A thousand people stood in the cavernous sanctuary, silent, facing the Israeli flag on a pedestal on the bimah. Light streamed in through skylights and side windows, the impressive sanctuary alit with the warm fall day that proved a perfect backdrop to our Rosh Hashanah reverence. And together, we sang in a foreign language about hope.
Everyone seemed to know the words.
It’s like a pilgrimage, these Jewish holidays. People who never step foot in a synagogue all year show up in their finery for two days of services to mark a new year and then one day of serious reverence 10 days later to atone for our sins.
What they do in between the end of this holy season and the next, I do not know. Such is the conundrum of modernity. We live in secular society with so many options vying for our time. Many people don’t see the value in spending a little of it in prayer, in community, marking a weekly self-inventory amid ritual.
And so these are the days the rabbis and cantors and synagogue administrators have a captive audience. The less they come, the more captive they are at these two times. How to spin a sermon that is inspiring, thought-provoking, and deep while also entertaining, laughing, inspiring tears?
Today, my friend and rabbi, Rachel Shere, achieved all of that and more. In her sermon, she quoted Mark Twain’s 19th century essay about the conundrum of the Jews, answering his unanswered question as to why we have survived so long, despite so many odds.
In a word: hope.
Hope, she said, has kept the flame of Judaism alive. Through pogroms and concentration camps, through political mandates not in our favor, through under-the-table deals seeming to prevent us from defending ourselves and continuing to be a light unto the nations.
It is a conundrum, isn’t it? If we comprise 2% of the world population, how do we occupy so much of the public eye? It’s not a conspiracy nor fodder for anti-semitism. The eternal flame burns brightly on the single concept of hope.
That is not to be confused with naive optimism. No. Hope is a complicated thing, keeping us from giving up, from submitting to the wrath of others who would have us convert, or perish.
In her speech of perhaps 20 minutes, maybe more, Rabbi Shere shared anecdotes of an Israeli border crossing that welcomes humanitarian rights activists, of a synagogue shooting in Jerusalem followed by a brit milah the very next day, of her religious school teacher with the numbers burned into her forearm pointing to the words of the Israeli national anthem, HaTikvah, the hope, on the chalkboard.
“I’ll tell you that story later,” the teacher told a young Rachel. “For now, let’s focus on hope.”
In fact, we remain vibrant and strong, committed to our faith, because we look forward rather than back, believing anything is possible.
We argue for the rights of others, and the humanity of the world.
We light candles that flicker in the shadow of the setting sun because we know inaugurating a new day at evening, brings the hope that the dawn will emerge with confidence, inspiring us anew.
I whispered the words that my grandparents, and their grandparents, and so many ancestors before us, recited, whether any of us believed or we did not. We said the words, hoping that eventually their meaning and their heritage would seep inside us and make us whole.
I enjoy attending synagogue, but I don’t always love the pomp and circumstance of the High Holy Days. When the services last for hours on end, it does get tiresome at times.
But today, with that sunlight streaming into the sanctuary, and the confident proclaiming shofar blasts shaking us awake, I stood proud and inspired, chilled at the legacy I have been so lucky to inherit.
I am proud to be a Jew. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Happy new year, one and all, and may this one usher in a true and lasting peace across all humankind.