Sermon: Erev Rosh Hashanah – A Vision for the Future

September 4, 2013
Rabbi David A. Lipper

A Vision for the Future

The sands of time trickle down as the calendar has begun its turn from one year to the next.  Normally, over the past few months, we would have slowly prepared ourselves for this moment.  This year, with all the changes and the rush of engaging an Interim Rabbi, and the amazing earliness of the Holy days, many including myself, find us unprepared.  Nevertheless, with an amazing lay leadership and commitment, the building was readied, people were assigned roles, the silver was polished and the Torahs were dressed in white.   We have written mailed and organized this community to make it possible for everyone to gather here at this moment.  There is a crispness in the air here and an anticipation of things to come and maybe a bit of trepidation over what might be different.   

Today brings friends and families together and as we congregate, we feel as the warmth of tradition and holiness infuses our soul.   There is majesty of this day.  It is a moment built upon the images of Sinai where we stand ready to hear and do.  We are on the precipice of renewal, waiting for the sights and sounds of this holy season to fill our hearts with hope.

I have written Holy Day sermons for 30 years.  I begin this exercise with anticipation of the flow of words and hope that our time here this year is filled with inspiration and renewal of commitment to the values and beliefs that has built this synagogue and kept it vibrant for so many years.   The words of prayer we share with each other will hopefully touch our souls and elevate our lives and move our community into further communion with God.

This is an intensely sacred moment in time.   All of us look so forward to a year of health and prosperity and peace.  We gather tonight at our highest moment of religious fervor.  Our prayers seem to have more meaning, our meditations feel more spiritual.  We may feel that we can almost see through the smoke and the fog to the top of the mountain upon which Moses was handed the scroll of Torah.

On this eve of this New Year, let me begin this moment in our worship with a prayer that I found on the internet.  It was authored anonymously.

A new year is unfolding–like a blossom with petals curled tightly concealing the beauty within.   Lord, let this year be filled with the things that are truly good–with the comfort of warmth in our relationships, with the strength to help those who need our help and the humility and openness to accept help from others.  As we make our resolutions for the year ahead, let us go forward with great hope that all things can be possible–with Your help and guidance.  Amen.

As rabbis across the world know, sermons on the Holy Days must capture the mood and focus the spirit for what many will find another long march through the wilderness.  I certainly feel this as for many of you, this is our first meeting.   There is the overwhelming challenge to make this so powerful so as to support and guide all of us on our long march into the New Year.   Tonight, as in every year, I find comfort in the old Chinese Proverb that a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step or a spiritual climb, with a single sermon.  And I am also reminded of a great sermon adage … if you haven’t struck oil after 15 minutes … stop boring … So with hope in my task and with your faith and trust as your Rabbi, let us march on.

Each of us comes here this evening with different needs and different views of the community. Some us may have come to pick out what is missing, some may be seeking what is new.  I want us all to take a breath … a deep and relaxing breath.   For it is this very moment that is important and often our past and future hopes cloud the present so much that we cannot find our way.   (EVERYBODY BREATHE)

The stirring melodies of our Cantor and Choir and the soulful prayers we recite tell us that this time is Holy … other … set apart from other days as kodesh.   We ask God this evening to zochrainu lchayim … remember us for life.  We pray for another year for ourselves and our loved ones.  We hope for blessing and wholeness and peace.  And as we said only moments ago … Avinu Malkeinu … be gracious and answer us, treat us generously and with kindness, be our help!   Such a simple prayer … just one more time God.  Just one more time.   

But as I have learned over the years, it is not just about more time.   We have all the time in the world.   We are not the best time managers though.   Our machzor cries out that another year itself is not sufficient.  In a meditation from tomorrow’s service we shall read:

It is not just enough for me to be able to say “I am.”  I want to know who I am … what is the meaning of my being?  My quest is not for theoretical knowledge about myself … but primarily how to live a life that would deserve and evoke an eternal amen.

This is the challenge of this Rosh Hashanah … how will we, you and me, live a life that will evoke an eternal amen.  Not have we lived, but for what have we lived.    What is our vision for ourselves and our community?  What do we want to be … what can we become.  And what commitments are we willing to make for ourselves, not others, to make our dreams real and live that life that will evoke a choral Amen from on high. 

In my few short weeks here, I have learned much about the vision and inspiration that gave rise to Congregation B’nai Chaim.  I have read from the website and had many conversations about what drew people to Georgetown CT and how the founders of this sacred community envisioned their Jewish lives.   They created a community to serve as a beacon of Jewish value and promise.  They created a sacred community to ensure the continued relevance of Judaism in their lives and the lives of their children.  They believed in diversity of practice and thought and they embraced and ever evolving faith story that enabled their continued interaction with their non-Jewish friends and neighbors.   They created a home through which the glow of history and the beauty of faith could shine out to the far reaches of this community and be the light to the nations as the prophets so taught.   They were visionaries.  They were passionate.   

They bequeathed to us a sacred legacy.  It was forged in the fires of faith and molded by gentle hands into the treasure we protect today.   

Tonight, it is about our role in this eternal process.  Each and every one of us sits here surrounded by friends and family.  We are cradled in the arms of generations of Jewish souls who poured their hearts and spirits into this place.  And through good times and bad, kept their eyes on the prize of Torah and faith and future.  We have a choice this evening and every evening.   How do we live our lives?   How do we see the world?   How do we touch the souls of our children?   How do we live a life that would deserve and evoke an eternal amen?

Judaism is very emotional … it awaken emotions and gives us warmth.  It inspires and directs.  It reaches deep within and grabs us.  At times, we laugh, we cry, we shout and harangue.   We struggle with our Jewish selves.  We are like Jacob, wrestling through the night, in silence, waiting for the sun to rise, for awareness to come.   We argue, like Abraham, seeking clarity when it seems fleeting.  We cry from the depths of our soul like Job, seeking answers to life’s deepest questions.  And all along the path, our ancestors for whom life was not easy at all, maintained their faith, solidified their commitment and ensured for us a Jewish path.  

Our synagogue must be a sacred, caring, helpful and hopeful place that accepts peoples limitations and rewards their strengths … a place that seeks to silence the cynic and develop the dreamer …  A place where guile and deceit are given no ear and the slanderer finds no rest … a place where one can find nurturing love and hope and fellowship from each and every one that enters these sacred walls.

The synagogue in fact is an oasis of holiness in the midst of the segmented and secularized world that we inhabit.  It is a place in which human beings can indeed begin where they are   and move to a deeper faith in their God and deeper caring for one another.  The synagogue is a place to which we go in order to rediscover the Covenant that began at Sinai, and bring it into our lives, in order to find the strength to contend with the world outside.

There are some for whom the model synagogue must be above all a place in which modernism reigns supreme, one that seldom challenges the assumptions by which they have made accommodation with a secular materialistic society.  For them, the synagogue must be a place where they feel comfortable and secure.   For me, the contemporary synagogue should not be so much modernist as postmodernist.  It should not allow us to remain for long comfortably secular and secure; not simply seeking to win the contest of appeal to popular taste.  Instead it must provide opportunities for us to find what is so necessary for so many of us in our lives outside of the synagogue.  Regardless, it must deepen the spiritual dimension of our lives or it has no reason for being.
Ultimately the goal of the synagogue is to create something fundamentally different than the secular city from which we come.  The synagogue must be a place where we go when we are in search of faith.  It must be a place unlike the world outside that cares deeply about people, where what counts is not birth or privilege or money, a place where nobody is seeking to buy or sell anything, where human beings are not quick to judge one another or gossip about one another, a place where people may remember all the things the rest of the world has forgotten.

Our synagogue is the center.  Let us bring the values we teach here into our homes and into our hearts.   Let these days and the words that we pray not fall back to the ground.  Let our deeds and thoughts elevate them and uplift us.  Let us have courage and commit to study ourselves and let us teach what we have learned from our 4,000 year journey to our children and their children.  Most of all let us have the courage and the commitment to dream and make real the dreams we have this day.

And so now, here we are.  All pretenses gone.   A new year calling us and the time comes for us to answer. And while many rabbis may focus their Rosh Hashanah sermons on communal choices, this year its about you and me.   What is my commitment this year … how can I help … what can I do … this is my community….

As we gather on this sacred day let us ever be grateful for our inheritance from our ancestors.  Our community is a source of joy and pride … let us commit ourselves to its future.

Let us conclude with some favorite words of mine by Robert Louis Stevenson:

Lord, behold our family here assembled.  We thank You for this place in which we dwell; for the love that unites us, for the peace accorded us this day, for the hope with which we expect the morrow, for the health, the work, and the bright skies that make our lives delightful …

Let peace abound to our company.  Purge out of every heart lurking grudges.  Give us grace and strength to forbear and to preserve.

Give us courage and gaity and the quiet mind.  Bless us, if it may be, in all our innocent endeavors.

And if it may not, give us the strength to encounter that which is to come, that we be brave in peril, constant in tribulation, temperate in wrath, and in all changes of fortune and down to the gates of death, loyal and loving to one another.

As the clay to the potter, as the windmill to the wind, as the children to their sire, we beseech You of this help and mercy.  Amen.

L’Shanah Tovah Ticateivu … May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a blessing.