Rosh Hashanah Evening Sermon 9-16-12

Who’s the Boss?

With Election Day less than two months away, we may be preoccupied with the race for the job sometimes r eferred to as “Leader of the Free World.”  But Rosh Hashanah puts that contest into perspective.  Wherever our personal politics might lead us, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are each human beings like the rest of us.   

By contrast, our prayers on Rosh Hashanah are preoccupied with the One whom the machzor refers to as “melekh al kawl ha’aretz, mekadesh yisra’el v’yom hazikaron.”   / the ruler over all the earth who sanctifies Israel and the Day of Remembrance.”    And when we say “melekh” (meaning “ruler” or “sovereign”), we refer not only to God as a transcendent force but also to God as the indwelling spirit within us.  The Kabbalists teach that the terms “malchut” (“sovereignty”) and “shechinah” (“indwelling presence”) are alternative ways of referring to the same aspect of the Divine, what Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz describes as “the divine power as manifested in reality, operating in an infinite variety of ways and means…”  (Kabbalah 101: Friday Night Live, article by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz at  )

If you come to all of our Rosh Hashanah services you’ll hear these words a lot:  “Melekh al kol ha’aretz mekadesh yisrael v’yom hazikaron”  ---  It’s part of the silent amidah for every Rosh Hashanah service. It’s the climactic line of the Rosh Hashanah evening Kiddush.  It’s the climactic line of the blessings following the Rosh Hashanah morning haftarah.  And we’ll also be using it as a sing-along tune during the return procession of the Torah scrolls tomorrow and Tuesday mornings.

I thought I would use these moments tonight to share a few reflections on that phrase of our traditional liturgy as we enter these Days of Awe.

מלך על כל הארץ מקדש ישראל ויום הכיפורים


“Ruler over all the earth who sanctifies Israel and the Day of Remembrance”

I invite us to probe our hearts and to consider how this teaching speaks to each of us or how this teaching challenges us.


A classic midrash relates the following story: 

A heretic came to Rabbi Akiva and asked, "Who made the world?". Rabbi Akiva replied, "The Holy Blessed One". The man said, "Prove it to me." Rabbi Akiva said, "Come to me tomorrow". When the man returned, Rabbi Akiva asked, "What is that you are wearing?" "A garment", he replied. "Who made it?" Rabbi Akiva asked. "A weaver", he said. "Prove it to me," said Rabbi Akiva.  To this the man replied: "What do you mean?  How can I prove it to you? Here is the garment, how can you not know that a weaver made it?" Rabbi Akiva said, "And here is the world; how can you not know that the Holy Blessed One made it?" After the unbeliever had left, Rabbi Akiva's disciples asked him, "But what is the proof?" Rabbi Akiva said, "Even as a house proclaims its builder, a garment its weaver, or a door its carpenter, so does the world proclaim the Holy Blessed One Who created it.”  (Midrash Temurah 3, as recounted in Sefer Ha’Aggadah/ The Book of Legends, Bialik and Ravnitsky, ed. 2:6)

When the machzor (High Holiday prayer book) refers to Rosh Hashanah as “Yom Hazikaron” (“The Day of Remembrance”), we are reminded of the Shabbat Evening Kiddush, whose words every Friday night refer to Shabbat as zikaron lema’asey verasheet.  A “remembrance of the work of Creation.” 

But if the weekly Shabbat is zikaron lema’asey vereyshit/ A remembrance of the work of creation --- How much more so is this true for “Yom Hazikaron”/ “The Day of Remembrance”  itself? 

Jews are not biblical literalists.  When Genesis 1 speaks of the world being created in “six days” we understand this as poetic metaphor.

כִּי אֶלֶף שָׁנִים, בְּעֵינֶיךָ-- כְּיוֹם אֶתְמוֹל, כִּי יַעֲבֹר;
וְאַשְׁמוּרָה בַלָּיְלָה.

------ says Psalm 90 -- “For in your sight a thousand years are like yesterday that has passed like a watch in the night.” (Ps. 90:4).  ---- The Tanakh, our Jewish Bible, is neither a science textbook nor a history textbook.  Rather it is the spiritual autobiography of the Jewish people which leads us back to the First Cause of all things. 

So, first things first:  When we open the machzor on Rosh Hashanah, we don’t check our scientific understandings at the door as we join together in those  prayerful words spoken by generation after generation of our ancestors, and by millions of our fellow Jews around the world:

מלך על כל הארץ מקדש ישראל ויום הכיפורים


“Ruler over all the earth who sanctifies Israel and the Day of Remembrance” (which is Rosh Hashanah).

Science need not be in conflict with religion.  Rather, as history progresses, each new scientific discovery magnifies our sense of awe.  How miraculous the universe is in its intricate design!    הַשָּׁמַיִם, מְסַפְּרִים כְּבוֹד-אֵל; וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדָיו, מַגִּיד הָרָקִיעַ – says Psalm 19 -- “The heavens are telling the glory of God, the sky proclaims God’s handiwork.” (Ps. 19:2)

And, as history progresses, each new work of artistic inspiration deepens our sense of wonder.  How miraculous it is that we even exist at all!  How miraculous is the gift of awe and wonder itself!  מַה-גָּדְלוּ מַעֲשֶׂיךָ ה'; מְאֹד, עָמְקוּ מַחְשְׁבֹתֶיךָ  -- says Psalm 92 -- “How vast are your works, Adonai; how very deep are your designs.” (Ps. 92:10)

We often think of Rosh Hashanah as the “Birthday of the World.”  In particular, on Rosh Hashanah morning, at three different points in the shofar service we sing the piyyut )religious poem( which begins with the phrase “Hayom Harat Olam”/ “Today the World is Born.”  The 20th century Polish-born Israeli Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov taught that  the three occurences of “Hayom Harat Olam”  on Rosh Hashanah morning refer to three “fresh starts” that the world has experienced:  The first Hayom Harat Olam, refers to the original creation of the world;  The second Hayom Harat Olam refers to the renewal of the world after the Flood, described in the Torah’s story about Noah; and the third Hayom Harat Olam – the third fresh start for the world -- refers to the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.  We invoke all of these moments of birth and rebirth in our observance of Rosh Hashanah.

Of course, even our traditional weekday liturgy includes the idea that God is “hamechadesh betuvo bechawl yom tamid ma’asei vereysheet”/ “The One who renews in Divine goodness, every day, continually, the work of creation”

But there is something extra special, is there not, about Rosh Hashanah.  Yes, the world is renewed every day, but we especially feel it when we gather together to mark the Jewish New Year.  With our individual and communal prayers and with our fellowship with one another during these Yamim Nora’im/ Days of Awe -- we affirm our faith in the possibility of renewal.  

It’s tempting to dwell on aspects of our lives that seem to be ending – on crossroads that we are approaching:  whether we think of relationships or jobs or even our own mortality.  Rosh Hashanah is THE Day of Remembrance/ Yom Hazikaron.  But Rosh Hashanah is also a day of rebirth/ Hayom Harat Olam/
“Today the world is born.”

Each one of us asks ourselves ---- What sorts of rebirth and renewal can I imagine for myself as I enter this new year?


מלך על כל הארץ מקדש ישראל ויום הכיפורים


“Ruler over all the earth who sanctifies Israel and the Day of Remembrance”

Within this blessing we’re also reminded of a creative tension that exists in Judaism:  The words of the blessing prompt the question:  What is the relationship between “melekh al kawl ha’aretz”/ “the one who rules over all the Earth” and “mekadesh yisra’el”/ “the One who sanctifies Israel?”  

Judaism is a world religion and we observe Rosh Hashanah as the birthday of all of the created world and of all of humankind.  But our prayer -- as it were in the same breath -- describes God as “the one who sanctifies Israel.”  In our traditional texts, the word “Yisra’el”/ “Israel” refers primarily to “B’nei Yisra’el”/ “The children of Israel” or “Am Yisra’el”/ the people of Israel, aka “the Israelites,” or-- to use a formulation from later centuries -- The Jewish People.  But when we sing on Rosh Hashanah, “melekh al kol ha’aretz, mekadesh yisra’el”  -- “sovereign of all the earth who sanctifies Israel” – we surely think of Israel as referring to both the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.

And as we do so --- we pray that this new year 5773 will be a time for renewal for all the world – AND ALSO we pray in particular for the welfare of our own particular people – “Am Yisra’el” – scattered throughout the world but concentrated in “Medinat Yisra’el” -- the modern State of Israel -- where our roots as a people remain. 

This time last year we were talking about the efforts of the Palestinian Authority to gain UN membership for Palestine and of the pros and cons of such an approach.  Earlier this year, the formation of a national unity government in Israel raised hopes for at least some of us that Israel would be able to follow through on a comprehensive settlement with the Palestinians.  However, the chief opposition party, Kadima, left the national unity government over the government’s inability to formulate legislation for integrating ultra-Orthodox recruits into the national military draft.  With the collapse of the super-coalition, the governing Likud party again needs to rely on the ultra-Orthodox and ultra Nationalist parties of the far right to remain in power.  And meanwhile, any possible momentum on resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been further sidelined by current crises around the region over Iran’s nuclear program, the Syrian civil war, and now – just in the past week – violent protests by Islamist extremists that have erupted in Libya and elsewhere. 

As we gather together to usher in 5773, we pray for the security of the State of Israel and all its inhabitants.  We pray for a realization of the historic national aspirations of the Palestinian people in a state of their own existing side by side in peace with the State of Israel.  And we affirm Israel’s role as the realization of the historic national aspirations of the Jewish people

And we pray that the new democratically elected government in Egypt will serve its people while remaining a peaceful neighbor of Israel.  So far, after an initial stumble, it appears that Egyptian President Morsi is acting in a responsible manner to protect embassies and to maintain the peace treaty with Israel.

And we pray that the Syrian people may be freed from the murderous Assad regime and become a nation which promotes justice towards its own population and peaceful relations with its neighbors. 

And then there’s Iran.

My gut instinct is that an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, whether by Israel alone or by the United States alone, or by the two in collaboration, or by some international force --- would be a calamitous mistake.  My gut instinct is that such an attack would not ultimately prevent Iran from developing nuclear weaponry if Iran is determined to do so -- but would lead to a widespread regional war whose limits we cannot know. 

But I have to admit, I’m not sure about this.  I don’t have all the military intelligence.   I haven’t made the commitment to make aliyah to Israel myself.  And I can’t claim to know how much of the heated rhetoric coming out of both Israel and Iran is intentional posturing for psychological or political effect and how much of it should be taken at face value.

Despite the controversial public statements of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in recent days, reports suggest that the majority of the Israeli population does not believe that there will be an Israeli attack on Iran in the coming months. (See, e.g.,  and .  It appears to be the case that Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak favor an attack on Iran but they don’t command a sufficient consensus within Israel’s security cabinet of high level government officials.

Meanwhile, Iran insists that it has no intention or plan to build nuclear weapons.  And Iran, correctly, emphasizes that it has the right under international law to develop nuclear energy for civilian purposes.  Meanwhile, as the international community continues to pressure Iran concerning nuclear weapons that Iran denies it is building, it seems more and more surreal to continue to look the other way with respect to the nuclear weapons that Israel actually does possess yet whose existence Israel continues to refuse to acknowledge.

With regard to the United States presidential race, it seems to me that both President Obama and Governor Romney are equally supportive of and committed to Israel’s security.  At least as far as that issue goes, the question for everyone going to the polls is not whether Obama or Romney would be more supportive of Israel.  Rather, the real question is which man is better qualified to steer our nation through the moments of crisis, danger and opportunity that are sure to come in the months ahead.  Regarding this question, each of us can draw our own conclusions from the public actions and statements of each presidential candidate in recent days.

But, whoever is chosen in November as “leader of the Free World”, Rosh Hashanah is all about how we as Jews keep our faith and trust in the true “Ruler over ALL the world, who sanctifies Israel and the Day of Remembrance.”/“Melekh al kol ha’aretz, mekadesh yisra’el v’yom hazikaron.”

We enter these Days of Awe and this new year 5773 in uncertain times for Israel, for the United States, and for the world at large.  But as the words of Psalm 27 remind us – words that are traditionally recited throughout Elul and the fall holiday season --  קַוֵּה, אֶל-ה': חֲזַק, וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ; וְקַוֵּה, אֶל-ה'  – “Hope in the Eternal, find strength and courage within your heart – and hope in the Eternal.” (Ps. 27:14)

L’Shanah Tovah Tikateyvu – May you be inscribed for a good year.  And may it be for us, for all Israel, and for all who dwell on earth a year of peace.


(c) Rabbi David Steinberg 5773/2012

Posted on October 9, 2012 .