Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashahah 5777, October 2, 2016

Shana Tova and welcome!  Sally and I join with Cantor Braun, Rabbi Marion and our entire staff in wishing you a healthy and sweet 5777.  This has been a good year for some of us and a terrible one for a few.  We now have the opportunity to start over as we celebrate this birthday of the world and begin the serious process of atonement that ends on Yom Kippur.

For the first time in many years, it feels like Rosh Hashanah.  There is a nip in the air and it is truly autumn.  The season is literally changing all around us, giving us the impetus to also change our ways.  The year 5777 is written in Hebrew with a tav, shin, ayin, and zayin.  The first two letters add up to 700, the ayin=70 and the zayin=7.  When put together in a word, the letters ayin and zayin mean “then.” When we reverse the two letters and double them we have the word “zaza,” which means “to agitate, shake violently.”  That is exactly what we should be doing over these next Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah, these ten days of repentance.  We should be shaking up our souls, agitating ourselves, so that we come out differently at the end.

While we engage in this process in the midst of community, we stand alone before God.  It is very hard for us to be alone.  We do everything possible to not feel we are alone.  We listen to music, keep the television on in the background, and stuff our minds full of information from a myriad of sites on social media.  We Jews are perhaps the most verbal people in the world.  It is hard for us to stop talking even during the silent prayer.  It is as if silence is anathema to our existence.  We affirm our self-importance by posting every detail of our lives on Face Book.  Those of us deemed important have Twitter accounts which others follow with rapt attention.   The author of Ecclesiastes, the poet Kohelet, who lived about 2,500 years ago, deplored the writing of drivel.  He wrote “Of the making of books there is no end!”  Remember, this was 2,000 years before the printing of books, when single copies were written on parchment and a copy was incredibly precious.  “Even so,” thought the poet, “there is too much noise in the air.  Better that people are left with their own thoughts.”  Are we so important that our lives need to be validated by sharing everything about ourselves on Face Book?  Is there any value to privacy and keeping our thoughts to ourselves?  Kohelet says there is much too much trash in our in boxes.

There is a big difference between being alone and being lonely.  Loneliness is the absence of companionship, one which has been found to actually be detrimental to our health.  Recent studies have concluded that the risk of dying is 50% higher for those who report feeling socially isolated. “As a predictor of early death, loneliness eclipses obesity…the danger signals activated in the brain by loneliness affect the production of white blood cells; this can impair the immune system’s ability to fight infections.  It also is associated with higher levels of cortisol, a major stress hormone, as well as higher vascular resistance, which can raise blood pressure and decrease blood flow to vital organs.”[i] Lonely people “are more aggressive, sleep deprived, and more likely to see unfamiliar people in a bad light, making it hard to operate in a society where we are surrounded all day by people we don’t know.”[ii]  Loneliness can be mitigated by involvement in a community such as ours.  In contrast, aloneness is self-imposed.  We can feel utterly alone even in the midst of thousands of people or sitting next to our closest and most beloved kin.

During these High Holyday days, we need to spend some serious time alone with just ourselves and our thoughts.  “Are we capable of confronting everything we’d rather not admit:  how fast we are aging, what we have amounted to so far and whether we have within us the power to change…Preparations for the High Holydays begin with the Torah reading at the beginning of the month of Elul (which ended today).  It begins, “See, I set before you blessing and curse.  Though the words are addressed to all of Israel, the verb ‘see’ is in the singular, leading commentators to explain that God spoke to each and every person, singly, as if we are alone…The shofar is blown daily during each day of the month of Elul.  It is a single, lonely blast, quick and piercing to the individual soul- because the commandment to hear the shofar is addressed to each of us, alone.  No one else can hear it for us.”[iii]

We are born alone and we die alone.  Along the way we experience joy, trauma, and if we are lucky, love.  We feel pain alone and face alone the agony of loss.  As time goes on, we suffer a weakening of physical and sometimes mental function.  All this we go through alone.  At the final moments of our lives, others hold our hands and, if we can, we say the Sh’ma as we face our Maker- alone.  During these High Holydays, we have the opportunity to rehearse our final moments before we die and are embraced by God.  We have the chance to practice, to enact the ultimate moment of aloneness, before our souls become one with the Universal Soul.  What a precious opportunity this is, to be given ten days to change the course of our lives.  Let us, during these Days of Awe, make the most of it.

Amen and Shana Tova

[i]  NY Times, September 6, 2011.

[ii] Marta Zaraska, Washington Post, September 4, 2016.

[iii] Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, NY Jewish Week, September 9, 2016.

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