Rosh Hashanah Day 1 Sermon – 5778

Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson
Flatbush Jewish Center
Rosh Hashanah 5778/2017
This is the third year I have had the privilege of leading this community on the High
Holidays. Two years ago, I stood before you on the first day of Rosh Hashanah and
had to explain that Mr. Keisler had retired. I used the three images from the end of
this morning’s Torah reading—a well, seven sheep, and a planted tree—as symbols
for the past, present, and future of the Flatbush and Shaare Torah Jewish Center, and
for how we would survive and thrive despite his absence.

Last year, I stood before you with an equally unenviable task, explaining that Cantor
Schwartz had also left the shul, and why we had gone back to davening downstairs
on Shabbat mornings. I shared with you a list of ten great strengths of this
community that would carry us forward into the coming years, as well as some
areas that needed more attention.

This year, thank God, there is no such major disruption in our community. Within
the four walls of our synagogue, there is remarkable stability. But outside our walls,
well, you don’t need me to tell you we are living in turbulent, uncertain times. How
do we keep our heads in a world as topsy-turvy as this one? How do we avoid
getting lost—losing our identities and our core commitments—in such a world? I
want to suggest that Rosh Hashanah can offer us an answer—a spiritual tool that
helps us stay oriented. We find it encapsulated in the refrain of the Musaf service.
At the end of each of the three sections of Musaf, we say “Hayom Harat Olam.” As I
said last year in my Rosh Hashanah sermon, that phrase can be understood two
ways. It can mean today the world is conceived, or today the world is pregnant. Last
year, I spoke about the ‘pregnancy’ interpretation, about how a transformation that
is ignited in a single moment can take months, even years, to bring to fruition.
Today, I want to explore the other tack with you.

What does it mean to conceive a world? And, since Jewish time moves in cycles and
we celebrate Rosh Hashanah every year, what does it mean for the world to be
conceived anew every fall? I know what it means to conceive a child—and that child
is born, grows up, lives, and dies. But a world? How is the world reconceived every
year?

Over a hundred years ago, the Reform movement made the decision to change what
part of the Torah it would read on Rosh Hashanah. Instead of the traditional story of
Isaac’s birth on day one and the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, on day two, they
instituted reading the creation story, Breshit chapter 1. Some other year I’ll tell you
why I think this was a mistake—and I’m happy to say that these days most Reform
congregations have gone back to the traditional readings—but they were also on to
something when they made this change.

The creation story sets forth a world in perfect order, before anything has yet gone
wrong. It is a world brimming with possibility, bursting with potential, for all the
things that might come to pass in it. It is not yet marred by sin, strife, murder, or
war. It is the quiet, cool, fresh dawn of time.

The Kabbalists take this idea a step further. They imagine the moments before God
even began to create the world, and they do so with the imagery of human
reproduction. Without getting into the technical kabbalistic details, I’ll summarize it
like this: the world began with a flash of divine insight, a single point that contained
the DNA, the seed for all that could ever possibly be. That seed then gestated within
another aspect of God, the divine womb, which allowed the world—and indeed,
aspects of God’s own self—to gestate and eventually come into being, unfolding and
emanating in ever-greater complexity, from the most mysterious parts of God down
to the simplest grain of sand. It’s all contained in that singularity, that flash of insight
that brought the world into existence.

Part of what we are doing on Rosh Hashanah is reaching back towards that point of
original potential, trying to get in touch with it. And here I want to give credit to my
friend Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman, who made an offhand comment to me over the
summer that got me started on this whole train of thought. The world has come a
long way since creation, and in our own lives we have come a long way from the
resolutions we made last Rosh Hashanah. Teshuvah, as you’ve probably heard each
year on the High Holidays, means return. I want to suggest that the teshuvah we
have been working on for the entire month of Elul, and that we will work on with
renewed zeal through Yom Kippur, is not simply a return to the “right path” or to a
sin-free life. It is an attempt to go back to that first point of conception, to God’s pure
idea of who we are, and try to get a clear read on our fullest potential, on the selves
we always knew, or hoped, or dreamed we could be.

This is also, I think, the meaning behind “chadesh yameinu kekedem,” “renew our
days as of old.” This is the last line we sing every Shabbat and holiday morning as we
put the Torah back in the ark. I’ve always bristled a little about this line, with its
suggestion that yesteryear was so much better than now. But in this new light, I’m
thinking of kedem in its sense of “beginning.” Don’t take us back in time, God, but
help us return to our initial potential, to the best self we were meant to be in Your
imagination.

And I should also point out that that line, chadesh yameinu kekedem, comes from the
second-to- last line of Eicha, the book of Lamentations that we read seven weeks ago
on Tisha B’Av. Even in that moment of bleakest destruction, of greatest despair, the
prophet Jeremiah reminds us that we can reach back for that origin point where
everything is the best version of itself.

Now, let’s be honest, we know full well that we are going to mess it up, like we do
every year. We are going to get busy, or tired, or lazy, or distracted, or scared, or overwhelmed, and we won’t manage to be our fullest, best selves. But if we don’t
take stock of what that best self looks like, we won’t have any chance of even getting
close. If we don’t take this annual opportunity to grasp the world as it was originally
supposed to be, we won’t remember what it is we’re striving for.
This can also make teshuvah a little more fun, though no less difficult. Instead of
cataloging all the things we have done wrong—which no one really likes to do—we
can focus on who we were meant to be, the self we like best. It’s a little less
depressing, more uplifting.
This essence of Rosh Hashanah is a spiritual truth that operates on multiple levels
and in many realms of our lives. It certainly holds true on the individual level, our
visions of whom we once dreamed of being and the compromises we have made
since then.

It applies to the United States, a country that was created almost out of whole cloth
by the power of ideas—ideas about truth, equality, and liberty. We’ve made a whole
bunch of wrong turns since then, starting from the very beginning with allowing
slavery, but the mistakes we’ve made—the injustices we have allowed—don’t
negate the value and worthiness of our founding ideals.

And it applies to humanity as a whole. Think about how the Torah describes
humanity’s first moments of existence, and how that captures the best of what
humanity can be. We are perceptive, sensitive, and creative, seeing the animals’ true
essence and naming each one. We are protectors of the earth. We are loving
partners to each other, able to share our truest selves without pretense or barrier.
That’s who we have the capacity to be. We have the ability to get back there. And on
Rosh Hashanah, we are called to recapture that fleeting image, even if just for a
moment, so we know how to orient ourselves—we know what it is we’re trying to
return to—in the days ahead.