Rosh Hashanah Day Two 5777
Yesterday, I spoke about the rebirth of the world on Rosh Hashanah and the rebirth of this shul. Today, I want to widen our lens, looking out at the state of the world in general and drawing on the three themes of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf service—Malchuyot, Zichronot, Shofarot—to help us make some spiritual sense of it.
Journalist Naomi Klein has observed that it seems as if all the basic systems of our lives—all the processes and expectations that were familiar to us coming out of the 20th century—are in crisis: somewhere between starting to fray and one step from implosion. From whichever angle we look at the world, we see things falling apart. To offer just a few examples: Many of us are being left out of the economy. Our immigration systems are not working. Both in the US and in Israel, our safety and security are at risk from threats foreign and domestic. Climate change—where to even begin with that? Our political climate has become so toxic it makes governing—trying to solve these problems—all but impossible. I could go on, but I think you could each provide your own examples of the breakdowns that affect you—that disturb you—the most. And nowhere have we seen these destabilizations play out more loudly than in this presidential campaign season, where a sense of deep existential angst has motivated voters of so many stripes.
I will admit to you that there are moments when I feel almost total despair, when it seems like the problems are too big, the forces arrayed against change too powerful for things to get better. But most of the time, I’m able to hold onto hope, to the belief that change is always difficult but humanity can rise above it. Today, I want to suggest to you how the three sections of this morning’s Musaf service—the heart and soul of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy—can help us navigate our way through these hard times.
The first section, Malchuyot, is about declaring God’s sovereignty. In this world where the ground is shifting beneath our feet, where we can’t seem to get a proper foothold, the Bedrock of Being remains constant. When I was taking karate as a kid, through high school, I learned to keep my balance during a complex kick or maneuver by fixing my gaze at a point on the wall ahead. I hear that dancers and gymnasts do the same. Whatever form your belief in God takes—and I am not here to tell you what that belief should look like—I hope it offers you faith, as it does for me, that there is an eternal center that endures, that we can reach for God as that point of stability and reference. Whether you believe in a God who can intervene in the world or one who inspires and empowers us to do the divine work that needs to be done, whether you believe in a God who cares for us or in some more impersonal force, Malchuyot reminds us that some things are unchanging and certain—and that, in itself, can give us comfort..
Zichronot: Remembrance. In this middle section of Musaf, we ask God to remember us, to remember our righteous ancestors, to remember God’s covenant with us. But there is a reciprocity here: God also calls on us to remember. Covenants always have two parties, each with obligations to the other. What are our foundational principles? What are our most cherished values? What are the things we cannot compromise, even in the name of perceived security and hoped-for stability? If Malchuyot gives us a stable point on which to rest and catch our collective breath, Zichronot helps us get our bearings, know in which directions lie safety and growth and where we must be cautious of paths that will lead us to stumble, fall, and bring others down with us.
Finally, we come to Shofarot, perhaps the most central essence of this holiday, which the Torah calls Yom Tru’ah, a day of shofar-blowing. Rabbis over the centuries have offered many, many explanations for what the ram’s horn means. I want to offer two that speak most immediately to this context. This first is a pair of midrashim that say the shofar echoes the cries of a despondent woman. One midrash says it is the voice of Sarah, who heard incorrectly that Abraham had sacrificed Isaac on the altar—as we just read in the Torah a little while ago—and cried out and died. Another midrash says it is the voice of Sisra’s mother—Sisra, the Phillistine general, enemy of Israel, who was killed by the Israelite heroine Yael. What these women teach us is that, when things are terrible, we should give voice to our feelings. Pretending that we can whitewash the trouble and make everything ok, hiding from the facts like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand, will not save us. When we feel despair about the state of the world, there is no shame in admitting it. God welcomes our despair. God can handle it—and God can help us handle each other’s despair.
But that doesn’t mean we give in to the despair. We face it with eyes wide open and work together to find the right solutions, the paths that allow us to overcome despair. Because the shofar is also, as Maimonides famously teaches, a spiritual alarm clock, awakening us to teshuvah. In the same vein, when the Israelites were in the desert, the shofar would summon the tribes to break camp and begin a march. On this Rosh Hashanah, when we hear the shofar’s call, we must hear in it the command to do our part, play our role, whatever that may be. Staying in our camp in the desert, because it is familiar even if it is not fertile ground for growth, is not an option. Going backwards is not an option, as the Israelites learned when—more than once—they yearned to go back to the fleshpots of Egypt. We must summon the spiritual energy of the shofar and muster the courage to go forward, to create a better future for all of us, for our children, and for our grandchildren.