Thanks again for all who joined me for the last two years of writing on the weekly Torah portion, and welcome to new readers. It’s been a wonderful experience, honestly, and I hope to keep it up! I’ve started working on the book based on these writings. Stay tuned and Shanah Tovah! – RNF
As I look out my window I see a world that feels like chaos. There are fires raging in the West, hurricanes pounding the South and everywhere in between is beset by both violence and plague. Life can feel hopeless and dark, full of fear and dread. So much has changed this year for so many. Millions of us are out of work or are underemployed. Millions more are separated from our families and feel like we are missing out on life’s greatest moments because we just can’t be together. It’s enough to make the heavens tremble.
In the book of Proverbs it says, B’rov Am Hadrat HaMelech, “In the vast multitude of the people, the Ruler is beautified. (Prov. 14:28) A phrase that has come to be connected to the High Holy Days because when the nation comes for its annual ingathering, we can feel the majesty of the New Year, hear the shofar, and proclaim the beauty of faith. (Talmud Rosh Hashanah 32b) For many, going to temple or shul isn’t about faith, but about the people, a chance to check in with Jewish family and friends, to see how the kids have grown. It’s a time to see who is still with us, and who has moved away, who was born into the community and who has passed away. The beauty of the Sublime, in the Jewish mind, has always been in the collective of our story.
Yet for the first time in history, Jews across the globe won’t be going to synagogue en masse for the holiday. I walked the halls of Valley Beth Shalom to see rooms normally teeming with people putting out rows and rows of chairs, packing bags, setting out prayer books and polishing silver now standing quiet and dark. I am, for the first time, startled by the end of the proverb, for it says, “Without a nation, a ruler is ruined.” (Prov. 14:28) The rabbis always leave this part out when explaining the verse, but this year we can’t ignore it.
A king without a nation is nothing, and God without us feels like nothing. How do we bring beauty back? I know that through the wonder of technology, those who feel comfortable can experience some sense of togetherness. My beloved congregation has been able to share extremely meaningful online experiences, including seders, services, teachings, and much more that are truly moving and we will celebrate the Holidays together even though we are apart.
On a deeper level, I also remember that Rosh Hashanah is not only about God’s majesty or holding judgment over us. Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, is a celebration of Creation itself. We count our days mythically in Judaism. The New Year is, according to our tradition, 5781. That is five thousand seven hundred eighty-one years since the beginning of a relationship. Not because it’s science – we know better. Religion and science have danced together since the beginning of both. The counting of our years is how we know our lives are bigger than ourselves, and we know that our lives matter to God. Jews don’t count in the objective, we count in the subjective. We count not to write an essay on life’s unfolding, but to take account of life’s inexhaustible poetry.
According to the Torah, the world was built out of chaos, not much different from the one we feel today. God looked out upon the void and saw just how very bad it was and made the most important decision in the universe: God became the Creator. Reaching into the inexhaustible swirl, God pulled the light out of the darkness, bringing order, goodness, and blessing for the first time. In the Jewish mind, this is not simply a moment where the earth was born – that’s not for a religion to decide. Rather it was a moment where primal goodness was expressed as a protest against primordial chaos. It was the moment a relationship began, a covenant, one that is the foundation for all relationships. A moment where love itself was born, a moment of what we call in Hebrew, Chesed, meaning a love born of fidelity and greatness. That, for me, is how I will approach Rosh Hashanah this year.
I believe this time of chaos, where up feels down and down feels up, calls upon us to make the same furtive choice that God made and to act to form a new world. In this New Year, let us all look upon the present void and choose to boldly fashion the future. Let us reach into the darkness and pull out the light. Let us hold the world accountable to goodness and love.
I’m including below a collection of some of my writings on love in Judaism. Please enjoy them over the holiday season as a way to reflect and expand on what we all need more of this coming year. This year, as we use our technology to try to be together, let us also commit ourselves to not just celebrate the world, but to create a better one. And if we make that divine choice, let us find each other again, hold hands again, proclaim beauty again, and look upon the world and say that it is indeed ‘good.’
Shanah Tovah U’metukah. Have a sweet and peaceful New Year.
How Love counts in Judaism
Center of The Center: Why love sits at the center of Torah, Acharei Mot Kedoshim 2020
The Unstoppable Force: Why love is so powerful, Vayikra 2020
Deep Love: How love makes you into a superhero, Vaetchanan 2019
Sacred Love: Why we love and need to be loved, Behaalotecha 2019
Famous for Being Famous: Knowing what God wants, Vayikra 2019
Heart Attack: What stands at the heart of religion, Tzav 2019
Let There Be Love: A meditation on Love as Resistance, Rosh Hashanah 5779
Hidden in Love: A sermon on loving ourselves and mental health, Yom Kippur 5779