Independent Jewish Synagogue in Asheville, NC

Rosh Hashana 2023/5784 (erev)

Posted on September 19, 2023

Is RH-YK Important Because We’re All Here or We’re All Here
Because It’s Important?
Before services: Please take the opportunity to light candles for
Shabbat and Rosh Hashanah on the tables by the sanctuary doors.
Cards with the blessings are posted. Let’s enable ourselves to pray in
enjoyment of the holiday lights.
Those who’ve been participating in services regularly lately know that
for most of the past several weeks, we’ve been substituting the
introductory prayers with a conversation about prayer led by Alan
Silverman. Much of the talk has been asking us to consider why we
come to synagogue. I want to pose the same question tonight. I don’t
mean only what are our personal reasons for coming tonight. I mean,
why are we having services at all? Traditional Jewish practice involves
coming to shul morning, afternoon and evening everyday of the year.
We rarely convene for Maariv, or evening, services. Our once a month
Friday night is really Kabbalat Shabbat with only a token nod to
Maariv, and is sparsely attended. The only other night of the year we
schedule ourselves to be here for a Maariv service is Kol Nidre on
Yom Kippur. Why Kol Nidre Maariv is so important is a topic for
another time. I’m asking, “Why is it important that we be here tonight,
for Rosh Hashanah?” More to the point, why are we expecting so
many for services tomorrow morning? What makes Rosh Hashanah
so important? What did we all come here looking to find?
I’m asking because I “get” the appeal or at least the rationale of all the
other jewish holidays. Purim, about antisemitism and celebrating
triumph over adversity. Hanukkah about the freedom to follow our
traditions. Pesach about both. Shavuot and Simchat Torah,
celebrating the Torah, and so on. About all these holidays I know what
to say. For years, I’ve come up with fresh angles and hopefully a few

genuine insights as to what they mean and why they could still be
relevant. But Rosh Hashanah? If I’m being super honest, I’ve always
thought of the holiday as important because we’re all here, and not so
much that we’re all here because it’s such an important holiday. That’s
the reason I’ve always found something to talk about I felt was timely
and significant. Maybe I’d talk about whether political partisanship is
reaching a point of existential crisis, or about Israel and the Middle
East. One year a while back I talked about the importance of pausing
in life to experience unexpected joyful moments. I've sermonized
about the importance of making community. I’ve always made Rosh
Hashanah sermons about looking at the world through a jewish lense,
but never really about the meaning of the holiday. My justification for
this choice was from something learned long ago, in college, that left a
deep impression on me:
Sartre, “The Responsibility of the Writer” (1946):
“If a writer has chosen to be silent on one aspect of the world, we
have the right to ask him: Why have you spoken of this rather than
that? And since you speak in order to make a change, since there is
no other way you can speak, why do you want to change this rather
than that? Why do you want to alter the way in which postage stamps
are made rather than the way Jews are treated in an antisemitic
country? And the other way around. He must therefore always answer
the following questions: What do you want to change? Why this rather
than that?”
Ever since I became a rabbi, I’ve tried to live up to this expectation in
every major sermon. I’ve been guilty of controversy. I've been guilty of
hubris. I’ve been guilty of going on for too long. But I’ve never yet
been guilty of giving a sermon about postage stamps.

This year, I’ve forced myself to think less about what I need to talk
about since we’re all here, and more about why we’re here in the first
place. What is it about Rosh Hashanah- Yom Kippur that makes it so
important? I don’t mean the apologetic modern spin on atonement and
forgiveness for sin, which always sound more like self help for
personal growth and better living than, well, sin and atonement. I
mean, what do these days ask of us – have been asking of us for
thousands of years, that maybe we haven’t been really listening to?
So, this year. What do I want to change? – I want us to set aside the
tendency to sugarcoat a premodern holiday with Apples & honey, and
face it square on without blinking. Why this rather than that? Because
we can’t allow ourselves to be satisfied by only talking about what’s
important, now that we’re here. We’ve got to talk about the
unvarnished truth at the core of this holiday, even though we’d rather
not think about it at all, because this is really why we are here. Rosh
Hashanah is the holiday of confronting the fear of mortality. How can
we accept that we and those we love will die? What does it mean?
How is it done?
Three questions. Three days. More about this tomorrow, the next day and on Yom Kippur.