Rosh Hashanah Eve Sermon 5772/2011

A moment ago we concluded the amidah section of this ma’ariv service with the full kaddish.  The standard traditional ending of this form of the kaddish, just as is the case with the mourner’s kaddish,  is the line “Oseh Shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleynu, v’al kawl yisrael, v’imru, ameyn.”   “May the One who makes peace in the heavens, make peace for us and all Israel, and let us say, amen.” However, in Reconstructionist and Reform practice, we usually add the phrase “v’al kawl yoshvei tevel”/ “and for all who dwell on earth,” just as we’ve done tonight – even though it wasn’t in the book.

Regarding this additional phrase “v’al kol yoshvei tevel”/ “for all who dwell on earth,” I often think of the commentary by my teacher Rabbi David Teutsch  in our Shabbat morning siddur, Kol Haneshamah: Shabbat ve-Chagim, where Rabbi Teutsch explains (p. 114): “Adding the rabbinic phrase v’al kawl yoshvei tevel (and for all who dwell on earth) logically completes the concentric circles of our aspirations – our care starts with our minyan, extends to the entire Jewish people, and radiates outward from there to all who share our planet.”

When it comes to the Yamim Nora’im/ The Days of Awe, this universalizing tendency becomes even stronger –  not just in Reform and Reconstructionist practice but in Conservative and Orthodox Jewish liturgies as well.  In traditional Conservative and Orthodox siddurim, the Shalom Rav prayer, the last blessing in the Amidah,  ends with the words:  “Barukh Atah Adonai, hamevorekh et amo yisra’el bashalom”/ Blessed are you Adonai who blesses His people Israel with peace.   However, on these Days of Awe, the Orthodox and Conservative liturgies alter that line to use the version that Reconstructionist and Reform siddurim have been using all year long, replacing the words “hamevorekh et amo yisra’el bashalom”/”The one who blesses his people Israel with peace” with the more universal sentiment “Barukh atah adonai, oseh hashalom”/ “Blessed are you adonai, maker of peace.” 

The High Holidays are the big “Jewish homecoming week” for so many of us, and yet even now, especially now, we recognize that our prayers are not just about us, they are about the fate of the whole world.

As Rabbi Arthur Green observes in the Kol Haneshama: Shabbat ve-Chaggim siddur [p.104] concerning the phrase, “Oseh Hashalom”/”Maker of Peace” --  “In our times, when life has been transformed by the constant threat of global destruction, the need of the hour calls for the more universal form of the prayer throughout the year.”

Both of these examples of altering traditional prayer language to make it more universal remind us that, when we gather here to pray together, and especially when we gather together on the High Holidays, we are not on some little island unconnected from the rest of the world.  We have, in Rabbi Teutsch’s words, “the concentric circles of our aspirations”  --- “aleynu” (ourselves and our loved ones and friends and the members of our own congregation),  and we have “v’al kol yisra’el” (all our fellow Jews around the world, in the State of Israel as well as in the regions of our dispersions), and we have “v’al kol yoshvei tevel” (all who dwell on earth).

Actually, our prayers for shalom, even in their contemporary expanded versions are probably still not universal enough.  Where in those concentric circles of aleinu, v’al kol yisra’el, v’al kol yoshvei tevel do we place our country, the United States of America?  And where in those concentric circles of aleinu, v’al kol yisra’el v’al kol yoshvei tevel – do we place the planet earth itself?

I hope over the course of the holidays to share some thoughts with you on each of these “concentric circles:  aleinu, v’al kol yisra’el, v’al kol yoshvei tevel, as these “concentric circles of our aspirations” intersect with the classic themes of our traditional High Holiday prayers and scriptural readings.

But tonight, let’s start small, with our hopes for Shalom “aleinu”, upon us.  And who is this “us?”  It’s ourselves as individuals, ourselves as members of our particular households and ourselves as members of this one small Jewish community of Temple Israel.

We gather here tonight to contemplate our own individual destinies, and the needs of our families of origin and families of choice.  Each of us with our own unique prayerful offerings of praise, petition and thanksgiving.   In the words of Robert Kahn as adapted by Chaim Stern in our Reform siddur Mishkan Tefillah (p. 66):

Each of us enters this sanctuary with a different need,

Some hearts are full of peace and gratitude,

Overflowing with love and joy.

They are eager to confront the day, to make the world a better place.

They are recovering from illness, or have escaped misfortune.

We rejoice with them.


Some hearts ache with sorrow;

Disappointments weigh heavily on them.

Families have been broken; loved ones lie on a bed of pain;

Death has taken a cherished loved one.

May our presence and caring bring them comfort.


Some hearts are embittered;

Ideals are betrayed and mocked, answers sought in vain,

Life has lost its meaning and value.

May the knowledge that we, too, are searching

Restore our hope, and renew our faith.


Our tradition teaches us that we should strive for teshuvah/repentance/return every day of the year, but that this particular holiday season is the time that we really give it our all.   We are called upon to engage in “Cheshbon hanefesh”/  the inventory and examination of our own souls. 

And we ask ourselves – given all the blessings and simchas that we have experienced in the last year, have we been properly thankful?  Or have we taken them for granted?   Have we used our good fortunes so as to help others and so as to make the world a better place?  Or have we hoarded our treasures and cut ourselves off from the needs of our fellow human beings?

And we ask ourselves – given all the sorrows and tzuris that we have experienced in the last year, have we kept our faith?  Or have we allowed ourselves to become dispirited?  Have we tried to use our misfortunes and tragedies to help us to be more empathetic to others?  Or has the pain we have endured been so unbearable that we have felt cut off from the comforting hands and hearts of our fellow human beings and from the spiritual resources of healing we might find in our faith tradition?

Our prayers are mostly written in the plural, but each person’s plea is his or her own.  Even when we sing or read the words of the machzor in unison, the meanings and associations we attach to those words reflect the beautiful diversity of our community, and the variety of journeys that have brought each of us here as God has “[she]hecheyanu, vekiyemanu, vehegianu lazman hazeh”/ “kept us in life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season.”

Tonight is really just a warm-up.  The Rosh Hashanah daytime liturgy is a lot more lengthy and complex than the Rosh Hashanah evening service that we are soon to conclude.  And Yom Kippur is a bit of a marathon even for the best of us.  But I hope that each of us will be able to find room in our hearts over these upcoming 10 days to let the words, the melodies, the rituals and the memories of this season bring us to a place beyond our everyday selves.  May our observance of these days of awe help us to break down the walls between us and God, between us and our loved ones, and between us and our better selves.

L’shanah tova tikatevu/ May you be inscribed for a good year in the Book of Life and may 5772 be shanah tovah u’metukah – a good and sweet year aleinu, v’al kol yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei tevel – for us, for all Israel, and for all who dwell on earth.

ואמרו: אמן  (V’imru – Ameyn).


(c) Rabbi David Steinberg 5772/2011

Posted on October 2, 2011 .