Sermon: Rosh Hashanah 5778 – The Jewish decision each of us has to make

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 21 September 2017

If you were to read the biblical descriptions of the festival that we’re celebrating today you might get quite a surprise.  This day is found in the Torah only twice – once in Leviticus and once in Numbers, though the two echo each other strongly enough to suggest a shared origin.
Let me read to you from the version that we find in Numbers 29: “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month,” it states, “You shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations.  You shall observe it as a Yom Teruah.  You shall present a burnt offering of pleasing odour to the Eternal, one bull of the herd…” and so on, describing in detail the sacrificial offerings required.

And that’s it.
It’s so far from what you might think of as today’s festival that it requires a leap – a leap of imagination, a leap of interpretation – to recognise that this is a reference to today.  But I promise you, it is.  Here we have a snapshot of an ancient version of this festival, one with no mention of many of the core themes of our Rosh Hashanah: no mention of the creation of the world; no mention of the liturgical theme of today as Yom HaDin, the day of judgement; In fact, there is no mention of Rosh Hashanah – today as the head of the year, as the beginning of the year.  Biblically we gather today “ba-chodesh ha-shvi’I, b’echad lachodesh” – “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month”.

The only elements of today’s festival that we find in this biblical text are concepts of holiness and rest – common also to Shabbat and to the four other festivals found in Torah.  And, we find that today is Yom Teruah, which is normally translated as a Day of Blowing the Horn, though elsewhere in the bible Teruah can mean raised voices or general festivities.
So, what we find in the Torah is a generic festival day half way through the year; a holy day of celebration, marked, as was the practice of the time, by cessation of work and the ritual of the sacrificial cult.

How do we come to have the Rosh HaShanah that we do?
We can’t trace the exact journey this festival took – one of the wonders or horrors of Judaism, depending on your personality.  Indeed, the best hypothesis suggests that the biblical version is itself an echo of a Mesopotamian festival, picked up during the Babylonian exile.  But what we can be sure of is that during the second temple period, and especially in the hands of the early rabbis of the first centuries CE, this day was utterly transformed.

The rabbis took the obscure, the vague, shell of a biblical festival, inherited from generations before, and they crammed it with new meaning.  They declared it one of four “rashei shanim” – four starts of years, making it the New Year for the counting of years.  In doing so, they also associated it with creation, making it the anniversary of the creation of the world – though, as those who attend Mark’s weekly Talmud class have discovered over the last few weeks, the link is far from obvious.  They made it a day of personal judgement, on which “all the world passes before God like sheep”, creating a unit with Yom Kippur – itself transformed from a day in which the priests made atonement for the people to one in which we make our own personal repentance for our behaviour through acts of teshuvah – repentance and vidui – confession, the details of which were ordained and described by, you’ve guessed it, the rabbis.  They formalised and ritualised Yom Teruah, giving the blowing of shofar structure and meaning – not some vague festivity, nor blowing for its own sake, but a thing of reason.  And they created a liturgy, a prayerbook, to express these ideas, most of which they pushed into the musaf service – that which comes after this sermon – replacing the additional festival sacrifice in the Temple.

That they did so was an act of remarkable creativity.  There is nothing obvious about many of the associations the rabbis made – in fact, many of them are deliberately contrived.  Rather, they valued new ways of making the text shine, valued the application of imagination to religious life.  “i-efshar l’beit ha-midrash b’lo chiddush”, it’s impossible to have a house of study without innovation, the Talmud tells us.  Creativity was built into the rabbinic exercise.

It was an act, too, of great chutzpah.  It was an extraordinary thing that the rabbis took a tradition that they understood to be divine in origin and nonetheless transformed it.  The Torah says very clearly in a couple of places “observe only that which I am commanding you”: “lo toseif alav” – do not add to it; “v’lo tigra mimenu” – and do not take away from it.”  Yet that is exactly what they did – they did take away… and, boy, as we’ve seen, did they add.

An act of creativity and of chutzpah.  But, most of all, though, this was an act of will.  It was a choice.
They made a decision.  A decision across generations of our ancestors that this, this thing we do, matters.  That it was worthy of time, thought, energy, effort.  They made a decision to be pro-active, to engage, to be creative; in order to build the content, the meaning, that would make Rosh HaShanah, in fact their religious life in general, sustaining and sustainable.

They recognised that a generic festival might give them a day off, like our bank holidays, but it wouldn’t challenge them, it wouldn’t change them.  Or those that would come after them.   And because of that lack of real, relevant content, perhaps – probably, in fact – it would therefore not survive.
They did something similar for most aspects of our Jewish lives: Festivals, Shabbat, life cycle – the rabbis took the sacrificial cult of an ancient people and built upon its foundations a religion of richness and meaning, of new rituals, of alternative views, of words and ideas – because they thought that this richness mattered, and because they knew what religion would be reduced to without it; that religion without content, without relevance – that non-specific shell – is not destined to survive.

It is this proactive aspect of Judaism to which we are heirs.
The radical, creative, re-inventing, aspect of our heritage.  It is not the only voice in our textual history – ours is a poly-vocal tradition, after all.  But it is an important voice in rabbinic Judaism.  The voice that says Judaism must reinvent itself – to respond to shinui ittim, to change in times, to meet the needs of the Jewish world, to respond to the spiritual needs of the people.

As a movement, this expresses itself in a sense of obligation – the obligation to be bold enough to make radical change, when necessary, as the radical rabbis did.  I am proud to be part of a rabbinic body which constantly grapples with how to make Jewish life work for more people, more of the time.
On a more local level, as a community, we feel this sense of obligation too.  Ours is a task.  The task of creating hiddushim: working to find new meanings to our religious practise, to develop new forms of ritual, to create new opportunities for Jewish engagement and survival.  It is there in the values of our shul that you will find on your shul sheets this morning: “We are committed to innovation in the sacred task of creating an engaging Judaism”.

And this is also an individual task, a personal choice for each of us.  The rabbis made the positive decision to engage in Jewish life, to challenge Judaism to be richer, to have more meaning.  So can all of us.  We can decide – to try new services, to study – in groups or one to one with us as rabbis – to join Jewish meditation.  And not just to try, but to create – to partner in co-creating new worship, new learning, new forms of Jewish life.  Some of the most important innovations in communal life – both in Alyth and the wider Jewish world have been driven by people in this tent following the example of the rabbis and demanding more of and creating more from Jewish life.

Of course, there is another choice.
But, we must recognise that if we make this choice, we also make a statement: a statement about how we understand the nature of our religious lives.  A statement that we are willing to be passive receivers of tradition, accepting that which came before, rather than shaping it for meaning in our lives.  A statement that Judaism is one – perhaps the only – place in our lives in which we accept a status quo, rather than taking an active part.  That the Judaism of inventiveness and reinvention is not for us.  Or perhaps, a statement that Judaism just isn’t that important, not worth the effort of our reinvention.

The day that we celebrate today bears little similarity to its biblical description.  The rabbis took the shell of an ancient festival and crammed it with new ritual, new words, new meanings to make it speak to them.  They refused to allow their religious life, their ritual, their words, to be stale or contentless, to risk it withering for lack of imagination or effort.
In so doing, they provided an example for us in our religious lives.  We, too, face challenges of meaning, of ritual, of richness.  And like them, we have to decide how to respond.
Their example is one of creativity and of chutzpah – but mostly it is one of will.  They decided it was worth the effort.  They decided that they would be active partners in creating religious life.  They decided that they would not merely receive but shape, try new things.
The question for us, the inheritors of their tradition, is, will we make that decision, too?