Rosh Hashanah 5779 Day 1 Sermon

 Shannah Tovah!

Imagine yourself walking down the path of your life.  Many other people are walking on what seems to be the same road.  The more you watch, the more you discover that the road may be the same, but each person walks differently.

Some sing and swing their hands as they hike.  Some carry heavy packs and troubled faces.  Some hike alone; others hike with a partner.  Some organize many hikers together.  And some pause to sit by the roadside while others rush along.

You come to a place where a boulder blocks the roadway.  Being a student of human nature, you watch as different people approach the boulder.  Many come finely dressed as merchants, doctors, lawyers, and government officials.  Encountering the boulder, they choose to squeeze past it, leaving it there blocking the roadway.  Others in blue jeans and tie-dyed shirts, in khaki and scrubs, study the boulder and pause to curse the king for not keeping the roadway clear.  But they, too, do not lift a hand to move the boulder.

Along comes a farmer.  He is carrying a heavy load of vegetables to the market.  He sees the boulder, sets down his load, and with great effort, he pushes and slides the boulder off the road.  (Three Times Chai, Laney Katz-Becker)

You do not need me to tell you today that there are many boulders in the road.  You know that.  You watch the news, just as I do.  You listen to the radio, just as I do.  You read the same newspapers that I do.  We exist in the same world together.  You know the boulders that exist –each and every one of them.

Today is not about the specific boulders.  It is about what we do when we encounter these boulders in our lives.  Do we quickly turn away, pretending that we didn’t see anything, do we simply gaze at the boulder with no intent to move it?

Or do we do something different?  I want to suggest a different possibility of a course of action.  The idea of witnessing –a somewhat new concept, that has been trending in the social action movements and grass roots movements.  It is a phrase that we have started to hear more and more.  Do we become involved in the narrative, or more precisely do we serve as a witness –intentionally looking with the express goal of emotional attachment and involvement?

In Judaism, witnesses are important.  A witness is called an eyd.  Perhaps you are most familiar with the notion of witnesses in Judaism from the wedding ceremony.  Two witnesses are required for a wedding in Judaism.  Those two witnesses sign their name to the ketubah to verify that they were in fact witnesses under the chupah.  According to Jewish law, without those two witnesses, the marriage is not validated.  In truth, two people can acknowledge that they stood under the chuppah together with the intention of becoming married and all was properly carried out, but they are not married without the presence of the two witnesses.  The presence of those witnesses transforms the single individual into a married couple.

Often when we talk about a wedding ceremony and the witnesses involved the power of their presence is missed.  Think about it with me for a moment: without those two witnesses, according to our ancient sources, the wedding is not solidified.

Witnesses transform the lives of those whom they stand before by their very presence.  In this case, they transform people from single to married.  By being present in that holy moment, a witness creates a new reality.

A spectator looks on and watches the world go by.  A witness changes the world.  Presence transforms the world.  The power of being is of absolute consequence.

The holy prophet Isaiah understood the power of being a witness.  In a moving passage Isaiah teaches:

My witnesses are you –declares the Lord.

My servant, whom I have chosen.  To the end that you may take thought, And believe in Me, And understand that I am He:  . .  .So you are my witness –declares the Lord—and I am God.

Atem aaday hashem . . . you are God’s witness  (Isiah 43:10-2)

According to Isaiah –we –you and I –are God’s witness. 

It means that you and I, through our actions and existence in this world, attest to God’s reality.  Through our commitment to living out our lives in a meaningful way and our commitment to Torah, according to Isaiah, we make God, God.  We attest to God’s godliness through the way we live our lives each and every day.  Daily, we have the chance to impact reality as each and every day we serve as a witness for God and sanctify him through our deeds.  Being a witness at a wedding is powerful . . . being a witness for God is of ultimate responsibility.

Rabbi Noah Farkas, a contemporary of mine, taught:

. . . our tradition forbids us to pray in a room without windows. We must be able to look outside and see the hour, including the pressing hour, the sha’a dakhaq, upon which our world is squeezed ever more presently  (Jewish Journal June 2017)

The window is right behind me.  As you look out the window and are struck by the grandeur of the magnificent and transfixing view that we are privy to each time we are in the sanctuary . . . you can’t help but notice the Torahs . . . and see them floating in the sky or on the mountains.

How we look at the world and how we interact in the world is always guided by Torah.  It sets our moral compass and steers us in the right direction.

As Rabbi Sharon Brous, another contemporary of mine taught:

Why do we unroll the sefer Torah and parade around the sanctuary every week, reciting these words and repeating these stories? For nostalgia sake? To recall old family tales?

We read these sacred narratives to discern what it means to be Moses, Aaron and Miriam in a world of Pharaohs. What it means to be Tamar, when you are invisibilized by a misogynistic legal system that undermines your very humanity. How to hold grief and anguish, like Hannah; how to fight back against injustice like Abraham, even when you are but dust and ashes.

Throughout the Torah and the Prophets, God’s central preoccupation is the treatment of the poor and most vulnerable; it is honesty in business transactions and fairness in judgment. “The predominant feature of the biblical pattern of life,” according to Heschel, “is unassuming, unheroic, inconspicuous piety, the sanctification of trifles, attentiveness to details.”  (Jewish Journal July 2017)

The Torah, God, reminds us –demands for us– to pursue justice in the world we live in, to bear witness for those around us.  Over and over again, the Torah reminds us that we were strangers in a foreign land and we must remember that experience.  We are commanded to never oppress the widow, the stranger, or the orphan.  We are obligated to be honest in our business dealings.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Never put a stumbling block before the blind and certainly don’t curse the deaf.  How we behave in the world each and every day is of prime importance and of ultimate consequence.

We can look out the window behind me and gaze at the view and enjoy it.  It is breathtaking.  But we cannot and must not stop there.  What do you see when you look out the window –when you really look?  What are the boulders that you see lying in the road?  There are so many boulders in our world right now. 

Once you start walking in the world that you have been gazing at through the window, what are you going to do when you get to that boulder?  Are you going to ignore it, are you going to curse the king, or will you move it like the farmer did?

Maybe you have been the way that I have been for too long . . . maybe you have been squeezing by the boulder, just as I have been.  Perhaps we have been squeezing by the boulder not for a lack of care or desire or even interest . . . not because we didn’t care about the next person walking down the road, but because it was easier.  Because we didn’t have time.  We didn’t make the time, it took more effort than we were willing to expend.  But if I –if we all –keep squeezing by, that will be awful it will be truly destructive.  The world we live in demands that we stop squeezing by and that we move the boulder.

The rabbis teach in Pirkei Avot:  “You are not obliged to finish the task, neither are you free to neglect it.”  (Pireki Avot Chapter 2:21).

Let’s start the task together . . . because we must stop watching from a distance and we cannot ignore what lies right in front of us.  Let’s move the boulders together; stop being spectators of the world going by us and be true witnesses.

This summer, Cantor Sokoloff, I, and a few members of the synagogue along with members of other synagogues and churches of the Pascack Valley gathered to bear witnesses.  We gathered to hear the story of immigrants, to hear about their journey to this country and the struggles and fears that they have.  We stood witness to their stories.  Through our presence, we told them that we care for them, we hear their story and suffering . . .

Our synagogue was fortunate enough to participate in the Tri-State Jewish Network for Refugee Support, co-founded by one of our congregants this past summer.  We sent much needed shoes to a refugee community in upstate New York, ensuring that the children in that community can go to school with a pair of shoes, something we take for granted.

We complemented the shoe collection on Selichot, with a book drive initiated and overseen by one of our congregants to send to the community.  We collected hundreds of children’s books and penned personal notes encouraging reading and a connection.  Literacy is of prime importance . . . and a book is truly one of the greatest gifts we can give to a child.  And a handwritten note from a stranger . . . from someone who says welcome to this country, we are glad you are here . . . enjoy this book in your new home.

Through these actions these immigrants are recognized.  Our gifts are essential not only because they are much needed items, but these gifts assure them that they are not alone in this world.  They are seen, they are heard, wanted, and we are walking with them.

At the end of August, we once again ran the shelter for Family Promise.  We provided home cooked meals, companionship, and security for families in need.  Our presence meant more to those families than you will ever imagine.  Our presence –our companionship and hospitality –told them that we see them.  It gave visibility to those that feel invisible and we recognized their struggles and hardship .  . . and we helped to change their reality.

This past April, we marched form Dorchester Elementary School to the synagogue in honor of the victims of the Parkland shooting.  We remembered Alyssa Alhadeff and all of the Parkland victims.  More than that we, and in particular, our teenagers spoke powerfully out about the world that we live in.  They spoke about their fears of their school being the next story in the news.  Our feet were praying two by two.

We will walk for the Crop Walk in mid-October.  Our feet will be praying as we declare our investment in ensuring nobody goes hungry.

There are so many boulders in the road.  But we can move them together.  This is just the beginning.

Over the summer, a small group of us began meeting to form a Social Action Committee for the synagogue.  It is a group of people who have been looking out the window and are done gazing and are ready to be intimately connected with the world around us.  The world that needs our help.  Join me in these efforts, join the social action committee that will begin meeting in the fall, e-mail me about a topic that interests you.  Find an issue that speaks to you and join the cause.  Connect to HIAS, the ADL, RAC.  Learn more about the organizations I just mentioned because maybe it is the first time you have heard some of those names.

Vote in the mid-term elections.  Your vote matters.  Your showing up to the polls speaks volumes.  Make your voice heard and your presence will shape the future.  Move the boulder off the road for the others who follow after you.

After moving the boulder, as the farmer picks up his load of vegetables, the farmer notices something on the roadway where the boulder had been.  It is a purse.  He opens it and, wonder of wonder, it is full of gold coins, and there is a paper in the purse with writing on it.  Now the farmer looks up at you, approaches you, and hands you the note.  By the way he shrugs his shoulder, you know he cannot read.  So you read the note to him:

The gold in this purse belongs to you.  It is a gift from your king.  I placed the boulder to block this road as a test.  Many will pass the boulder and ignore it, but someone will say, “if this boulder is an obstacle to me, then it is an obstacle for others too.”  Someone will be kind enough to move the boulder aside.  And the person who reaches out to help others, that is the person who will be rewarded.  The gold in this purse is your reward.  (Three Times Chai, Laney Katz-Becker)

Today, the King –HaMelech, Aveninu Malkeinu –God –calls on us to not walk past the boulders but rather to be God’s partner—God’s witness– in clearing the path. . .for ourselves and for others, not because of the gold reward that awaits us, but because of the just and ethical world that we can and must create for ourselves and for future generations.