Sermon for Erev Rosh HaShanah 5778, September 20, 2017

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

1 Tishri, 5778 – 20 September, 2017

Shana Tova and welcome! Sally and I join with Cantor Braun, Rabbi Marion and our entire staff in wishing you a healthy and sweet New Year.  At this moment the words of the song, Hinei Mah Tovu Ma Nayim naturally come to my lips “How good and lovely it is” as we join together as a holy congregation to usher in the New Year, 5778.  In contrast to secular or pagan celebrations, this is not a time for unbridled revelry.  It is a time for prayer and reflection as we push the moral re-start button and begin the serious process of teshuvah, of return, that ends when the gates close on Yom Kippur.  The question is “to whom and to what do we return?”

We return to our truest selves, to the best part of our character.  We strive to be kinder, more sensitive and more responsible human beings.  We endeavor to return to God.  During these Yamim Noraim, these ten Days of Awe, we cleanse our souls and come before the Ribon HaOlam, the Master of the Universe, as humble and sinful human beings.  We struggle to remove the hate, distrust, and anger from our hearts so that we can be more empathic and understanding people.  We want to be more human and more humane.  We pray to God to help us not be indifferent to others.  We ask God to remove the hardening of our hearts so we can reach out to others.

It’s fascinating how the Hebrew letters of the year 5778 reflect the significance of our task.  It is possible to separate the tav-shin-ayin-chet that make up 5778 into two words, eit and shach or sach, depending on whether the first letter is a shin or sin.  Eit means “time.”  Shach, with a shin, means “to bow low or to sink.”  Sach, with a sin, means “to talk.”  In fact, the word for telephone in Hebrew is “Sach rachok,” literally meaning “distant conversation.”  So these Hebrew letters tell us it is time to have an internal conversation, to talk with ourselves about how we should change.  The act of teshuvah, or return, is a humbling one as we look inside of ourselves.  We bow before God and ask Adonai to forgive our trespasses and to give us the courage and fortitude to reach deeply into our souls so that we may repair the parts of ourselves that we deem to be deficient.  This is the serious process in which we are engaged between now and Yom Kippur.  Let us make the most of it.

Last month we marked the twentieth anniversary of the death of Princess Diana.  That day, August 31, 1997, will always be seared into our memories.  Diana was not just the princess of the United Kingdom.  She touched us all with her innate kindness, sweetness and empathy.  Sara Lyall wrote in the New York Times, “Diana was glamorous, magnetic, photogenic, mercurial, manipulative and intuitive; media victim and media perpetrator; the Real Princess of Kensington, a reality star before such a thing existed. If she is a less defining figure to the generation that has grown up since her death, she still is an object of fascination for the generations who were stunned when she died two decades ago, at the age of 36.”[i]  What touched me most when thinking of her was an article I read in the Baltimore Sun in late July (July 25, page 7).  Let me quote the article for you because it has a direct connection to why we are here:

“It was a typical phone call between two boys and their mother, who was on vacation in France.  It was brief; the boys wanted to get back to playing with their cousins, not spend time on the phone chatting.  The brevity of that 1997 call haunts Prince William and Prince Harry to this day, for their mother, Princess Diana, would die in a car crash that night. “Harry and I were in a desperate rush to say good-bye.  You know, ‘See you later.’  If I’d known now, obviously, what was going to happen, I wouldn’t have been so blasé about it and everything else,” said William, then 15, in a new documentary.  “That phone call sticks in my mind quite heavily.”  Harry, then 12, said the final chat with his mother is something he will regret forever.  “It is incredibly hard.  I’ll have to sort of deal with that for the rest of my life.  Not knowing that was the last time I was going to speak to my mum.  How different that conversation would have panned out if I’d had even the slightest inkling her life was going to be taken that night.” William concluded his remarks by saying, “She’d be a lovely grandmother.  She’d absolutely love it, she’d love the children to bits.”

The great theologian Martin Buber recounted an incident in his life that he forever regretted.  He was in his study when one of his graduate students came to see him.  The student was agitated and needed to talk but Buber was too pre-occupied with his own work to focus on his student.  After a cursory conversation, the student left his office.  The next day, Buber learned that his student had taken his own life.  Buber forever blamed himself. He was haunted by the possibility that if he had been more attentive, less selfish, and more giving, perhaps the student would not have died.

Dear friends, let us have a conversation with ourselves and with those we love.  Let us try to live in the moment, to be present for each and every one.  It is a terrible burden to live with regret.  I began this sermon with the word, HineiHinei can be translated as how, but its usual meaning is “here.”  Let us be here, be present, for our family, friends, and community so that in this New Year of 5778, we will not live with regret for the rest of our lives.  We pray that this year will be one of health, love, and sweetness for us all.

Amen and Shana Tova

[i] NY Times, August 30, 2017

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