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Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2020

“Happy Birthday! Love, the Jewish People.”
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781/2020
Rabbi Vered L. Harris, RJE
Temple B’nai Israel, Oklahoma City

Download the presentation slides


Slide One: Happy Birthday, World
We talk about Rosh Hashanah as the Birthday of the World.
When we do birthday and anniversary blessings I always encourage us to use the milestone as a time to reflect. So maybe for the birthday of the world we can look back and reminisce.


Slide Two: The Dawning of 5781
Like: ahhh, remember when you were just a wee little one, opening your eyes for the first time? The hope and imagination we have when life seems new and fresh.


Slide Three: Landscape
And what we see when experience shines light on the details. Knowing where we have been can help us set a course for where we want to go.


Slide Four: Remembering
For this Rosh Hashanah, what if we raise a glass and remember some of our times together in this world as the Jewish people?
In their summer edition, Moment magazine asked thirty prominent Jewish thinkers to suggest what they see as pivotal years for the Jewish people.
Looking at where we have been can give us perspective for where we are. The Jewish people have known trauma and we have chosen resilience; this means we have been creative, adaptive, and our strength today is built on our survival yesterday.
We are in a series of traumas today, including but not limited to global climate change; the pandemic and its politicization; systemic racism; and deep reckonings necessary to create a more just world.

Sadly, we know too well that individuals perish in times of trauma. We also lose predictable ways of life. Traumas are not equivocal and we cannot compare individual experiences with different types of trauma, such as rape or bankruptcy or illness or being robbed. Yet, I think if we were to ask those experiencing trauma, “With this magic wand you can end this trauma right now or let it play out to see a new, creative, resilient world yet-to-be-born?” I believe most people would say, “Make it stop.” But going back is not one of our choices. Our choice lies only in what we do next.


Slide 5: Lion of Judah/Exile/Refugee (587 BCE)
Chances are, wherever you are joining us from today, you, like me, are a part of the great Jewish diaspora. This diaspora began approximately 2600 years ago, when the Babylonia empire conquered Jerusalem, burned the city, murdered people in the streets, and destroyed the Temple. Some Jewish people fled to Egypt, some stayed and suffered, and still others were forcibly exiled to Babylonia.
“How did this alter the course of Jewish history” as the Moment Magazine editors asked? Daniel B. Schwartz, director of the Judac studies program at George Washington University suggests, “It is in their exile that the Torah becomes central to Judaism and Jewish identity.” Imagine that: what we think of today as the obvious center of Judaism: Torah, had to shift into the center during a time of trauma.


Slide 6: World Map/Globe
Since that time, even when we have had the opportunity to return to Zion, we have kept thriving in Jewish communities all over the world, with Torah at the center.


Slide 7: Temple
The Babylonian exile ended when the kingdom of Persia conquered Babylonia. King Cyrus invited the Jewish people to return to Zion. Although a majority remained in Persia, many did return to Jerusalem and did rebuild.


Slide 8: Kotel
600 years later, in the year 70, the new conquerors were the Romans who burned and destroyed the Second Temple. The Kotel is a remnant of that time.
Novelist Dara Horn said, “Jewish people and Judaism should have died.” The renowned historian Simon Schama from Columbia University said about the year 70, “Thus the infinite creativity and staying power of Judaism were born out of political calamity.”

We know trauma, and we know how to adapt and thrive on the other side of it.

Slide 9: Passport & Map
The diaspora spread and it became clear that the Jewish people were not going to be gathered back any time soon from the four corners of the world. No Temple, no sacrifices, no pilgrimages… how do we remain active in our relationship with God?

Slide 10: Talmud
By the year 200 we had the oral Torah written down, the Mishnah. Rabbi Rachel Adler, a professor at Hebrew Union College, looks to the year 200 and notes, [If Mishnah had not been written down,] “it might have been the end of Judaism.” And by the year 550 we had the Babylonian Talmud. Our will to remain a people with strong, deep roots has given us the fortitude to survive terrible conditions, adapt, and grow with flowering branches in new generations.

Slide 11: Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand
Look, let me remind you of the Spanish Inquisition of 1492 and the dispersion of Sephardic Jewry across the globe.

Slide 12: Pogroms & Immigrants
The pogroms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. From 1881-1924 two million Jews immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe. The influx ended in 1924 because of the Johnson-Reed Act and the United States essentially saying “no” to any more immigrants. There were still people who wanted to come, of course, but the borders were closed to them. Professor Adam Kirsch from Columbia University challenges us to imagine what would have been had millions of Ashkenazi Jews not fled Europe from 1881-1924; he sees this time period as “a long and convoluted road to the salvation of modern Judaism.” Many of us also imagine what would have been had the United States continued to welcome immigrants.

Slide 13: Theodor Herzl
Embedded in this time frame is also the First Zionist Congress and Theodor Herzl laying out his dream, in response to the anti-Semitism he witnessed in France.

Slide 14: Yellow Star
Trauma and creative growth. Would we forego the trauma if we could? Forego the loss of life? Forego the utter destruction of entire families, communities, ways of life? Forego the creativity borne of trauma? I think most of us would say yes, we would give it up if we could.

Slide 15: Dawn over the earth
Yet time and again, we have not been given the choice.
The sun rises, the sun sets, the earth keeps going, and we are celebrating 5781. On this birthday, perhaps we can remember our legacy of resilience and adaptability in this time of trauma.

Slide 16: Construction Site
What if we think of the whole world, or at least our corner of it, as a Construction Site? Our Essential Activity is not just survival or “safety and maintenance.” Our Essential Activity is hope and a vision of a better world.

Slide 17: Breathe
[Silence - demonstrate some breaths]
The refugees who left Jerusalem in 586 BCE and 70 CE and those who fled Spain in 1492 and those who came to this country and those who returned to Zion and so many incredible stories in between - they had a belief that their lives had value and a hope that their lives could be better.

When we know our history in this world as Jewish people, we can see our trauma as part of a long timeline. I don’t mean to say a long timeline of suffering - although I certainly used those examples. What I mean is a long timeline of resilience and change. The traumas are going to happen, but let’s take note: we do not need a third Temple to rebuild a thriving Zion; Emma Lazarus was the descendant of Sephardic Jews: “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”; the Babylonian Talmud that continues to shape Judaism today was compiled in the land of Persian Jews, a diversity born of our migration as a people living the ebb and flow of trauma and creative solutions for survival and dynamic growth.

Slide 18: I Can’t Breathe
From the pandemic to global climate change to systemic racism: there are multiple traumas in our world today that inhibit breath. I can’t pretend there isn’t. I also can’t pretend I can solve these problems. I can’t even pretend Judaism can solve these problems unless we listen to Jewish values.

Judaism unequivocally denounces injustice, racism, and certainly racist injustice perpetrated by any segment of law enforcement or a judicial system. We know the mitzvot are on the side of

justice for every one of us: can those of us with the privilege of breath take one and forge forward for all of us?

Judaism teaches the sanctity of the earth and all its creatures. For those who cannot breathe under the falling ash and above the rising waters, can those of us with the privilege of breath do a little more to advance climate justice?

Judaism tells us that above all else it is incumbent upon us to save a life. In the midst of a pandemic that attacks our lungs, can those of us with the privilege of breath wear our masks and stay distanced and advocate for science and public health?

Slide 19: Global Hands and Doves
If we told the story of the world from its perspective, it would be different than ours. I imagine a frustrated world rolling its eyes and muttering to itself, “Are you kidding? In all my 5,781 years… have you seen what these people are doing now?”

God nods and affirms, “Yes, I see.”And as the Jewish people we look around and say, “People can be rough.” God gave us words min hashamayim - from the heavens, and the earth gives us grounding for life. In between is us.

In this moment we can look back to see a dynamic peoplehood. We can see the Jewish people’s resilience has brought us tremendous creativity and growth. It does not mean trauma is good, it does not mean we are grateful for the suffering. Rather, we see that the story of the Jewish people is a story that offers hope for humanity.

We just need to get through today. And our story as the Jewish people teaches us: we can. We will. And in the expanse of what is yet to be, we choose resilience borne of hope and experience. One day this year will be on a list of difficult times through which to live, and a pivot towards goodness yet to come.

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Wed, October 21 2020 3 Cheshvan 5781