Rabbi Stillman’s 2018 Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Shana Tova—

Happy New Year!

Welcome to new students, to returning students, to Havurah members, faculty, staff, and special guests.  I am delighted to have you all here, to see you all gathered at the very beginning of Rosh Hodesh Tishrei, the new moon of the month of Tishrei, the new Jewish year of 5779.

But what does it mean that we are all gathered here, and who am I to be welcoming all of you?  What, exactly, are we doing here tonight?  It is an auspicious time, to be sure, the date set out in the Hebrew Bible as we will read tomorrow in the maftir aliyah, Numbers 29: “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations.  You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded.”  And I am a rabbi, trained, if imperfectly, to lead services for these holidays, although it is really Aaron, our cantor who is doing all the work here as you will see as we move through services over the next couple of days and Yom Kippur.

But what is my real work, what is our work, and how are we to do it?

I believe we are here together on Rosh Hashanah for a purpose, and the purpose goes beyond showing up because your parents want you to, or because you think you will somehow be judged badly if you didn’t go to services—by your family, by your friends or others in your community, even by the Divine mystery that in Judaism we name Adonai, or God.  All that may be true, but I believe that we wouldn’t be here together if we didn’t truly want to acknowledge the new year on a deeper level.  This is not a performance. It may have some trappings of a performance—microphones, people in front of you reading and singing, a certain choreography and certain props—but that is not the true nature of this holiday, or these services. My job is not to entertain, but rather to remind you of the larger purpose of why we are here.

We are here, because this is our chance to start again.  This is our chance to reflect on how we have been doing, and to set new intentions. This is our chance to figure out who we need to seek forgiveness from and then seek it in the next ten days before Yom Kippur. This is our chance to support each other in becoming more of who we already are.  We need this holiday, the date set and the horn blown, in order to help us set aside time and to remind us all of the need we have to reflect and change.  Otherwise, we are just too busy—and it may be just too uncomfortable—to make time for this inner and relational work.

Our tradition offers us a multitude of tools for doing this kind of work of return and renewal.  One of the tools is prayer, and that is what I want to speak about here tonight.

You’ve noticed, if you are returning, that we have a new High Holiday prayer book this year.  In Hebrew the High Holiday book has a special name—it is called a machzor, from the root Chet- Zayin- Resh, which means to return, or review. This book is a tool to help us review our past year, to do Cheshbon HaNefesh, an accounting of the soul.  For those of you who yourselves are new at the college or in town, everything, including the prayer book may seem new just to you.  You may assume that we have been using this one since it was first published in 2010.  Rest assured that everyone here will be as lost as everyone else this year, as we all get used to this new book.

The liturgy, though, is not new. It is very old.  And one of the reasons we chose this prayer book was because it did honor to the traditional liturgy. There are some important differences to our old machzor, for instance the Hebrew of the Amidah or standing prayer did not acknowledge the founding mothers alongside the founding fathers in its text, even though we always chanted them into it anyway.  This book puts them down on paper.  But mostly the liturgy is the same, it is the one that has been passed down throughout the generations.  The liturgy itself is not static—it has been embellished over centuries with special High Holiday poems called piyyutim, and it has been updated to reflect the times of each generation—we see this most in the section we will experience on Yom Kippur when we remember those who lost their lives because they dared to express their Judaism—sadly, there is no shortage of stories there to bring us through to contemporary times. And, like every year, we will update the liturgy with our own poetic choices, our own poetry, our own tunes and chants and styles of prayer—even as we recite some of the oldest melodies and words and poems that have been passed down.  This machzor, Lev Shalem, which means a “whole heart,” does a good job of keeping the liturgy central while adding in commentary and poetry from throughout the ages.  And I believe there is good reason to keep the liturgy central.  There is immense value in knowing that our ancestors who authored this prayer book had the same concerns, fears, mistakes, moments of gratitude and needs for connection as we do.  They prayed for the same things that we do—a good life, a year of joy and health, safety and love.  We are not so unusual in this age, even though it feels like this is one of the strangest periods on earth yet, and that is an important perspective.  People have been through strange times before, and prayer—these prayers–is one of the tools they have used to help get them through.

The side notes explore the origins and structure of the prayers, and they offer commentary or additional material.  I invite you to explore those side notes as you feel moved to.  It’s a great thing to do if you feel bored, or you are not following the Hebrew, or you need something to wake you up or remind you why you are here.  I also invite you, if you would like, to ignore the side notes and focus on the prayers.  The majority of us here, including myself at times, don’t understand every word of the Hebrew prayers.  Some of us don’t read the Hebrew alphabet.  For those people, it can be hard to even follow along on the page, and the one major flaw of this machzor is that it contains very little transliteration of Hebrew into the English alphabet.  The committee of people: students, faculty, staff and Havurah members, who helped choose this book were aware and concerned about that.  There are some prayers that are transliterated, and you can find those in the red ink on the left pages of the machzor.

Whatever your facility with Hebrew may be, here are some suggestions for how to enter into the prayer service. These suggestions also point to what makes all prayer an effective tool for looking into ourselves in order to return to the truth of who we are, and for connecting to something larger than ourselves.

  • The efficacy of Hebrew: You can let the music and cadence of the Hebrew take you into a different zone. One way that prayer can work is by bringing you out of your habitual, discursive thinking. Hebrew itself is a sacred language, and many people believe that the words themselves are efficacious—by chanting them or listening to them we are able to connect to the mysterious world of the divine in a different way than we do in a vernacular language. So whether you yourself can join in by reading the Hebrew or the parts that are transliterated, or whether you are just listening to Aaron and those around you, you can open to the possibility that something is happening by being surrounded by these ancient words.
  • The meaning of the words: If you don’t understand all the Hebrew, you can use the beautiful and accurate English translation that is side by side with the Hebrew. Other schools of thought about prayer, including the great Rebbe Nachman, one of the great teachers of Hasidism, a devotional school of Judaism, encouraged his students to pray in their own language—the language they spoke in their homes on a daily basis (which for most of them was Yiddish) and the language of their hearts. When I pray as a congregant in a service, I switch pretty seamlessly between reading the Hebrew and the English on the page, and adding my own thoughts and prayers that are particular to me at that moment.
  • Space to become present/transcendent: You can use the moments of contemplative time that are provided throughout the service in the form of Silence, Chanting, Reflective prompts and Poetry to listen for what is true for you in this moment, and for this new year.
  • Praying the words in order to know ourselves: Often the rhythm of the prayers acts as its own meditation, allowing our minds more freedom to gain insights into the truth of our lives. Allow me to quote Rabbi Alan Lew at length, who writes in his book about the High Holidays entitled “This is Real and you are Completely Unprepared”

 “It is the case that there is something about the mechanics of prayer that causes us to know ourselves.  Like all spiritual activities, Jewish communal prayer has a point of focus; in this case, the words of the prayer book.  We tyr to concentrate on these words, but inevitably our mind wanders and we lose our focus. When we realize that this happened, we bring our focus back to the words of the prayer book, and as we do, we catch a glimpse of what it is that has carried us away.  This is an important thing to see.  The thoughts that carry our attention away are never insignificant thoughts, and they never arise at random.  We lose our focus precisely because these thoughts need our attention and we refuse to give it to them.  This is why they keep sneaking up on our attention and stealing it away.  This is how it is that we come to know ourselves as we settle deeply into the act of prayer.  Most likely we are utterly unaware of all this.  After all, it operates well below the level of consciousness.  Nevertheless, sitting there with the prayer book in our lap, we begin to become aware of the things we have been trying to avoid; we begin to see things from which we have been averting our gaze; unconscious material begins to make its way toward the surface of our consciousness.” p

Those are some ideas about how to approach prayer in general.  I like to think of it like the walking labyrinth up at the Knoll.  About a year ago students and others built that labyrinth by laying large stones that delineate a prescribed container—one that sets a circular path toward the center and then out again.  The discipline of the path is exactly what allows the mind to relax.  For those moments of walking, the mind does not have to choose which way to go.  This in turn allows it to connect more readily to what is: whether that be a deeper truth about our own selves, about the world we live in, or a greater connection to something that is bigger than just what we see before us.  A prescribed liturgy of prayer can function in a similar way.  You may notice a lot of repetition in the High Holiday services.  Trust me, there is.  You will be saying the Amidah, the standing prayer, 3 times between this evening and tomorrow morning’s services: silently tonight, and out loud together tomorrow at two different points.  And this is actually less than in some more traditional followings of the liturgy.  There are some differences between those three instances, but many of the words are exactly the same.  And there are many more prayers we repeat—Avinu Malkenu on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Vidui: a list of our sins that we say multiple times on Yom Kippur, the prayers that open our time together and the ones that close it.  While this repetition of the form could bore you, or could just go right by you if you aren’t familiar enough with the service to realize you are repeating things, please know that this is the container.  These words are the delineated path, the rhythm, the mantra that allows the mind to relax.  The words and the forms are guiding us toward something, and depending on one’s world view, they could be guiding us toward God, toward a truer understanding of self, or both.  The language that the tradition uses is the language of God, and the metaphor is of a King and a parent, but those are just some of the rocks that reveal the path along the way.  The stones showing us this path are thankfulness and gratitude, praise for the thing that connects us all, humility and the words to help us acknowledge that we all make mistakes, and the desire to be given a chance to keep trying—to be written again for another year in the big, messy, unpredictable Book of Life.

Use whatever metaphor you wish—this machzor contains a map to the wilderness, the stones that show us the way in the labyrinth, the mantras that invite us into reflection and meditation, the ancient Hebrew words of our ancestors’ deepest prayers and stories.  What it does not contain are dead words that only belonged to an older generation who we cannot relate to.  The prayers in here are alive and well because we make them that way, year after year.  Aaron and I are deeply humbled and honored to be your guides in this.  May these holidays be the container to hold you this year, and for many years to come.

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