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Rabbi Marc E. Berkson - Rosh Hashanah - 2nd Day - 2010/5771

HAPPY BIRTHDAY?
Rosh Hashanah Morning-Second Day-5771

As Rosh Hashanah began on Wednesday evening, I offered the image of the shofar as our whistle.  We hear its sound and we come streaming back to this place, streaming back yearning for connection. Yes, I noted, we come back to connect, through others, to ourselves.  That’s perhaps why these are our “hi” holy days, our chance to say “hi” to so many people we have not seen in a while.  Yet more.  For we also seek connection, through others, to something more than ourselves.  And perhaps that is also why so many of us come out at the sound of the shofar.  We survived another year-and that we celebrate.  For today is the birthday of the world; as the birthday of the world, it is also our birthday.  On this day, 5771 years ago, humankind was born.  And what does one do at a birthday?  One has a birthday party-which, for Jews, is a bit odd.

Yes, we Americans surely are into birthday parties.  Party planners, cake makers, Factory Card Outlet, Hallmark, and Chuck E. Cheese depend on that.  As our kids grow up, we spend countless hours ensuring that they get to all their friends’ parties-and just as many hours planning their own.  Then, in different ways, our birthdays as adults (no longer at Chuck E. Cheese but at Dave and Buster’s if a certain age or perhaps off to Las Vegas if of another), especially at significant times (like every decade marker), become special events.  And we somehow assume that such birthday celebrations have deep historical origins.

Like the fact that “Happy Birthday to You” is just over a century old.  Or the possibility that cakes with candles go back only three or four centuries with the belief that the smoke from the candles would carry birthday wishes up to God.  Or that birthday cards and gifts may simply have begun with a custom to send apologies if one could not visit a person celebrating a birthday face-to-face.

Search the Hebrew Scriptures and you will be hard pressed to find any birthday celebration.  In fact, there is only one-and that one was not Jewish.  Anyone want to guess who?  A hint-it is described in Bereshit, in Genesis.  In chapter 40, verse 20, (p. 256 in the humashim if you wish to see text itself) we read:  “The third day was Pharaoh’s birthday, and he gave a feast for all his officials.”  Yes, it was Pharaoh’s birthday, in Hebrew yom huledet, and, yes, Pharaoh gave a birthday party.

But we Jews?  Not one Jewish birthday celebration mentioned in all of Tanach!  In fact, Jewish tradition does not connect any observance or celebration to the yearly anniversary of a birthday.  One might suggest Bar or Bat Mitzvah-but that would be better compared to a coming of age ritual.  No, for us Jews, the birthday celebration, or any marking of the yearly anniversary of one’s birth, was and remains relatively unimportant.

On the other hand, one yearly anniversary has long been of crucial importance-the yearly anniversary of one’s death day, if you will.  Dating back to Talmudic times in spite of its later Yiddish name, the practices surrounding the observance of yahrzeit are profound.  We do not light birthday candles; we light yahrzeit candles.  We do not gather with friends for one celebration and the singing of “Happy Birthday” at the country club; we congregate three times that day to recite the Aramaic words of Kaddish with Jews at the synagogue.  And we surely do not expect gifts from others; we might, rather, make contributions to appropriate organizations in our loved one’s memory.

That is what makes this birthday celebration today so odd.  Why would the rabbis have come to see Rosh Hashanah as a birthday celebration?  What would have led them to connect such an important Jewish day to such an insignificant or even nonexistent observance?  And the best way to answer the question is to ask another.  Which of our important Jewish days is connected not to our birthday but, if you will, to our death day?  Yom Kippur, of course.  And I have, many times, shared with you how Yom Kippur is our haunting dress rehearsal for death.  The titles we use, the words we speak, the actions we take, the actors we encounter, the settings we utilize, even the clothes we wear tell us so.  From the Viddui, the confession we offer on Yom Kippur and on our deathbeds, to the unetane tokef, to the words acknowledging the sacred power of this day-“Who shall live and who shall die.”  One more year of our lives has disappeared and we are now one year closer to our end.  We are born to die.  Think of the actions we take.  We fast.  We abstain from those physical activities such as eating and drinking which keep us alive.  Think of the actors we encounter–a bet din, a Jewish court, God.  Before them, at Kol Nidre, we are judged.  Think of the settings utilized.  The Bet Din takes out the Torah scrolls and we rise in its presence.  As one who is accused rises for the verdict, so, too, do we rise for judgment.  In fact, in those congregations where all the Torah scrolls are taken out of the ark during Kol Nidre, we gaze into what is no longer an aron ha-kodesh, a holy ark.  We stare, rather, into an aron whose kedusha, whose holiness, has been removed; we stare into an aron, a casket, the box that will someday hold our physical remains.  And, yes, think even of the costumes worn.  For the traditional garb for Yom Kippur, for the rehearsal, is not a suit, is not a dress, is not even this white robe which I am wearing.  It is, rather, the kittel, that plain, pocketless white shroud in which one is buried.  Tradition says we must dress the part.  This day reaches its saddest point in the afternoon-at yizkor-when we encounter our loved ones, those who have preceded us in death.  And we say kaddish.  Dressed for death, depriving ourselves of all activities which would keep us alive, offering our confessions, standing at the edge of our graves, we are forced to think of our lives in terms of our deaths.

So if Yom Kippur reflects our virtual deaths, if you will, then Rosh Hashanah reflects our virtual births.  Think about it in terms of our birth date, the first of Tishri, aleph b’Tishri.  Take the Hebrew letters which comprise the date and move a couple of them around and you get Bereshit, in the beginning.  We find it in the stories we read-traditionally on the first day, the birth story of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah in the Torah and of Samuel to Hannah and Elkanah in the haftarah.   We find it in the songs we sing-not, of course, “Happy Birthday to You,” but rather a song which dates back centuries whose words tell us ha-yom harat olam, that, on this day of the world’s birth, we stand before God.  And we find it in the sounds we hear.  Listen this morning to the sounds of the shofar.  Hear them as the cries of a woman in childbirth, according to Midrash Tanchuma, 90 while in labor and ten upon giving birth.  And that final sound–the tekiah gedolah–the final cry of the mother as her baby is born.

Born today, we will die next week.  And if we take aseret yemai teshuva, the Ten Days of Repentance, and subtract these first two days of Rosh Hashanah and the last day of Yom Kippur, we are left with seven, that magic number which reflects a wholeness, a completeness, perhaps a full life.  Traditionally, the sense of loss in our lives is already reflected in the stories that are read today-the akedah, the binding of Isaac (which we read yesterday) and in Rachel’s tears in the haftarah.  We visit the graves of those who came before us-knowing that we, too, will soon be joining them.  Then, on the eve of Yom Kippur before Kol Nidre, we add the following words to the blessing we say over our children-“may your eyes look straight ahead, your mouth speak with wisdom, your heart meditate with awe and wonder…”  It is as if we are sharing our last words with them right before we die.  From virtual birthday to virtual death day in the virtual life span of seven days.   Once again, that first question asked by God to the first person, “Ayeka?  Where are you?  What are you doing with your life?  Remember the tools for the journey-teshuva-through our connections with others, to connect once more with our own soul; tefillah, through our connections with others to connect with God; and tzedaka, through our connections with others, to make this the world God and we all desire.

A lifespan in seven days, a week of rehearsal for real life from birthday to day of death.  Our whole life flashes before our eyes.  And then, as we conclude with Neilah on Yom Kippur, what is the last sound we will hear?  Tekiah gedolah-that final cry as we emerge reborn, inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.

Amen

– Rabbi Marc E. Berkson

Mon, July 15 2019 12 Tammuz 5779