By Lionel Lubitz
So it has come to this. We have reached the destination. But isn’t life an exploration of the journey not the destination. What does it mean to have reached this point? We have all participated in this journey, different pathways, different timings, and different needs.
Some of us started this part of the journey at the beginning of Ellul with the daily sound of the shofar reminding us that the time of reflection, returning to our roots had begun. For some of us this is a year round journey, for others it is a brief but sweet reconnection with something that attaches us to our community or our inner spirit.
The Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur experience is a powerful start. The yamim noraim…the days of awe.
What is Rosh Hashana? What are the sign posts that it is here? Like the power of the Hagadah on Pesach.
There are no special foods like Matzah at Pesach and Cheesecake at Shavuot. No huts to build and sit in the rain for Sukkot, not even a Hannukiah for Hannukah. It may seem somewhat empty, an anti climax. Just a bit of apple dipped in honey for a sweet year. Not even the promise of fireworks and alcohol-induced euphoria that the secular New Year offers. An evening service that is over soon after it begins with little to distinguish it from a weekday maariv.
So what is it all about?
It is about the start of our introspection. The journey inwards to find our true self. What are we, what matters, where have we got it right and where have we got it wrong?
The niggunim that are so familiar, even going back to childhood memories of my father humming the Yigdal tune as he prepared for shul on erev Rosh Hashana. There, in the heart of Africa where we, with the Shoah in our consciousness struggled with the new generation of oppressed. Where the Jude star was not needed, for the African people wore it on their skin and suffered the humiliation as second-class citizens. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur give us the opportunity to connect ourselves with the oppressed and dispossessed whether it is our own people or the greater community of humanity. We who were the ‘boat people’ 60 or 70 years ago know what happens when intolerance and suspicion drives people into a state of prejudice and hate.
The Yom Kippur experience takes us from the particular to the universal.
The shofar with nothing but pure breath driving its pure simple sound stirring so much within us as it penetrates to our core, helping us on the inward journey.
The Torah reading on Rosh Hashana starts with Sarah and Avraham and ends on Yom Kippur with Yonah. Two stories that take us from the particular to the universal.
Let’s look at it in depth.
The Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashana takes us deep into that place with Sarah in a state of hope and ecstasy as she is told that despite her old age she would have a son Yitzhak. Soon that hope and joy was followed by jealousy and intolerance as she drives Hagar and Ishmael from Avraham’s home. Yes, kind, loving Sarah capable of such joy followed by jealousy and anger.
What do we learn about joy, jealousy and anger? As Bob Dylan wrote ‘the line is thinly drawn ‘tween joy and sorrow’
On the second day of Rosh Hashana we are taken on a journey of blind faith where Avraham takes his only precious son and without protest prepares to sacrifice him.
Avraham so connected to his faith and devotion to G-d that he doesn’t question the directive to sacrifice him.
What do we learn about faith?
What do we do with that adherence without questioning for ourselves?
When do we accept and when do we question?
Yes he who was the epitome of chesed prepared to sacrifice his son without a whimper
What was he thinking!
In the Haftorah on RH We followed the story of Hannah who also childless promised her son to G-d if she ever had one and so it happened that she had a son Samuel and did give him to the priesthood.
What do we learn about attachment?
We give our children life and love but we do not own them nor control their destiny.
After Rosh Hashana we are imbued with all those attributes from love to kindness to sacrifice of different sorts and ultimate redemption as Isaac survives, Ishmael is promised that he will also be the progenitor of a great nation.
The next 10 days takes us through the days of penitence where we look at ourselves to see where we can do better.
This culminates in the Kol Nidre opening Yom Kippur.
We stand in silence as the Torah comes out and our Baal tefilah utters those words initially in hushed tones building to a crescendo at the third reading. The day of words, songs, emotional reflections including the Yizkor for those we have lost and the confessions, vidui, as we search ourselves for how to become better, less burdened more accepting of ourselves and others, more loving.
On Yom Kippur afternoon along comes Yonah who is told to go and warn the people of Nineveh to change their ways and find redemption.
Who are these people?
Are they our people?
No they are not.
“Go to Nineveh,” says God, “and save that city from its wickedness.” Historically, Nineveh was the capitol of the Assyrian Empire. In 722 BCE, the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and exiled its population. They besieged Jerusalem, humiliated its king, and carried off its treasures. For an Israelite, Nineveh was the enemy, the world centre of evil, and the heart of darkness.
Why would Jonah want to save Nineveh?
Nineveh is ‘other’ not ‘unsere’
Yonah exercises free will and decides not to go, as he is not up to the task. But circumstances change and he is driven back and given a second chance to do G-d’s will. The people of Nineveh do change, they change their ways and they find redemption.
This story has been repeated in every generation since then.
And here we are playing out the same story. We need to find peace with our so called enemies because of what enmity and hatred does to us not just to them….yes we are not immune to the effects of hatred and suspicion on our own inner beings. We need peace with our enemies for their sake and for ours.
To know our story is part of the Yom Kippur journey, to understand who we are the frailties that our forefathers and mothers carried helps us to understand who we are and become better, more fulfilled more generous, giving and loving……Teshuvah,Tzedaka and Tefillah that’s all there is.
Some of us have taken the long route starting at the beginning of Ellul, some started with Rosh Hashana and some of us came today. Some for just a few moments, some for many hours. All with an authentic desire to connect with our story, to belong to our people. For some shul is a place of worship, for some a place to reflect and for some a place to connect with our parents, to make dad happy that we came, a place to remember fathers and mothers who have passed on. But we all belong here and we all form part of that rich tapestry of devotion that stretches from the hallowed, organ filled halls of the Temple (up the road) to the Adass shteible around the corner to all sorts of colours and patterns in between all weaving the rich fabric of which we all are a part.
Neilah is now upon us. The day is ending and we have just a short time left to find some meaning in the day. You may choose to utter more words, so many already said, or stand or sit quietly looking within to find meaning, or looking at your mum or neighbour in gratitude, or sing one last niggun to bring the joyful spirit of Shira into this place and into your heart.
So as the ‘gates’ prepare to close Let’s spend the next hour trying to find that part of us that is free from cynicism, free from judgement and find the purity within ourselves that will inscribe and indeed seal us in the book of life.