Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon




SEPTEMBER 20, 2017

Rabbi Jon Adland

            Let me be honest right from the beginning, I have never been as nervous about the High Holy Days as I am this year.  Since I was ordained in 1982 and ascended the bimah of my first congregation as an assistant rabbi, I have led High Holy Day services from the red Gates of Repentance.  Not any Gates of Repentance, but I have used the exact same book all those years.  I’ve numbered in English and Hebrew the year we are currently in.  I’ve added and erased cues for music depending on which congregation I served.  There are notes and erased notes.  Names of readers and erased names.  Post its and more post its.  Paperclips holding extra readings.  The Donkey Story at the end.  I knew what to expect when I turned each page.  I knew what to read and what to skip.  I knew how long each service was and what time we’d let out.  Though I was becoming more uncomfortable with the aging language and themes and content of Gates of Repentance, the idea of moving to something new at this stage of my career frightened me.  Why in the world would I want to do this and why take the risk?  Why would I want this responsibility?  The old was so comfortable, like a well-worn pair of shoes.  The new presented risks.  In the end, the answer to all my questions and the calming breeze to the nervous storm inside me is in the mahzor itself.  It is in the prayers, the readings, the notes, the language, and the incredible vision of the editors to make the High Holy Days meaningful to each and every one of us.

            Mishkan Hanefesh, The Tabernacle of the Soul, the book you are holding in your lap right now, was written and edited by rabbis and cantors over the last several years.  Drafts were field tested.  Reviews and comments were processed to refine, enhance, upgrade, and improve the original drafts.  Finally, the book was published and first used in 2015 to rave reviews by rabbis and congregants across the country.  So, kicking and screaming after the 2015 holy days I ordered a set—the volume you are holding is for Rosh Hashanah with a different volume for Yom Kippur that you will see next week—and began to page through it.  I would read a prayer here and a reading there.  I looked at the footnotes and teaching sections.  In the end, my worst nightmare was confirmed—this book was really good and I needed to bring a taste of this awesome mahzor to Temple Israel.  Last year, through some supplements, I shared a bit of Mishkan Hanefesh with you and you liked it.  So here we are today with a new book and a very nervous rabbi.  I really have no idea whether all of you will like this change.  I have no idea whether I’ve made the right choices of what to read.  I have no idea if I’ve made the service too long for which I will get complaints or too short for which I will get no complaints.

            Change is never easy.  I remember how people felt when we moved from the Union Prayer Book to the Gates of Prayer and the Gates of Repentance.  People complained that there was too much Hebrew, no consistency from week to week, the language wasn’t as magnificent, or the UPB was just so easy to hold.  These complaints were valid, but we humans tend to go kicking and screaming into innovation or progress or change.  Why change when the way we did things worked just fine?  Who needed planes when trains got us to where we wanted to go?  Who needed horseless carriages when carriages with horses were just fine?  Who needs to carry a phone everywhere we go when the one with the cord was just fine? Every generation has improved on what was to what is.  I won’t even discuss natural gas versus coal versus solar and wind—maybe another sermon at another time.

            Judaism changes too.  It has never been stagnant responding to modernity whenever and wherever and whatever modernity was at the time.  We moved from a cult run by priests with sacrifices to a synagogue of prayer and rabbis.  We learned how to live as Jews away from Israel.  We adapted our holidays to the places we were living.  We’ve adjusted to changes in technology.  We’ve created movements more attuned to modernity.  We stream our services to those unable to join us.

            Innovating our prayers to reflect Reform Judaism in the 21st Century is a part of being a Reform Jew.  Reform Judaism is not stagnant nor was it ever meant to be.  Reform Judaism has always changed.  Our prayers in the “old” UPB changed from edition to edition though the changes were more subtle.  Over the last forty years, Reform Jewish change has quickened, but so has the pace of change everywhere.  As human beings in the modern technological age, we are changing rapidly and adapting quickly to new ideas and concepts.  Sometimes it is exhausting.  Sometimes when we come to Temple, we don’t want this to be a place of change, but rather consistency with the past.  Reform is a verb not an adjective.  Change is part of who we are.

            I would argue that responding to change in our spiritual lives is just as important as responding to change in the secular world.  The editors of our new mahzor wrote the following:

Twenty-first century life in America offers many blessings, especially in the field of technology.  Nevertheless, the ability to do more without a value-laden context is frightening.  Some fear we are turning ourselves into something akin to the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  Edna St. Vincent Millay was prophetic when she wrote in 1939:

Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,

Rains from the sky a meteoric shower

Of facts…they lie unquestioned, uncombined.

Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill

Is daily spun, but there exists no loom

To weave it unto fabric…

In short, we post-moderns need a corrective, “a reset” that centers us in a context of what matters most.  Life, many of us deem, is a problem.  Jewish text and tradition—present as a meaning, relevant High Holy Day experience—can be a captivating and vital solution.

            Before we proceed any further into our worship this evening, I want to introduce you more formally to this mahzor so that you can truly inhale this beautifully written liturgical gem of an experience.  This mahzor was designed as a sacred tool for exciting and transformative worship on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  The book seeks to meet you where you are, present diverse views of God with a respectful yet fresh approach to tradition.

            The mahzor is framed in the following four ways:

  1. An unwavering commitment to the equality of men and women;
  2. Attention paid to the present day concerns, fears, and hopes of the people who will pray from these pages;
  3. Fidelity to the ethical dimension of Judaism; embracing of the universal and the particular;
  4. An effort to deal with the tension between the historical theology of the High Holy Days (God’s sovereignty and judgment) and more contemporary beliefs, such as the “theology of human adequacy.”

Before I go any further, let me just explain how this book works so as we move through the holy days you can maximize your experience.  Like our Shabbat siddur—Mishkan Tefillah—Mishkan Hanefesh uses a two-page spread most of the time.  The right side reflects a more traditional rendering and the left side a more creative theological approach.  I’ve tried to balance using the left side and right side through our special days.  I will be announcing a lot of page turning and place location, but if I don’t, then it means to just turn the page or look at the left side.  Sometimes the book moves to a linear approach without the two-page spread.  To help identify the more creative readings, they are shaded with gray background.

            There are many notes at the bottom of the page and I urge you to take the time to read and explore these.  If you don’t keep up at times with everyone else, I will be announcing enough page numbers that you can get back in sync.  The notes at the bottom help you understand so much about our High Holy Day liturgy.  It is worth the time.

            There will be times when I skip sections.  The book is not designed to use as is, but for the leader to make choices and I’ve made lots of choices.   In the past we’ve done the three parts of the shofar service as one long section.  This book breaks them into three parts to be read at three different times.  On the advice of many rabbis, I’ve decided to bring them together as one. 

            There are many study sections.  Feel free to read and explore them.

            Responsive readings are not indicated by italics, but will be announced by me as are the sections we read together.

            Finally, you will notice the most dramatic editing on Yom Kippur in the afternoon.  If we tried to do it all, we’d be here until Simchat Torah.

            Before the mahzor was created, a vision statement was written to help guide the editors.  The text of this statement is too long to share, but let me share three primary aspects of this vision.

             First, “T’shuvah—repentance—is the chief goal of the Yamim Noraim—Days of Awe—and a mahzor is our indispensable manual and guide.  What do we hope for worshippers to have realized by the end of Neilah?  How will their lives have changed?  What will be different?”

            Second, the vision reads, “We seek metaphors and images of God that will speak to our time, as the prayers of Union Prayer Book II and Gates of Repentance spoke with depth and authenticity to theirs.”  The commentary on this statement reads, “Somewhere, a more traditional theology of hierarchy has to be offered if we are to be true to the essential message and tone of these days.  Therefore, we know that the greatest challenge of the book most likely will be how to reflect this tradition, while at the same time not turning off all those who cannot reconcile such views with the God in which they want to believe.”

            And third, “Most important to our work are the people for whom this book is intended: the members of a dynamic, ever-changing and diverse Reform Movement who gather in community to experience awe and forgiveness and hope.”  We are a diverse group.  We come from Judaisms across the spectrum.  Some of us had an Orthodox upbring and some a Reform and some came from Jewish families without any participation in Jewish life.  Some here this evening chose Judaism as a way of life.  Some here this evening are not yet Jewish and some here this evening are not Jewish. This book can speak to everyone.  And while I make the choices of what to read, you have the choice to be an active or passive participant.  You can just go with the flow by listening when it is time to listen and reading when it is time to read without any significant engagement.  Or you can actively dive into this book and transform these Yamim Noraim into a deeply meaningful and spiritual experience.  I can’t do your t’shuvah.  This is up to you.  But we can walk these days together.  We can support each other’s journey and embrace each other’s experience. 

            Yes, I am nervous about these holy days.  I strive to make them meaningful for you and me.  I put extra effort into the sermons.  I love the fact that we have Hebrew and English readers.  It is uplifting to see that many of our members come to be a part of a holy day experience and that so many of you are here at every worship opportunity.  I am always hopeful that your being here will inspire you to dig deeper into your Judaism and Jewish life and Jewish soul.  I don’t want this new mahzor to be an impediment.  Open your heart and soul to the prayers and readings I’ve chosen and if it doesn’t speak to you, look elsewhere on the page. Open your heart and soul to the meaning and depth and purpose of these holy days: t’shuvah—repentance and cheshbon Hanefesh—an accounting of your soul should be the primary focus.  My nervous hope is that when these days of introspection are ended, my nervousness will be dispelled.  You will understand why I saw in Mishkan Hanefesh, the moment I opened the book and started reading, the greatest possibility for renewal on these holy days through words we are about to read and experience.

            May God grant us a meaningful journey with Avinu Malkeinu and may our prayers ascend to heaven, our hearts fill with joy, and our hands find direction in redemption.

Kein yehi ratzon—may this be God’s will.