. What a rich stew from which to nourish our souls and feed our minds! With this as the 'soul food' available to us, I would hope that we will all gain the understanding and awareness to know what to do and how to do it, along with the courage, strength, and will to act to change the world and make it a better place.

I told you earlier that Rosh Hashanah is a time of hope, aspiration, and looking toward the future. Let me confirm this with the words of the Torah itself, “For these commandments which I command you today are not too difficult for you, nor are they far off. They are not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ [Dev. 30:11-12, in Parashat Nitzavim, which we will read again on Yom Kippur morning] The Torah itself, speaking in the name and voice of God, tells us explicitly, 'you can do this!', 'you can succeed!', 'don't stress – just do your best!'. Take courage, have hope, reach for the heights! When you realize that God is your number one cheerleader, how can you not? And when you see that your community, those among whom you live and work are also cheering for you as well, and they all have confidence that you can succeed, you should feel the same way yourself. Enter this year with all the hope, anticipation, and energy you can muster, and know that your community is here, rooting for you. We want you to win, because in that way, we all win.

Chag sameach, and shana tovah umetukah tikateivu.