Tag Archives: Rosh Hashanah

The Joy of the Jewish Year – Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

26 Sep

Temple Beth El, Erev Rosh HaShanah 5775, Wednesday, September 24, 2014

We are a wilderness people – our covenant was crafted at Sinai, a mountain in the desert, and our sense of peoplehood has been sculpted by years of homelessness. Most of our history has led us away from home, often as refugees.

We are a people who worry about our security.

We tell stories of our loved ones who keep bags packed, just in case. We worry if we have enough, or if we do enough – for ourselves, for our families, for our communities, for the world.

And now, in the face of all of our concerns, I am going to ask us to do something differently. I would like us to celebrate Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, as a real holiday of joy.

Even more than that, I will suggest that this season that leads to Rosh HaShanah, and emerges from it, can be one focused on bringing more celebration into our lives.

Now, I realize that this may be a tall order. The Jewish New Year is not a typical celebration. We don’t pop any bottles of champagne, and we have no festive countdown.

In fact, our encounters with Judaism at this season of Days of Awe can seem grim. Apologies, confessions, the lifting of our vows from the past year, God as merciful ruler accepting our transgressing selves back into God’s favor after prayer and fasting – a little apples and honey and the sounding of the shofar hardly make up for all of these serious and somber themes.

And who could blame us?

Our calendar feels like we go from tragedy to tragedy – we jest that the general Jewish holiday can be described most succinctly as: “They tried to kill us, God saved us, let’s eat.”

With all of our running and fleeing, and then thriving, we always hope, that for just a little while, we may have finally reached a place of safety. Maybe this time we won’t have to pack up our families. Maybe this time we are proven to be too nervous when we always have our passports up to date.

Let’s admit that while our tradition insists on calling this a celebration – this New Year’s Party that we have all shown up to this evening – this Rosh HaShanah – we have resisted its call to be joyful. A couple of millennia of homelessness, some truly unspeakable centuries of oppression, and then the last decades of unbelievable turnaround, about which we feel admittedly a little guilty – this history has led us to experience this holy day as darker than it was originally intended.

Embracing this Jewish journey is all about finding the little sources of joy around us. We Jewish people have been coping with our sense of permanent exile for two thousand years, during which we have created a whole year’s worth of holidays and countless daily and personal practices that are meant to offer us ways of emphasizing the rhythm between a low point and a high point. We descendants of Israel who grapple with loss on the scale of generations and continents must also figure out how to highlight the good times.

Let’s start with the basics – our lives and the world are miraculous. Jewish tradition as represented by the great Nachmanides reminds us that we must not rely on miracles in our everyday life, and we must acknowledge that we are constantly surrounded by the miraculous.

We are the people who notice small miracles in the littlest of things. We must be. How else could we have survived the last two thousand years with a sense of hope that things will turn out better? When we look closely at the world, we can immerse ourselves in an ocean of reasons to wonder.

To look at the world through thoughtful, Jewish eyes, is to stare with awe and gratitude, and indeed joy, at creation.

To awaken to the morning in a Jewish manner is to begin with words of thanks.

I aim to follow a rhythm of life that brings little pieces of joy into my consciousness every day. Each morning I gather our family together to sing the Hebrew words of gratitude, the song Modeh Ani, as a way of starting the day with thanks. Some days it works really well. Last week all four of us were up in time to gather together. Ginny, Jude, our seven-year-old, and I sang our morning song, and Sadie, our almost ten-month old, crawled from Ginny’s lap towards Jude and me, adding her voice to our song. We were all singing, in our own way, and definitely feeling grateful.

It was wondrous. Even though the morning still had its struggles, the memory of those moments of grace is still sustaining a week later.

Many of you may have noticed that I share my regular runs via social media.

Let me tell you, I do not have an easy time dragging myself out for a run in the morning: no matter how good it is for me, no matter how much better I will feel about life, the universe, and everything, afterwards.

So I make sure that I get my mind into a grateful place when I am done. I am grateful that I managed to do it. I am grateful that Ginny took care of Sadie while I was gone. And then I am grateful no matter what my times and distances were. Maybe I was supposed to run ten miles and I only had time for six – doesn’t matter! I got to run, and that was a blessing, even a source of joy.

All of this reminds us that Jewish traditions ask us to act in a way that we may not feel, so as to create the emotion we hope to have. Judaism recognizes that the mind-body connection works both ways – when we force ourselves to do something we create some momentum towards feeling differently too. Even more simply, it is a life-practice of “fake it ‘til you make it”. The system of Jewish practices, applied, experimented on, reinterpreted, and reapplied in our own lives and in our own ways aims to help us find regular moments of little joy.

Some days I can’t fake it so well. Some days I am too, whatever, and usually the ones who suffer the most are those closest to me. On those days we can take a little advice from a non-Jewish thinker, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, who talks about non-toothache days.

Non-toothache days. We must always be grateful that today is a non-toothache day.

Happiness is enjoying what we have.

We try to see the small miracle even when a whole host of things cloud our vision of the wonder of the normal.

As we find our own ways to acknowledge and celebrate all of those daily blessings, so we can find high points in our weeks and seasons.

We are a people who come together regularly to enjoy a good nosh, and a little prayer service.

Every week we have an excuse to create “delight” – to practice Shabbat is to remember to find some joy at least once a week. Think of Shabbat as a reminder that if the week has dragged us down, sapped our “fake it ‘til we make it” batteries, that we have an excuse to recharge our celebratory engines. When we accept Shabbat as an opportunity for that stop, that necessary break, then we can embrace it as joyful.

Shabbat happens when we make it happen. In our household, some weeks we get to make Shabbat at 3:30 on Friday afternoon. My break in the week happens on Thursday, or on Saturday night, or for an hour or two on a Sunday afternoon, maybe, if I’m lucky during a Panthers game.

Find a time, make Shabbat – when we can.

It definitely works better when we do it with our family and with our community at the time when we all try to make Shabbat.

Let’s aim to find the time, once a week, to inject a little “delight” into our lives, and take a break from the normal.

Now, this may come as a surprise to us all – our traditions teach us that the joy in the observance counts more than the observance itself.

Really – joy counts more than the details.

In Deuteronomy we find words that seem to say the opposite:

(Deut. 27:26)

Cursed be the one that does not fulfill the words of this Torah, to observe them!

From this, we could get the idea that observance is all that counts. And yet here is a Hasidic teaching about this very verse in Deuteronomy.

[From Arthur Green, Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid’s Table, Volume 2, pp. 128-129]

Fulfilling all of the commandments, which the Torah seems to say we must do in order to avoid getting cursed, only seems like an impossible task. First, everyone knows that no one can fulfill all of the commandments. The Hasidic teaching goes further, and says that each commandment can be viewed as containing all of the commandments.

So, if this teaching is true, then why does the Torah read that we get cursed for not fulfilling all of them? The Torah can’t have an extraneous teaching. The curse is there to remind us that joy is the key to fulfilling the commandments – to achieve one commandment that fulfills all of them, we must start with joy.

The teaching continues:

“’Prayer without inner direction is like a body without a soul.’ The letters of Torah and prayer, as well as the fulfilled commandment, are all the body; the soul is the inner direction and the joyous thought we have in doing God’s will.”

All of the commandments are separate when we do them physically – when we do a commandment with a joyous thought all the commandments become united. This is why later on in Deuteronomy it reads that we will be cursed:

(Deut. 28:47) because you did not serve Adonai your God in joy and in good-feeling of heart out of the abundance of everything.

Don’t worry about the details of the commandments for Shabbat. Find a place and time to do a bit of Shabbat with joy.

We are a people with a lot of holidays.

Rabbi Michael Strassfeld writes about the journey through our holiday year:

“…the key to a successful journey is not reaching the promised destination, but rather being aware of every moment on the journey. To be successful [we] need to rejoice, to travel with simcha, ‘joy’.”

We are not a people who arrive at final destinations, we are a people who journey.

As we plot our course through our holy days we also do not reach an ending place.

There are at least four different new years – Rosh HaShanah, the celebration of the creation of the world; Simchat Torah, the celebration of the completion and restarting of the cycle of reading the Torah; Tu biShvat, the New Year of the trees; and the first of Nisan, the first month of the year, the month of Passover, when the natural world is renewed in Spring.

With all these festival beginnings we have many starts, and no finishes!

Regularly, people say to me, “You Jewish people – what’s with all the holidays?”

I need to start responding: “You bet – we are a people who love to have an excuse to have a celebration. These holidays are reminders to bring joy into our everyday lives every month of the year.”

We celebrate AND we apologize.

We take a full month before Rosh HaShanah to work on repenting. What’s the connection between apologies and a New Year celebration?

Our son Jude once asked: “Why don’t people apologize? It makes it stop hurting.”

Apologies clear the way for celebrating.

When we apologize, when we make amends, we put down the burden of needing to know everything, of being in control.

When the High Holy Day season asks us to do tshuvah, to make amends, we can let go of the burden of having done wrong, once we apologize, make it right, then rejoice in the liberation from it.

We didn’t know better, we didn’t mean it, we thought it would be better, we didn’t think enough, we’re doing what we can to make it better, forgive me, now let’s have a Happy New Year.

This celebration that we arrive at may not be stereotypical – we may not find the joy that we see depicted in a movie or an advertisement. Joy happens amid all the other things going on – we find it on the upside of our rhythms. We must have non-joy in order to fully experience joy. We must notice and celebrate the difference in order to fully celebrate at all.

This means finding some authentic joy, not manufacturing it. This won’t be Madison Avenue’s joy. It’s our own thing: personal joy from self-knowledge and self-exploration, which we found by clearing the way with apologies.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, said that the worst thing we can do, is to worry too much about our mistakes. Too much guilt keeps us far from God. Apologies act as a release valve for the guilt. In joy and wholeness, we fully feel God’s Presence, the miraculous nature of our existence. As long as we are at war with ourselves, we have no room in us to make a dwelling place for God. The main focus is on loving God, sharing that love with God’s creatures, doing it through joy and celebration of life.

[Arthur Green, Ehyeh, A Kabbalah for Tomorrow, p. 125]

Our God and God of all ages, please be mindful of Your People Israel on this Day of Remembrance, and renew in us love and compassion, goodness, life, joy, and peace.

This day remember us for well-being.

This day bless us with Your nearness.

This day help us to live, and live with joy and celebration.

Let us join together in joy for this New Year.

Celebrate more, and find ways to do it that are more authentically us.

Tashlich 5775-2014 Shofar Laughter

Tashlich at Freedom Park with Temple Beth El – thanks to Ginny Reel-Freirich for the photo!

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Rabbi Jonathan’s Rosh HaShanah Sermon: Wrestling With Discomfort

18 Sep

“Wrestling With Discomfort”
Erev Rosh HaShanah 5773 – September 16, 2012
Temple Beth El, Charlotte, North Carolina
Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

Four years ago during the High Holy Day season my father lay on his deathbed. Ginny and Jude, then an infant, and I crossed the country from Tahoe to Charlotte to be with him in Salisbury. It was this time of year so I had a lot on my mind – repentance, apologies, sermons, being a new father and losing my own.

In addition to all of that, I arranged for my mother to travel from New York to Salisbury, and figured out how to get her a moment with my father. My parents had been divorced for decades, and both had remarried. There had been many rocky times between them and their families. Years after the worst of the drama, my mother says she talked to my father once a week, maintaining a friendship that began in their teens.

Visiting my father for the last time was difficult enough, why did I have to make it even more complicated by arranging this awkward reunion? Bringing my mother into my stepmother’s home at a private time, a time when I had plenty to deal with on my own. Still, it seemed like a good idea for me to get out of the way. Allowing my parents – long divorced, but friends for all of their adult lives – to say goodbye before my father’s death offered them something. My mother would always have regretted not seeing my father before he died, and maybe it brought my father some comfort. It wasn’t the path of least resistance, but it made sense to me.

Families and our tensions – while many other things bring us here at this time of year, we are often seeking repentance, making amends, and hoping for forgiveness from loved ones most of all. Our families, close and extended, can be our bedrock. Because we are so close, our families can be our greatest source of difficulty too. And that’s OK – after all, even though we are close, we may still want different things at different times.

On Rosh Hashanah we aim to set a good course for the New Year. If we were to craft a healthy method for solving any problem between people, even family members, it might look like this.
– Conflict happens – however we define it
– We acknowledge the conflict. We grapple with it internally.
– This allows us to work towards reconciliation – we take the steps with the people involved to solve the original conflict and move on to more opportunities to do better.

Seems simple – conflict, struggle, resolution – if only getting it right were so easy.

Every year we reread the Torah and it recalls our history of coping and not coping with conflict. Sometimes the stories show us how well it works out, sometimes they remind us of our persistent human failings. Often we find helpful models, and perhaps just as often we find paths to avoid. Depending on our changing points of view over time, we may find both teachings, and more, in the same story. We may find different ways into our scriptures, and different lessons from them, continuing to see new meaning in each rereading.
We come back to the same text year after year – when we change, what the it offers us may be different too. Now we look back at an old story with different eyes, seeking new meanings within it.

One of the highest points of crisis on these holy days can be found in the Binding of Isaac, which we read tomorrow morning. While we often read this as the climax of a story about Abraham and God, let us look at a more personal reading. Let us imagine that the Binding of Isaac, the Akeidah, is the last straw in the conflict between Abraham and Sarah.

This story is about a complicated family. Abraham and Sarah married. Along the way, Sarah worried that Abraham would have no children, so she gave him Hagar, her handmaiden, as a concubine. Abraham and Hagar had a son named Ishmael. Later on, Abraham and Sarah had a son named Isaac. All through their lives God helped them out. A complicated family that we may recognize – there’s a couple, a child, a second wife, a half-brother, and in the role of a helpful grandparent, God.

We don’t have to look too deeply to find conflict in this set-up.

A short summary of the difficult incidents includes:
– Abraham uprooted and moved the family constantly.
– Abraham and Sarah played at being siblings and, with God’s help, used this ruse to swindle local kings by getting them to try and marry Sarah.
– Sarah, despite suggesting that Abraham have a son with another woman, grew to hate both the woman and the other woman’s child. With God’s help, Sarah convinced Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael.

When we imagine ourselves in this family’s shoes – five people and upheaval – we can see they have issues.

Abraham and Sarah seldom spoke directly to each other. Abraham moved them when God said. Abraham decided on his own to have Sarah act as his sister when they ventured into dangerous situations. Sarah offered Hagar to Abraham with no discussion. Sarah commanded Abraham to throw Hagar and Ishmael out, and God convinced him to do it when he felt uneasy about Sarah’s command. They all conferred with God, who comforted them, helped them with little interventions, and never turned them back in constructive ways to work it out with each other.

Tension and difficulty dominated this family. They barked orders at each other, threw the others into webs of conflict that grew more intractable as the years went by and never, ever, did they stop and say to themselves or each other, “Something’s wrong here – we have to work it out.” They did have God though, who frequently helped. I think we all know though, when we rely on someone outside of the situation to solve our problems, we’re not really solving them at all.

Finally, we get to the Binding of Isaac – God tested Abraham. Abraham left with Sarah’s only son early in the morning to offer him up as a sacrifice. What made Abraham think this would be OK to do? Abraham argued for justice for the sinners in Sodom, how could Abraham accept this command to kill his son without question?

We often say that this was a test of faith. God wanted Abraham to show God absolute devotion. Here’s a different reading, one that may make us uncomfortable.
We can read this as a test of Abraham’s devotion to God’s promise to help his family – that God’s blessings would continue through Sarah’s son.

God may have wanted to see if Abraham cared about Isaac as much as he cared about Ishmael.
Maybe Abraham could contemplate killing Isaac because he wanted to take Sarah’s son from her the way she had taken Ishmael from him.

Abraham’s difficulties with Sarah allowed him to see their child as a pawn in their struggle. Only someone totally overwhelmed with other issues could see slaying their child as an option. It says in the text that Abraham rose early in the morning – perhaps he snuck away so that Sarah wouldn’t interfere. Again, Abraham got himself into a situation and only God’s intervention saved the day, in this case Isaac’s life and the future of God’s blessings. This was also the end for Sarah and Abraham, since Sarah died before Abraham and Isaac returned.

This is a difficult reading of this story. It challenges me too. Like all of us, and all of our ancestors who read this before us, I want Abraham to be a hero. And maybe he still is, since in the end, he stayed his hand. At that last moment, with some flash of insight, and a helping hand from God, Abraham realized that sacrificing Isaac was not an option.

As a model for resolving conflict, this story serves as a cautionary tale, not a solution. We must check in with each other sooner, we must not allow ourselves to fight fire with fire, we must step back from the brink, and do the hard work of talking to each other. None of us wants to end up on Mount Moriah, with our children, or our friends, or our spouse, on the altar.

How about a better story?

Abraham and Sarah had descendants who better navigated conflicts, struggled with their unease after difficulties, and eventually worked towards realistic reconciliations.

A successful story emerged from the first. Abraham had grandsons, twins, Esau and Jacob.

Jacob swindled his brother Esau out of his firstborn birthright and fled when Esau plotted to murder him. Jacob caused a major conflict, and ran away from it.

After many years Jacob came back to the land of his fathers, and encountered his brother Esau. Jacob’s scouts warned him of Esau’s strength – 400 men. Jacob realized that he must truly return to the emotional scene of his crimes, and do real tshuvah, real repentance. He knew that he must face Esau.

Worried about the fate of his family, Jacob delayed their reunion. He showed Esau great respect, sent him gifts by way of groveling emissaries. Jacob imagined how wronged his brother might still have felt, and so he went the extra mile to make amends. Having exhausted his options, Jacob tried to sleep on it, waiting until morning to meet his brother these many years later.

Jacob didn’t sleep. Instead he wrestled with a mysterious figure all through the night. Having survived the struggle, Jacob earned a new name, Israel, “God wrestler”. Jacob prepared to confront the brother he wronged by transforming himself – he was no longer the deceiver that fled his crimes decades earlier.

Upon finally reaching Esau, Jacob learned that his brother prospered over the years. Esau was eager and thrilled to reconnect with his brother, as the text reads:
Gen. 33:4 Esau ran to meet him, he embraced him, flung himself upon his neck, and kissed him. And they wept.

Throughout this incident Jacob was really worried. He feared that Esau’s men would swoop down upon his family and wipe them out in vengeance for his prior sins. Unlike his grandparents, Jacob worked to solve his conflict with Esau – the problem was between them, so Jacob had to struggle to overcome his fear of seeing Esau again. He faced the consequences of his bad actions, and traveled towards the reconciliation between them. Jacob did the hard work, wrestled with an angel, and returned to make amends.

We want to emulate this Jacob. Like Jacob, we may cause conflict. We are all human, so we may also, at first, flee the scene of the crime and fear to return to it. Jacob confronted his greatest fear – maybe Esau still wanted to kill him. This time of year reminds us that we should try to make that return too. Jacob who became Israel teaches us to grapple with ourselves – to atone we must find some internal transformation because when we do, and then go apologize, we may have become the person that will not make the same mistakes again.

All of us are children and many of us are parents. Most of us have some complications in our families. Abraham and Sarah led lives that mostly revolved around founding a people – they needed a place to live, and resources, and descendants. They had little time for attending to the family they worked so hard to build.

My parents grew together and then apart. They had kids, then got divorced, then had new spouses and new kids. We are a very modern family – that is we are families. Not unlike Sarah and Abraham, my parents had a lot on their plates. One family takes up a lot of time, but two families plus careers – I can barely imagine how they coped. I remember helping in small ways.

I also participated in making it worse.

In part, I helped as an easy go-between – I remember times when they couldn’t talk to each other except through me. I would be on the phone with one of them, and in the room with the other. I also remember how we comforted each other – my mother and I would complain about my father together. My father and I would complain about my mother together. We formed little duos of convenience – seeming to draw closer, but perhaps in hindsight amplifying each other’s pain.

I have no doubt that my parents needed to be apart – their marriage needed to end. Their divorce was not the issue – how we behaved afterwards was. We had our confrontations but we never addressed the real issues – we allowed other priorities to get in the way of taking care of the tensions between us, and even with professional assistance we allowed those issues to be conversations with everyone except the person we had the problem with. We all sacrificed each other in small ways.

As a teen, when I served as ambassador my parents allowed me to do it – it made things easier. I felt important too – if I sacrificed a little of me so that I could help them, then I was doing something good, right?

And when I brought them together to say goodbye before my father died I stepped right back into that old role – I allowed my own needs to be sacrificed for theirs. My mother lost her friend. I lost my father.

When Isaac stared at his father over him with the knife he knew that he mattered less than something else. Who knows what scars he bore with him from that moment?

We may end up in any of these roles.

I hope that I brought my parents some comfort in a small way. I hope that their conflict, wrestled with for a long time, led to some peace. My mother and I continue to build love and peace between us.

Loving people means loving all of them, even their complexities.

Our stories are complicated. We dive into them, face the hazards in our depths, time and time again, hoping to emerge with new insights, and perhaps some healing. For all of my families, we always try to get better at doing this together. We strive to be brave, to face what we need to do as individuals, to bring the problem to each other, and to positively move forward.

My wrestling continues. I try to learn from my own experiences, as well as those who went before me, both in my family and in the Torah.

Judaism and our High Holy Days ask us to walk in the shoes of all who we’ve wronged, and all these characters who went before us. We must struggle with when they wrestled and when they didn’t. Entering their stories allows us to enter our own and find new paths for ourselves.

I want to avoid Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice others.

I want to follow Jacob. I want to wrestle and confront difficulties within myself, and then make amends with the people involved.

We explore these stories and make them our own.

We put down the knife. We wrestle with our inner angels and demons. We struggle to enter the New Year better than we ended the last.

I wish all of us meaningful struggles that lead to greater wholeness and peace – may we find blessings in our own stories for the New Year.

L’shanah tovah u’metukah – a good and sweet year to us all.