Ist Day Rosh Hashanah Address 5777/2016 by Sarah Goodman
According to the Mishnah, “On Rosh Hashanah all the inhabitants of the world pass before his presence like legions on review”. Today we see ourselves as standing before the throne of God, where the Book of Life lies open, and we hope to be inscribed in it.
Today’s service is the longest in the Jewish annual calendar. I want in this talk to unpick some of what the late Raphael Lowe called the “machinery of religion – liturgy, ceremonial, and their associated culture pattern”.
Whether we come to shul every week or twice a year, whether we pray daily or not at all, the synagogue service provides a structure and space, freed for an hour or two from daily cares, within which to contemplate big ideas: love, truth, life, death.
We sit with people pf all ages and many walks of life, blowing ram’s horns and singing of the or of the orders of angels; a magical juxtaposition of the prosaic and the spiritual, conducive to contemplation.
The musaph (additional service) of rosh Hashanah starts and ends in a familiar way. Inserted within it is the tripartite third century composition of Rab, with its section on Malkutioth – Kingship, Zikroniot – Remembering – and Shofarot – Trumpet calls. Each of the three sections recites ten proof texts of its theme, Biblical quotes. Our Bible is called Tanach – the word is an acronym for Torah, Neviim and Ketuvim – the five books of the law, the books of the prophets, and the other writings. For each of the three sections of the Musaph prayer there are three texts from Torah, three from the prophets, and three from the other writings – mostly from the psalms. The tenth in each section, within or just before the blessing, returns to Torah. There is a lot in these texts, and the message is complex, but cumulatively they tell us what the day is about: that God rules the whole earth, that nothing is forgotten or can be concealed from his eyes, that the trumpets sounded on Sinai, and will sound on the day of judgment.
As we repeat the musaph prayer as a congregation, between each of the three sections we sing “This is the day in which the world came into existence, and on this day all creatures of the world stand in judgment, either as children or as servants. If we are children, then have mercy on us as a father has compassion for his children, and if we are servants – we are hanging with our eyes on you, until you are gracious to us and bring forth our judgment into light”.
We don’t talk much about masters and servants these days. Except for civil servants, we are employers and employees, and even the self-employed, technically their own masters, must meet the exacting market demands of clients and customers and competitors. In current employment practice, most employees face in some degree the terrifying process of annual performance appraisal, when we are challenged to report our efforts and achievements in the past year, and then face a painful discussion with a manager of whether he or she agrees with our assessment, resulting in a mark that remains on the record and may lead to pay rise and bonus, or performance management and worse.
On Rosh Hashanah we are called to assess how our souls are doing, measured against the job description that is the Torah, for review by the Almighty who sees into our inmost hearts, better evidence of our shortcomings even than the CCTV, the dashcam, the phone records, and the incautious emails that show us up. When we face the Almighty, we live our lives on the open plan; in other areas of life we may be tempted to do what we can get away with – not here.
Uncertain whether we are being judged as employees or as children, and fearing it may be as employees, no wonder we hang on him with our eyes, breathlessly hoping not to be condemned, cautiously reminding him of the saving of Noah – that at a time when the Almighty was exasperated by the recalcitrance of mankind and planning to drown the lot, he remembered the righteous.
In the alternative to the stern impartiality of an all-seeing employer’s view, we hope to be treated as children. The scripture readings for Rosh Hashanah are about the love of women for children: Sarah laughing in joy and disbelief on learning she is to be a first time mother in old age, Hagar moving away from Ishmael, unable to watch him dying of thirst in the pitiless sun, Hannah praying so fervently for a child that she was rebuked for coming to the Temple drunk, in tomorrow’s haftarah, Rachel weeping for her children, and Ephraim being God’s dear child. Isaiah, in the haftarah for Rosh Chodesh, spoke of the Almighty comforting Israel as a mother comforting her children.
Then there is the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, a difficult story (and Clive this morning gave us one instructive insight) that might be read as about how Abraham, called by God from Ur, and with no tradition or teaching behind him, was trying to work out what kind of relationship they should have, and learned most painfully that it was not one involving child sacrifice.
We hope for a relationship with God in which he will show all the passion and commitment of a parent for children, the patience and forgiveness, but we are not sure if we can presume to rely on it.
Rosh Hashanah falls in the seventh month, Tishrei: we know that on the return from exile in Babylon the book of the law was read to the people on the first day of the seventh month by the scribe Ezra, who according to Nehemiah, “read distinctly and gave them the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.” When they heard it they wept: perhaps they recognised how very far they fell short. They were reassured: to rejoice that the day was holy and that they understood the commandments.
Earlier in the Amidah prayer, looking forward to the end of days, when the upright shall be glad and the righteous exult in song, it is of note that we do not go on to pray for the destruction of the wicked, but that “all wickedness shall vanish in smoke”, the point being that we should hate the sin and not the sinner, a distinction made, by tradition, by Bruriah, the wife of rabbi Meir. Parents above all know how important it is that children do not come to believe that they are naughty, but that what they did was naughty, or they will never believe that they are capable of better. We hope that our many shortcomings are treated by Him as a parent - one who wants us to live, and do better.
We are judged every day, and the wise reflect on this each day. For now we are called by the shofar - that raw and primitive noise, a call to arms, signal of attack and of last things - to start ten days of asking ourselves how we will be remembered, how we would write our own obituaries; to think if we have fences to mend with other people as well as the almighty, and to ask them and Him for forgiveness. In the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.