Rosh Hashanah 5777 Sermon – Evening

“The Process of Return on High Holidays”

 Hashivenu Adonai Eleycha VeNashuvah Hadesh Yameneynu KeKedem

Return us, God, let us return. Renew our days, as you have done of old.

For thousands of years we have sung these words in the Jewish community, not only during the High Holidays, but several times a week as well, asking God to restore our people to Jerusalem and Israel. For sixty-eight years we have had the state of Israel and still we pray. Why?

Because the words of the prayer are more than an ancient political slogan, they represent the desire all of us have to return to better times, times when we were stronger, when the world was an easier place to live.

Teshuvah, in addition to repentance, means to return. It is as if we have all been undertaking a long journey, and on Rosh Hashanah we are finally returning home. Here we seek out our true selves, leaving behind the clothing of our sins and faults, now dressed in white, with a pure soul, waiting and ready for the New Year.

Rabbi Alan Lew of the CCAR writes at the front of the Yom Kippur mahzor, “on this journey our soul will awaken to itself. We will venture from innocence to sin and back to innocence again. This is a journey from denial to awareness, from self-deception to judgment. We will learn our Divine Name. We will move forward from self-hatred to self-forgiveness, from anger to healing, from heard-heartedness to broken heartedness. This is the journey the soul takes to transform itself and to evolve, the journey from boredom and staleness- from deadness –to renewal.”

Hashivenu Adonai Eleycha VeNashuvah Hadesh Yameneynu KeKedem

Return us, God, let us return. Renew our days, as you have done of old.

Dr. Dan Gilbert from Harvard University says in his Ted Talk, “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been. The one constant in our life is change.”

We hope that this year, that this time, that this moment, will be when we metamorphosize into our true selves. That finally, here, in the Hebrew year 5777, we will be able to reach the heights to which we always aspire. But, the truth is, as Gilbert teaches, we are always in the process of becoming.

And, at least according to Judaism, that’s ok. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, famous for his English translation of the Talmud, writes, “the feeling of ‘behold, I’ve arrived’ could well undermine the capacity to continue.” He continues, “Repentance does not bring a sense of serenity or of completion but stimulates a reaching out in further effort.”

We are teshuvah strivers, returning every year to repent, to reevaluate, and to continue to improve.

Hashivenu Adonai Eleycha VeNashuvah Hadesh Yameneynu KeKedem

Return us, God, let us return. Renew our days, as you have done of old.

Returning to our former selves is an impossibility. We are different, sometimes very much so. In fact, if we took a snapshot of ourselves each year on Rosh Hashanah, we would be amazed at just how much change we have undergone over the course of our lives. As Gilbert has found in his research, everything from who are best friends are, our favorite types of vacation, favorite hobby, favorite music, change dramatically, year by year, and certainly over the course of a decade.

According to the Talmud, starting when we turn twenty-years-old, we go through another major metamorphosis every ten years until we reach ninety and a hundred years old (my apologies to all the nonagenarian and centenarians in the room, but there were not a lot of you around two thousand years ago). Some of these ages included the ages of authority, discernment, and council and, my personal favorite, at eighty the age of special strength.

We come here on High Holidays to come to terms with all of this change, to mourn our losses and celebrate our new beginnings. One way to translate Rosh Hashanah is the “head of the change.” Judaism teaches that since change is inevitable, why not embrace it.

Hashivenu Adonai Eleycha VeNashuvah Hadesh Yameneynu KeKedem

Return us, God, let us return. Renew our days, as you have done of old.

But, our drive to return is also about restoring what has been lost. I look around the room and see there are faces missing, loving, compassionate community members whose souls have moved on. This is a place of memory – and I don’t mean just Shir Shalom, but Rosh Hashanah itself – where these dear souls continue to reside.

And, we know that next year will bring changes as well; the refrain “who shall live, and who shall die,” echoes through the room. We do not know what lies ahead, but for now, in this space, we are together, holding on to what we love most in the whole world. Our tears are tears of both joy and sadness. How finite life is. Still, surrounded by traditions from our distant past, our ancestors protect us and watch over us. Many things will change, but Rosh Hashanah will always arrive, on time to beckon in the New Year.

Hashivenu Adonai Eleycha VeNashuvah Hadesh Yameneynu KeKedem

Return us, God, let us return. Renew our days, as you have done of old.

 This year marks our five year anniversary as a community.

When we came together in July of 2011 we knew it was going to be a big adjustment for congregants at both Temple Beth Am and Temple Sinai. But, we also knew over time we would be able to form a new identity, independent of our former synagogue lives.

Having watched our transformation year by year, High Holiday to High Holiday, I have been amazed at both the pace of change and its consistency.

It was not just in the first year or two that we would witness dramatic change, but every year since we have continued to develop and grow at a fast pace.

We look around the room and we realize so much feels familiar and yet, how very much has changed. It’s not just our new cantor, Cantor Frank, and her beautiful voice and joyous smile that is different, the people around us are different, we ourselves our different.

Perhaps it is akin to the life of a small child whose every step is a milestone as well. While, as Gilbert teaches, “older and younger people do not experience time differently, they just remember it differently.” In our short life span as a congregational community we do not have the background of an older community, and so every transition is dramatic and new.

Here is what I have learned about change in these five years together:

  1. The more preparation the better. Our community spent two years planning out our merger. Congregants were given time to voice their opinion and offer advice. It wasn’t always easy, and some members left because they were used to their former communities and not ready to change, but for the most people adapted and even came to celebrate the change.
  2. Always wrap tradition and change together in the same package. Our High Holiday services are filled with songs and prayers going back centuries if not more. We do this knowing that a lot of the service is new and different. Ideally, we have the comfort of the past, side by side with the joy and creativity of new inspirations. A similar survey of our Shir Shalom building would reveal places of memory side by side with things that are fresh and new.
  3. We are not trying to change, we just do. Even with all of the planning and foresight and attempts to keep continuity, big and small changes were happening all the time. And, the amazing thing is that human beings are much more adaptable than we are given credit for.
  4. Three times the charm. Judaism teaches that if you do something three times or more it becomes tradition. In this way, “what has never done” becomes “what we always do.”
  5. Breath. This is good advice for any situation, but the High Holidays teach us take a breath, reflect on everything that has come before and prepare yourself for what is yet to come.

Tonight we begin our journey into 5777. What lies beyond the doorway of the New Year is beyond our ability to comprehend. We pray for God to give us the strength to persevere through any trouble, the resilience to bounce back, and the ability to enjoy the process us along the way.

As, Rabbi Sandy Sasso teaches, “Renew our days as you have done of old…” read instead, “renew our days as when we were young, revive us with the wonder of your world, with the enthusiasm of our youth… Grant us, once again, the sacred vision and the courage of new beginnings.”

Shanah Tovah U’Metukah, A Good Sweet New Year