By Rabbi Steve Greenberg, Hazon Board Member
Every year, as the summer winds down I begin to look forward to the high holidays. While I surely enjoy the family and the food, for me it’s the chill in the morning air, the haunting music and the power of the liturgy that excite me. My partner and I seek out singing-communities on the high holidays. I can’t wait to be carried away by the once-a-year melodies and from the beginning of September they waft through my brain in anticipation. The music expresses ecstatic joy, longing and dread and this mix of emotions is reflected in the poetry of the liturgy.
What is not often noticed is how the prayer service, and especially the Amidah prayer that repeats on both Rosh Hashana and on Yom Kippur, is all about messianic desire. During no other holiday do we so clearly express a yearning for a perfected world. What survives in a line or two in the oft recited Alenu prayer (itself originally located in the Musaf of Rosh Hashanah) serves as the core of the holiday liturgy. “Let awe be manifest in all your works and may all creatures come to know you.” We pray for a dramatic revival of God’s presence in the world that instills dread and awe and leads not to sectarian division but to the unity of all humankind. And this messianic vision leads to a moral revolution. “May all your children unite in one fellowship. . .and remove the dominion of tyranny from the earth.” The high holiday liturgy paints the fantasy of messianic renewal with the rejoicing of the righteous when wickedness itself evaporates like smoke and God reigns over the world in justice.
Toward the end of August this past summer I, my partner and our infant daughter spent two weeks in Israel. While we spent most of our time in Jerusalem, I dedicated one afternoon to walking up and down Rothschild Street in Tel Aviv to take in the tent city that had sprung up in response to the growing economic gap in the country. The display of protest was intensely moving to me, especially as it culminated in marches a few weeks ago that brought half a million people from all over the country to demand change. The spirited young people that began this extended “flash” camp out understood what was needed: A new vision of Zionism’s purpose and values, a renewed commitment to “tzedek hevrati” – social justice and pragmatic changes in the system to insure greater accountability from their political leaders.
It is no surprise that this holy uprising, which has brought together Sephardi and Ashkenazi, secular and religious, Jews and Arabs, the center and the periphery, young and old. . . is happening between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah. As a people we have a recurring capacity to revive the fantasies of the prophets and what better time than in the weeks before the holidays that celebrate those wild promises. This is the season for dreaming of a world perfected.
I was moved as I read many signs that decorated the tent city. “A revolution is born in love or it is not born at all.” “The time of redemption has arrived.” Printed on two tablets made to look like the Ten Commandments was written: “Not for right, not for left, but for social justice.” There were many posters cleverly made by turning a traditional phrase. Instead of “All Israel is responsible (arevim) for each other one read: “All Israel are tented (ohalim) for each other.” One sign suggested that desiring the doable is not enough: “Whoever wants what he can do, can do more.” And lastly, built upon the halutz song, Im Tirtzu: “If you desire, it can be doneâ€”we can restore the welfare state!”
The rabbis thought of Rosh Hashanah as a coronation ceremony. We crown God King on this holiday and reconnect to the possibility (if not the eventually inevitability) of a world made right. If during the year (or years) we have become inured to social inequities, Rosh Hashanah restores our imagination of a world renewed in fairness and goodness.
The anachronistic throw back to a time of real kings and queens with actual power might be off putting for some, but the idea of divine sovereignty need not be. The coronation ceremony of Rosh Hashanah invites the living unity underneath existence to arise and reveal itself. God’s kingship spells the end of the nihilism. It assures us that this planet, its majestic beauty, its teeming life, human history and our very lives are no accident.
Rosh Hashanah is referred to by rabbis as Yom HaZikaron, the day of memory. Memory plays a part in the desire for change. When my aunt Charlotte began to suffer from Alzheimer’s she shared with me the sense of fear that her grasp on the central events of her life was slipping. I reminded her of a line in the high holiday prayerbook. “The Lord remembers all forgotten things.” If God remembers all then she need not worry that her life, in all its detail and color was disappearing. Nothing will be lost.
And if nothing is forgotten then our role in the unfolding of the universe matters to heaven. It is all witnessed and remembered by a loving God. But of course, the liturgy is primarily expressing a more threatening idea, the idea of God’s memory is a demand for accountability. I remember what you have and haven’t done this year.
It’s not possible to miss the pain and fracture in the tent city. Most of the people encamped were not bright-eyed idealists. Many people were out of work and some were actually homeless. The sobering and even frightful consequence of divine attention and memory is this. If our deeds, all of them, and the fruit which they bear become our legacy, then we are all profoundly accountable. And that is why the joyous celebration of the coronation is also terrifying. The rabbis say: Rejoice in Trembling! Once we taste the thrilling imagination of a perfected world we become aware how far we are from that dream and how implicated we all are.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of pre-state Israel and a mystic poet sums the idea up well. He said that sin fragments the world and the self. Repentance, says Rav Kook knits together both the world and the self. It restores unity beyond and within by reminding us of our deeper purposes. Rosh Hashanah is the yearly call to the remember that we are not accidents of a cold universe but the children and beloved servants of a mighty King. God rising to her throne calls us to our own dignity and asks us to realign our lives with our deepest held purposes.
The tent city will come down, if not this month, then next. There will be many claims for what the solutions might be, but what is most important is that a call has been heard. Citizens have been challenged to repent of their passive acceptance of trenchant inequities. All Israel is responsible for each other. The time of redemption has come.
On this Yom Hazikaron may the recognition that all is remembered, that you and I and everyone matter, that righteousness will win out and evil will vanish be sung loud and joyous in our shuls this year. May the shofar wake us from our passive slumber and may we tremble at our forgetfulness and negligence. May the awareness that beneath the difference that clothes the universe is a profound living power that calls us to partnership in righting all the the wrongs. This Rosh Hashanah, may we sing together in tremulous joy, God is King! Adonai Melech!
Rabbi Steve Greenberg isn’t afraid of a challenge. Known as an award-winning author, noted teacher, and religious iconoclast, Steve is a Senior Teaching Fellow at CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He is the Director of the CLAL Diversity Project as well as the author of the groundbreaking book Wrestling with God & Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), which explores homosexuality and Jewish tradition.