Rabbi Cassi’s Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon 5781

L’chaim: TO LIFE!

Rosh Hashanah 5781/2020

Rabbi Cassi Kail

At the end of March, I received a call from my dad. He was worried about my mother’s deteriorating health. She had been struggling with COVID-19 for several days, and it was clear that her condition was declining rapidly. Dad had just put my mother in an ambulance and was pacing around the house, worried about what would happen. Would she recover? If she did, would she have lasting damage? These are concerns you know all too well.

So many of us have been sick or have had loved ones struggling for their lives. Some of us are mourning for those taken far too soon by this horrific disease. My family was fortunate that my mother not only survived, but she is thriving today.

After a month and a half in the hospital, my mom spoke the words I had longed to hear. “They’re sending me home!” Nurses went to line the halls to cheer her release. She was a survivor.

That Friday night, I told cantor that I wanted to sing Kiddish, the blessing over the wine. I needed to sing a prayer of praise and raise my cup to declare, “L’chayim – to life!” As the words ushered from my lips, it was hard to keep the tears from my eyes. At a time of so much suffering, it felt good to celebrate life.


5780 was a difficult year.

It was a year of mass shootings, earthquakes, and antisemitic and racist attacks.

It was a year of rising homelessness throughout the streets of Los Angeles.

It was a year of presidential impeachment then acquittal and rising political rhetoric in advance of a contentious election.

It was a year of increasing hatred, murder hornets, and migrants being turned away or separated from family at the border.

It was a year in which unarmed people of color were killed by police again and again.

It was a year full of protests, demonstrations, and rioting.

It was a year in which police were targeted.

It was a year in which nearly 1 million people worldwide died from the coronavirus.

And as we speak, some of the worst wildfires in the nation’s history are burning along the west coast.


On Rosh Hashanah, we are meant to celebrate a new year. But after the one we’ve just lived through, amidst the struggles we are currently facing, we may not feel like rejoicing.

For months, we have been wandering through a desert of uncertainty. Like our ancestors who journeyed for forty years, we find twists at every turn, unable to see through the plumes of dust, unsure of when – or if – we will make it to the Promised Land.

Three days a week, we traditionally read the words of Torah. It is not filled with joyful stories about what happened once we made it to the Promised Land. Instead, it is the story of a people trudging its way through a wilderness filled with challenge and controversy, plagues and protest, violence, and hatred. It is a story of suffering, hardship, and ultimately, of finding ourselves.

Along the way, we received the name Yisrael. You may recall that at a challenging moment in his life, Jacob wrestled with a divine being all night long. Jacob was hurt, his hip had been wrenched from its socket, but he held onto the divine being, saying, “I will not let go until you bless me.” The being blessed him with the name Yisrael, which means “he who struggles with God” and has prevailed.[1] With pride, our people took on the name of our patriarch. It is incredibly fitting. Like Jacob, we struggle. Like Jacob, we stubbornly hold on until we transform our hardships into blessings. Like Jacob, we are survivors.

Suffering, as we know, is not innately noble or meaningful. Sometimes terrible things happen, and we simply need to get through them. There are times, however, when, as David Brooks puts it, “we can suffer our way to wisdom.”

Our Sages explain that the wilderness was the only place where we could have received the Torah. Only in the vast expanse of the desert were we free, open, and humble enough to accept God’s words. As the Talmud teaches, “from the wilderness, a gift.”[2] The frightening, unrestrained desert can be the birthplace of our self-discovery and growth.

In his book The Second Mountain, David Brooks argues that everything we learn is through challenge. “When you ask people what experience made them the person they are, they never say ‘I really was a shallow and selfish [person][3] until I went on that amazing vacation in Hawaii.’ No, people usually talk about moments of difficulty, struggle.” As British journalist Malcolm Mugeridge put it, “Everything I have learned in my 75 years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced my existence, has been through affliction.”

In the desert, we learn how strong we are. In the desert, we learn what really matters. Our suffering may not have meaning of its own, but we can choose to allow it to change us for the better.

Over the past several months, many of us have done just that. We have reconnected with loved ones and reconciled with people from our past. We have channeled our pain, loneliness, and anxiety into compassion by taking care of people in need, bringing people groceries, making phone calls, volunteering, and providing inspiration and support. We, like Yisrael, strive to find the blessings amid our suffering.

We are taught that another pandemic occurred at the time of King David. One hundred people were dying every day, and King David desperately searched for a cure. Seeking comfort, he turned to the Torah. He came across a verse in Deuteronomy that read Mah Adonai Elohecha Shoel M’imach – “What does God ask of you?”[4]

The Torah is written without vowels, and as King David looked at the verse, he realized there was another way to read it. Instead of Mah Adonai – “What does God ask?” He read the verse as Meah Adonai – “100 is God asking.” At that moment, he knew what to do. To stop one hundred people from dying a day, the people needed to start saying 100 blessings.[5]

At this moment of great desperation and hardship, this moment of significant loss and suffering, King David realized that the people needed to give thanks. It might feel counter-intuitive, strange, or even tone-deaf to celebrate – but their quest was apparent, they needed to count their blessings.  As my friend and colleague Rabbi Michal Loving teaches, “When we bless so many times a day – for seeing a rainbow, over a meal, greeting an old friend, putting on a mask – we realize the immensity of what we already have, and our gratitude overwhelms our despair. Shadows turn to light. Paths that had once seemed foggy and impenetrable suddenly become clear.”[6]

Nachman of Beslov taught, “Joy is not incidental to spiritual quest. It is vital.” Today on Rosh Hashanah, in the midst of a pandemic, we gather to celebrate a new year.

Our sages had been through the ups and downs of life. They understood that there might be times when rejoicing felt impossible; they insisted that we do it anyway. During a time of famine, it was okay that we didn’t have a feast to celebrate. We should pick out just one beautiful fruit and give thanks. At times of economic hardship, it was okay to focus on just one holiday item and rejoice in the mitzvah of using it. If we couldn’t celebrate as a community, we could break out our timbrels and celebrate individually. No matter how we do it, our tradition teaches us the importance of rejoicing.

Danish philosopher Sorén Kierkegaard taught, “It takes moral courage to grieve; it takes religious courage to rejoice.”

It takes moral courage to recognize the brokenness of the world, to feel and to respond. It takes moral courage to resist putting the blankets over our heads and to sit in the vulnerability of the wilderness. We need to do that if we want to repair this world.

At the same time, we need religious courage. We need to find opportunities for joy – to hold on even when we’re in pain until we receive our blessing – to offer words of thanks even when we’re not feeling quite so thankful, to focus on just one piece of the holiday when we can’t take in it all.

Psalm 100 calls us to “Ivdu et Adonoi b’simcha – to serve God with joy.” This isn’t always easy. “Ivdu has the same root as avadim – slaves,” teaches Rabbi Andi Berlin. “It implies labor. We labor at joy; we work for it. Ivdu et Adonoi b’simcha. Work with God for joy.”[7]

Throughout history we have worked for joy, even when it seemed impossible.

During the holocaust, Nazis looted and destroyed countless synagogues. They confiscated Torah scrolls from hundreds of congregations, hoping to one day use them in a museum as tribute to an extinct Jewish people. It seemed that there was no room for simcha, for joy. But somehow, our people held onto hope. And somehow, 1564 scrolls became the Czech Memorial Sifre Torah, currently housed in congregations all over the world. This morning we will read from one of these scrolls, which emerged from a desert of cruelty and destruction, and today serves as a source of wisdom and blessing. This year, our scroll turns 130 years old. Eighty years after being confiscated by the Nazis we have the privilege of blessing it. This Torah scroll is a living reminder that we have found strength, resilience, and hope throughout many dark moments in history, and we remain strong today.

On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate. Sure, we beat our chests as we atone for our sins. The Unetaneh tokef is yet another reminder of our frailty and mortality. But ultimately, this day is about new beginnings. It is about celebrating how far we have come, and all the possibilities that lay ahead.

On Rosh Hashanah we proclaim, “We are here! Despite it all – all the hardship and challenge, the frustration of technology, the months of preparation – we have come together today. We have adapted. We have grown. We have helped one another. And we have it in us to continue to do just that in the coming year.” If that isn’t worthy of celebration, I don’t know what it is.

Our sages debated in the Torah about the best way to bring joy to our families on the festivals. New clothes, meat, and other luxuries were among the suggestions. Ultimately, they decided that the best way to celebrate was with wine.[8] They didn’t go into great detail about why they chose this blessing, but I think it has something to do with the words that follow it. You see, even back then, millennia ago, our Rabbis ended the kiddish by saying, “L’Chayim!”[9] The best way to rejoice was to celebrate our lives.

Four months ago, my mother was released from the hospital. That Friday, I lifted my glass, celebrating life in a world filled with suffering and challenge.

Today, I ask you to say once again “Amen” to my blessing. To say L’chayim. How grateful, how blessed are we to be alive today, how appreciative we are of all that is good in our lives. It is just one of our 100 blessings, but it a good start.

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech haolam borei peri hagafen.

L’chayim! To life!

[1] Genesis 32:26-30

[2] Nedarim 55a

[3] David Brooks uses the word “Jerk”, but I couldn’t bring myself to say that during a High Holy Day sermon

[4] Deuteronomy 10:12

[5] Midrash Tanchuma, Korach 12

[6]Finding Light and Hope During a Pandemic” p. 9 in the Long Beach Chronicle, September-October 2020 edition

[7] https://www.fairmounttemple.org/2019/10/religious-courage-to-rejoice/

[8] Pesachim 109a:3-5

[9] See Tosefta Shabbat 8:3 and Shabbat 67b