Rosh Hashanah 5778 – Evening

Putting the Holy in the High Holy Days
 
“Holy, Holy, Holy,” the angels say to one another in the Book of Isaiah.
 
“Holy, Holy, Holy is the Ruler of the Multitudes of Heaven! All the world is filled with divine glory.”
 
And, reaching up with our heels with each mention of holy during the Kadushah prayer of our Tefillah, we move higher and higher, just like the angels.
 
This is the time of the year where we strive for holiness, for ascension, climbing the stairs toward heaven, as we say about God in the Kaddish, L’eilah U’Leilah, higher and higher, yearning to reach the top, where a world redeemed exists, where all things in life are possible.
These are, after all, the High Holy Days.
 
You may have noticed this subtle change we have made at CSS from High Holidays to High Holy Days.
 
“Rabbi,” you ask, “what’s the difference?”
 
Well, in many ways none at all. Like the difference in spelling between Chanukah spelled with a CH and Hanukkah spelled with an H, it just reflects a regional or communal preference. Holiday is just a shortened version of Holy Day.
 
But, in other ways, the change is monumental.
 
Raise your hand if you prefer High Holiday, and now raise your hand if you prefer High Holy Day. I can see the High Holiday crowd cringe a little at the change. It makes a difference, right?  
 
In truth, this is not the first time we have had this debate. When we came together in 2012, it was one of the first things on the table. And, back then, when we were just getting started we settled on High Holiday. This year seems different. More than ever we need an extra emphasis on holy.
Every time we open the paper, look at our social media accounts, talk to one another in the streets, holiness seems to be draining from the world. More than ever we need to feel the sacredness of life, a reminder of how lucky we are to be alive, even in such interesting times.
 
A holiday is where we go to relax and tan. This is a Holy Day, a time of reflection, repair, and rebirth.
 
“Holy, Holy, Holy is the Ruler of the Multitudes of Heaven! All the world is filled with divine glory.”
 
Let me explain what I mean by holy. The Hebrew word we translate as holy, Kadosh, is actually not that at all. Kadosh means set apart, made different.
 
In Judaism, holiness does not come from the day itself, but from our designation of that day as holy. Things are holy because we say that they are.
 
Martin Buber, the famous theologian, tells the story of two men who ponder what makes something holy, so they decide to perform a test, they move Shabbat from Saturday to the middle of the week. On that day, they observe all the ordinary customs of the holiday and find that it actually feels like Shabbat itself. Confused by this they ask their rabbi to explain. He responds, “if you put on Sabbath clothes and Sabbath caps it is quite right that you had a feeling of Sabbath holiness. Because Sabbath clothes and Sabbath caps have the power of drawing the light of the Sabbath holiness down to earth.”
 
Professor Vanessa Ochs out of the University of Virginia, an expert on Jewish ritual, writes about how matzah becomes holy in her book “Material Culture: New Rituals and Ritual Objects” from 2007. “The Matzah matters, then, as does the box it comes in, the brand name, the country… (especially when it is Israel), and the competing sale prices at Waldbaum’s and the Food Emporium.” (we would say Wegmans and Topps). She continues, “the imprint of the rabbi’s name matters, as it certifies, endorses, and extends enduring blessing to the purchased matzah. The specially chosen plate reserved for this use matters, and so does the cover placed upon it… and it matters where on the Passover table the matzah is placed and who sits nearest to it, and who is selected to uncover it, point to it, bless it, divide it for others, and determine who gets it first and who gets what size…”
 
It all matters, because that is how holiness happens. This is the same process the ancient priests went through thousands of years ago and that we go through today.
 
Indeed, Judaism teaches us the following five lessons about kedushah, holiness, lessons that can help break out of the funk of 5777, and transform 5778 into a year filled with splendor and awe.
 
Number one, anyone can designate holiness.   That’s right anyone. One does not need to be a rabbi, cantor, or synagogue board member to assert that a time or object is holy. The days of the High Priest in Jerusalem are long gone. As it says in Leviticus: “Kedshim, tihiyu, ki Kadosh, Ani Adonai,” “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God am Holy.”
 
Number two, almost any object or time period can be designated as holy.   We are free to determine what is sacred in our lives. In the same way that candles put on a birthday cake take on special meaning the moment they are lit, we make things holy by treating them that way. This sanctuary, for example, is quiet during the regular week. Tonight it feels different. All of us together have made the space we are in holy, have made this time holy.  
 
Number three, we cannot have holiness all the time.  
There is a one to seven ratio between sacredness and the profane, Kadosh L’Chol. One to Seven as in the one day of week where we specifically allocate toward holiness: Shabbat. Shabbat comes once a week, not every day. Therefore, we must balance our holy times with normal everyday experiences. When we light the Havdallah candle on Saturday night, fill our cups with wine, and pass around our spice holders, we are making a hard, but necessary transition into the regular work week. “Hamavdil Ben Kodesh L’Kol,” we are moving from the sacred to the everyday because that too is important.  
 
But, number four, we have to have holiness in regular doses. Without holiness our lives lose a sense of purpose and meaning. This is the danger of modern day life, when we dart from one thing to the next, we lose perspective, and become transformed into 24/7 people, where one day blends into the next, without differentiation. The Jewish people have always been 24/6 people, pausing at times, just to appreciate all that we have been through.
 
And, lastly, holiness is better when it is shared. There is a reason why we wait for the tenth person to make up our minyan. Only when we reach that elusive ten, can we say certain prayers like the Kedushah or the Kaddish. Holiness is best enjoyed together. As much as I love my quiet walks in the morning, it is when I am with community that my life feels different, more sacred.
 
So, how do we truly make these holidays, High Holy Days?  
 
For each of us this will be different. Some of us are called by the music. I love watching your faces when Cantor Frank, Shiru Na, and Tizmeret delight us with their songs and prayers. Some of us are drawn to the words of the rabbi and the words on your page. Still, for others, it is just being together, with family and community. And, for others still, just the quiet in between the prayer that provides a moment to reflect. By turning off our skeptic’s hat, and turning toward the time tested mechanisms of the Jewish people, we lose ourselves and find what is holy.  
 
More importantly, how do we make our everyday lives holy? We do so by finding time in our schedule to celebrate and to elevate the ordinary into the extraordinary. For some of us this might mean turning off our cell phones, for others it might me turning them on. Some of us will find our sacred spot here at our Temple, some will need an open field, or a cityscape. For some it will be in a good book or a good class, and others it will be at a movie or concert. Your holy is out there, just go and find it. You will be amazed at the difference it makes.
 
According to Judaism every single human being is inherently holy. All of us our made betzelem elohim, in God’s image.  
 
As Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg, the rabbi who Bar Mitzvahed me, writes, “who are holy beings? They are beloved, clear of mind and courageous. Their will and God’s are one. Raising their voices in constant gratitude they marvel at every detail of life, granting each other loving permission to be exactly who they are. When we listen for their sweet voices, we can hear the echo within our own souls.”
 
“Holy, Holy, Holy,” we say, moving past the clouds of modern day life, past the clouds of the internet and social media, past the clouds of pettiness and disagreement, into a new commitment to be holy, because God is holy, and because we are as well.
 
May these High Holy Days, be joyful, sacred, and above all, uplifting.
 
A Shanah Tovah U’Metukah