Sermon: Rabbi Colin Eimer – Erev Rosh Hashanah

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 17 September 2015

“What calls us here tonight, out of the daily routine of our lives?” asks one of the readings in our machzor.

It answers with the words of 19th century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: “the sound of the shofar calls us all to God. It calls poor and rich to true riches; it calls the most distant wanderer home.”

That’s Samson Raphael Hirsch’s answer. What is ours? – yours? mine? Each of us has our particular response to that question, for we all have a story, our story, about the journey that has brought us – distant wanderers all – here tonight.

The image and the metaphor of the journey is very powerful. We see it in the literature of the world’s great civilisations and religions: Abraham, Joseph, Jacob, and Moses all go on life-changing journeys, as do the Children of Israel. Buddha, Mohammed, Ulysses, Jason and so on. It’s a recurring theme in modern literature and film. In all these narratives, the ‘hero’ is usually just an ordinary person, called on to embark, often reluctantly, on a great journey with enormous consequences.

Now we don’t ordinarily think of ourselves as ‘heroes.’ In our eyes, we’re just ordinary men and women, trying to earn a living, raise kids if we have them, live decent and respectable lives, not doing too much damage to those around us, leaving the world a bit better off if we can. Nothing particularly special or heroic about that – it’s just doing what ordinary people do.

And yet, of course, there is a life journey that we are all on, and Rosh Hashanah, for Jews, is one of the stopping points on it. None of us are the same as we were last Rosh Hashanah. Like every period between one Rosh Hashanah and the next, these past twelve months have marked our lives.

For some of you it has been a year dominated by illness or death. You have lost partners, parents, children, good friends. Some have moved another step through the educational process. Children have gone on their journey – into marriage, their own home, to far-off places. Jobs have been lost, gained or changed; some have moved into retirement. Relationships have been made – and broken. The achievements and the failed hopes, the shattered dreams of human existence. We bring all that with us tonight.

As well as what is going on in the world out there. Just before Rosh Hashanah last year we lived through Israel’s incursion into Gaza; a new Government in this country; a bizarre Labour leadership contest just finished yesterday; the appalling events at the beginning of the year in Paris and the very real fears Jews everywhere have about world reactions to Israel and a virulent and resurgent anti-Semitism. And of course, the heartrending scenes over the past months of the refugee crisis. In particular as Jews, how can we not be moved and sickened by those scenes of human misery, of desperate people, in our newspapers and on our TV screens daily.

Shanah, as in Rosh Hashanah comes from a Hebrew root which means ‘to change.’ The very name of the festival hints then at our continuing journey. Yet just what is the journey? Clearly there’s the journey from starting point of birth to the end point of death. That at least has a clear start and finish. We have no control over the start point, obviously; and with the rejection of the Assisted Dying Bill last Friday, one potential means of determining our end-point has been removed. Leo Baeck said that we come from a mystery and go into a mystery – let us not live in between those two points as a mystery.

Nearly 100 years ago, Franz Kafka wrote a modern version of the journey:

I gave orders for my horse to be brought round from the stable. The servant did not understand me. I myself went to the stable, saddled my horse and mounted. In the distance I heard a bugle call, I asked him what this meant. He knew nothing and had heard nothing. At the gate he stopped me, asking: “Where are you riding to, master?” “I don’t know,” I said, “Only away from here, away from here. Always away from here, only by doing so can I reach my destination.” “And so you know your destination?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered, “didn’t I say so? Away-From-Here, that is my destination.” “You have no provisions with you,” he said. “I need none,” I said, “The journey is so long that I must die of hunger if I don’t get anything on the way. No provisions can save me. For it is, fortunately, a truly immense journey.” (Machzor 258)

The man tells his servant to bring the horse, but the servant doesn’t understand. He’s not stupid, but it’s just not his journey. The servant didn’t hear the bugle call: it’s not his summons. Each of us hears our own call, though sometimes we only realise that’s what it was when we look back. The servant wants to know where the man is going but all he knows is that the journey is away from where he is now. We can’t stand still because standing still is a form of death.

Shanah does, indeed, mean to change – but the same root also means to ‘repeat.’ That’s the challenge: will the coming year be little more than an action replay of the year just past – or will it be some real change?

Kafka’s man knows only that his destination is somewhere else than where he is now. As Adin Steinsaltz suggests in a reading in the machzor, the biggest impediment to true repentance is the feeling of “behold, I’ve arrived. It could well undermine the capacity to continue….the Jewish approach to life,” he says, “considers the person who has stopped going – who has a feeling of completion to be someone who has lost their way. “ (Machzor 737)

The servant sees that the man has no food. The man knows that he can get provisions on the way but the food he’s talking about is to do with finding meaning and purpose on his journey. Without that sort of sustenance, he says, he will die of hunger. And finally it’s not just an immense journey but ‘fortunately’ so. This is a journey pregnant with possibility and excitement.

During the year there’s so little time to reflect: things just seem to happen relentlessly one after the other, seldom with time to ask “What does this mean? How will it change me, my life, that of those around me?”

These Yamim Noraim, these High Holydays, give us the possibility to stop, to step back, to reflect, to examine our relationships and see how we might make them better.

And there is also our personal journey.

Tomorrow we read in the Akeda about Abraham being told to go on a journey and sacrifice his son. He’s told ‘Lech-lecha’ ‘Go.’ But lech alone means ‘go,’ Lech lecha is, literally, ‘go to you, go to yourself.’ Go inside yourself, begin to discover what you really are, try and get back to the original, real you – strip away the outer accretions we acquire as we go through life: the defences, the self-delusions, the wishful thinking about who we would like to be. Rosh Hashanah is an annual sitting shivah for all that stuff, which we have to let go of if we are to move forward.

It is Zusya, in the Chassidic story, who says that when I stand in final judgement they will not ask me “Zusya, why in your life, were you not more like Moses?” but they will ask, “Zusya, why in your life, were you not more like Zusya?” Stop trying to be somebody else and develop the potential you have within you.

It is Yitzhak of Krakow in an old story who has a recurring dream of finding treasure buried under a bridge in Prague. He goes there, certain that the dream is a portent of what is to be found. Sure enough, the bridge is just as in his dream, but it is heavily guarded. The guard notices him loitering and asks him what he’s doing. Yitzhak explains and the guard laughs: “If I paid attention to all my crazy dreams, I’d go to Krakow and find the house of some Jew called Yitzhak because there’s treasure buried in his house.” Yitzhak goes back to Krakow and of course finds the treasure.

We look everywhere but under our noses for the treasure that is there. We journey through life thinking that what we seek somehow always lies ‘out there.’ Rosh Hashanah calls back to the recognition of what is buried under our feet, waiting to be unearthed. “The Shofar calls the most distant wanderer home.” In this respect, at this season we are all ‘distant wanderers.’

What is the journey? In what direction is it? It is, indeed, away-from-here but inwards, not outwards. It’s the journey home. In this season we talk of teshuvah, usually translated as ‘repentance.’ But its root meaning is ‘return’: a return to see ourselves as we are, to accept ourselves for who we are. Our physical journey through life is only the outer framework. Teshuvah, return, is returning to a different, truer perspective on who and what we are.

Rosh Hashanah is homecoming – back to ourselves, our true selves; back to what we are as individual Jews, as members of a community, a people, and a common humanity.

Welcome home! Shanah tovah!