This year’s Rosh ha Shanah is different. Some of us today are at home in front of the computer. Others are here in shul. That is quite a strange arrangement; we never had anything similar before. To be honest, we are experimenting.
Each of us knows someone who is or has been a victim of the pandemic. We never had so many friends and families to mourn on Rosh ha Shanah. Also, each of us knows someone who has contracted the illness — and thankfully has recovered. But the feeling of relief is tainted; it is not complete relief. The pandemic is still going on.
This is the time of the year when we look for God. We are usually reluctant to admit that we need God’s help. But on Rosh HaShanah, we take in our hands a book of prayer. And -sometimes out of faith, sometimes out of curiosity- we read its pages. That is, we try to pray. This is the day when we talk to God. Or at least, we try.
But there’s a problem with God. God is everywhere, we are told. Yet this year God is nowhere to be found!
We are told that we can see God’s hand in the beauties of nature, in beautiful sights such as the mountain glaciers, or the storms on the sea, or the marvel of a rainbow. For each of these occasions, there are blessings, brachot, that our Tradition teaches us to say. The beauty of nature is a way to perceive God.
But this year, we know that nature is under attack. Glaciers are melting. Hurricanes are more devastating than ever. Our Planet is suffering. Over the last months, we learned of violent storms and hurricanes, temperatures rising to abnormal levels, and destructive rainfalls. Perhaps we are the last generation who can appreciate particular natural beauties on our Planet. The Earth is changing for the worse; real tragedies happen under our very eyes. We look at the future with fear. We ask where God is. And there is no answer.
We are told by the Biblical Prophets and by great philosophers that God is at the side of human beings, especially those who suffer and those who demand justice. So we look for God in the oppressed, those voices who demand to be heard, those voices demanding justice.
But this year, we have seen how easily demands for justice have morphed into desires for revenge. We hear offensive generalisations about the responsibility of all the white people. We see Jewish people and Jewish buildings attacked and threatened. Increasingly, and despite our protestations, we Jews are counted as white, therefore oppressors.
When people demand justice, we Jews empathise. Our God demands justice. When we Jews hear the voice of the oppressed, we hear the call of the Divine.
Not this year, though. We are told that we are “white adjacent”, that we are privileged, that Jews have -allegedly- fared well. We are told that we are now “relatively prosperous”, that we are not oppressed anymore, and perhaps have never fully been oppressed. We are informed that we have become oppressors. This is not how the Biblical prophets preach. There is nothing holy in black or brown people harassing ultra-Orthodox Jews in the streets of New York. God is not there.
And what about our families, our own community?
We are told that we can feel God when we feel empathy. Relations between human beings are the gateway to the relation with God. We are told that we feel God when we reach out to others and when we build a community. We know there is holiness in establishing connections, in breaking the walls of isolation. Communities can be holy. For a good reason, a synagogue is traditionally called kehillah kedosha, “holy community”.
But, this year, we have felt the burden of solitude and the pain of loneliness. More than any previous year. There have been moments when we felt abandoned. Those from whom we were expecting supports were elsewhere, precisely when the isolation hurt the most. We are told that our community is a way to experience holiness. But this year, we have rather experienced isolation and loneliness.
We search for God. We don’t find Gods.
Moreover, we feel exhausted. One day the news gives us hope: cases are dropping, people get the vaccine. So we can start making plans for when the contagion will be over, we can dream of social interactions without masks, without social distance, as it used to be…
And then, the following day, we are told that it’s too early, that the numbers are not really dropping; that the vaccine works but up to a certain point, that other shots are required. And who knows when we will be safe again. Never, perhaps. This is exhausting.
This Rosh Hashanah is different from all the other Rosh ha Shanas, because it is a Rosh Hashana with so little hope. Hope is terribly difficult this year. The pandemic has deprived us of hope.
But we must not give up.
Losing hope is a luxury that we Jews cannot afford!
Our faith is based on hope. We are commanded to never forget that we have been slaves in Egypt. That God made us a free people. How did we endure slavery? How did we survive during the years of oppression in Egypt? Our ancestors never lost hopes that slavery could end.
The same attitude sustained us during other dark periods of history. How did we survive during the Middle Ages when Jewish communities were constantly under threat of being expelled? How did we survive during the time of the Inquisition in Spain? The basics observance of Judaism (Shabbat and bris) were outlawed. How did we survive under the boot of Stalin and his Communist cronies? In the Soviet Union, you could be deported to Siberia for the crime of spelling two sentences in Yiddish!
We Jews have overcome the darkest times of our history because we refused to give up hope. Hope makes us Jewish.
We are here, proud of our heritage because Jews like us, in previous generations, have kept their hopes alive. We are the free Jews that the persecuted Jews in the past have imagined and hoped for, while suffering pogroms, expulsions, persecutions. Not by chance, HaTikvah, “The Hope” is the national anthem of Israel, the Jewish State.
So let us think about our past. To our history, Let us connect to the previous Jewish generations, those who did not lose their hopes.
Think of the sound of the Shofar. There are many reasons why we blow the Shofar on Rosh ha Shana. The Shofar connects us to Abraham, to the very beginning of Judaism. We blow the Shofar to remember the day when Abraham learnt that God does not demand a father to offer his son in sacrifice (which was common practice those days for the pagans). Abraham, too was on the point to follow the practice, but God Himself intervened, and Abraham understood that this is not the way God expects to be worshipped.
That was the beginning of Judaism. That is what the Shofar reminds us: the ram that Abraham sacrificed in place of his son.
Fast forward some centuries, to Biblical times. When we Jews lived in our own land, the Shofar was blown in important moments of public life. The Shofar announced the new moon, the induction of new kings, the Jubilee year, the liberation of the slaves. The Shofar was the sound of liberation: When debts were cancelled, slaves were allowed to return to their homes, when prisoners were pardoned.
There’s something else. The Shofar was also blown in times of war. We are all familiar with the story of the conquering of Jericho; the sounds of the shofars made the city’s walls fall. In ancient Israel, the sound of the Shofar was the battle-cry; it was blown for signifying the start of a war.
Even today, some blow the Shofar for war-related reasons, but they are not Jewish. They are Evangelical Christians who want Israel to adopt a belligerent stance for all their theological reason. You can see them during pro-Israel demonstrations. I am very grateful to them. I appreciate Israel being supported. But on this thing of the Shofar, they got totally wrong.
First of all, because they forget the social meaning of the Shofar, the sound of liberation. But, mainly, because for us Jews, the Shofar is not anymore a battle cry against external enemies. It is a call for attention, as in Biblical times, but for another kind of battle. The battle against complacency, passivity, and lack of hope.
Since Medieval times, indeed, Rabbis and thinkers see the Shofar as a wake-up call. We don’t go to war at the sound of the Shofar, but instead, we fight against our own spiritual laziness. The state of mind we all have fallen into during the past year.
We have forgotten how much hope there has been in the past history of the Jewish people. We have forgotten how much we are in debt towards the previous Jewish generations and their hopes. Hence, we lost hope, and we live in a sort of spiritual lethargy.
We must resist this inclination. We must learn (or re-learn) to look at the future with hope.
The sound of the Shofar is a powerful tool to reconnect us to Jewish history, a history of hope and liberation, whose roots are back in the times of Abraham. The sound of the Shofar can shake us off from our complacency. It wakes us up. It reminds us we have a thousand years of history based on hope, and we cannot give up our hopes. We owe it to our ancestors.
This year the sound of the Shofar must be a wake-up call This year the sound of the Shofar must give us hope for a world without the pandemic. This year the Shofar gives voice to our hopes. ken yehy ratsons, may it be God’s will and let us say Amen
Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue, Rosh Hashanah 5782 7 September 221