Independent Jewish Synagogue in Asheville, NC

Rosh Hashana 2023/5784 Day 1

Posted on September 19, 2023

Every year I try to find some current big picture issue that I think could
be relevant to most of the congregation and frame my HH sermons
around seeing that issue through a jewish lens. To the best of my
knowledge, that’s what most rabbis do. One thing I’ve never done is
focus my remarks on the liturgy and meaning of the holidays
themselves. Why would I? The subject is one which I think many of
us, myself included, would rather never face unless and until
circumstances force us to.
I’m thrilled to talk about the meaning of Sukkot, Hanukkah, Purim,
Pesach, Shavuot, and the like. But RH-YK? Yet, a few congregants,
over the course of the year, suggested it. After mulling it over, I
decided to give it a try. Disclaimer: if you’re under the impression that
the jewish High Holiday liturgy is about having a fulfilling, meaning
enriched new year, or about introspection and self improvement, and
you wish to preserve those impressions, you may want to skip the
sermons this year. Because it’s not all “apples & honey.”
Before we start digging deep, let’s check the landscape. The Torah
Readings for today and tomorrow are about how a father accepted the
advice of his wife to banish his first born child to die in the desert with
his mother (today). And tomorrow, we will read how his God
commanded him to ritually slaughter his second son, and his
willingness to do so up until the moment a divine intercession derails
his plans. These episodes set the stage for the season’s liturgical
themes. This should give you an inkling I’m about to say some pretty
rough things, but not as rough as hearing you can be a hero in our
religion if you can say “yes” to child sacrifice. Of your own children.

Let’s begin by admitting we simply can’t be sure what our biblical
ancestors thought Rosh Hashanah was about. “Rosh Hashanah”
means “New Year,” but the Torah never calls it that. All the Torah tells
us is that it is supposed to be a day of “Zichron teruah” which means a
day “commemorated with loud blasts.” Maybe the “loud blasts” refer to
the shofar, maybe not. The Torah could also be referring to trumpets
or simply to loud voices calling out.
In the post-biblical period our rabbis, 2000 years ago, proclaimed this
holiday to be Rosh Hashanah, the “New Year.” This may or may not
imply the “birthday of the world.” One rabbinic school held that yes,
Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of Creation, but its rival school held
“no,” Creation actually happened in the spring, at Pesach time.
Regardless, the rabbis, as our elites, composed a liturgy to invest this
“day of loud blasting commemoration” with a deeper meaning. We’ll
call their work product “elite” in order to contrast it with the more
intrusive and disturbing prayers composed around it.
The centerpiece of rabbinic, or elite, prayer is called “Musaf.” This is
where the rabbis use liturgy to engineer the aims of the holiday. It’s
the portion of the service where we enlist the leadership of a skilled
professional chazzan, draw it out and generally make it the climax or
center ring. Today we experience it as the portion of services which
lies between the rabbi’s sermon and lunch. If you miss it, traditionally
speaking you’ve missed the main event of the services- like leaving a
concert after the warm up band and before the main attraction.
RH Musaf consists of 3 parts, comprising 3 themes. “Kingship,” which
messages “The universe has a boss,” “Remembrance,” which
messages that “ The boss is paying attention,” and “Shofarot,” which
co-opts the shofar to symbolize that God makes God’s presence in the
world knowable and known. The connection to a “new year” isn’t

entirely clear, but may have to do with enacting an ancient ritualized
annual re-coronation of God as the ultimate authority, as cosmic king
and judge. The new year begins with God’s new reign. The conflation
of these 3 themes produces a vivid, and some might feel a foreboding
sense of being held to account and being revealed potentially as
having fallen short.
So, what we call the Jewish New Year (we traditionally believe it’s the
whole world’s not merely the “jewish” new year, by the way), is really a
grand court date, where we affirm there’s an ultimate judge, we’re all
on trial, and – non trivially – we’re all facing the death penalty. Now we
can understand the folk liturgy complimenting the Musaf prayer which
emphasizes death. Most prominent and famous would be the
Unetaneh Tokef, where we intone “who will live and who will die. Who
by fire, who by sword, who by wild beasts, climate change, who by
grand jury,” and so forth.
Whenever I’d comment on the passing of a beloved congregant, an
old friend of mine used to say, “Rabbi, that’s life. None of us get out of
this alive.” Indeed, that friend passed away suddenly and
unexpectedly several years ago. This friend's sentiment captures, I
think, the spirit of Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur. We’re all going to die,
death is real, it’s a matter of when and how. Seriously. Who wants to
hear a sermon about that?
Historians have long recognized that the rabbis who selected the
Torah Readings and composed our prayers were culturally attuned to
the philosophical environment of Ancient Greece and Rome. They
were particularly drawn to Stoicism. To do justice to the intellectual
sophistication of Stoicism and to the extent the rabbis were influenced
by and adapted Stoic teachings to suit their own purposes would take
us far beyond today’s topic. So to simplify- Stoics sought to take

responsibility for what we can control, such as emotional reactions,
our behavior and the like, and to accept that which we cannot, such as
the reality of death. They sought to face death “stoically,” one might
I can’t prove it of course, but I think it’s at least plausible that the
rabbis who chose the Akeidah, the Torah Reading about the Sacrifice
of Isaac, were aware of a notorious passage that's been called the
most chilling passage of all Ancient Greek philosophy. The stoic
Epictetus posed the question, “What’s the harm, seeing how it’s the
truth, while kissing your little child, to say, ‘Someday you’ll die,’ or to
your dear friend, ‘At some point one of us will pass away and we’ll
never see one another again.’”
It’s as if Greek philosophy is saying, “To give birth to a child is to
inadvertently yet inescapably put that child on a path which ends in
death, for everything born must someday die, and we should be tough
enough to openly admit this truth.” If my hunch is correct, the rabbinic
response goes something like, “We can accept something both
tougher but more nuanced than that, because there is a Master of the
Universe who is the author of all nature who someday, on this day, will
judge that child for death, and might possibly, out of an abundance of
compassion, suspend the decree. And on our New Year, we coronate
God as King and judge over us. In declaring the Hebrew month based
upon having witnessed the new moon, we schedule our own
arraignment.” The stoics say, “Death is inescapable, deal with it.” We
say, ‘Bring it on.’”
Although it is acknowledged in the Talmud that God is of course free
to exercise God’s powers of judgment at any time, there is something
auspicious about this particular time of the year. It’s as if God is
considered particularly close, attentive, and especially focused on

rendering verdicts. That verdict is understood as pertaining to our
quality and duration of life in this world, (“who will be impoverished,
who will be enriched, who will feel safe, who will wander about…”) not
the next. To the prayer author’s credit, there is no attempt in the
Unetaneh Tokef to soften the situation with appeals to an afterlife
where divine debts could be paid up, the injustice of death rectified
with compensation. There’s no, “If you die at an untimely moment by
the sword, plague, fire or what have you, not to worry, for there’s an
even better heavenly existence waiting for the deserving.” Instead, we
proclaim, “We are like… the flower that fades, the grass that withers,
the shadow that passes… a dream that passes away.” In prayers of
this genre, the loopholes or escape clauses are thoroughly this
worldly. Our actions, in life, can make a difference, during this life.
Prayer, generosity to others in need, and repentance are explicitly
listed as being able to earn us a reprieve. “Earn” may not be the
correct word here, it’s really that doing these things could arouse
God’s mercy, rather than prove we have a right to live. Why do bad
things happen to good people? In God's courtroom, no one has a
“right to life.”
The rabbis had the capacity to go even bolder, and imply that rewards
offered only in the afterlife seem miserly and beneath the dignity of
God, who should not have to resort to being obliged to pay a late fee
penalty. One sage, Elazar ben Pedat, audaciously said as much
directly to God in a dream, and was dismissed with a playful Divine
“potch” for his trouble.
But what’s really at stake, it seems to me, is whether the inevitability of
death is justified at all. It may be ultimately unavoidable, but is it fair?
In time honored rabbinic fashion, we must answer, “Yes and no.”

At least one classical midrashic author was willing to entertain the
notion that death itself is unjust and God deserves to forfeit our
devotion for having invented it. Given its effrontery, the midrash places
this argument in the mouth of Esau, a failed son of our founding
family. Upon coming in from the field, Esau noted that his brother
Jacob was cooking lentils; a dish Jewish tradition associates with
mourning. According to the Midrash, Esau asked, “Who died”? Jacob
answered, “Grandpa Abraham.” Immediately, Esau concluded that his
birthright was worthless if a man as close to God as Abraham wasn’t
holy enough to regain the immortality of the Garden of Eden. Esau
suffered the loss of a grandfather he evidently held in awe. It was an
experience which shattered his faith. If death is final, and no matter
how good we are – no amount of “prayer, charity, or repentance,” or
any other humanly possible ethical achievement can move God to
revoke it, that God no longer deserves our trust or loyalty. The jewish
birthright is worthless. It is a bitter, unpleasant argument to make, but
compelling nonetheless. The midrash offers no convincing answer to
Esau. He may have been a villain, but he loved his grandfather, and
he was no dummy.
No self respecting Stoic tradition can allow the matter to end here.
Death, however awful to contemplate, must be accepted. Rabbi Meir
was one of the important rabbis of the Mishnah. He had an equally
famous wife, named Beruriah. We know very few of the Jewish
women of the rabbinic period by name and Beruriah is perhaps the
sole non-aristocratic one. That she rose to such distinction in a
patriarchal society alone indicates she merits our close attention.
According to legend, while Rabbi Meir was in shul on Shabbat, two of
their children who had fallen ill died from a plague ravishing their city.
The rabbi hurried home for Havdalah, and anxiously asked his wife
about their condition- had there been any improvement? The epitome
of stoic reserve, Beruriah silently offered her husband the Havdalah
set and indicated he should first perform the ritual. Satisfied Shabbat

had been correctly finalized, Beruriah said, “Some time ago, we were
given an incredibly precious loan. Today, the depositor claimed its
return. What should I have done?” Rabbi Meir replied, “Of course, a
deposit must unreservedly be returned to its owner,” whereupon
Beruriah led her husband to the children still lying on their bed.
Weeping tears of sorrow, he cried, “My children, my children!”
Beruriah comforted him saying, “As you have spoken, ‘the Lord has
given, the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.’”
Beruriah’s older contemporary, the Greek philosopher Epictetus,
would have approved. More importantly, so would have our father,
The idea of our lives being somehow given on deposit which must be
eventually returned suggests a disembodied self – a soul to be
returned, and a process or place to which we must ultimately go. The
soul, or neshama, and its destiny according to our tradition, will be
tomorrow’s topic.
Until then, Shabbat Shalom and Shananh Tovah.