Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon
September 28, 2011- 1 Tishri, 5772
Shana Tova and good evening! I could not be more pleased to welcome you back to Temple Oheb Shalom on this New Year of 5772, a year full of great possibilities and one fraught with many daunting challenges. It is so good to see you once again on this, our thirteenth Rosh Hashanah together. We join with Jews around the world to mark this passage of time, to begin the process of teshuvah, the process of repentance that will culminate ten days from now on Yom Kippur. Speaking of time, a man walked to the top of a hill to talk to God. The man asked, “God, what’s a million years to you?” God said, “A minute.” Then the man asked, “Well, what’s a million dollars to you?” God replied, “A penny.” Then the man asked, “God, can I have a penny?” And God said, “Sure, in a minute.”
God has no concerns about time and money but we certainly do. We spend an inordinate amount of our waking time thinking about how we can maximize both. We strive to increase our discretionary time as well as increasing our portfolios. We are fearful that time is getting away from us and that the fragile nature of the world economy is unduly affecting our incomes. These are among our most pressing concerns. So many of us are afraid- we are afraid of what the future will bring. We are fearful of an even greater recession, of becoming dependent on others, on losing what we have, of being sick, lonely, and isolated. We are fearful for our health. Will this be a year of illness and infirmity or a year of vitality? Will we be able to enjoy our lives and find meaning in our endeavors or will we be struggling with sickness and hopeful recovery? We are anxious for our children and grandchildren. Will they be able to live as well as do we? What kind of future awaits them? How can we make life better for them? We are worried about the world we are leaving them. Climate change seems to have accelerated. There is drought and fire in the Southwest and hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods in the Northeast. Sea levels are rising as the polar cap is melting. Coastal cities are in jeopardy. Birds and plants that could not live in this climate now are thriving here.
We also come here this Rosh Hashanah to ask God for help. We need help to find the better parts of ourselves, to right the wrongs we have committed, to repair the relationships we have broken. We need God’s help in becoming the kind of human beings we know we can be: compassionate, caring, and considerate. We ask God to give us the strength to make necessary changes in our lives. We ask God to support us during our time of need. We ask God to assuage our fear, to calm our anxiety, to allay our concerns. We are fragile, hurt, and in pain. We are in need of redemption. During these High Holydays, we pray for healing, wholeness, and peace.
The earth itself seems to be broken. Just a few weeks ago, we experienced an earthquake for the first time in our lives. No one can remember the last time Baltimorefelt the earth tremor. Then Hurricane Irene blew through our area. We are incredibly grateful that we were not impacted as badly as expected. Our neighbors to the north are still in the process of recovery from the worst flooding they have seen in generations. We have heard many preachers tell their congregants that these natural events “were sent as a divine punishment, an echo of the Flood in the time of Noah, when God grew so disgusted with human wickedness that He resolved to wash the world clean and start over. I have heard some clergy tell their congregations that these terrible things were a sign of God’s wrath at a society that banished prayer from public schools, afforded a measure of dignity to homosexuals, and considered partitioning the Holy Land between Israel and the Palestinians…For many people, the only way to go on believing that our world is safe and reliable is to insist that the hurricane was, in fact, an act of God, that there is a moral reason for every natural disaster and every malignant tumor and that everything is part of some overall plan. This is a very comforting answer to many people but it is one I cannot confirm. It requires us to say of Nature’s victims that they must have deserved it. It requires us to say when we are the victims, “I must have done something to deserve this.” [i] Let me say unequivocally that earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods are not God’s judgment against humanity. God is not cruel and rapacious. God does not destroy families and kill children. God does not use His awesome power to obliterate in a minute what it takes years for a family to accumulate. I cannot believe in such a God. Our God is moral. Nature is amoral. Nature does not distinguish between good and bad people. Nature does not make exceptions for nice people. “I believe that when God created the natural world, He blessed it with beauty and precision. He gave us an orderly world, one in which we can predict to the minute when the sun will rise and set in a given city on a given date years from now. He gave us a world capable of stirring our souls with its beauty. Even the destructive aspects of nature are not random events. They follow natural laws which God set in motion when He created the universe. There is one caveat: when God created the natural world, He withheld from it one blessing that He shared with only you and me: the ability to know the difference between good and bad, between what is morally wrong and morally right.”[ii]
Now you ask, “What does all of this have to do with us on this holy eve of Rosh Hashanah?” We are here to examine our actions, to recalibrate the moral compass of our lives. We know what is right and wrong, good and bad. During this High Holyday season we re-commit ourselves to the right and the good. We turn to God for help in finding the way back to Him. Yet where do we find God? We learn this from the ancient prophet, Elijah.
Elijah was one of the first great prophets in Israel, living 2,800 years ago. A spokesman for God, he castigated King Ahab for his wicked ways. Ahab and his idolatrous wife, Jezebel, tried to kill him, forcing Elijah to flee to the Wilderness of Sinai, where he sought the presence and guidance of God. In chapter 19 of the first book of Kings (19:11-12) we read: “There was a mighty wind, splitting the mountains and shattering rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, a still, small, voice.” Elijah listened to the still, small voice of God that resonated loudly in his heart. Over these Yamim Noraim, these Ten Days of Awe, let us try as hard as we can to listen to the still small voice of God. We may hear it during our prayers, while we are driving in the car, or sitting in our living rooms. God will urge us to say the most difficult words in the English language, “I am sorry,” and to make good use of this special time by trying to reconcile with others and become better human beings. God is not found in the heartless hurricane or the obliterating earthquake. God is found within each one of us, for each one of us is a fragile, hurt, and unique creation of the Most High. God created us as little less than the angels, capable of great deeds. All that God asks of us today is to begin the process of teshuvah, of repentance, of returning to Him. The still small voice will tell us how.
Amen and Shana Tova