Rabbi Cassi Kail’s Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Let Us Proclaim the Sacred Power of Our Days

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780/2019

Rabbi Cassi Kail

It is such a pleasure to be standing here with all of you as we welcome in the year 5780 together. Today has many names, including Rosh Hashanah, the head of the new year; Yom HaTruah, the day of sounding the shofar; Yom Hadin, Day of Judgement; and Yom Hazikaron, the day of remembering. My favorite of them all Hayom Harat Olam, “Today the world is born.” Today is the day of creation.

I love this name because it fills me with the anticipation of all new beginnings. Just a month ago, our children began a new school year. The night before, my daughter laid out her favorite dress, packed her bag, and longingly wondered what her first day would be like. Who will she sit next to? What will her teacher be like? What will she learn? Filled with nervous excitement, she would soon walk through the classroom’s doors, ready to begin this next adventure.

Just as readily came her fears. “Mom, I’m scared. I’m scared to start a new school. I’m scared to make new friends. What if my teacher is mean?”

In essence, she was afraid to begin again.

Perhaps this evening, we too are a bit nervous to begin again. We’ve put on our temple clothes. We’ve brought our books, and we’ve even walked through the temple’s doors, but we too have no idea what this new year has in store.

There is so much that is unknown. There is so much outside of our hands.

Today we stand before God, judge and arbiter, counselor and witness, who will determine our fate. In the Unetaneh tokef prayer, we are reminded that on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:

Who shall live and who shall die.

Who will reach the ripeness of age, who will be taken before their time.

Who by fire and who by water, Who by war and who by beast. [1]

These aren’t easy words to read. They remind us of how profoundly our lives can be altered by random occurrences over which we have no control. [2] This part of the prayer leans heavily towards things that can go wrong, reminding us that life is as precarious as it is precious.

But what if we are focusing on the wrong part of the prayer?

The Unetaneh Tokef begins:

Unetaneh tokef k’dushat hayom ki hu norah v’ayom

Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day, a day whose holiness awakens deepest awe.

Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day. Our lives can be changed by illness, war, or injury. They can also be altered for the better by one inspiring person or experience that moves us in a way we never could have expected. After all, how many of us have a person in our lives who, through words, encouragement or role-modeling, changed the course of our lives?

So let us proclaim the sacred power of the day. This moment is full of possibilities. Whatever they are, let us make the most of them.

Hayom Harat Olam. Today is the world is born. And we have front row seats at its creation.

As it turns out, the name Hayom Harat Olam, is a bit misleading. According to the Rabbis, the world was not born on Rosh Hashanah at all. God had already separated light from darkness, and the waters from the sky. God had created the sun, moon and stars, land, plants and trees. There were already fish and birds. Rosh Hashanah, the Rabbis teach us, was the 6th day of creation, the day on which God took a leap of faith and created human beings. [3]

God did this even as the ministering angels argued about the value of human creation. The angels broke into factions, a midrash says, arguing about the merit of human beings. The angel embodying love said, “Let them be created—they will perform acts of love!” Truth responded, “Let them not be created—they will all be liars!” Justice said, “Let them be created—they will fight for justice!” Peace shouted, “Let them not be created—they will only make war!” As the angels were arguing with one another, what did God do? God created human beings. [4]

God knew, even then, that we would be far from perfect. God also knew that we would have the capacity to create love and justice, to foster spiritual connection, and do holy work. Rosh Hashanah is the day that God acted on God’s faith that our creation would be worth the risk. Despite the angel’s fears, God started a new chapter in the story of creation. We are the benefactors.

וַיַּ֤רְא אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֔ה וְהִנֵּה־ט֖וֹב מְאֹ֑ד

Vayar Elohim et kol asher asah v’hiney tov meod.

And God saw all that God had made and found it very good. [5]

Some of the most important matriarchs and patriarchs in our tradition teach us the importance of taking such risks. Noah builds an ark and takes aboard pairs of every animal to care for during the flood. Abraham and Sarah go off from the only land they ever knew in order to parent the Israelite people. Moses goes back to Egypt in order to free his people from bondage. Through their stories, our tradition encourages us to take risks in order to achieve that which is most important to us. As the great theologian Wayne Gretsky famously said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

Hayom Harat Olam.

Each of them saw that today was a day of opportunity.

And it was worth taking the risk.

When we closely read the words, Hayom Harat Olam, we discover its other interpretive possibilities. [6] “Olam,” can mean world or it can mean eternal. The word harat, so often translated as “born” actually comes from the Hebrew word for pregnancy, herayon. [7] Hayom Harat Olam, can mean “Today the world is born,” but it can also mean “Today is eternally pregnant [with the possibilities of creation].” Today is filled with potential life. Anything is possible. But first we must take that leap and birth it into being.

Over the past few months, many of you have asked me why I chose to move all the way from New York to California and to be the rabbi of Temple Beth El. My answer is always the same.

From the moment I entered the doors of this building, I felt at home. I knew—with as much certainty as I can know anything—that moving here was worth it.

I felt a sacred connection to people I barely knew. And I knew that this was where I belonged, where I wanted to raise my children. This is a place in which God dwells. It is my dream that everyone in the room today feels a similar connection to this community and to Judaism when they enter this building.

Temple Beth El has a long and rich history. It was brought into being 97 years ago by 23 Jewish families who decided to worship together in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Levin. Even in those early years, a group of Jewish men joined together for a social club, while the women formed San Pedro Jewish Sisterhood, which dedicated itself to supporting the Jewish community, and giving aid to people who needed it throughout San Pedro. These founding families took it upon themselves—at a time when Jews were not permitted to buy property in many of the surrounding communities—to create a San Pedro Jewish community center in 1935, and to purchase the lot Temple Beth El still stands on today, in 1955. [8]

Temple Beth El’s earliest members were willing to put themselves out on a limb and create the foundation for a Jewish community within San Pedro. It required for them to take an enormous risk and show great strength of character.

I can only imagine at times they considered stopping the whole mission. But they didn’t.

Hayom Harat Olam has its origin in the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah the prophet was called by God to prophecy. As you can imagine, it isn’t always easy to offer words of doom and gloom. It wasn’t easy for Jeremiah to chastise over and over again in hopes that the people might change their ways. It wasn’t a job he asked for, but it was his responsibility.

Jeremiah pleaded with God to let him off the hook. When God responded, by telling Jeremiah that he was “born for this,” Jeremiah responds saying, “Then curse the day I was born. [9] I wish… [my mother] remained harat olam,” he said. “I wish my mother had remained eternally pregnant.” [10] Confronting change, Jeremiah longed for the comfort of the womb. He longed to return to a simpler time, in which he felt protected and embraced. He resisted any kind of risk. Overcome by nerves about the realities he might need to confront, Jeremiah wished to give in, and close himself off. Unlike God, unlike our temple’s founders, he refused to take the risk.

By contrast, our founders boldly declared, “We need each other. We need community. And we belong here, together.” We are all the benefactors of their courage, their vulnerability, and their faith. In each generation, people in our community have added their voices, and their spirit to this community. Because we too know that we need one another. This is a community in which we uplift one another at times of challenge, when we rejoice in one another’s simchas, happy occasions. It is a place where we study, and worship, and do social justice work. It is a place in which we foster sacred relationships.

Thank God our founders did not give in to Jeremiah’s fear. Thank God that God chose to create human beings, despite the risks. Each of these leaps of faith led to sacred opportunity, of which we are all the beneficiaries.

I’d like to share a personal story, about an experience that changed my life for the better.

When I visited my grandmother in the Alzheimer’s unit of her nursing home, I had no idea what would be laying in store for me. The last time I visited, my grandmother not only forgot who I was—but she had forgotten my mom, one of her primary care takers. Communication had been nearly impossible. I remembered how my mother held back tears, hoping to protect me and my sister—and perhaps herself—from the awful truth that we were losing her mom.

I thought about the days when my family sang Jewish songs, such as “Bashanah habaah,” or when the Seder table was alive with every verse of Dayeinu and Let my people go. Perhaps if I brought my guitar, I thought, my grandmother would sing once more.

I was nervous as I walked through the doors of the Hebrew Home. What if my grandmother didn’t respond? What if my grandmother didn’t remember the music, or didn’t want to be bothered? What if this experiment failed? I wondered if I should just leave the guitar in the car, so as to limit expectations. In the end, I refused to buy into my fears. As author Michael Hyatt once said, “Fear is usually an indication that we are doing something worthwhile.”

My family wheeled my grandmother into the common room of the home. She was slumped in her chair, devoid of emotion. I explained to her that I was going to play some music, so that we could sing together, as we had years before. She seemed unimpressed.

I took a deep breath, picked up my guitar, and began to play. “B’Shanah haba’ah neishev al hamirpeset v’nispor tzipurim nod’dot.” Suddenly her eyes became alert. For the first time in years, I heard her sing. My family all began to join in prayerful song.

And if that wasn’t enough, slowly more families were coming out of their rooms and joining us in the lobby. More sleepy patients jumped to life to sing with reckless abandon in the common room. Children and grandchildren joined in as we sang Oseh Shalom, Shalom Rav, and Hava Nagila. It was magical. For those few minutes a room filled with strangers transformed into sacred community. I had felt spiritually connected in services, during Torah study, at the Passover Seder, and while lighting shabbat candles. This was the first time I realized that sacred moments could happen anywhere. I wanted to devote my life to creating moments of sacred connection.

Today we have gathered to welcome in a new year, and to think about the possibilities that lay before us. The truth is that, although today is significant in that we are here as a community, praying, singing, and reflecting, today isn’t the day that matters. At least not more than any other day. We often think the Hayom in Hayom Harat Olam – a word we translate as “today” – refers to Rosh Hashanah itself. But Hayom can also mean, “This day.” What if the day that matters most is the day in which currently reside? What if today is every day?

Each day we can choose to engage with the stranger.

Each day we can choose to bring a guitar to the nursing home, or paint our inner masterpiece.

We can join Torah study, or cook with the cantor, or join the MENches or Sisterhood.

We can choose to do the things we’ve been longing to try.

This year, this day, let us take risks.

Let us let people in.

Today is eternally pregnant with possibility.

Each day is.

So let us proclaim the Sacred power of our days, by making the most of them.

[1] Translation from Rosh Hashanah’s Mishkan HaNefesh p178
[2] This line came from Rabbi David Teutsch’s commentary about Unetaneh tokef on page 173 of Mishkan HaNefesh
[3] Pesikta de Rabbi Kehana 23:1
[4] Genesis Rabbah 8:5
[5] Genesis 1:31
[6] “Leidat HaOlam” would be a far better translation of “Today the world is born.”
[7] The medieval commentator Rashbam, on Genesis 49:26, further connects the word to har meaning mountains – parents and ancestors being the ancient mountains from which we are hewn.
[8] With thanks to Diane Shneer for her 2006 research project entitled, “History of the Jews of the Palos Verdes Peninsula.”
[9] Jeremiah 20:14
[10] Jeremiah 20:17