October 2, 2023 -
This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Cantor Sarah Sager on Rosh Hashanah, 2019. We encourage you to share comments below, or to post the link to this post on social media such as Facebook or Twitter, or to share with others by email, to continue the conversations it engenders.
When it was first publicized that part of our High Holy Day schedule would include my speaking with you tonight, I received the following email from a concerned congregant. The subject line read “How do I say this to you?” and the message followed:
“You do understand that in your sermon on Rosh Hashanah you cannot mention every single baby naming and Bar or Bat Mitzvah and wedding, and funeral that you have done, plus all the courses you have taught, pastoral visits you have made, and lovely moments with the adult choirs and the junior choir. I know you remember them all with great love and tenderness, but people will simply have to go home at some point. (And yes – I realize that I am three of those glorious moments of your past 40 years, of which I have witnessed 37 – oy gevalt!)”
I assured the person by return email not to fear that particular route of reflection and yet, the underlying meaning of each of those life cycle moments – unique as each is – speaks to the power and the mystery and the thrill of Jewish life.
I am continuously amazed by the richness of our tradition: by its depth, its meaning, its beauty, its implications and it’s potential for our lives. I am also constantly amazed at how little of its richness any of us – including myself – ever truly accesses, even while we love our faith and passionately identify as Jews. In the spirit of return, renewal and discovery of this season, I would share with you what I have never tired of trying to teach or trying, myself, to understand.
While it was music that first brought me into this work that I love, and never fails to capture my heart and my spirit, somewhere along the way, somewhere in the activity and the preparations and the celebrations and the officiation, the Torah came alive for me in an immediate, personal, even visceral way It was no longer my parents’ Torah which was the first Torah I ever learned, or my Day School’s Torah where I learned Hebrew and first studied Judaism; it wasn’t the Torah of my professors at University or at the Hebrew Union College or of my rabbinic, cantorial, and educator colleagues – even while I learned and retain much from all of them. Somewhere along the way, it became my own personal possession and that has been a constant source of wonder, learning, and discovery.
I actually have a kind of alter-ego who accompanies me when I lead Simchat Shabbat Services or Shabbat Sing for the youngest members of our congregation. I thought I might introduce her to you tonight. Her name is “Singing Sarah” (some people think she looks like me!) and she loves the Torah so much that she lives in the Ark. (She is also very shy so she won’t speak in public, she only sings. And yes, we will be doing more singing later.)
“Singing Sarah” and I are convinced that there is only one reason why we, as Jews, are still here and that is the Torah, what we refer to as the Five Books of Moses, or the Chumash. All of the other reasons we might offer – our emphasis on family, on community, on learning, our belief in One God, come from one place and one place only – the Torah, our sacred text and spiritual textbook, our gift to humanity. Written originally in Hebrew, on parchment, it tells us how our ancestors understood the world, what they intuited, what was mysterious to them and what they didn’t understand. Their stories, their beliefs, what is our mythic history is recorded in the scroll and translated into every language on earth as: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
Tomorrow morning, in recognition of Rosh Hashanah as the day on which the world was created – according to our tradition – we will read our ancestors’ ancient account of how our world came into being.
In one brief chapter of “seven evenings turning into seven mornings,” we are introduced to an autonomous, unique Creator, our God, who brings order out of chaos; we are assured that this world in which we live is essentially good, created for the benefit of all life and all living beings. The principle of Shabbat as a day of rest is established, the ultimate dignity, value, and equality of every human being is ordained, and humanity is placed at the pinnacle of all existence, the crowning glory of Creation with, simultaneously, dominion over it.
The majesty of the universe and of the concept of humanity’s potential is breathtaking and troubling – and this before we even meet Adam and Eve! A small detail in the text teaches us volumes: At the end of every day of Creation we are told that “God saw how good it was”. And yet, in the midst of the grandeur, at the heart of Creation, if we look very closely, if we read between the lines, we find both the potential and potential failure of Humanity. Upon creating human beings, God does not declare how good it was. God does not render judgement on humankind. Here, in the very structure of the universe and basic to it, is human freedom. It is ultimately up to us and only us to determine whether the day on which humanity was created was, indeed, “very good”. God surveys ALL of creation and declares it very good, but for humanity, specifically, God has no verdict. God has created a being animated by divinity. Having given up some of God’s own self, on the 7th day, God withdraws from the world and rests.
And this is only the first Chapter! The concepts are stunning, inspiring and revolutionary.
What would it mean to live in a world where every individual is of infinite value? Where every single person counts?
What might it mean to live in a world where every human being spent one seventh of their time in rest, renewal, repose and reflection? There is something else here as well. The concept of a seventh day is not based upon nature. It is a human creation and, thereby, lifts our lives out of perpetual repetitive cycles and, as taught by these High Holidays, allows us the opportunity to change, to grow, to improve, to ascend to a higher level of being and to enter history no longer condemned to continuously repeat the past.
Within this framework, what would it mean if every human being truly understood, internalized and lived the truth that One God is the Source of all?
Next week, on Yom Kippur morning, we will read from close to the end of the Torah, in the Book of Deuteronomy, the climactic teaching of the whole scroll – what many might consider the most revolutionary and yet foundational concept of Judaism:
“I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse; choose life.” Choose life.
In a world that glorified death in the pyramids of Egypt, in the legendary hero worship of the Greeks, in the myths of gods and goddesses in almost all cultures, the Jews alone declared: choose the here and now, glorify today’s gifts and blessings, treasure every moment that you have breath in your body – use it, uplift it, beautify it, rejoice in it. We are still unique in our insistence on choosing life – in a world held increasingly hostage by those who revere death and destruction.
We are the inheritors of a faith that invests relatively little thought in the hereafter, but asks us to live mindfully in the present with 100 blessings a day of consciousness raising and thanksgiving.
We are the inheritors of a faith that, because of its insistence on life and our divine creation, insists as well, on the potential for sanctity – whatever we may be doing: from awakening in the morning to getting ready for bed at night, to rejoicing in the bounty of this world, to giving thanks for the food we eat, to celebrating freedom, justice, learning, the Sabbath, holidays and festivals, to moving into a new home, starting school, having a new experience, greeting someone we haven’t seen in a while, putting on a new piece of clothing, even taking out the garbage or making love.
Always our tradition seems to ask, how we can elevate this moment, even this difficult and challenging moment; how can we recognize and fulfill its potential, knowing that just to be breathing in and out is the greatest gift of all?
Next week on Yom Kippur morning, we will also read, what may be summarized as: “This Torah – it’s not so hard, it’s not esoteric or removed or inexplicable. It’s not so far away that it might seem to be in the heavens or deep in the sea. It is near to us, it is in our mouths and our hearts and we can do it.”
In large measure, because of the Torah’s accessibility and adaptability, we are the inheritors of a faith whose resilience is extraordinary as we have changed and grown with every challenge.
When the Great Temple in ancient Jerusalem, the center of our people’s worship life was destroyed, we built synagogues in every Jewish community. Realizing that we could no longer bring sacrifices to the Temple to demonstrate and express our devotion to God, our rabbis said, let your tables be your altars where words of Torah might be offered instead. I have actually taught that idea and reiterated it, but I never really understood what it meant until four weeks ago when 18 members of our congregation arrived in Warsaw. Straight off of the plane, we spent a day of learning about our one thousand year history in Poland, including a Golden Age of Polish Jewry. We were then invited for dinner at the Warsaw JCC. There, we had the extraordinary experience of sharing a home-cooked meal with members of the Jewish community and the most dynamic, charismatic, and inspiring Director of the JCC. She is a young woman who only recently discovered that one of her parents is of Jewish descent. In Poland, with all of its history and its current challenges, she has chosen entirely of her own free will to be a Jew and to help open a path to Judaism for others. Almost daily, someone with a similar story, someone who discovered their Jewish roots – usually of just one parent, walks into the Warsaw J (which, in itself, feels like an oxymoron) to learn more and to discover what living as a Jew might be like. In this way, Jewish life is returning to Poland. As she told her own story, as she spoke of the realities of Jewish life and her dreams for both the JCC and the restoration of a positive Jewish presence in Poland, every one of us was transfixed, mesmerized by her passion and her courage, transported to a realm we could not have imagined, inspired, above all, by the absolute wonder and magic of the human spirit that emerges, survives, adapts, overcomes and thrives in places and under circumstances that defy human logic and human understanding.
I believe that Judaism survives because of some mystical power in Judaism itself.
God was in that modest room on that night. We felt sanctity around that table in the profound experience of witnessing living Torah shared openly, honestly, forthrightly, and passionately.
Our table was a true altar of offering the highest aspirations of human souls, the deepest thanksgiving of human spirits and the fervent prayers of all our hearts.
Jet-lagged, disoriented, exhausted as we were, holiness happened in that place and we were all transformed by its power.
I invite you, I implore you, if you haven’t already: visit our Saturday morning Torah Study class, or our Wednesday morning study, or our Women’s Study, or call, text, or email any one of your clergy for a 15-minute introduction to learning the Torah. We’ll meet you here. We’ll go for coffee and commentary, for tea and Torah, whatever and wherever you like. And you don’t have to know anything! That’s the point. But this year, let this be the year to be introduced.
Torah is your heritage. It is your own personal gift. It belongs to you.
As Rabbi Eric Bram (z”l) wrote:
“The Torah was written by your great-great-grandfather/mother. It is not a book or five books. The Torah is a letter written by someone in your family a long time ago who did not know you by name, but knew you would come along. It was written by someone who loved you and wanted you to be from somewhere; to have some idea of what it is all about; to have some semblance of Faith and Optimism and Struggle and Meaning. The Torah is an inheritance, not a book. When you read Torah, you don’t read it like Tom Sawyer or Archie comics. You read Torah like a fragile, handwritten letter addressed to you (using your Hebrew name on the envelope), which you found in your grandparents’ attic. You read it, not with your eyes, but with your heart. It’s a family treasure that God and Moses and one hundred generations of your family made sure you got.”
It is old and wise and new and surprising. It will guide you and support you and perplex and confound you. It tells us how to live in the real present while aspiring to a better future. It is the source of who we are, who we have been, and who, please God, we will be. Most of all, it is yours: claim it. It can make all the difference. And who knows? Maybe you’ll learn to love Torah so much, we’ll have to expand the Ark!