BS"D || Rabbi Geier
Rosh haShanah 5783
What drives us to celebrate Rosh haShanah again? It is not something like the civil New Year. Or, maybe, yes. Many people only meet with family and friends. Not everyone comes to the house like you.
But Rosh haShanah is more than just dinner. It is more than just a family reunion. It is coming together to restart.
And after another year of violence in this and other countries, of attacks, missiles, wars and concerns about insecurity; setbacks in the private and public rights of women here in America, economic crises in various countries, we return to a different liturgy in our New Year.
There is a note of universality in the prayers of Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur that we do not find in other holidays. In other holidays, the key section of the Amidah begins “Atah vachartanu mikol haamim”, “You chose us among all nations.” The emphasis is on Jewish uniqueness. In the Yamim Noraim, the parallel prayer begins: “And so put the fear of the Lord our God, above all that you have done... so that all creation may worship you.” The emphasis is on human solidarity. And human solidarity is what the world needs right now.
A message resonates through these days: life. “Remember us for life, King who delights in life, and write us in the book of life for love of you, God of life.” We sometimes forget how radical this was when Judaism first entered the world. Many old civilizations danced their lives around death. Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians and other peoples—most of the peoples of the reagion had that inclination.
Anthropologists and social psychologists still argue today that the reason religion exists is because of people’s fear of death. This idea makes it even more remarkable that, despite our total and profound belief in olam haba and techiyat hametim, life after death and the resurrection of the dead, there is hardly any of this in the books of the Bible. It is an amazing phenomenon. All of Kohelet’s cynicism and Job’s protests against injustice could have been answered in one sentence: “There is life after death.” However, none of the books say so explicitly. On the contrary, King David said in a psalm that we say daily: “What good is it to me if I die and go down to the grave? Can the dust thank You? Can it state ¥our truth?”
Near the end of his life, Moses turned to the next generation and said: “Choose life, that you and your children may live.” We take this for granted, forgetting how relatively rare this is in the history of religion.
Why so? Why, if we believe that the soul is immortal, that there is life after death and that this world is not all there is, why don’t we say it more often and louder? Because ever since civilization began, heaven has too often been used as an excuse for injustice and violence here on Earth. What evil wouldn’t you commit if you believed that you will be rewarded in the world to come? That is the logic of the terrorist and the suicide bomber. It is the logic of those who burned “heretics” in order to, as they said, save their immortal souls.
Against this horrible mentality, the whole of Judaism is a protest. Justice and compassion must be fought for in this life, not the next. Judaism is not directed at the fear of death. It is directed at a far more dangerous fear: the fear of life with all its pain, disappointment and unpredictability. It is the fear of life, not the fear of death, that has led people to create totalitarian states and fundamentalist religions. Fear of life is ultimately fear of freedom—and this is why the fear of life takes the form of an attack on freedom.
Against that fear we include in these days a psalm that says: “The Lord is my light and my salvation. Who then shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life. Of whom then shall I be afraid?” On Rosh haShanah we blow the shofar, the only mitzvah we perform with the breath of life itself without the need for words. On the first day of Rosh haShanah, the “anniversary of creation,” we read both in the Torah and Haftarah not about the birth of the universe, but about the birth of Yitzchak to Sarah and of Shmuel to Hannah, as if to say, one life is like a universe. A child is enough to show how vulnerable life is: a miracle to be protected and appreciated. On Yom Kippur, we wear the kittel, a shroud, as if to show that we are not afraid of death.
Today it is not only Israel or the Jews whose freedom is in danger. It’s all of the Middle East, much of Africa and Asia, much of Europe, and each country in which we can find intolerance and violent discrimination. Therefore, let us approach the New Year with a true sense of human solidarity. Let us demonstrate, with the way we celebrate our faith, that God is found in life. The love of God is love of life. Let us take seriously King David’s insistence that faith is stronger than fear. No empire has ever defeated the Jewish people and no force ever will. May God write us, our families, the people and State of Israel and the Jews of the whole world in the Book of Life. And may the day come when the righteous of all nations work together for the sake of freedom, peace and life.
LeShana Tovah tikatevu vetechatemu.
May we all be inscribed and sealed for a good year.