Erev Rosh Hashanah
by Reb Jamie Hyams, Rabbinic Intern, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, September 9, 2018
“The prophet Isaiah said: “Seek God where He is found, call on Him when He is close.” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the orthodox former Chief Rabbi of Britain, tells us “the Rabbis wrestled with this verse. What could it mean? For them, God was the God of everywhere and all time. He was always to be found, always close. The verse seemed to make no sense at all…. This was their reply: These are the Ten Days of Repentance [of Teshuva/ of returning to ourselves] between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.” Says Rabbi Sacks, God is always close to us, but we are not always close to God. God is always to be found, but we do not always seek out God. To sense the closeness of God needs some special effort on our part.”
We stand at the beginning of aseret yamei teshuva, the 10 days of returning. We have the opportunity to set our houses in order, to chart a course into a better future. It is a time when the world is being judged for the coming year and we hope that God has decreed for us a good and sweet year. But what, or who, is the God that is doing the judging? Is he an old man with a white beard up in heaven benevolently looking down on us with the Book of Life in his lap and a quill pen in his hand? Who is the God, according to Rabbi Sacks, that we need to seek out?
I have just finished reading a great book, “Seeing God” by Rabbi David Aaron. Rabbi Aaron is an orthodox student of the kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. Mysticism is the search for hidden meanings in text and ideas. In thinking about God, Rabbi Aaron begins by saying “Quite frankly, the word “God” does nothing for me. If anything, it interferes with my true faith. Personally,” (says Rabbi Aaron), “I don’t believe in “God.” It’s an English word of German derivation and is not found in the Bible, if you read the Hebrew original. The word “God” has been so overused, abused, and misunderstood that it actually stands in the way of our discovering the ultimate truth we are seeking.” As Rabbi Aaron says, given the misunderstanding and abuse of the word God, it is likely that if there are 100 people in this room, there are probably at least 100 different ideas on the nature of God.
In Judaism, the entity God is referred to in many ways – Elohim, El Shaddai, Adonai to name but a few descriptors. The word God itself is a descriptor. To Torah uses the letters יהוה. If you were looking at God’s name in the Torah, which has no vowels, you would not know how to pronounce it. Some would guess at the vowels and pronounce it Yahweh, some would say Jehovah. Jews choose not to guess and to perhaps accidentally utter the name, instead we choose Hashem (the name), Adonai, or “Hakadosh Baruch Hu“, the holy one, blessed be He.” There are at least 70 names for God. Personally, I prefer “the Source of Life.”
As to the nature of this entity, the name יהוה is revealing. For those of you who like to play word games, and who know a bit of Hebrew, you’ll see that יהוה contains three other words… יהיה הווה היה hayah – it was; hoveh; it is; yihiyeh, it will be. Past, present, and future. The word for the name of God, that describes what God is, is a word that includes all that was, all that is, and all that will be. With this understanding, God is an all-encompassing continuing energy which connects everything that ever was and ever will be. And so, I ask you to take a moment and reflect on how you understand the God concept.
Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism said. “God is the Power in the cosmos that gives human life the direction that enables the human being to reflect the image of God.” Jewish tradition ascribes three main themes to Rosh Hashanah – malchuyot, kingship; zichronot, remembrances; and shofarot, shofar. Paraphrasing Rabbi Aaron, “Malchutliterally means “kingdom,” that is, a collective of people who acknowledge a particular king.” Generally, when we think of a king, we think of someone who rules over a group of people. But who gives a king power? The people. The people, by accepting the king, give them the power to rule. They don’t rebel, they don’t choose another to rule over them. They accept kingship. And that, in part, is what Rosh Hashanah is, the annual affirmation by the Jewish people of the kingship of יהוה ,the Source of Life, the Oneness of all that was, all that is, and all that will be.
What does it mean to accept the kingship of God? Through the lens of Rabbi Aaron, the mystic who reveals the hidden mystery, kingship means “you experience yourself as a participant in a communal consciousness that recognizes and acknowledges the Source of Life as the ultimate supreme sovereign power. That collective recognition of the Source of Life channels the Divine Majestic Presence into this world.”
Personally, I take this as a metaphor for the interconnectedness of everything. For understanding that we are not unconnected individuals, rather that we are all part of a living force, connected to the planet, connected to heavens, and connected to each other.
Reiterating Rabbi Sacks’ question, “How do we “bring close the Source of Life?” How do we know that God is close? I touched on this several weeks ago on Shabbat. We are given a hint every time we say the Shema. The word Shema is spelled עמש and means to hear or to listen. The word Nishama, נשמה means soul. The word לנשום means “to breathe.” Nishima” נשימה means breath. Shhh…mmmm….aaahhhh, shhh…mmmm….aahhh. Each time we say the Shema, we listen, we hear and we know that we are part of the One, part of the source of life. When we breathe, we breathe in from the Source of Life. Our souls, our breathe, the sound of the source of life, nishima, nishama, Shema.
We are part of everything. We are created in the image of the divine. We are made up of the divine.
And what does Rabbi Aaron mean when he says, “That collective recognition of the Source of Life channels the Divine Majestic Presence into this world?” We are expressions of the Source of Life. We are the “channel” that he describes. We express godliness/the Divine Majestic Presence in the world through our humanity, through how we treat each other as expressions of the Source of Life, through our kindness.
The community and the energy within a community that accepts the kingship of the Source of Life, that recognizes godliness in the eyes of every person, that community brings God, the Divine Majestic Presence, into the room.
In this new year, may our actions bring about a better world, may our interactions with each other be framed by the recognition that we are all expressions of the Source of Life, and may we be the “channels” that Rabbi Aaron describes.
May we be inscribed for a good year.