RH 2007 Sermon – Year CycleRenewal _Maybe one on Torah_ one on by lifemate



Erev Rosh Hashanah 5768
Our Jewish Year Cycle – A Free Pass for a Full Year

Meyer commented recently that it’s very easy to fall out of step
with Jewish time.
That was coming from some one who once, as a boy, knew what
Jewish time was, so that when he steps back into it (in this case we
were talking about Shabbat), it at least feels familiar. But for most
of you, it’s not familiar at all, because you never got a taste of it as

The culture we live in influences all areas of our lives.
The people among whom we live do their shopping and errands on
Many school athletic events take place on Saturday.
There are appealing Friday night concerts, dances, films and other
cultural events.
To live on Jewish time anywhere but in Israel or certain
neighborhoods in NY, one has to go against a very strong tide.

Two years ago, I gave a Yom Kippur sermon about the value and
beauty of Shabbat.
I encouraged each of you to take on some piece of Shabbat
observance every week, such as lighting candles and saying
Kiddush on Friday evening, not spending money during those 25
hours, or turning off the TV and radio.

The focus of my words this evening is our annual holiday cycle.
My hope is that if you would participate in an experiment and
commit (or at least endeavor) to live on Jewish time for a year, or
at least more in sync with it than you ever have before – (I’m
talking about THIS year) -- it would awaken something in you –
it would feel familiar and right on some primal, soulful level, and
you would be drawn to continue in that rhythm.

Why? Because I believe that, for Jews, it’s spiritually healthy and
nurturing and “right” to integrate Jewish traditions into our daily
lives, and to live on “Jewish time.”
This is not something I can rationally explain.
This is something I feel and believe based on my own experience,
and on the experience of countless other Jews with whom I have
lived in community -- in Israel, in Philadelphia, in Amherst, MA,
and even a few of you here in Midcoast Maine.

The observance of Shabbat and the holidays are mitzvot, and as is
true of most (ritual) mitzvot, one has to DO a mitzvah for a while
in order to fully “get” it.
The word mitzvah, which in common parlance is used to mean
“good deed,” actually translates as “commandment.” Hebrew
words often have multiple meanings. The same root that means
command, means “join” or “connect.”
By doing the mitzvot, we strengthen our connection to God and to
the Jewish People.

People in the process of becoming Jewish often share with me their
excitement as they discover and first experience our holidays. We are
blessed with many joyous festivals and solemn occasions throughout the
year. Our calendar is extremely rich.
Each holy day has layers upon layers of historical significance, to which
each generation of rabbis and scholars has contributed its comments and
Many of our holidays have pre-biblical agricultural roots.
The holidays are one way in which we mark each season:
the spring, summer and fall harvests (Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot),
the winter Festival of Lights (Chanukah), the sap rising in the trees at Tu
B’Shvat, the farcical and cathartic holiday of Purim when we are getting
sick and tired of the winter and a rowdy party lifts our cold, wet spirits
(similar timing to Mardi Gras), the dry season of burning and mourning
(the three weeks culminating in the Fast of Tisha B’Av).

It may be difficult for us in the North Eastern United States to relate to
the agricultural aspect of these days, as the Jewish year cycle is based on
the agricultural cycles in the Land of Israel. Thus, another reason to
celebrate these holidays is that they keep us connected to what is going
on seasonally in the Land of our ancestors, and the home of our Jewish
souls on this earth.

Each holiday has a psycho-spiritual theme as well.
Most familiar to all of you are the Yamim Noraim that we are entering
today -- the 10 Days of Awe -- which are 10 especially intense days
inside a 60-day period of reflection, intimacy with God, renewal,
teshuvah, (repentance or return) and atonement.
This period commences on the 1st of Elul and takes us all the way
through the High Holidays to Shmini Atzeret, the 8th Day of Assembly,
when God invites us to stay in His intimate embrace for one more day
after the close of the festive week of Sukkot.
On Simchat Torah, we complete the fall holiday cycle by reading about
Moses’ death in the last verses of the Torah, and we begin all over again
with Genesis: “Bereshit Bara Elohim et Hashamayim v’et Ha’aretz” –
“When God began to create the heavens and the earth…”
The annual cycle of Torah readings is another way in which we Jews spiral
through the years. But that will be the topic of another sermon.

Our Holidays are not detached fragments – they flow into each other.
There is a 7 week period between Pesach and Shavuot. It’s a mitzvah to
count the days in between (the practice is called Sefirat Ha’Omer –
counting the Omer), and to be conscious of the connection between
these two major festivals, the first celebrating our liberation from
slavery, and the second celebrating God’s revelation and teaching to us
at Sinai – Matan Torah – the Giving of Torah.

There are 3 weeks of anxiety and admonition from the 17th of
Tammuz to the 9th of Av. The 17th of Tammuz is the day that the
walls of Jerusalem were breached by Babylonian forces – and also
the day on which the rabbis later said that Moses descended Mt

Sinai, saw the Golden Calf, and broke the first set of tablets.
Already when we reach the 17th of Tammuz, we are bracing
ourselves for the destruction of the Temple – the Collapse of our
national and spiritual Center – on Tisha B’Av.
But we know that this will be followed immediately by 7 weeks of
consolation – rebuilding our broken relationship with God --
leading to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of
And, that after we do the challenging spiritual work of Elul (the
month preceding Rosh Hashanah), which intensifies in the 10 days
between now and YK, we will celebrate the harvest – what is
referred to as Zman Simchateinu – the Season of Our Joy.
We will build little shelters, sukkot, representing not only the
temporary dwellings our ancestors lived in when we were
wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, but also God’s
compassion for and protection of us during those 40 years.

So the Temple that falls apart on Tisha B’Av is reconstructed
about 9 weeks later in the form of temporary, fragile sanctuaries,
where, beneath the stars, a sense of God’s Presence is perhaps
more easily accessible to us than in the comfort of our homes and

Even the holidays that don’t have such obvious connections still
seem to flow into one another once one becomes familiar with the
rhythm of our Jewish year. After Tu B’Shvat, one is already
anticipating Purim, and of course Pesach soon after that. We look
forward with excitement to each opportunity to learn, connect and
celebrate. Each holiday is like an old friend that we get to spend
quality time with once a year, and when there is a community to
celebrate with, we get to be with many old friends many times
each year.

The only Jewish holidays that the vast majority of American Jews
observe are these High Holidays, Chanukah, and Passover.

For those of you who are here today, skipping HH services is probably
not an option. The eve of RH, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and the
25 hours of Yom Kippur commencing with KN, are inviolable for you.
No matter what else might be happening – a special training at work, a
concert given by your favorite musicians, a special sports
event…whatever you would normally put on your calendar and run to --
gets trumped by the High Holidays.

However, for many of you the other holidays feel foreign.
You were never exposed to them as children, or perhaps you
experienced a pediatric version in Hebrew School, but never learned
anything about what the other Jewish holidays mean on an adult level.

I hope that you will take a lesson from the gerim (Jews by Choice)
among us, who come to most of the holidays – and in fact to almost
everything that Judaism has to offer -- with what is known in the Zen
tradition as Beginner’s Mind.

You may not know what these holidays are about, or know what to do
when they come around, but I hope that you will not say to yourselves:
“Those holidays are not for me.”
I do hope that you will be curious and adventurous, and come and learn.

When some one asked Franz Rosenzweig, the early 20th c German-
Jewish philosopher, whether he wore tefillin, he answered, “Not yet.”
He saw himself as moving gradually toward an observant Jewish life,
one mitzvah at a time.

I invite each of you this year to participate in at least
one holiday that you have never experienced before
(or not since you were a child).

Think of it like going out to a restaurant. Some people always order
one of the same 3 or 4 dishes whenever they go out to eat because they
are familiar with those meals and they know that they like how they
taste. If these folks don’t have any dietary restrictions or food allergies,
wouldn’t you encourage them to try something new every now and then,
especially if it’s a dish that you enjoy? Similarly, I am encouraging you
to expand your Jewish holiday repertoire. And the thing is, these are not
risky, newfangled concoctions. There’s no danger of food poisoning.
These holidays are your inheritance – a gift passed down to you by God,
by your direct ancestors if you go back two or three generations (m’dor
l’dor), and by hundreds of generations of creative Jewish thinkers.

This year, a small group gathered in our sanctuary for Tisha B’Av.
Over half of those who participated had never been to a Tisha B’Av
service before. All of the first-timers, several of whom have a great deal
of Jewish knowledge and experience, expressed how deeply moved they
were by the beauty, the profoundly personal quality, and the vividness of
the book of Eicha – Lamentations – which is chanted with its own
unique, evocative trope.

Like all other rabbis I know, I tell every conversion candidate (every one on
their path to becoming a Jew) that I expect them to participate in at LEAST one
complete annual holiday cycle, participating in all the holidays as part of
their preparation for the day of conversion. (If they miss one or two
holidays, they can observe them the following year).

Each person is an individual, drawn to Judaism and the Jewish People
for different reasons. I don’t have a cookie-cutter conversion process,
just as I don’t use a cookie-cutter Bar/Bat Mitzvah process. However, I
DO expect every one who chooses to become a Jew, to have experienced
MOST of our holidays at least once, and Shabbat at LEAST two dozen

This year, I invite you all to imagine that you are beginning the
process of becoming a Jew. Enter this year – (taf shin samech chet) -
5768 - with a beginner’s mind.
I find that when I visit some place with some one who has never visited
that place before, I get a fresh perspective on a place or experience that I
may have come to take for granted or that may have grown stale for me.
This is why it is so refreshing and energizing to be with young children.
With them, we are able to experience simple things in life with new
eyes, ears – and with delight at the newness of everything.

Some of you have confided in me that you are embarrassed about what
you don’t know about Judaism. For adults who are successful business
people, or who may be at the top of their field in medicine or law or
science or some other area – perhaps a retired professor with a PhD or
two -- it may feel very awkward to come to shul and not know what’s
going on.
Please be assured that there is nothing to be embarrassed about, and
that most of the people around you are just as lacking in Jewish
knowledge and experience as you are.

If your parents never took you to services on Shavuot, and if they never
went to a tikkun (an all night study session) on Shavuot, how are you
supposed to know what the holiday is about?!
It’s never too late to educate yourself.
It’s never too late to taste something new.
How are you going to learn if you don’t start somewhere?

As one enthusiastic person (Hillary Waterman) said to me last month:
“I love reading Seasons of Our Joy (a wonderful, now classic guide to
the holidays by Arthur Waskow). I’m learning a lot from it. But it’s
much more meaningful and much clearer what the holiday is about when
I actually experience it in community.”
Texts are of course central to Jewish Life, but still, there’s only so much
we can learn from books.

While it can certainly be useful, interesting and even enlightening
to read books about Jewish history, theology, and practice, one can
jump into Jewish practice – be it lighting Shabbat candles, keeping
Kosher, or celebrating holidays one has never celebrated before –
without reading anything, and gain much from simply doing,
especially when one engages in any of these practices within the
framework of a community.

How-to books primarily engage our minds.

Jewish practices engage our hearts and souls as well as our minds.

As Jews, we are blessed with an exciting, meaningful, sacred reality that
we can enter into without completely shutting out the secular life and
culture that surrounds us.

We are blessed with an ancient, sacred rhythm to hear and feel and sing
and dance to all year round.

We have the opportunity to live simultaneously in two civilizations,
Jewish and North American.

It’s Wednesday, Sept 12, 2007 tonight, but it’s also a new moon, the
new moon of Tishrei, the 7th moon (month) of the year, which is also
considered to be the Head of our Year – Rosh Hashanah. According to
our tradition, this is the anniversary of the day that the world was
created, 5768 years ago.

This evening a new year has begun for all of us. I invite you each to
imagine that being Jewish is a new, exciting adventure that you are
embarking on tonight. Imagine that you won a free season pass to a
concert or theatre series (or the World Series, whichever is more
valuable to you), and that that series is happening here, at the

I’d love to see a crowd this size at every holiday celebration this year!
I’d love to celebrate a full Jewish year with all of you.
And if you do it once, who knows, it might become a habit!

L’Shana Tovah Tikateivu – May you all be inscribed in the Book of
Life, Health, Happiness, Sustenance and Peace for a GOOD NEW

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