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Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779: On the need to be open to being surprised by yourself, others and Judaism.

I want to encourage each of us, tonight, to find an openness that allows us to be surprised and moved. Be surprised again by other people; be surprised by yourself; be surprised by Judaism; make this a community which finds collective power in personal uncertainty. We can cultivate such an openness now.

What is the process that is happening right now, on Rosh Hashanah, that requires us to take part in it? Tomorrow when we sing the great Unetaneh Tokef we will declare an 1800 year old line from the Mishnah:

.בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה כָּל בָּאֵי הָעוֹלָם עוֹבְרִין לְפָנָיו כִּבְנֵי מָרוֹן
On Rosh Hashanah all who enter the world [that’s you and me!] pass before Him [presumably the Almighty], like Kivnei Maron.

We are all invited now to actively, personally, pass before Ultimacy like b’nei Maron. The problem is we do not know what b’nei Maron are! It’s an unusual term. The majority voice of the Talmud and the translators of our prayer book say that we pass like sheep, and that the Shepherd knows and cares for each creature. Another voice in the Talmud, Reish Lakish, says that Maron refers to a hill that was extremely narrow, at its top; so each of us can choose to journey to a place, amongst this multitude, in which we are seen personally and closely. However, manuscript editions suggest that actually we pass before the Ultimate like Numeron, a Roman military legion.  Yet this simile is paradoxical: we all gather here, stronger in attendance than normal, showing our communal power; and yet we are seen, one by one, and it is not our outward strength or military garb that our Commander looks for, but our inner sensitivities and memories, and the dignity of our acts. 

What are we doing here on Rosh Hashanah? We are taking the invitation to internally journey, to pass. We are renewing a community which is powerful when it stirs and the interiority of every individual. This year and this community will be as strong as your own openness, and your willingness to coax others into openness too. I can prompt, but what is important, now, is within you, and between you. Over this week we catch up with people in shul who you have not seen for months, and we catch up with ourselves. We know that many carry secret sorrows inside; and we must be sensitive enough to allow both privateness and openness. With ourselves too, we are open to being surprised by what will arise, without forcing pain.

It is a privilege in this community to be surprised and moved by others, and, in these moments, to be surprised by myself too. A man who has suffered recent falls, sits in front of me in hospital. He seems unflustered by recent frustrations, but is on the edge of tears when he shares how he liberated Bergen-Belsen. He is far too appreciative of my visit. Somebody shares how this building reminds them of those they love and miss; and they are far too apologetic for crying. The moments are endless, and it’s a privilege to sit in front of people who share their insides, and surprise and move us both. We know that others are full of depths, of longings, and aspirations. We know that the questions: "What do you enjoy?", "Who do you want to be?", "Who do you love?" can bear such fruit. So let us find time, one-to-one, with those we could get to know. Let us find time and openness with those closest to us; so that our familiarity fosters greater openness, and mutual surprise, rather than crankiness and neglect. 

Furthermore, when we know that everyone else is unique, and surprising and talented: can we each please remember that you are surprising too; that you carry within you profound memories, and noble loves; that you are capable of changing, and living out your values in any moment. That you are of infinite and unique value. This Rosh Hashanah, on the birthday of humanity, we can look at ourselves with love. We can do a heshbon ha’nefesh, an examination of our souls, or ourselves, noting and sharing: what we are proud of; what moments have moved us; what we would like to do more of.

Judaism is a key that moves and opens people. Somebody at Kiddush tells me of how they will always remember a parent saying Adon Olam to them as they go to sleep; somebody shares, in a gathering at the synagogue, that the line “may the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight” almost moves them to tears, every time. Somebody concerned for their health asks for a psalm to help focus and draw out what’s inside. A young visitor lets go emotionally as they reflect on how they work so hard, and coming here on Shabbat allows them to breath and grow - to survive really. People at gatherings, when I ask what brings them here, reflect on sitting with their parents at shul, perhaps twizzling the tassles on a parent’s talit; and they feel something, beyond nostagia, when they sit with their children, or with their memories. At learning gatherings over a meal, members learn across generations, and ask: how can this line be so severe? How can we reinterpret it? How can we learn from it? 


Sun, 4 December 2022 10 Kislev 5783