Rosh HaShanah 5753: Sinai and a faith-based life
It has been three years since we were together in person to bring in the New Year; soon after 5780 began so too did the horrific fires, and then not long after, Covid. What a year that was! Since then, we have gone from drought and fire to storms and floods, the effects of climate change experienced; in this last year we have seen war, strife and oppression tear through not just Africa and the Middle East, but Europe as well; fewer people have more wealth as income inequality increases; democracy retreats in the face of populist and ethno-nationalist forces; we all feel more vulnerable in a tempestuous world. We can retreat in fear or move forward with faith. That is why, after three years, we are together again in community, knowing that this first day of our New Year provides us with perspective, moral compass and the call to move forward with faith.
We are about to enter the Shofar service, the apogee of our Rosh Hashanah prayers, focusing as it does on the origin and intent of this day. The Torah only mentions this first day of the seventh month twice (Leviticus 23: 23-25 and Numbers 29: 1-6), neither as Rosh HaShanah. This day is rather “Zichron t’ruah”, a memory of sounding; or simply, the day of sounding – of the shofar being implied. Our Talmudic sages understood this teaching as an annual commemoration of the formative event for our nation of standing at Sinai. There, with the sound of the blaring shofar, we felt the presence of God and committed to the covenant of being “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” Moses sensed, and Jewish history demonstrates, that we have consistently failed to live up to our obligations of the covenant, and therefore every year we return on this day to hear the Shofar and experience Sinai again through the three sections of the Shofar service – Malkhuyot, Zikhronot and Shofarot. We remind ourselves of that moment at Sinai, to inspire us to return to a faith-based life. A faith-based life.
Each of these three sections relates to an aspect of this season which carries many names – the Yamim Noraim, Yom HaZikaron, Yom HaDin and the Aseret Yamei Teshuvah. First, Malkhuyot posits there is a life force existing beyond the material universe itself. This power is imagined as the Kingdom of God, leading to these days being known as the Yamim Noraim, days of awe and fear. Second, Zikhronot as in Yom HaZikaron, suggests that we, like waves in the ocean of creation, have collective memories; the core memory for Jews is Sinai, where we committed to a covenant of service, to walk in life with a moral compass in hand. Thus Yom HaDin, judgement day, as we examine how we have been fulfilling that commitment. And third, Shofarot inspires us in our growing apprehension of God and engagement with the covenant to return to a faith-based life, one with purpose and meaning – the Aseret Yamei Teshuvah, ten days of turning and returning.
Malkhuyot, sovereignty, teaches that there is ultimate power, an infinite presence beyond us. The central motif is that God is the King of Kings. Let not the language detract from the lesson. Our scripture and liturgy date back thousands of years, when kings held the greatest power on earth and the patriarchy reigned supreme. Understanding the social and cultural context of those times, and that prayer is poetry not prose, we can use our imagination to glean the meaning of this metaphor. It's not so much that God really is a king, but rather that no king is really God. God is not a personified being, but is unfolding being itself. As others have taught, God is a verb, not a noun.
God is not someone in whom to believe but a faith perspective that orients us in life. Judaism teaches that God is ultimate being, infinite process. This comes clear in our teaching of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4), which we recite daily, place in our mezuzot and tefillin, and with which we conclude this section of prayer, the Yamim Noraim and our lives. The Shema teaches: “listen up Jews, all that is is God, and all that is is one.” The Shema, along with our principles of faith articulated in many places including the hymns of Yigdal and Adon Olam, reminds us that this God we metaphorically call King is beyond all time and space; God is all that was, is and will be - eternally, indivisibly present. God is all, and all is God, everything and everyone is interconnected. As the great prophet Isaiah declares (Isaiah 45:7): “I am the Lord and there is none else, I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe, I the Lord do all these things.”
Malkhuyot describes the awesome power of the living universe. In this unfathomable, singular, infinite existence we call “God”, mysterious forces beyond our control inspire awe or portend fear. Thus, the Yamim Noraim, the days of awe and fear. Awe - starry heavens, majestic mountains and glorious beaches. Fear – plagues and pandemics, fires and floods, disasters, famines, extinctions. Thus, we say, “U’nataneh tokef, let us proclaim the awesome power of this sacred day… who shall live and who shall die?” When we bend our knees and prostrate at Aleinu, the opening prayer of this section of prayer, we physically manifest the perspective asked by Malkhuyot, we acknowledge our vulnerability within the awesome grandeur of the universe and that our faith begins with humility. Hear the first sounding of the shofar and awaken to humility.
Nick Cave writes, “There is a kingdom, there is a king, and he lives without and he lives within; the starry heavens above me and the moral law within.” If Malkhuyot expresses our faith in the kingdom, the power beyond, then Zikhronot speaks of our faith that when that power manifests within, it does so as our conscious ability to live as moral creatures. When good and bad, light and dark, become animated within us we become agents of change for better or worse. Zikhronot, recollections, centres on the covenant our ancestors made at Sinai, when seven weeks after escaping hundreds of years of horrific oppression at Sinai, they transformed from being slaves to Pharaoh to being servants to the King of Kings. Zikhronot reminds us that our faith acknowledges both the kingdom without and the kingdom within – our moral obligation, as expressed in terms of the covenant at Sinai, to give back to life in all its manifestations.
How we understand the terms of the covenant is the crux of how we understand our lives as Jews. How those words are taught and interpreted determines what kind of Jew you will be. Our received tradition expands the covenant beyond the mysterious moment of Sinai, when “the blare of the shofar grew louder and louder and God spoke in thunder” (Exodus 19:19) to an entire Torah that is the exact literal word of God, including 613 mitzvot and myriad halakhot, whose structure and stricture can only be determined by those rabbis who accept that the Torah really is the literal word of God. Many Jews continue to accept an exclusive rabbinic authority and its determination of good and bad, right and wrong. But many do not accept that tradition which at times runs counter to our understanding of living true to the covenant’s moral compass and demand of a life of service. We have an important role to play as a link in the chain of our ancestral tradition without being bound by those chains.
We counter a slavish devotion to authority with an alternative embrace of the covenant. We understand the Torah and tradition as literary, not literal; stories about God, not by God. Just as our ancestors imagined a covenantal life of moral duty to others, so too should we. Just like they did, we expand its life affirming teachings while constraining those that cause harm. For example, Torah precepts such as L’ovdah v’ l’shomrah, Bal Tashchit, Tza’ar Ba’alei Chayim, B’tzelem Elohim, Tzedek, tzedek tirdof and V’ahavta determine our moral compass. (Protect the earth, do not waste, care for animals, equal human dignity, pursuit of justice and love). While the specific words of Torah are immutable, we interpret and apply them to ensure that “its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” (Proverbs 3:17) At the core of the rabbinic tradition, as expressed in the memories highlighted in this section of Zikhronot and throughout these ten days, is a move toward compassion and forgiveness. We express our faith in a covenantal life – a commitment to serve with care all that exists, all with which we are deeply connected. Hear the second sounding of the shofar and awaken to the memory of the covenant and its call to a life of service.
The final section of this service, known as Shofarot itself, takes us back to Sinai. Think about that moment. In the seven weeks since we narrowly escaped from Pharoah, we have suffered a brutal attack from the first recorded terrorist - Amalek, who attacked the young, the women, the weak and elderly of our camp. We’ve wandered to Sinai. No hot water. No roof over our heads. Wilderness. The awe of the starry heavens above and the fear of the unknown beyond. And then, the blaring shofar and the voice of God as a call to pick ourselves up and transcend – to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation – to shake off the slavery and terror and say that we can change all that. We will act and we will hear - the call of the shofar at Sinai.
Inspirational. Amazing. And not so easy. Forty years later we’re wandering in the wilderness, and Moses knows that because of our natural tendency to retreat in fear or hide in hedonistic self-absorption, that we will need to be reminded of that moment at Sinai when with humility we committed to live by a moral compass, to choose a life of service to this earth and all with whom we share it. On the first day of the seventh month there shall be a day of sounding, a remembrance of the sounding.
So here we are thousands of years later, part of that chain of tradition. And what will we, with roofs over our head, food in our bellies, hot water and soft toilet paper do about that? Revel in our pleasures or collapse with fear because we, like those who came before us, live in vulnerable times? Or hear the call of Sinai - that Judaism teaches us not to turn our back or hide our face, but to hear, to see and to act. To pursue justice, love kindness and walk humbly in God’s presence (Micah . The final sounding of the shofar calls us to imagine that moment at Sinai and live with faith – that given that all is connected in the one, each act of goodness, kindness, love and peace transforms ourselves, our world and the heavens above. These are the ten days of turning, the time to return to our faith- based life. Hear the final sounding of the shofar and return to our faith path as we spread the love.