Rosh Hashana – New Beginnings

Hayom harat olam

Watch Rabbi Ezray’s sermon HERE


For the first time in American Jewish history we are not gathering together in synagogue to welcome the New Year. Who could have imagined standing in an empty room, with you all sitting in front of computers for Rosh Hashana?
At a time when we need to see one another – to give a hug, a handshake, a smile – all of those things which sustain us – we are sitting in front of our screens. And as wonderful as the blessing of zoom is – it’s not the same. I miss you. I miss being together. Yet here we are – using technology – hoping it creates a sense of connection as we see one another on screen. I hope you can feel my presence as I reach out through the screen. Hineni – Here I am. My heart connects to yours.
For all that we have never experienced a moment like this – our people have experienced difficult moments – and our past gives us tools to face this moment. There is an evocative story in the Talmud (Yevamot 121a) that captures pieces of this moment. Two rabbis are sailing in separate boats on their way back to Israel. One of them, Rabban Gamliel sees the boat of his dear friend and student Rabbi Akiva shatter into pieces. He saw the unthinkable – he was certain Rabbi Akiva drowned, and in his words: “I was grieved.” Then the Talmud cuts away from that grief and moves forward in time and somehow Rabbi Akiva survived! Rabban Gamliel incredulously asks how he survived what certainly should have been his death. Rabbi Akiva responded: “A plank from the boat came to me.” He grasped on to the plank. Then he added an extraordinary line: “To every wave that approached me, I nodded my head.”

The story captures our moment. Rabbi Akiva struggling in the water to survive captures how difficult these 6 months have been. Sometimes it feels like we are struggling to stay a float. We are also Rabban Gamliel – witnessing the unthinkable. It’s too much! Unthinkable loss, knowing people who were ill or facing economic hardship, confusion over what is safe, missing love ones and routine, societal unrest, persistent antisemitism, being unable to go outside due to poor air quality, more people displaced, food insecurity, loss of icons we would turn to – the metaphor of cast into the swirling waters fits. We are all grasping for planks.
Hold onto the story. Like Rabbi Akiva, grasp onto the planks that come our way and nod at the waves. Like most good stories – this one is enigmatic, open to different interpretations – what does it mean that he nodded at the waves? Did he duck his head so the wave would pass over? Was the nod his way of acknowledging the chaos surrounding him? Or as it his way of saying – “I’m ready for you wave! I’ll wait until the next one brings me to shore”? Each explanation hints at how we get through these times. Explore the story, find your truths in it.

I interpret his nod as acknowledging and be fully aware of how difficult things have been. That’s a plank to hold onto. To nod, create space to recognize and give voice to how difficult this has been and continues to be is so important and often overlooked. Nod at the waves – share with loved ones and me what you are experiencing.
When you nod at the waves, you become aware of other planks in the water. I have been grasping to the planks of people. My plank is the small moments with my family and dear friends– dinner with Mimi and Ethan, outside distanced connections with my in laws, Emily and Mike and other friends; new zoom Shabbat rituals with our immediate family. Healthy relationships keep us afloat. To see you – even on the screen helps keep my head above the water. To talk to you – hearing your stories of triumph and travail and be present with one another through true Hineni – Presence – that is the plank that helps us survive. In the story of the ship-wreck, Rabban Gamliel’s heart extends to his beloved student – and it is the strength of those invisible cords that connects us which give strength and maybe even helped Rabbi Akiva continue to struggle and fight to stay survive being cast in the dangerous waters. Relationships, love, community – at their best – keep us afloat. Let’s continue to turn to one another and think of those to whom we might reach out.

Jewish learning, ritual, stories and texts have been another plank for me. A prayer from this morning’s service about new beginnings is one of my planks I am holding onto. Listen to the words: Hayom harat olam – today the world is born – has become a mantra which keeps me afloat.
Hold onto those words: Hayom Harat Olam. Hayom – today, Harat – is born, Olam – the world. TODAY! Every single day holds the potential for new creation and new beginnings. The Midrash pictures God saying to us: “My children, I look on you as if today I had created a new creature.”
Today is a new day, a different day. The prayer asserts that painful moments pass and a new day dawns.

We desperately need to believe in new beginnings this year. Even sheltered in place new beginnings emerge. In fact, sheltering in place and isolation have afforded more opportunity to reflect upon the new beginnings that might emerge. Hayom Harat Olam – Hold onto the plank of potential, hope and what can be!
The new beginnings we imagine are different because of what we have experienced. Our eyes are opening to the beginnings of a vastly different world – that awareness reorients our behavior.
We have deepened our awareness of how we need each other – our new beginning lifts up a deeper appreciation of those close and far. We are aware of how disease spread. Pandemic knows no boundary and our awareness of how linked we are to one another has changed us. Our new beginning embraces all we can do to save precious lives, how much we appreciate those who devote themselves to saving lives, the need to account for the mental health crisis that is real and will grow, climate change, care for the elderly, food insecurity – and so many other crucial issues.
Think about new beginnings: What hopes do you have for what will be born from this moment? How you will help make it come into being? The call of 5781 is to be deeply aware of a new world that can emerge – and as awareness grows, we begin to think about the hard word required to nurture the beginning so that it develops deep roots and sprouts.

New beginnings take time and concerted effort. Often, they arise from pain. Here is where Jewish prayer gets interesting and more meaningful. Prayers are written by poets who pull their words from other sacred sources. The different context of the original source and the different ways we can translate the words deepens the way the prayer speaks to us and is part of the poet’s new creation. I translated Hayom Harat Olam as: Today the world is born. But the words can be translated in multiple ways and the original source in the book of Jeremiah uses them much differently. The word Harat – which I translated as born can also mean pregnant. Olam, which we translated as world, can also mean eternal/always. Hayom Harat Olam as: Today is eternally pregnant.

What does that mean? Let’s go back to Jeremiah. Jeremiah was mocked and attacked as he called on the people to abandon their corruption, materialism, empty rituals and selfish prayers. That contempt and scorn hurled at him left him so dejected that he wishes he were never born: “Cursed be the day I was born. If only my mother had not given birth to me. If only her womb was pregnant forever – rachma harat olam. The image is of Jeremiah stuck in the womb – not wanting to emerge to face the painful world of evil that he knows looms. Hayom Harat Olam – Today we are stuck in the womb – aware of being surrounded by an unrighteous world.

The poet of the Machzor reverses Jeremiah’s lament of wishing he were never born into a positive affirmation of new beginnings – yet knowing the original source gives us more to turn to. We hear the echo of Jeremiah’s pain and know that we too must lift up our pain in order to transform it. Maya Angelou captures this truth: “History, despite its wrenching pain cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage, need not be lived again. Lift up your eyes upon the day breaking for you. Give birth again to the dream.”

Let our pain and awareness of what is not right give birth to new beginnings. The haftarah tomorrow depicts Jeremiah comforting exiles leaving the land of Israel – telling them they will return. He says, “Yesh Tikvah – There is hope.” The prophet who is so depressed and angry, is also the prophet of hope – because he has faced his pain. As he voices the pain that is so real – possibilities and hope emerge.
That vision and actions that emerges from giving voice to pain is the plank to which we cling. Explore this spiritual truth. Ask yourself and discuss these questions: What do I need to give voice to? How can I transform that pain into a vision of what can be?

All of this applies to what we have been experiencing around race. New beginnings come as we see and acknowledge pain. We have been listening and learning. Our eyes have opened to painful realities that we may not have seen before despite all of our good intentions, passionate activism and sincere care.
We need to hear the real pain of people of color in their voices – and it is only as we listen and feel – that we begin to imagine how to walk together and do the hard work of envisioning what can be and beginning anew.

When Pastor Hurmon Hamilton of NBCC – New Beginnings Community Church, which shares this sacred space spoke to us after the shooting George Floyd, he began by sharing that speaking to us of his experience of racism in many ways asks him to re-live his trauma. He shared that trauma so we can learn and together create a new beginning. As more and more people of every age, religion, economic background have listened – hearts have moved, seeds planted for new beginnings and real change. That beginning will honestly assess where and why we have fallen short in the past.

It all begins with listening and letting what we hear pierce our hearts. When Pastor Hurmon shared that he would not walk around his neighborhood after dark – for fear a black man generates walking in a white neighborhood after dark might endanger his life – I felt it in a way I had not felt before. He shared another story of being dressed in his Sunday best after church one day in Boston, and going into a store and using a credit card to make a purchase. He was treated with suspicion. The clerk asked him to wait, “I’ll be back.” The clerk called the credit card company, who called his wife saying they received a report that someone may have stolen their credit card. How humiliating and painful! Can we transform the pain of these stories into a different reality? If I were standing behind him in line, would I have said something? Listening, understanding, feeling changes how we respond.
For people of color this pain is every day – job applications overlooked, being treated differently in school, presumptions of guilt, stereotyping, talking to their children about keeping their hands on the steering wheel when they are pulled over lest they be killed because they “fit the description”. No wonder we are witnessing so much frustration and anger.

As we listen and learn, seeking to understand and examining the history of messages to people of color that they are inferior and expendable, new beginnings emerge. We look at areas where racism exists both subtly and overtly: housing discrimination, educational and economic opportunities denied, mass incarceration, policing, our justice system and seek to understand the issues in all of their complexities. We are also opening our eyes to where there has been discrimination in our own community – how a Jew of color is often not seen or misjudged. We are reckoning with the need to create a racially diverse, genuinely inclusive Jewish community.

It will take time and effort – there are no quick or easy fixes. We celebrate the strides we have made and begin to identify the sphere of influence where we can be integral part of change. We have power and can make a difference. It isn’t just political power, it is the power of each of us to identify our own sphere of influence – be it business and hiring practices and culture in our workplace, be it in education, medicine, or the justice system. It is small and large acts – reaching out, tutoring, educating, speaking out – the list is long! Hayom Harat Olam – we CAN give birth to a new and different world. Identify your sphere and act.
The story is being written. Be comforted by knowing that we have navigated difficult waters in the past. Rabbi Akiva emerged from the water – and so will we. I imagine that when the waves brought Rabbi Akiva to shore, he felt reborn and that he had been given a second chance. Hayom Harat Olam – new beginnings are born each day. Imagine emerging from this time as Akiva emerged from the water. Leave today thinking about and discussing what it means for you to nod at the waves. Talk about the planks you have held onto and ask:“Are there other planks that might help me now?” Pray that you emerge with love deepened, awareness heightened and futures envisioned. Hold tight to the planks of acknowledgment, relationship, vision, transformation of pain into meaning so that 5781 be a year of beginnings and renewal. We know it can happen – we have lived it through our history.

Shana Tovah.