I learned from GWillowWilson on Twitter that the thing of RH coinciding with the Islamic new year happens every 33 years, which explains why I don't remember it happening before. Also it's pretty cool to learn new religion facts from the author of Ms Marvel. Does anyone want to explain to me how we get from a 19-year lunisolar cycle to synching with the Muslims' solely lunar [sic] calendar every 33 years?
I'm moderately proud of this year's sermon, so I'll include it behind a cut. Basically I decided to talk about Ibn Gabirol's piyyut (religious poem) The crown of glory, because ghoti went to Malaga recently and sent me a postcard of a statue of him. And because I miss the poetry from the Reform liturgy I grew up with. (My community use the Birnbaum which I believe is a fairly standard American Orthodox Machzor, and it has a lot of Elazar haKallir's stuff, much of which I find obscure. I don't know how standard the selection of poetry is in the Orthodox liturgy.)
We've spent Elul preparing for our season of repentance, and that steps up now as we enter the Days of Awe. In the Rosh haShana service itself, the emphasis shifts from Shacharit [the morning service] where we are mostly celebrating the birthday of the world and being happy about the New Year, to Musaf [the additional service] which focuses much more on the Day of Judgement, the start of the Ten Days leading up to Yom Kippur. At this stage I think it's easy to get into a rut where we're thinking so much about sins that we just feel awful, you can get really bogged down in just hating yourself. And feeling shame and guilt is one part of repentance, but that on its own isn't enough for the transformation that teshuva needs from us. There's a parable that compares getting stuck on brooding over sin and self-hatred being like dirty water; if you stir it up, it doesn't get any cleaner, you just mix the dirt around.
As we come into the Ten Days, I invite you to think about the positive as well. Think about things you've done right, actions you feel proud of. We Ashkenazim have a lot of poetry in our High Holy Days liturgy, not like the Sephardim who have poetry all year round, it's much more of a contrast for us. The payytan or religious poet Ibn Gabirol, who was an 11th century Spanish philosopher – and also composed the hymn Adon Olam which is one of the few poems that will be familiar from our regular liturgy – wrote a long poem called The Crown of Glory (sometimes known as The Kingly Crown) about repentance. In it he contrasts human frality with God's eternal might:
My God, I am ashamed and confused as I stand in Your presence
For I know that compared to Your greatness I am so frail and weak
And compared to Your perfection I am so lacking.
For You are One, and You are true life, and You are mighty, and You remain firm
And You are great, and You are wise, and You are God.
And I am just a lump of earth, and a worm, dust from the ground,
A cup full of shame, a fleeting shadow, a breeze that goes and does not return.
What am I? What is my life? How strong am I? How righteous am I?
Here the poet is making an allusion to the prayer from Pesukei deZimra, the introductory section of the regular morning service:
What are we? What is our life? What is our kindness? What is our justice? What is our salvation? What is our strength? What is our might?. And in that prayer the question is kind of rhetorical, because the answer is,
everything is trivial. (Or
everything is vanity, if you're used to the old-fashioned translation of Kohelet / Ecclesiastes.) It's interesting that the liturgy slightly softens that potentially nihilistic statement; in the Orthodox liturgy the prayer continues
But we are Your people, the children of Your covenant..., whereas in the Reform liturgy it's not a but, rather an except:
Everything is trivial except the pure soul which will one day be called to give its account and reckoning before your throne of glory– so very relevant when we're thinking about being judged.
But Ibn Gabirol changes this prayer, he puts it in the singular, and he's asking real questions, not just rhetorical ones.
What am I? What is my life? What is my might? What is my justice?Perhaps those are questions that we might consider during this time of repentance and cheshbon nefesh, examination of the soul.
What am I? Who is the person you really want to be? What are your real values? What have you accomplished in the past year that was really the best you could have done? What are you going to do in the coming year that will really live up to who you could be, your best self? Who are you really when you're not just following habits that you don't feel good about? Sometimes it can be useful to start from the idea of who you should be as well as thinking of everything you aren't proud of.
What is my life? A big theme during the High Holy Days is that we're thinking about mortality. We're about to read the prayer Unetaneh Tokef which contains the famous paragraph where God sets who will live and who will die before the next new year. So that reminds us in a very direct way that we don't know how much time we have. If you knew this was the last year of your life, what would you do differently? Not necessarily practically, but morally and spiritually? And even if we don't die in the coming year – I hope we all live healthily to 120 and don't die by violence or disease before the end of our allotted span as the prayer mentions – we still have a limited amount of time. I read an article recently where the journalist had represented each year of his life as a square, and that helped him to think about what he had left. How many more times will you swim in the sea, how many more plays will you watch, how many more times will you see your dear friend who lives a bit too far away? And if you think like that, you can start to ask, how many more chances will you get to change and repent, to live up to your ideals, to do something holy?
What is my strength? There's a Talmudic proverb:
Who is truly strong? One who overcomes the impulse to evil. As well as thinking about your sins and things you regret, think about times when you have been tempted to do the wrong thing, and have overcome that and done what you should anyway. There's an idea I've come across in medical education, where one way to help medical students and trainee doctors to really improve is to get them to think about a time when they did something really well, and to consider what they would need to be able to work at their peak all the time. What were the conditions that let them do the task well, what would they need to change or practise to do that consistently in future? I'm a bit of a Litvak really and I like the Musar idea that being an ethical person is a skill that needs regular practice. We should take the same attitude to living morally as to learning a profession or a skill like art or music. So I like the idea of applying concepts from training to ethical progress. So think about times when you were a hero, when you overcame, when you were victorious. When you did something you're really proud of, what would you need to be able to do that more often? Then you have an idea of what you're aiming for as you go through the process of teshuva.
And the final question, what is my justice? asks you to look outward, to think about your interaction with the world, not just introspection and self-examination. What is my righteousness? What can I personally do to increase the justice in the world? Remember of course that the word for giving money to charity is tzedakah, related to the word for justice. But justice is more than that, it's more than just giving money, it's acting to redress the balance for those who are suffering, and to make the world a better place. The conclusion of Unetaneh Tokef is that in spite of the fear of judgement and the reminder of mortality:
repentance, prayer and righteous deeds will transform the evil decree. Repentance is what we're doing at the moment, during the month of Elul and even more intensely during the Ten Days. And there certainly is plenty of prayer, look at this great thick book with pages and hours worth of prayer for all the big services we have coming up! And the third leg of the stool is tzedakah, it's justice, it's committing to bringing justice into the world now and in the coming year.
Justice, justice you shall pursue..
I haven't worked out yet what I'm going to talk about on Yom Kippur. I think maybe something about dealing with difficult texts and the possibility of arguing with God, when that's coming from a place of faith and not just rejection. Partly I'm thinking of it because last year several people asked me why we read Leviticus 18 (including the notorious abomination verse) on Yom Kippur, and I didn't have a very good answer.
Also for my own future reference and possible interest of people who are interested in this kind of thing, I read a couple of good articles about shofar in the run up to the festivals, so if I save them here I might have material for next year's RH sermon:
- R' Jonathan Wittenberg, ever the inspiring and compassionate teacher: The shofar is addressed to that ‘little piece of God’ in me and you [...] Listen, it says. Listen to the voices you haven’t heard, or have tried not to hear.
- R' Miriam Berger, who was in youth movement with me, has written a really inspiring and heart-breaking sermon about refugees, including a really powerful midrashic tradition she had from R' Edward Feld about shofar that I didn't know previously: Teruah [is] the sound in the cry of Sisera’s mother. As she stood at the window in the realisation that he was not going to return she sobbed for her son and therefore the Teruah is the constantly broken note like her uncontrollable crying.
There was a thing going round on Twitter to the effect that maybe the Jews have the right idea, ending the year now, since 2016 / 5776 has been pretty tough in some ways. One thing I found helpful as I was looking back over the year and feeling discouraged was this sermon from R' Neil Janes, who's another youth movement contemporary of mine; he writes the kind of sermons I aspire to only he's much much better at it than me! I very much share R' Janes' view of what it was like to grow up in the optimistic time of the 90s and to feel that our world has become a worse place since then. And I like his advice: We must find a rejoinder to the pessimism of our global climate. We must hoist our flag in opposition to this and do it now.
Anyway. I was pretty shattered after the service; I had a fairly mediocre Italian meal since I wanted a treat but didn't have much energy to decide on anything more than the nearest and most convenient restaurant. And then I came home and was basically wiped out for the afternoon. Today, the second day of Rosh haShana, I was back at work and I'm enjoying the optimism of looking forward, my first session with the new first years right at the start of their medical training. And I'm wearing a lovely pendant that ghoti gave me so I would be able to make the blessing for new things today. Yes, I still have a lot of prep to do for YK but I feel as if I'm setting out and looking forward.
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