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Rabbi Jessica K. Barolsky - Rosh Hashanah - 1st Day - 2014/5775


“The Epic Character of the Ordinary”
Rosh Hashanah – 1st Day – 2014/5775

Monday morning.  Alarm clock goes off.  Snooze.  Nine more minutes of blissful sleep.  Alarm goes off again.  Snooze.  Nine minutes of pretending to still be asleep.  Alarm goes off a third time.  Jump out of bed, already running late.  Brush teeth, shower, get dressed.  Turn on the coffee maker.  Pour cereal.  Eat it mindlessly, one eye on the news, the other on the clock.  Rummage through the refrigerator, looking for leftovers to take for lunch.  Check the weather, grab the appropriate coat, pour the now-ready coffee into a travel mug, head out the door.  Sit in traffic, silently cursing at the snooze button and the traffic.  Find a parking space.  Make a to-do list, start working on it.  Answer the phone.  Answer several emails.  Watch the to-do list get longer, not shorter, as the day goes on.

Fast forward to Tuesday morning.  Alarm clock goes off.  Snooze.  Sleep.  Alarm again.  Snooze.  Roll over.  Alarm.  Jump out of bed, running late.  Brush teeth, shower, get dressed.  Turn on the coffee maker.  Pour cereal.  Eat it mindlessly, one eye on the news, the other on the clock.  Rummage through the refrigerator for something to pack for lunch.  Grab a coat, pour coffee in travel mug, head out the door.  Sit in traffic, silently cursing.  Find a parking space.  Add to Monday’s to-do list.  Answer phone.  Answer emails.  Add to the list.

Fast forward to Wednesday morning.  Alarm clock goes off.  Snooze twice.  Jump out of bed, running late.  Brush teeth, shower, get dressed.  Turn on the coffee maker.  Pour cereal.  Eat it mindlessly, one eye on the news, the other on the clock.  Rummage through the refrigerator for something to pack for lunch, realize there are no leftovers, try to figure out if there’s time midday to buy lunch.  Grab a coat, pour coffee, head out the door.  Traffic.  Frustration.  Parking.  To-do list, phone calls, emails, errands. Fast forward.

Today is different.  It’s Thursday morning, but it’s Rosh Hashanah.  The alarm goes off, but there’s extra time today.  Get up a little later, feeling somewhat more refreshed.  Brush teeth, shower, pick out something a bit different to wear than usual.  Turn on the coffee maker.  Look at the clock, decide to make something a little more interesting for breakfast, since there’s extra time.  Eat it while having an actual conversation with others in the house, while enjoying a hot cup of coffee.  Get in the car together.  No traffic in this direction!  No to-do lists, no phone calls, no emails to return.  Friends to greet, in Hebrew, with shana tova.  Find a seat, open the machzor.  Take a deep breath. Pray.  Connect.  Listen.  Hope.  Breathe. 

It is easy to feel inspired and connected while we are here on Rosh Hashanah.  Everything is different, holy, special.  Our music is different, our clothing is different, our prayerbook is different.  Everyone is here.  But Rosh Hashanah in a vacuum is overwhelming in its own way, and the task we present here is virtually impossible.  We are told to reflect, to repent, to figure out a plan for improving our whole selves in the coming year—in two-and-a-half hours, while surrounded by 700 people, while someone is always talking, singing, telling us to stand up or sit down. 

Judaism is not about occasional moments, holidays, life cycle events.  Judaism, as one commercial I keep hearing puts it describing the effect a certain car could have, is about finding the epic in the everyday.  Rosh Hashanah isn’t meant to be a two-day affair, a one-day holiday, or especially just a 2-and-a-half hour commitment.  The cycle of our year connects holiday to holiday through rituals that occur mostly on ordinary days; it is the epic nature of each ordinary day that makes the holidays possible. 

Author Abigail Pogrebin (pogue-RI-bbon) is best known for her book Stars of David, where famous Jews talk about their Jewish identities.  She announced recently that she will be exploring a year of Jewish holidays.  Unlike humor writer AJ Jacobs who tried to follow the Bible’s rules literally for a year, Pogrebin explains that her only interest is the holidays themselves.  She describes herself as having a “lukewarm level of observance,”[1] and says that she is embarking on this project, in part, “to understand what we’re missing.”  But having read her first blog post about Rosh Hashanah, one that was written a few days ago, it is clear that she is already figuring out the importance of the “everydays” surrounding the holidays.  Her Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur observance began already 30 days ago with the last month of the year, Elul, and intentional, structured self-reflection.  Rather than being frustrated that her observance of holidays started a month before the actual beginning of the year-of-holidays, she seems cautiously satisfied.  “The task has already given me a strange tranquility. It’s a very different experience to critique oneself on a full stomach. I’m less impatient with the exercise; I take my time. I might even be harsher on my flaws because, unlike on Yom Kippur when the litany of sins are coming fast and furious, with little time to focus on each one, this Elul discipline affords a more thorough accounting.”[2]  She has already realized, before her “year” has even started, that Judaism is not about the holidays, but about the ordinary days in between.

Judaism has a cycle, a rhythm, and it works best when we experience it that way, not just occasionally when it’s convenient.  Experiencing the everyday in Judaism after focusing mainly on the holidays is like finding out that the movie you were watching on mute while reading the captions has come out in surround sound and in 3-d.

We are Reform Jews.  Reform Judaism is not an excuse not to connect to Judaism every single day, but rather a license to find our own way into Judaism, every single day.  I am not advocating for 700-person services every day, three times a day—although that would certainly be fascinating—or about kashering each one of our kitchens.  Rather, every single day, each of us can do Jewishly through our values, through blessings, and through our culture.

We can live Jewishly every single day through the values our religion teaches us.  Our tradition provides us with so many values, a framework for how we should live, and we are following many of these values already.  There are Jewish values of doing for others: donating to the poor, helping the needy, caring for those in our own community who could use a lift or conversation.  We have these values because, as we are reminded over and over in the Torah, we are to care for the widow, orphan, and stranger in our midst, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and so we know how it feels.  Our history has taught us to care for those who are far from home, physically or otherwise.  Our tradition singles out the widow and the orphan, because in biblical times, they were the ones who were the most vulnerable in society.  Today, it may not be the literal widow and the orphan who most need our help, but those who are vulnerable in all kinds of ways: the poor, homeless, physically challenged, uneducated, abused.  Our Jewish value of caring for the poor and those in need is not just an idea on paper. Our world needs our values, and it needs us to act on them. Survey data released by the US Census Bureau last week showed us that here in Milwaukee, our local community is suffering.  Nearly half of Wisconsin’s single-parent households with children live in poverty, and the poverty rate for Wisconsin’s citizens, including its seniors, is too high—and it’s growing worse.  Poverty can be linked to weaker physical and mental health, fewer educational opportunities, and decreased employment prospects[3]. Living Jewishly doesn’t just mean educating ourselves and taking care of our families. It means stepping up to care for those around us, those we do not even know.  

There are Jewish values of doing for our family and community.  We are taught specifically not to separate ourselves from our community, and we are commanded to rejoice with bride and groom as much as to accompany the dead for burial.  Celebrating life, remembering those who have died, and everything in between is central to living Jewishly.  Judaism values learning at all ages.  We work to educate our children in both secular studies as well as Jewish studies, ensuring that they will be able to participate in improving our world as they grow, and to make sure that they will be able to live as knowledgeable Jewish adults.  We need to continue to model Jewish learning for our children at all ages, not just telling them that B’nai Mitzvah and Kabbalat Torah are not an end of Jewish education, but showing them through our own actions that learning Jewishly continues throughout life.  Learning doesn’t have to be formal, and it doesn’t have to be in the synagogue.  It can be reading a Jewish magazine or article in print or online; it can be reading a book with a Jewish theme and discussing it with others; it can be having a conversation with the family around the dinner table about a Jewish person in the news, positive or negative.  We do for our family and our community, living Jewishly, when we work hard and honestly.  Judaism has great respect for working people of all kinds, and demands of us that we treat our workers fairly when we are the employer—and treat our employers fairly when we are the worker.  Giving a fair day’s work AND a fair day’s pay is, simply put, the Jewish thing to do. 

There are Jewish values of doing for ourselves.  Taking care of our bodies and our souls is Jewish, so finding time to exercise, rest, reflect, and recharge, finding time to do something we love is living a Jewish value.  Our tradition recognizes that many of us are constantly giving, helping, doing for others; we can do all of those things better if we sometimes step back and do them for ourselves alone. 

Many of us are already doing many of these things on regular days.  Today, though, is Rosh Hashanah.  Commit today to doing more, on those regular days: more volunteering, more learning, more advocating, more connecting.  We can, and we must, live these values, every single day.  Our Jewish values remind us that living Jewishly, doing Jewish things, every single day, is not such a stretch.  We don’t need to wait for extraordinary events to be Jewish.  We don’t need to wait for the next Bar Mitzvah or funeral to come back to synagogue, and we don’t need to wait for Rosh Hashanah 5776 to be Jewish again.  We can be Jewish every single day through the values governing our lives.

The beauty of Judaism is that the ancient rabbis (and before them, of course, the Torah) knew that we need help reminding ourselves that every single day is a chance to be Jewish, that every moment can be something epic, something special, the opportunity for something holy.  In ancient times, that sense was conveyed through sacrifice.  With the destruction of the Temple, though, sacrifice ended, and the ancient rabbis taught us prayer and blessings to mark ordinary time and events and make them holy. 

Every morning, upon waking, we can recite the words of Modeh Ani: Modah ani l’fanecha, Melech chai v’kayam, shehechezarta bi nishmati, b’chemla, rabah emunatecha.  I am grateful before You, living and eternal Sovereign, You returned my soul to me with mercy, great is Your faithfulness.  Many know that we traditionally recite the words of Shema before bedtime.  Starting and ending the day with words of prayer—adding less than 30 seconds to our frazzled routines—certainly reminds us to be Jewish every day.  In between, there are hundreds of other moments when we can connect to God: before we eat, after we eat, when we see beautiful things in nature, when we see a great lake, when we eat again, and yes, when we use the bathroom.  Every one of these blessings, none of which require us to sit in a sanctuary, remind us that these ordinary things we do, every single day, or several times every single day, are Jewish. 

Reciting blessings, though, can become routine.  When we repeat the same words, day after day, we quickly lose the feeling of why they are being said.  Once we make the everyday holy, the holy becomes, well, everyday.  Saying Modeh Ani as the alarm clock goes off is only effective as a way to reframe the day if we remember what it is we are saying.  If the alarm clock goes off and I say ModahAniL’fanechaMelechChaiV’kayamShehechezartaBiNishmatiB’chemlaRabahEmunatecha as I hit the snooze button or fumble for slippers on the floor, I’m not exactly connecting to anything at all.  Instead, I try to sing Modeh Ani to myself in the tune I learned it first: a long, slow melody which I always hear to myself in a deep voice, that of the recording my overnight camp played over camp radio every single morning of my six summers at camp.  The slow chanting in my own head forces me to think about the words as I say them.  Slowing down familiar words prevents us from just going through the motions; it forcing us to listen, forces us to remember to live Jewishly.

Saying a blessing shakes up our routine—and it doesn’t have to be formal words from a prayerbook.  Many of us are doing this already without realizing it.  “God, I hope traffic isn’t bad today.”  “Please God, help me to stay up and study for tomorrow’s exam.”  “Come home safely.”  All prayers; all Jewish.  Let’s not just say these things mindlessly or under our breaths; let’s realize we’re doing it, and do it more.  Let’s try spontaneous prayer not just when we’re frustrated or desperate, but thankful or trying to be more aware.  ‘Thank You, God, for this breakfast I ate this morning; even though it was the same as the breakfast I have eaten every morning for the last 3 and a half weeks, I am so grateful to have healthy food to nourish my body.’  Saying a blessing reminds ourselves that those things we complain about are, perhaps, things for which we can be thankful instead: ‘Thank You, God, for the beauty of the trees beginning to change colors.’  Blessings completely reframe otherwise unpleasant tasks: ‘Thank You, God, for the fact that my daughter’s systems are all working as they should.’  The purpose of blessings is to transform ordinary moments into times of holiness, to remind ourselves that so many of the things we do are, in fact, Jewish.  Reciting and creating blessings reminds ourselves that while we are many things: parents, children, grandparents, siblings; students, teachers; employees, bosses, retirees; teammates, friends; Milwaukeeans, transplants, immigrants; we are also Jews, every single day.

Remembering our Jewish values and saying blessings for those things that are, well, blessings, reminds us to live Jewishly every single day.  And there is still another way to do so, through being who we are.  We can live Jewishly every single day through our culture and identity.  Our Jewish culture is the part that just “feels Jewish,” the part of us that is drawn to bagels and lox, the part that prepares food for twelve when five are coming for dinner, the fact that many of us have a taste for gefilte fish—or else a hatred of even the smell of gefilte fish, but certainly a definite opinion about it.  The Jewish culture part of us is what laughs when matzah is on sale around Rosh Hashanah at the grocery store every year.  The Jewish culture part of us is what’s angry when our secular communities are insensitive or uninformed, planning an important meeting on this holiday, or a charity run on Yom Kippur.  Jewish culture is that nebulous “feeling Jewish.”

Jewish identity reminds us to be proud—and knowledgeable—about who we are.  One of the things we work to impart to our religious school students is a Jewish identity.  When their teachers in public school ask why they were absent today, we want our students to be able to explain what Rosh Hashanah is and why it is important.  When their friends ask why they bring matzah with lunch on Passover, we hope they can explain why.  When they are asked why they are laughing at the matzah that is somehow always on sale for Rosh Hashanah, we hope their Jewish identity allows them to do that, too—albeit in a respectful, kind way, in keeping with Jewish values against shaming others.  We certainly hope adults have a strong Jewish identity as well; I wrote my rabbinic thesis about how Jews by Choice develop a Jewish identity, since much of it for Jews by Birth is wrapped up in Jewish memories and Jewish culture that is as hard to learn as it is to define.  When someone—child or adult—connects a prayer to something in her life, or finds a reading in the prayerbook or a Jewish teaching that reminds him of a class in school or a problem at work, they are remembering to live Jewishly, they are continuing to develop their Jewish identity.  They have learned, in a real sense that most of Judaism happens outside of this room, outside of this building.  And when that student is in school or playing soccer or dancing days later, or when that adult is talking to a colleague or a friend and remembers the connection made between Judaism and life, she is truly living Jewishly.

Drawing on our Jewish identity every day means speaking up.  We need to be proud of who we are, strong enough to say something when someone insults our people, confident enough to answer strangers’ questions about our holidays and customs.  Getting to that point might take the work of some ordinary days—but it’s important to being who we are, every day. 

Abraham and Isaac can be models for living Jewishly every day.  In the words we read this morning, Abraham and Isaac connected to their Judaism through values: Isaac is nothing but respectful towards his father Abraham, even—especially—when things are stressful and confusing.  They model words of blessing: in their time, sacrifice was the main way of showing gratitude to God, but Abraham also offers spontaneous blessing, naming the place on the mountain after his holy experience there.  And they model living their Jewish culture.  Abraham takes his Jewish identity in stride and as part of his life, explaining to his servants that he and his son are going to worship, and then they will return; it is part of who he is, and he does not apologize for it or make excuses for it.  He owns it, and he lives it.

We are Jewish every day, whether or not we remember it or act on it.  These next few weeks are busy with holidays.  We remember to be Jewish as we plan holiday meals, adjust our schedules, fill our calendars.  Afterwards, though, it gets a little harder.  How about . . . October 29? It’s a Wednesday, after all the fall holidays, in the month of Cheshvan, sometimes called Mar-Cheshvan, bitter Cheshvan, because the month contains no holidays other than Shabbat.  It’s harder, then, to remember to be Jewish.  Put it in your calendar that day, and pick a few other days—or put it in as a daily, repeating event: “Do something Jewish.”  I’ll remind you, I’ll challenge all of us to live Jewishly that day and other days, and to share how we are doing so.  It’s up to each one of us to decide how to do that each day—but it’s vital that each one of us tries to do that each day.

In the year that is just beginning, we start with a full three days of holiness: Rosh Hashanah today and tomorrow, leading right into Shabbat.  After this holy beginning, there will be many days that are not so holy, many days when we will miss the inspiration, beauty, and community we find on these holy days.  On those “ordinary” days, may we remember not to wait for the extraordinary to be Jewish.  May we remember to look to our values, our blessings, our culture, to find that even ordinary days and everyday moments are can be holy.  May we remember, every single ordinary day, to do Jewish, to live Jewishly.

Fri, March 31 2023 9 Nisan 5783