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Happy New Year Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Aron

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The other day I was talking with a member of the congregation about the upcoming holidays. He is one of our regular honey cake bakers and so I assumed he enjoyed this time of year. He told me that wasn’t the case- actually he found Rosh Hashanah a real downer.

I was surprised. I know my family braces for the extra stress of the holiday preparations but I don’t think they would call it a downer. At Temple the pace really picks up as everyone comes back from vacation and has questions about religious school and services. But he doesn’t work in our office and doesn’t have any sermons to write, so what was going on.

I asked and he explained. His experience of the holidays was one of harshness, of forced fault finding, of breast beating and recrimination. It’s not surprising that his associations are negative.

While reflection and self-evaluation are an important part of Rosh Hashanah, I don’t think our tradition intended it to be a time of despair.

The Torah has various lists of the rules for Rosh Hashanah, but only one description of the people celebrating the holiday. It is found in the book of Ezra-Nehemiah. There was a year just after the people returned from the Babylonian Exile and wept on Rosh Hashanah. They heard the prophet Nehemiah reading the laws of the Torah, and realized that they had not followed these commandments of God.  Nehemiah then steps forward and advises the people to stop their weeping and be comforted. Instead of mourning, they should enjoy a festive meal and share their bounty with those in need. He concludes: “This day is holy to the Eternal One: do not be sad, for the joy of the Eternal is your strength.”

This week’s Torah portion begins with the words: “You shall appoint judges and officers in all your gates.” Then it continues, “They shall judge the people with justice.” Every year we read these words during the month of Elul, the month of preparation for the High Holy Days. Perhaps these words are not just to tell us about what happened so many centuries ago in ancient Israel but are also to guide us in the little courtroom scene within our hearts, as we make judgments about ourselves at this time of year.  What does it mean that these judgments should be done with justice?

Rabbi Levi Yizchak of Berdichev, one of the most famous of the Hasidic rebbes, best known for his defense of the Jewish people, interpreted these words in a very positive manner. He insisted that justice meant seeing the best in everyone. He wrote: “That is to say that everyone should train himself to judge others justly, to regard each person positively and justly.” We should give others and ourselves, the benefit of the doubt, to judge as the rabbis of the Talmud taught lekaf zechut, on the side of merit.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg, who will be speaking at our congregation next week, explains Rebbe Levi Yizchak words as follows: “What a liberating and empowering view of teshuvah, the repentance process. This teaching does not emphasize harsh self-examination, breast beating or finding fault with our own tendencies toward sin. Rather, we are asked to imagine that our own acts of kindness, our sincere wishes for the well-being of others and the effort we put into finding and evoking the best in others, can actually affect our fate, both individually and collectively.”

The month of Elul which began this past Wednesday is known in our tradition as a time of favor. The month is associated with loving relationships- its letters are the first letters in the phrase I am my beloved and my beloved is mine. It is a time when we can be more open, more receptive, more in touch with our own longings to live a righteous life and to connect with others. When we identify those ways we have missed the mark in the past year, it is not to dwell on our inadequacies or to seek out punishments for ourselves, but instead to feel in ourselves that sense of hope that comes from fresh beginnings.

Some years I comment at services about the very happy melodies that have been traditional for centuries for the list of our sins on Yom Kippur. Shouldn’t these lists  be sung as dirges?  Sad, slow and melancholy? But our tradition says no- this internal housekeeping is not about blame and shame, but about the positive satisfaction in identifying and removing that which keeps us from being our best selves. The exercise is forward looking and not backward dwelling.

This is one case in which the gastronomic Jews are on the right tract. The honey cake that we bake for the new year, and the taiglach, that some of you from Ashkenazi backgrounds or from the east coast may remember- that sweetness is meant to be the association for this time of year.  Our New Year is not wild and raucous , like the American New Years, or like our Purim,  but it is meant to be a time of joy.  Believeing that we can continue to grow in goodness throughout our lives and that changes in ourselves can lead to positive changes in our world can be a source of joy.As Nehemiah reminded the ancient people of Israel so many years ago: “This day is holy to the Eternal One: do not be sad, for the joy of the Eternal is your strength.”


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