Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5778

“U’netaneh Tokef:  Who by Water”

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Temple Sinai 5778

Rabbi Aviva Bass

The year 5777 has concluded and is now but a memory, as we begin the New Year together tonight.  This was a year in which menshlichkeit, true humanity, seemed to be tried and tested in many ways. This was evident in our daily news feeds on the internet and in our social media.  There were days in which it seemed that there was nothing humane about humans.

I remember the day in July that I read about five teenagers aged 14-16,  who had watched a 31- year-old man drown in a pond right in front of their eyes, choosing not do anything to try to save him or even to call for help.  Instead, they actually video recorded the entire drowning of this person, as well as their calling out insults to him as they watched him die, and they posted this horrifying video on YouTube.  The local police chief has approached the state attorney’s office so that they will be brought up on charges for this horrific behavior, and I hope they will be brought to justice soon.

And then, just three days later, I also read an account of the undertow making it a life and death struggle for two children swimming in the ocean in a Panama City beach. The parents and other family members jumped in to save the children, but they also became stuck in the undertow. A police officer jumped into the water, also attempting to save them, but swam back and decided to call a boat to send it out for them.  The people witnessing this scene from the shoreline decided they should not wait, as precious minutes were ticking by and they feared for the lives of the swimmers.  And so, a group of between 70-80 strangers banded together, holding hands to form a human chain to save this family from drowning. All of the swimmers made it out to safety, including the two children, ages 8 and 11, and their mother and other family members.

These two stories occurred the very same week with similar circumstances.  Someone was drowning and others were witnessing this. Yet they prompted entirely opposite responses.  Humanity has indeed shown its best and its worst sides this year.

So what does 5778 portend for us?  Some of you may be familiar with the practice of gematria in Judaism.  This is numerology, based on the fact that in Hebrew, every letter also stands for a number.  A colleague of mine Rabbi Jonathan Kligler, published a list on the internet this year of Hebrew phrases from our tradition that equate to the same numbers as 778.  (It is the year 5778 now, but traditionally it is known by the last three of those digits for this purpose).

One of the phrases that adds up to the number 778, the number for this year we have just entered tonight, is a phrase from Book of Judges of the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible.  It is, in Hebrew, “V’hiney ein sham ish,”  from Judges 21:9, which means “behold, there was no human being present.”  In Hebrew, the word ish literally means “man,” but because Hebrew is a gendered language, it is not necessarily just a man, but a human being to which the text refers.  Perhaps a better way of looking at this phrase would be using the Yiddish word mensch, because we have a gender-neutral way of seeing that word, having to do with being a good person.  So this phrase in Hebrew from Judges would mean, “Behold, there was or is no mensch there.”  Rabbi Hillel taught in the mishna of Pirke Avot 2:6, “In a place where there are no menschen, strive to be a mensch.”

So this year, 5778 is telling us, in this Hebrew phrase from the Book of Judges, that there is no mensch there, other than we, ourselves: that we need to become the mensch we seek.  How do we do this?  There is some very good advice embedded in our High Holy Day liturgy of how one goes about becoming a mensch and turning around the injustices of our world.

Tonight and throughout these Yamim Noraim, these High Holy Days, we recite the U’netaneh Tokef prayer, in which we say, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed:  who shall live and who shall die; who by fire and who by water. . .” listing all of the horrible ways in which we could perish, if G-d so chooses to do with us.  It is a troubling and upsetting portion of our liturgy, which tries our theology and causes us to question the meaning of this day and of our relationship to G-d and to our Judaism.  After all, we know that not all who are wicked in the world perish, and many good and godly people die much too young.  Life seems much too random for this to be meaningful as a theological statement.

And yet, it is followed by the words, “U’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et roah hag’zerah,” which our machzor translates as “But repentance, prayer, and charity temper judgment’s severe decree.”   In other words, it is not Divinely ordained what will happen to us.  And it is interesting to note that the examples I gave at this outset of this talk were both about “who by water,” the potential drowning of human beings.  And that it was not G-d who ordained what happened in each case, but the responses of humans to what they were witnessing.

It is not up to something Supernatural and Transcendent alone that our destiny is determined.  We control, to a great extent, not only who will live and who will die, but more importantly and directly how we live while we are here, which has a great impact on all humanity around us.  Our actions dictate not only our own fates, but also the lives and well-being of others.

The liturgy tells us “U’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah,” are the processes by which we determine the course of our lives.  So let’s take a look at each of these in turn.

First, we have teshuvah.  This is the process of turning oneself around, turning toward godliness.  It is hitting the “reset” button and re-booting ourselves.  It is reorienting our internal compass so it once again points northward.

In our tradition, one of my favorite stories about teshuvah is about the Talmudic scholar Resh Lakish.  Resh Lakish is a study in making teshuvah.  In his youth, long before he became the Talmudic scholar he was destined to be, he was actually a thief!  Yet, he decided to turn his life around, and he used the knowledge he gained through his negative former profession to help to determine halacha, or Jewish law.

In our modern day, a great example of someone having turned around his life is Derek Black.  Derek Black is the son of the famous white supremacist Don Black, the founder of the large white nationalist forum His mother was once married to former KKK grand wizard David Duke.  With this background and upbringing Derek Black grew up knowing nothing but hate and became the shining star of the white nationalist movement in his youth, seen as his father’s ultimate successor in philosophy and deeds.  Derek spent the early portion of his life fully waving the banner of white supremacy.   However, he decided to turn his life around when he went to college and  intermingled and became friends with a diverse population of classmates.  He wrote a letter to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an anti-hate watch group, in 2013, renouncing his affiliation with the white supremacist movement.  He received a great deal of press and attention on social media, both positive and negative for having done so.  In response to one of the articles written about his change of heart, he wrote the following, in his own words,

“The people who were important in the process of changing my mind were those who  . . . let me know when we talked about it that they thought my beliefs were wrong for specific reasons and took the time to provide evidence and civil arguments.  I didn’t always agree with their ideas, but I listened and they listened to me. Furthermore, a critical juncture was when I’d realize that some individual was considered an outsider by the philosophy I supported.  It is a huge contradiction to share your summer plans with someone whom you completely respect only to realize that your ideology doesn’t consider them a full member of society.  I couldn’t resolve that.”


Other former neo-Nazis have done the same, forming an organization called “Life after hate.”  They use their own experience to assist police and government agencies in their hate crime investigations, as well as to encourage others to break away from the evil of white-supremacy.  It is heartwarming to know of these stories and the outreach being done by these former white supremacists to try to change the hearts and minds of those still bent on hate because of their prejudice.

For most of us, however, our process of teshuvah is much less dramatic.  We have a specific roadmap as to how to engage in this process, outlined by our ancestors.  Maimonides tells us the steps to making teshuvah, repentance or return in is famous work Hilchot Teshuvah.  Rabbi Paul Kipnes relates Maimonides’ six steps as follows:  1) Regret, 2) Renouncing the wrongdoing, 3) Confessing to the action to the victim and if relevant to those who knew about it, 4) Reconciling with the person wronged by sincerely apologizing and investing time to work through the problem, 5) Making amends, including, if necessary, engaging in therapy, paying for the victim’s therapeutic needs, and volunteering time to causes that relate to the issue at hand; and finally the last step is 6) Resolving not to repeat the same behavior if given another opportunity to engage in it.  This last step was essential in Maimonides’ ideas.  True teshuvah is only seen when, if afforded the same opportunity to make the same mistake, the offending person refrains from his or her former negative behavior.  So all of this relates to teshuvah,  the first and most prominent task referred to by our High Holy Day liturgy.

The second task of ours to turning our world and lives around for the better, according to our High Holy Day liturgy is tefillah. While that word is usually translated simply “prayer,” the Hebrew word tefillah comes from the reflexive verb in Hebrew l’hitpallel, which literally means “to judge oneself.”  As Shakespeare said in Hamlet:  “This above all: To thine own self be true.”  This is the process of looking at the world and looking inward, and, even when the two do not match or are at complete odds, it is choosing what one knows to be the right path internally.

Perhaps the greatest example in our tradition of a person able to do this is the very first Jew in our tradition:  Abraham.  Not once, not twice, but tradition accords him with ten times that he was tested by the difference between his outer circumstances and his internal experience of knowing G-d.  The first of these, when he is first called by G-d, is perhaps the most striking.   Out of nowhere, he is told to leave all that he knows to follow a G-d unseen, to a place he does not know.  And he must give up everything of the life he knows to follow this internal guide.  And it is because he chooses to do this, despite everything he has known up until this point, that we are here to tell the story.

There are many courageous people in our own day who have chosen a similar path, no less dramatic in their own circumstances.  Malala Yoresafzai is a Pakistani activist who was shot in the head and nearly murdered by the Taliban at the age of 15 for advocating for girls’ education. Yet she continued to speak out, addressing the United Nations on her sixteenth birthday in 2013. She became the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate for her activism and courage. Her memoir became a #1 bestseller on Amazon, and was made into a film.

We are all called upon to judge ourselves, l’hitpallel, not only during these Yamim Noraim, but at all times.  Our prayer here tonight and throughout these High Holy Days is not only to call out to a G-d external and transcendent from us, but also to do what is called a heshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our very souls.  Where have our ideals and our behaviors been in conflict?  Have we followed the dictates of our conscience or have we simply acted according to what we have believed to be the easiest, most popular path?

The final task we are called upon to do in our High Holy Day liturgy is “Tzedekah.”  Usually translated “charity,” tzekedah is much better translated as “righteous giving.”  This is justice in action, despite our fears of lack of our own abundance or ability.

In our tradition, Esther is a quintessential example of someone who does this–putting her own life on the line in order to act righteously to save our people.  And now, in our day, most recently, we have seen many examples of people who have stepped up to give to others who have lost everything in the wake of the recent natural disasters of the hurricanes here and in Texas.  I will share just two examples of these that are significant to me.  The first concerns a band of men who call themselves the “Muslim Marines,” an organization whose members simply seek to live by the best of what Islam teaches about righteousness.  A group of these men followed the path of the storm because they wanted to “be the first to help,” when they heard that Hurricane Irma was coming.  This story jumps out at me because so often on the news we hear about the destruction of Muslim extremists harming and murdering others in acts of terrorism, but the news does not often focus on the ordinary Muslims who behave according to the true dictates of their religion, doing good in the world.  Another story that was heartwarming to me was about the owner of furniture stores in Houston, who turned his two stores into shelters to help evacuees, allowing the evacuees to sleep on his brand-new mattresses and providing them free meals during their stay.  These stories and others are examples of tzedekah, righteous action in our day, and serve as models of this behavior for all of us.

The New Year 5778 now calls upon us to become mensches, to become the best selves we can be, in order to change ourselves and the world around us.  May each of us be able to face this task ahead, by engaging in the process outlined in our liturgy:  “U’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedekah,”  by first re-orienting ourselves to holiness; by then judging our own values and actions and making sure they are in alignment, and then by taking steps toward righteousness in our world.  May our actions in the coming year provide safety from the rising waters of indifference and hate, and may the kindness and caring acts we perform create wave upon wave of understanding and love in the world.