Rosh Hashanah 5781~ Evening 1 ~ Thoughts | Adath Israel

First Evening

Main idea: growth and meaning, together, in our 500-page journey depends on each of us embracing intentionality in our practice



Welcome everyone to our first virtual RH evening service. Adath Israel has worked very hard to make this possible, to enable each and everyone of us to have a machzor at home, to make sure that the platform works as it is supposed to, and that we can offer a live service during the day for those who wish to attend in person, and for those who wish to stay at home and still be connected, all the while thinking about the safety and comfort level of everyone.

I want to give our collective thanks to the Jonathan Shapiro, our president, Carly Hoss, our VP, every single member of the board and particularly the ritual committee who not just worked hard but embraced the need for creativity and renewal given the circumstances of COVID. This is extremely hard work, and we are thankful, as a community for all this – zoom, livestreaming, in-person services – to have been made possible.

I want to thank Cantor Axelrod for this night, and for tomorrow’s night which we know will be wonderful. I want to thank Cantor Ben-Ze’ev for what I know will be an unforgettable experience for all the in-person services.

And I want to thank you, for embracing change and for reminding yourself and everyone else that the heart of the community lies on our relationships, in our love for each other and our love for Torah and mitzvot. COVID has reminded us that our community is larger than the building and is stronger than a pandemic.

I also want to remind us to be grateful, for everything we have: family, community, tradition.

Now I want to share a few thoughts about the process of tonight and the next ten days.


We are going to use a book that we only open on these three days, which are so fundamental in the calendar that they get a special book, the machzor.

Machzor means cycle, which is an interesting word to use for the prayerbook of RH and YK. That special name is a reminder that the approach to time in the Jewish tradition is that of a cycle, a spiral going up, and not a timeline, a straight line clearly going only forward.

The cycle we are inserted in is the cycle of growth as human beings, and that is also symbolized by the challah of these days, a round bun going up. And by the shofar, which is blown looking up. And by the melodies we use, many in the high register of the High holidays. All those symbols are reminding you that you aren’t to stay still as a soul.

The same way your knowledge of math has changed since you were a six-year old, your knowledge of Judaism and God, and your thoughts about God, and your relationship to the community, to Torah and to God need to have changed and grown. Your soul needs to grow and develop as well.

Every single one of us came tonight to find meaning, as we do every year. We are all searching for meaning: meaning for our lives, meaning for our struggles, for our pain and for our achievements. This moment of the year, our tradition says, is the moment of being aware of that need for meaning. Living meaningless lives is not really living. As Zalman Schachter Shalomi once said: if you live many years without awareness and purpose, you are not living longer, you are just postponing your death longer.

And here comes the struggle that we have every year: how can we make those hours during services meaningful? How can they have an impact in our lives, so we will come out changed for the better?

How can we will be able to look at ourselves in the end of this process and say: maybe I have changed a little, maybe I am higher than I was before, I can see myself as someone new?

The answer to that is intentionality and practice. You have to be intentional in your growth and in your practice. Another way to call this is “deliberate practice.”

Nowadays we know that those who are great on anything are those who spent around one hundred thousand hours doing whatever they do, practicing baseball or music or running or soccer or writing before they are great.

But it’s not just a matter of hours clocked doing the thing, it’s the matter of doing it intentionally, looking for ways to get better at it. Reviewing the actions, the results and doing it over and over with the goal of healing weaknesses and strengthening abilities.

The same thing applies to becoming better people, to reaching the next rung of your growth. You have to be both intentional at it, and practice it. The Machzor is here to help – the prayers and the songs are here to remind you that you can do it. And as I have already said countless of times, my job and the cantor’s job is a different type of job than your job.

Your job is to connect. Your job is to grow with that connection. Your job is to embrace transformation and be transformed by this process. My job, along with the cantor, is to move things along. There are words to be said and songs to be sung.

I don’t have a set of expectations regarding what you connect with. How you understand God is none of my business, as long as you are not bowing down to idols, I’m ok with however you understand God to be today.

We will read about Abraham’s life tomorrow. And I want us to remember that we, just like Abraham, cannot have a true relationship with God if we are stuck in old definitions of god that don’t fit us anymore. NO one can have a real relationship with God without breaking the idols first. Abraham had to smash the idols of his father, and so we have to go through the same thing. We have to smash the idols of our childhood in order to get to a more mature God.

My grandfather did not really believe in God. He didn’t because he was stuck with the God of his childhood, a long bearded guy living in the sky, sitting on a throne with a scepter, zapping those who would misbehave.

And I know that because that is what he asked me, after I had flown my first airplane trip: had I seen God up there? No, I said, bewildered, since all I saw were clouds and stars. That is the proof, he said, that God doesn’t exist. He was 71 then, and today I would have a great conversation with him, because I, too, do not believe in that God.

Already back then I did not believe in that God, but I was not about to disrespect my grandfather and tell him so.

Any idea of God means having a relationship of some sort with that concept. Philosophers with their “omnis” – God is omni this, and omni that, ominipresent, omniscient, all powerful, all seeing in all places – you get the idea – Greek philosophers with all their omnis took away the idea of relationship, because they were sold on a deity that needed no one and nothing from us. By positing a God that was all-everything, they made the relationship into nothing.

The real search for meaning passes through the heart, through an emotional connection far deeper than the intellectual one.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t have a relationship with a distant intellectual idea. Relationships are more concrete, and so we need metaphors, words that will help us achieving that.

Our tradition used to offer: father, king and judge – but after Freud, father is a lot more complicated, and after democracy, king is not so hot either, and judges, after all, are seen with suspicion too.

So we need to recreate the meaning of those words, because the connection is still there: God as the life force of the world, as the parent of us all. God as the rule-giving, reminding us to do good and chose life. God as the awareness inside us, helping us to find where we messed up and try to make it better. God can be seen, in other words, as the life force in the world calling, cajoling us to be better today than we were yesterday, and this year than we were the previous year. We can have a connection, because the life force operates in us: we don’t beat our own pulse, our own heart.

The tradition is giving you the gift of stopping for a few days and listen to that pulse and that life force inside you.

Can you hear the kol dmamah dakah, the still small voice?

That is the voice of God knocking, incessantly, asking, begging, cajoling, nagging you to be a better person and to make this world a better place. The melodies are here to remind you that you long for meaning, for connection, for love. That longing is everywhere in the universe, and it is inside you too.

The tradition gives us a word for all this, which is God. It is a difficult word, in part because it has been used and it is still used to oppress and force people to behave in certain ways. But this Machzor tries to break these ideas a little, and to open spaces for you to think and find yourself in these pages, because they added great commentary on the sides.

Remember, throughout these days that we will be together, singing, praying, directing our hearts to the next rung in our growth, your job is to find your connection and your way to do all these things.

Use the machzor, use the melodies, use the words to find your own path forward. My path is not yours, it’s mine. I can learn by looking at your path, and you can learn by looking at mine, and that is true for each human being born in this world. Who is wise? Our tradition asks, and answers: the person who learns from everyone.

Here we are, walking together, one foot after the other, intentionally, towards growth.

Let’s do this. Shanah Tovah.