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09/15/2020 12:20:10 PM


Rabbi Barry Gelman

God Desires Our Heart. A Rosh Hashanah Sermon - 5781

09/15/2020 12:09:29 PM

Rabbi Barry Gelman

On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the creation of the world. We declare it in the Rosh Hashana davening - Hayom Harat Olam - today the world was created. This year, this phrase takes on new meaning.  Looking around, it certainly feels like a new world. There is so much that is unrecognizable.

So much of what we experienced is not what we expected or what we had been prepared for...certainly not what we hoped for.  Pesach was so different. Instead of tables swelling with family members and friends, many were alone.

On Shavuot - instead of packed shuls with the lights burning all night, the Beit Midrash was dark.

Instead of celebrating Smachot with our extended families and communities, there were COVID weddings with social distancing...where the bride was not the only one with a covered face. 

There were Zoom Brises and B'nai Mitzvah without the in-person participation of grandparents.

But, when it comes to Rosh Hashanah, I think it is more acute. The yearnings for the comfortable and familiar feelings of Rosh Hashanah is strong...and yet...absent. We were all hoping for a new beginning...

Besides these feelings, we wonder about our souls. How has this prolonged absence affected us spiritually? What about our closeness to God, our repentance? 

How has all of this left us feeling?  Looking back we may be saddened or depressed.

Maybe we feel that even though we did the best we could, we fell short of the ideal.

I have had these feelings over the course of the last 6-7 months. We have all tried hard, but I keep on asking myself if it was enough.

So, what are we to do?

I would like to suggest two approaches to this dilemma, both stemming from the same radical rabbinic teaching found in Massechet Menachot. 

Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi makes an incredible statement. 

After thirteen chapters dedicated to the minutia and details of the service in the temple; details that include exactly where each item in the Beit Hamikdash must be placed and precise detail about where those involved in the service must stand,  we learn this:

נֶאֱמַר בְּעוֹלַת הַבְּהֵמָה אִשֵּׁה רֵיחַ נִיחֹחַ (ויקרא א), וּבְעוֹלַת הָעוֹף אִשֵּׁה רֵיחַ נִיחֹחַ (שם), וּבַמִּנְחָה אִשֵּׁה רֵיחַ נִיחֹחַ (שם ב), לְלַמֵּד, שֶׁאֶחָד הַמַּרְבֶּה וְאֶחָד הַמַּמְעִיט, וּבִלְבַד שֶׁיְּכַוֵּן אָדָם אֶת דַּעְתּוֹ לַשָּׁמָיִם.:

Each of these sacrifices, animal, bird and meal are referred to as an aroma pleasing to the Lord” 

This teaches us that  one who brings a substantial offering and one who brings a lesser offering have equal merit, provided that one directs their heart toward Heaven.

וּבִלְבַד שֶׁיְּכַוֵּן אָדָם אֶת דַּעְתּוֹ לַשָּׁמָיִם

provided that they direct their heart toward Heaven.

This is stunning in its beauty. 

At the end of the day, what matters in the eyes of God, is -  our -  heart. 

Our first approach asks that we use the strange and even difficult circumstances we are in to actually enhance our tefilot.

There is a general tension in prayer between the set text and times of prayer that provide structure and discipline and the fiery emotional connection to God we all desire. Sometimes they do not go hand in hand. The road to accomplishing both is in our heart. The words are the same each time, but what is in our heart is always changing - not only form day to day, but perhaps even from minute to minute. 

Rabbi Soloveitchik taught that the words of prayer are the Ma’aseh - the action, while the actual Kiyyum - the fulfillment of prayer is in our heart. 

The strange circumstances we find ourselves in, perhaps can make it easier to escape from the rut or the fixed nature of prayer into a more expansive approach. Perhaps we can embrace the difference as a way to propel our hearts to greater heights in prayer. The difference should pull our heartstrings in new directions.

Don’t force yourself to feel the way you always do on Rosh Hashanah, This is unlike any other Rosh Hashanah you have ever experienced.! Embrace it!

It is true that the words of davenig will be different this year, but that is not what God is after anyway. What God really seeks from us is our heart. רחמנא ליבא בעי goes the ancient saying - God desires our heart. 

The jolt we are experiencing this year can be a tool to even better and more intense prayer.

A second approach may be appropriate for those, who despite the different circumstances, feel that something is still missing in their prayer this year. The strange circumstances have not elevated or expanded our prayer. To be honest, I have been struggling in prayer lately. I have struggled to apply the first approach, I have found comfort in the second. 

Let’s start with the unique Halacha that applies to Shofar when Rosh Hashanah falls out on Shabbat like this year. The Gemara explains why in one place the Torah refers to Rosh Hashanah is  “Yom Teruah” - a day of sounding the shofar while in another place the Torah refers to Rosh Hashana as “Zichron Teruah”, a day on which we merely remember the Shofar blasts.

לא קשיא כאן ביו"ט שחל להיות בשבת כאן ביום טוב שחל להיות בחול

According to the Gemara -  the verse in which the shofar is only being remembered but not sounded, is referring to a Festival that occurs on Shabbat; the verse in which the shofar is actually sounded, is referring to a Festival that occurs on a weekday.

Then the Gemara goes on to explain the reason why we do not sound the Shofar.

דאמר רבה הכל חייבין בתקיעת שופר ואין הכל בקיאין בתקיעת שופר גזירה שמא יטלנו בידו וילך אצל הבקי ללמוד ויעבירנו ד' אמות ברה"ר Rabba said: All are obligated to sound the shofar on Rosh HaShana, but not all are experts in sounding the shofar. The were concerned that one may take the shofar and go to an expert to learn how to sound it and end up carrying in the public domain, which is a desecration of Shabbat.

So, while according to the Torah, one is permitted to sound the Shofar on Shabbat, the Rabbis rule that in order to protect the sanctity of shabbat, that the Shofar should not be sounded.  

This Halacha is pretty straightforward, yet it poses a huge problem for the Rabbis. The shofar going silent on Shabbat is downright scary. 

You see, the shofar plays a special role in the atonement procedure of Bnei Yisrael.  

Here is how the Midrash explains it. 

  בְשָׁעָה שֶׁיִּשְׂרָאֵל נוֹטְלִין אֶת שׁוֹפְרֵיהֶן וְתוֹקְעִין לִפְנֵי הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, עוֹמֵד מִכִּסֵּא הַדִּין וְיוֹשֵׁב בְּכִסֵּא רַחֲמִים,.

at the time when Israel takes their shofarot and sounds them before the Holy Blessing One, God stands up from the Throne of Judgement and sits on the Throne of Mercy, 

What a powerful and evocative Midrash! The sounds of the Shofar, we are not sure how, but somehow “moves” God from the Throne of Judgement to the Throne of Mercy. 

This midrash begs the question - if we do not blow the shofar on Rosh Hashana how can judgement be transformed into mercy ? 

What are we supposed to do?  We pray all day, we repent, we cry and even if that does not work, we can rely on the Shofar to save us from harsh judgement. But what about when there is no Shofar.

The Rabbis are asking a simple question. Can a Rosh Hashanah without Shofar blowing be just as powerful or as meaningful as a year when there is shofar blowing?

Aren’t we asking the same type of question this year?

For me, this concern parallels the way many of us may be feeling this year. The absence of Shofar blowing for me, symbolizes all of the things missing from our life in the past months. 

The Gemara we read holds the answer to the questions.  Yes, sounding the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is permitted, yet the Rabbis desired to protect the honor of Heaven - that there be no desecration of Shabbat. 

Circumstances matter. While in the regular course of events, things run according to plan, there are times when events happen and we, as a matter of serving God, must act differently. 

This approach has been the secret to Jewish survival for generations. When the Temple was destroyed, the Rabbis replaced it, so to speak with the Synagogue and when there were no more sacrifices, that Rabbis instituted prayers in their stead. In scary times when circumstances necessitate it, we reconstitute what to do. 

The Rabbis pivoted - not because they loved shofar less, but because they loved the totality of Torah more.

This is where we stand today. This year, and really every year, it is not a matter of how much we do. What tips the scales is the weight of our heart. 

We are not staying home or limiting services as a way to avoid serving God, but as the exact way we are supposed to be serving God this year. We do not excise some of the most beloved and evocative prayers this year because we love prayer less - but because this year, our silence is the prayer.

וּבִלְבַד שֶׁיְּכַוֵּן אָדָם אֶת דַּעְתּוֹ לַשָּׁמָיִם - as long as we direct our hearts to God in Heaven. 

Our heart is in the same place it was last year   - focused on God - only the manifestation of that focus is different. 

Even without the sound of the Shofar, God could be moved from the throne of judgement to the throne of compassion. 

We have done what we had to do in order to maintain our health and the health of our loved ones and community members. Can there be a louder declaration of our commitment to God than by taking every measure to protect life?  

When I was a kid, I used to imagine the sounds of Shofar piercing the heavens and reaching God’s throne. I pictured God’s court trembling with each burst of the shofar. 

Our community, but not just our community, Jewish communities throughout the world continue to withstand this great Corona test with integrity and grit.  I have no doubt that the  defused prayers that our congregation and those of so many others will  pierce the gates of Heaven and cause a great trembling above. No doubt God will take notice and move from his isolated throne of Judgement to the glorious Throne of Mercy. 


Tue, May 18 2021 7 Sivan 5781