Sermon: Rosh Hashanah 5775 (Rabbi Maurice Michaels)
Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 21 March 2015
Planning what to say today was a real problem. Thinking about it, I realised that there are actually only four basic sermons for this Festival. So I looked back over my past sermons and sure enough that confirmed my thesis. First, there is the theme of birth and rebirth, using the phrase, Hayom harat olam this is the birthday of the world, together with the Torah reading of the birth of Isaac, paralleled by the birth of Samuel in the Haftarah.
Second, the whole theme of t’shuvah, repentance and return, that looks at sin and forgiveness, God and Mitzvot, and looking back at the past and doing better in the future – and, of course that’s not a million miles away from rebirth. Third, is based on specific aspects of the liturgy, perhaps the un’taneh tokef prayer, or Avinu Malkenu or the special sections of the musaf Amidah: Malchuyot, zichronot and shofarot, which gives full rein to discussing the Shofar. Yet more than a cursory glance at these and they link back to repentance and return. In other words there is a great overlap between these seemingly different themes.
So the only real alternative is the fourth category, the so-called State of the Nation address. It’s a look at the past year from the perspective of the Community, or the UK, or Israel, or the world. All or any combination of these is possible and they usually encompass peace, terrorism, finance, anti-semitism, multi-faith and/or multi-culturalism, politics, the environment, but not necessarily in that order. Very rarely, a huge topical issue might come up, but generally that doesn’t fit in with Rosh ha-Shanah.
My problem is – to coin a phrase – been there, done that, and got the t-shirt. I wanted to be different this year – but how? Certainly as of Monday there wasn’t the huge topical issue that could possibly over-ride Rosh ha-Shanah. I thought of doing some empirical research, contacting the rest of my colleagues to find out what they were doing, but realised I’d left it too late. By that time, I had to admit to myself that I was vainly trying to avoid the inevitable, I’d run out of ideas. After more than twenty years of Rosh ha-Shanah sermons I couldn’t think of anything new. I was adamant about not recycling from previous years, even though there were one or two that would bear repetition, but that would really have been a last resort. And then it hit me. Not only is there nothing new about Rosh ha-Shanah , we wouldn’t want there to be.
Rosh ha-Shanah – and for that matter Yom Kippur – retains the hold it does on us because it is the same as it has always been. We remember it from our childhood with affection, as a time we spent with parents and grandparents. Our coming to Synagogue in such numbers, as compared to the rest of the year, is a demonstration of that nostalgia. There is so much change in our lives and the High Holydays, Yamim Nora’im, provide a welcome annual stability check, a ‘whatever else is going on in our lives, this is a safe time’ moment. Life is hectic, we set ourselves a frantic pace, we want to see, hear, touch, feel, taste, to do, everything – and by yesterday. We – and that goes for all age groups – are more active than ever before. In previous generations when people retired from work they, for the most part, gave up on everything. Now they are just beginning to enjoy life, looking for all sorts of activities to keep themselves active. Children have so many leisure activities that it’s a wonder they have time to go to school. And all those in-between also live very busy lives. In addition, there is the relatively new phenomenon of multi-generation caring taking up so much of our time and efforts. People in their fifties, sixties and seventies are often looking after their grandchildren at the same time as they’re providing a caring service for their elderly parents. For some of us, of course, shabbat plays a relaxing and reviving role at the end of each lively week. But for many, taking one day out of their frenetic schedule feels just impossible, and so Rosh ha-Shanah comes along and reminds us how it once used to be. We can be calm and relaxed and not affected by change.
So perhaps, in this sea of calm, we need to ask ourselves is this really what we want out of our lives? Is this constant movement conducive to getting the best out of life? Are there other ways in which we can achieve greater satisfaction? Do we have the right balance in our lives? Rosh ha-Shanah, above all, is a time for reflection, a time to look within ourselves. Traditionally, it is a time to create a cheshbon ha-nefesh, literally an accounting of the soul, setting down our good deeds on the credit side of the balance sheet and our sins on the debit side. Just as we hope that the balancing figure in our financial accounts will be a surplus, so with our cheshbon ha-nefesh. However, that applies to our relationships with God and with others, so that we can make our peace with them before the Yamim Nora’im, asking for their forgiveness for our wrong-doings. My suggestion is that we need also to create a cheshbon ha-nefesh for ourselves. We should set out what we have done to better ourselves and what we have done that diminishes us as human beings and as Jews. Have we taken the opportunities offered to stimulate our minds or have we lazed in front of virtual reality shows on TV? Do we take the appropriate amount of physical exercise or do we take the car to go around the corner? Are we conscious of what constitutes a healthy diet and eat accordingly or are we into junk food? Do we spend sufficient quality time with our family or do we work every hour God sends? Are we proud of our lifestyle or do we hide it from others? And yes, because it’s Rosh ha-Shanah and we’re in Synagogue let me add, do we make Jewish choices in our lifestyle or are we no different to our non-Jewish neighbours?
In the past – and even now for truly orthodox Jews – it’s most unlikely you would have heard so many questions, because they had answers, whether you want them or not. Everything had been decided by the sages of old, occasionally brought up to date when new developments have occurred, but only by extrapolating from the past. In some ways that’s so easy. Thought isn’t necessary. People either follow or not, which makes them good Jews or bad Jews. We modern Jews have it a lot tougher. With us, the Rabbis tend to ask questions of us, not tell us what we need to do. We’re given personal choice, but we’re not always told what is right and what is wrong. The phrase often used is ‘informed choice’, and that entails learning and understanding so as to make the appropriate choice for us, ourselves.
The problem is that that could involve change; changing how we live our lives. And as we’ve already discussed, change is anathema to most of us and we only accept it when it’s forced on us. But that really is the point that I’m trying to make. We do accept change, but not through our own initiative, only when we’ve no choice. Surely, it makes more sense to take back control over our lives, to work through all the options and go with the one that’s right for us – and those we have responsibility for. In all those questions about life style there is that extra dimension, those for whom we have responsibility. We do not usually live for ourselves alone. I don’t know who said it, but ‘no man is an island’ is not an empty statement. As husbands or wives we are answerable to our partners, as parents we are concerned for our children, as children we have regard for our parents, as employers we have responsibility for our employees, as employees we have to look after our colleagues, as friends we share their concerns. When Cain was asked by God where his brother Abel was he replied, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ The answer, of course, is yes. We all have that role and so when we make our own cheshbon ha-nefesh we must take account of those others in our lives. If that now seems to make the task even more difficult, it also demonstrates how much more important it is to do.
Rosh ha-Shanah, if not a time of rebirth, is certainly a time for thinking about the future as well as the past, a time for reflection about how we want to live our lives, a time for deciding about controlled change. Making new year resolutions is not really our thing, if only because it’s generally a recipe for failure and that’s not what we are aiming at. But a resolve to think a little more about what makes us tick as individual human beings, to be a little more aware of ourselves in relation to relevant others, to give ourselves a little more opportunity to fulfil our needs, to grant ourselves a little more chance of a better and more satisfying year ahead, all this can only be a good thing. May we all look back next year with the knowledge that our resolve was achieved and that as a result 5775 was a good year for us and our loved ones. Amen.