• 5781/2020
  • Rabbi Leder
  • Rosh Hashanah

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder


First of all, isn’t this amazing?  All of the rabbis in all of the synagogues all over the world are giving their sermons tonight virtually as we welcome the New Year.  This has resulted in a new pandemic, the largest ever outbreak of artificial insermonation!

Now that you’re done groaning at home, let me ask again, “Isn’t this amazing?”  Who would have thought that the world would change so quickly since we were all together last year in the sanctuary to welcome the New Year?  No in-person services.  No going to the office.  No going to the movies, restaurants, ball games, Shabbat services, weddings, b’nai mitzvah, concerts, vacations, airports, hotels.  The economy contracting, waistlines expanding.  Anxiety up.  Portfolios, down.  Jobs, gone, gains gone, fun gone, hugging gone…and the exhaustion of Zoom, after Zoom, after Zoom, day after day, after day.  So much is gone and so much has changed in what must be the most challenging time many of us have ever lived through.  But is it?

I guess that depends on what you mean by us.   If you mean the Jewish people, anyone with even a 7th grade education knows, despite how bad it is, Covid is far from the worst the Jewish people has seen.  And I am not only talking about the Holocaust, which is obviously the worst.  The Egyptians enslaved us for 400 years.  One of the most moving parts of a traditional Yom Kippur service is the recital of the asara harugei malchut, a treatise on the ten rabbinic leaders martyred by the Romans. The Romans wrapped rabbis in Torah scrolls and set them on fire.  Rabbi Akiva’s skin and flesh was raked from his body by their iron combs.  Our Eastern European ancestors were quarantined in ghettos not for months, not for years, but for centuries, only to be harassed and slaughtered in pogroms, and our Israeli brothers and sisters have survived half a dozen major wars and countless, ruthless terror attacks.   

Think about the list of maladies in the Unetanetokef prayer we will recite tomorrow morning.  “Who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval, who by plague, who by strangling, who by stoning. Who will wander, who will be harried, who will suffer, who will be degraded.”  This prayer was written 1,000 years ago during a time when our ancestors had no reason to believe they wouldn’t suffer a cruel, untimely death.  We are far from the first Jews to face a dangerous, uncertain future.  Through 30 centuries of uncertainty, our ancestors mastered the art of living as Jews. 

We have no control over when there will be a vaccine or whether or not other people upon whom our lives depend will wear masks, distance, wash hands, and stay home when they should.  Despite our early naiveté when we thought stay at home meant stay at home for the next two weeks, most of us now realize we are in for a very long journey with Covid-19 and there is little we can do to change the year ahead of us.  What this means, in the simplest terms, is what the High Holy Days have always meant.  We cannot change what will happen to us, but we can change how we live during what happens.  Having no control over the outer world is not the same thing as being out of control.  The Rosh Hashanah question for 3,000 years has never been how will we change the world, but how we will change ourselves.  That we can control. 

Some of us are old enough to remember the Cold War.  We remember worrying about nuclear annihilation.  We had duck-and-cover drills in school in case the Soviet Union launched nuclear missiles at us hoping to incinerate everything and everyone in a blast the likes of which was unimaginable but real.  How did one live in such a time as that? 

CS Lewis had it right when he wrote “On Living in an Atomic Age” in 1948.  “How are we to live in an atomic age?” he asks.  “It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together.  If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.  They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”

I have been writing a weekly Shabbat message since the pandemic began.  As of the filming of this sermon, I have written twenty one of them.  Twenty-one weeks of trying to make sense of Covid, civil unrest and more from a Jewish perspective.  And of those twenty-one messages, the two that the most people reacted the most to were about the simplest things; the times I reminded everyone that the way to live through this pandemic is not like a whining child asking, “Are we there yet?” and not with anxiety and fear about things over which we have no control, but by a return to the simplest, most basic pleasures and fundamental truths of life. 

I told everyone that when I get depressed or anxious about the future, I rely on four words; the rabbi’s secret formula for pulling himself and you out of the emotional tailspins that seem so much a part of life these days. “Rye toast and butter.”  So many of you responded to that message.  So many people sent loaves of rye bread to our home that Betsy joked I should have written a message about jewelry!  I love rye toast and butter. I have it for breakfast nearly every morning. The crispy, slightly sour crunch softened just a touch by warm, melted butter--the utter simplicity of it is its own pristine, perfect beauty.  It reminds me that while so much has been taken away, I have so many simple things to be grateful for.  Judaism sanctifies the mundane.  We could all do well to count our daily blessings in the coming year of uncertainty.    

Besides the rye toast and butter message, the other that received the most attention and posts on Facebook and Instagram all over the world was about our Leder family Shabbat dinner ritual.  Since Aaron and Hannah were small children until this very day, each Friday night after we light candles and before we sing Kiddush, we each take a turn to share the best thing that happened to us during the past week.  On the Friday I wrote that message I wasn’t sure if, when it was my turn, I would mention how beautiful I thought Betsy looked the previous day when she was at her desk upstairs, painting a picture of a yellow bowl and a purple onion on a blue plate as the sunlight streamed through the window behind her; thirty-five years and she still takes my breath away. Or maybe it would be the drive home with Aaron from Joshua Tree, playing music, not saying much of anything at all; just two dudes on the road…  Of course, there was that moment the same week when Hannah dropped by; walking in the front door as I was walking out for a very difficult funeral. “I love you so much Daddy,” she said, kissing me on the cheek.   

The wisest thing I have ever heard about the Bernie Madoff scandal was said by an elderly Los Angeles Jew who lost tens of millions of dollars—wiped out.  “You know,” he said, “Fifty years ago I started out with my wife in a one-bedroom apartment in the Valley and we were very happy together.  If I end my life with my wife by my side in a one-bedroom apartment in the Valley, we will still be very happy together.”  To be a Jew is to make a conscious, daily choice to seek and celebrate the simple and the good, come what may.

You would think that Yom Kippur would come before Rosh Hashanah, that we would atone for the past by painfully admitting our mistakes, seeking forgiveness and only then, with a clean slate, would we begin the New Year.  But instead we affirm the future on Rosh Hashanah, and then we atone for the past on Yom Kippur.  For us, the good, the hopeful, and the happy come first because we are a people of hope.  Without hope there would be no Judaism, no Exodus, no Torah, no Talmud, no Holocaust survivors, no State of Israel.

So what will it be for you? That is the Rosh Hashanah question.  What will it be in the coming year amidst the terrible news and uncertainty?  What light, what joy, what tiny, precious, hopeful moments will you cherish? What quiet miracles will you embrace?  What blessings will you count in what we affirm with faith in the future, will truly and surely be a Shana tova?