Here is the sermon which rabbinic student / cantorial soloist David Curiel offered on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.
L’shana tova. I am so happy to be back here with you this year. This time without a cold, but with our 10-month-old baby daughter, Dafna, spending her first Rosh Hashana here, with you. Thank you for welcoming us all back so warmly.
As we were getting ready to leave on Wednesday morning, the city of Boston took down a tall, old maple tree from the front of our house. It was sick and had to go, but all the same, we were sad to see it leave. We will miss its shade on hot summer afternoons, but not the worry of large falling branches during winter storms.
It was poignant, as Dafna & I watched, first from the porch, then from the front window, when the noise got too loud, that this was happening on the very last day of the year. That this tree, unlike the one next to it, or indeed all of us, did not make it to the new year. As Ecclesiastes, or the Birds, said, “for everything, turn turn turn, there is a season, turn turn turn, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”
This is the season of reckoning with our past and bringing a new, better version of ourselves into the future. How blessed we are to be on that journey together here today.
The Torah readings this year are particularly poignant for me and my family. Yesterday, we read about Sarah’s joy and relief at being granted a child in her old age. Itzchak, meaning “he shall laugh,” a reflection, surely, of the laughter a child brings to a home, especially one long-distressed by infertility.
Today, we read the story of the Akedah–Abraham’s reenactment of what we can reasonably guess was a cultural norm of child sacrifice, abruptly stopped when he hears the voice of YHVH for the first time, saying, “you don’t have to do this–you can break the cycle and do something new.”
We can imagine the fear Abraham had been holding in: stoically marching his son up the mountain, not saying much, so as not to panic the little one.
And we can also imagine him, poised tensely over his son, hearing that voice that must have brought a quivering flood of tears of relief, the collected, unexpressed, intensity of that moment draining from his body as he collapsed momentarily over his son in a bear hug before going to collect the ram stuck in the thicket.
It was the Friday between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur last year that Amberly & I got a call that changed our lives. We were getting ready for Shabbat, and didn’t answer my phone when it rang. But when the same vaguely familiar number called Amberly’s phone, we picked it up expectantly. You see, we had been in the matching stage of our adoption process, and an unexpected call from, as it turns out, our lawyer’s office, was at this point good news. Sure enough, one of the families they’d sent our profile to had picked us. And the birth mother was due in three weeks. You might imagine the flurry of activity that ensued. Medical records to review, papers to sign, baby gear to set up.
This was our Sarah moment! Laughing, giddy with the idea that we, over forty or nearly so, were about to become parents!
And, as I’m wont to do, I prayed. Wrapped in tefillin, Going through my traditional siddur, I came across a reading I usually skip: the same Akedah we read today, which is traditionally recited every morning. I read it and instantly, unexpectedly, burst into tears. All the collected, unexpressed intensity of emotion draining from my body: relief, anxiety, fear wrapped in the uncertainty inherent in this kind of adoption.
Everyone we’d talked to warned of so-called “failed matches”, a hazard of this process which is more common than not, by which the expectant mother or parents change their mind between the match and birth. They’re fully within their legal right to do so, and G-d forbid that we should stand in the way of a family parenting the baby they birthed. But it makes for anxious days.
“Don’t let all of you get attached,” advised one social worker, as if that were even possible. No, we would love and hope with a whole heart, as Abraham surely must have, and take our whole hearts into the uncertainty that lay ahead.
I went back to the Akedah several more times after that first—when I needed a release for my anxiety or just to feel comforted about our situation. After all, I wasn’t offering up a child’s life, just my hope about this match: no small thing, but not the same ballpark.
The tenuousness of the moment gave way to the magic surrounding a newborn, and on from there, as every parent knows—they grow so fast.
I’ve been wrestling with a question this past year: how does being Jewish make a difference to the individual Jew? For us, as liberal Jews, what does it mean to live a Jewish life?
And not just for my weird and wonderful bubble of rabbi and rabbinic student friends. I think about it when I teach my Hebrew-school kids, when I talk to their parents, when I lead services and when I write sermons for you: what does it mean to have a Jewishly connected life that is somewhere between the purely secular life I used to live and this hyper-Jewish one I live now?
I’m not just talking about being a pocketbook Jew or bagel Jew— don’t get me wrong, I love bagels and think giving money to Jewish organizations is important, but not all Jews have money, and some are gluten intolerant—No, I’m talking about a Jew whose life is fuller and richer for being Jewish. Maybe that’s you already, and I can pack it in and be done, but we’re here, and it’s Rosh Hashana, and there’s always a little more we can do, after all.
I’m coming to realize it’s about having a connection that’s right for you. I could tell you about the wonders of shabbes, as I did last year (I really do recommend it), or the transformative power of a daily prayer practice, but the things that work for me aren’t necessarily going to work for you.
Maybe for you, it’ll be aggadic stories from Talmud and Midrash—amusing 2000-year old vignettes that are as quirky and interesting as any episode of Mad Men, and more timeless.
Maybe for you, it’ll be a firmer grasp of the ethical halakha—Jewish perspectives on how we operate in the world that will inform how you make decisions in business and in life.
Maybe, for you, it will be an enriching weekend or weeklong retreat at Isabella Freedman Retreat Center, just down the road and over the border in Connecticut, where you will find any number of other connections with, and hooks into, a more meaningful Jewish life.
And maybe, for you, it will simply be Torah.
Our oldest storybook.
Our people’s memetic code.
For thousands of years, Jews have been going back to this well and drinking anew. Our sages in the Mishna, said, “Turn it, turn it, for everything is in it.” Their question then was, as ours must now be, “how do I make this relevant to me?” Not “is this relevant to me?”
Because the Torah was as dense to them as it is to us, and their lives were as removed from Abraham and Sarah as ours is from theirs. It’s a question of creativity, imagination, and yes, faith. But not blind faith.
Faith, rather, that our text, with its contradictions, problems and occasional plain ugliness, contains the seed for a new turning that will speak to you as if you were the one up on that mountain, catching sight of a ram in a thicket.
Perhaps, that will come from reading the great commentators, or studying an obscure Hasidic one, or from the frisson of a weekly Torah discussion group, where you feel the table start to float up off the ground.
Torah, and the study of it in pairs or in groups, as much as everything else Jewish combined, has the power to change our lives, to comfort us in our fear like it did me with the unlikely story of the Akedah.
The more we turn it in our day-to-day, the more it is available to us in those moments of need. And that’s the opportunity Rosh Hashana gives us.
‘Tis the season of teshuva;teshuva means return. A return to the person you want to be. A re-turn to Torah.
Her ways are lovely ways, and all her paths are peace. She is a Tree of Life to those who grasp her, and all who support her are happy. (Proverbs 3:17-18)
A blessing for all of us, that we should grasp the Tree of Life in this year 5774, even as we enjoy the trees in our yard. There is loveliness in both, but even the trees in our yard are fleeting.
A blessing that we should turn and re-turn to the life that we’ve been wanting to live all along, and that it is richer, at least in part, for being a bit more Jewish.