Sermon for First Morning of Rosh Hashanah 5777 (October 3, 2016)

Last night, in my Rosh Hashanah evening sermon, I spoke about the meaning of teshuvah --- How the word is often translated as “repentance” but how it might be more meaningful for us to translate “teshuvah” as “return”

But there’s another definition for “teshuvah” – which, outside of the context of sin and atonement, is probably its most common definition.

Teshuvah in its most general application means “answer” or “response”. The plural form of the word teshuvah is teshuvot.  And there is a whole genre of Jewish texts called “she’eylot u’teshuvot”(questions and answers… inquiries and responses…).  In English we often put fancy Latin endings on that latter word ---- using the singular form “responsum” and the plural form “response.” 

All through the middle ages esteemed rabbis would receive she’eylot from questioners near and far, and their teshuvot/responsa would sometimes be preserved for posterity. 

In modern times, we also have collections of responsa from the various modern Jewish movements.  In the Reform movement, for example, there is a Responsa Committee within the Central Conference of American Rabbis that produces such documents. 

In any event, I would venture to guess that for most of us, we consult the responsa of another authority much more often than we read up on the latest responsa of the law committee of the Conservative movement, or the Responsa committee of the Reform movement, or of any traditional Orthodox Responsa.

I refer here, of course, to the she’eylot u’teshuvot/ the inquiries and responsa that we see in the Duluth News Tribune every day in the column “Dear Abby.”

I’ve cut out the following “Dear Abby” column (or teshuvah or responsum, if you will) from my copy of the DNT in which it appeared last month.  I’ve been carrying it with me since then because it seems so relevant to what must be on many of our minds as we gather here today on Rosh Hashanah:

DEAR ABBY: I can’t wait until election season is over. One side of my family is liberal; the other side is conservative. At my request, they don’t argue when we are all together. There are occasional disagreements, but fortunately, they never escalate.

The problem is, when I spend time with any of them separately I am lectured nonstop about the “evils” of the other side. They don’t quit. I just want to scream, “Shut up! Shut up! I don’t care!” I am at the point that I no longer want to vote. I don’t know what to do. There’s no way I can avoid my family completely. Please advise.


DEAR S.U.: Please don’t allow your family drama to stop YOU from voting. Try this: The next time your relatives inject politics into the conversation, smile, look them in the eye and say, “Let’s talk about something pleasant, shall we?” and change the subject.[1]

Dear Abby’s advice to “’SHUT UP!’ IN NEW MEXICO” is often excellent advice for congregational rabbis. 

For just as there are multiple voices within the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible, and just as there are multiple voices within the Talmud, and multiple voices within the world of medieval and modern Jewish philosophy --- so there are multiple voices within any Jewish congregation. 

We don’t all relate to the concept of God the same way, we don’t all practice Judaism in the same way --- and we don’t all agree on all of the political issues of the day.

But in Judaism this is generally considered a strength.  Our goal is not uniformity of opinion but rather a sufficiently open community that we can accommodate diversity.  As it says in Isaiah 54:2 in one of the haftarot we’ve read during the seven Sabbaths of consolation leading up to Rosh Hashanah ---


 הַרְחִיבִי מְקוֹם אָהֳלֵךְ, וִירִיעוֹת מִשְׁכְּנוֹתַיִךְ יַטּוּ--אַל-תַּחְשֹׂכִי; הַאֲרִיכִי, מֵיתָרַיִךְ, וִיתֵדֹתַיִךְ, חַזֵּקִי.

"Enlarge the space of your tent, and let them stretch forth the canvas of your habitations, spare not; lengthen your ropes, and strengthen your tent pegs."

So, as strongly as I personally or you personally may feel about a particular issue or candidate in this heated electoral season – we must find a way to encourage, metaphorically speaking, a big tent, embracing one another amid our differences.  And that’s true whether were divided 51 per cent to 49 per cent or whether we’re divided 90 per cent to 10 per cent.  That’s true within our congregation and that’s true within our nation.

And in this contest of ideas, the loudest voice in not always the most profound voice – as is expressed in the words from“Unetaneh Tokef” that we sang and read earlier this morning:

“Uveshofar gadol yitaka, vkol demama dakah yishama”/ “A great shofar sounds --- and a still, small voice is heard.”

This evocative imagery seems intended to remind us of a famous tale of Eliyahu Hanavi/ Elijah the Prophet, in chapter 19 of the First Book of Kings. 

Elijah has escaped to the wilderness after his life is threatened by the evil King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.  He reaches Mt. Chorev (a.k.a. Mt. Sinai) where he goes to sleep inside a cave.  And then scripture recounts:

The word of the Eternal came to him. [God] said to him, "Why are you here, Elijah?" He replied, "I am moved by zeal for the Eternal, the God of Hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life." "Come out," [God] called, "and stand on the mountain before the Eternal."

And lo, the Eternal passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Eternal; but the Eternal was not in the wind. After the wind--an earthquake; but the Eternal was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake--fire; but the Eternal was not in the fire. And after the fire—kol demamah dakah/ a still small voice. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his mantle about his face and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then a voice addressed him: "Why are you here, Elijah?" He answered, "I am moved by zeal for Adonai, the God of Hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and have put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life."

And Adonai said to him, "Go back by the way you came, [and] on to the wilderness of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael as king of Aram. Also anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king of Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah to succeed you as prophet.

(1 Kings 19: 9-16)

You know, sometimes the barrage of political ads, the figurative and literal shouting matches, and the bitter feelings of an election season can seem as loud as earthquakes.  They can seem as destructive as a blazing fire. 

The loud blast of the shofar is indeed an attention getter. 

As are big campaign rallies and warring internet memes. 

But when it comes down to our own solitary moment in the voting booth, we still must listen to the kol demama dakah, the still small voice, the voice of conscience within us, which ultimately must guide us.

For Elijah, that kol demama dakah told him that he should anoint Hazael as King of Aram.  Yehu son of Nimshi as king of Israel and Elisha son of Shaphat as his prophetic successor.

As for us, it’s the sum of our many individual kolot demamot dakot/ our many “still small voices” that will determine our next President as well as determine the results of other election contests taking place on November 8th.

How shall we choose?  I’ll echo Dear Abby’s advice here and implore you not to let family arguments --- or, I might add, ---  apathy or cynicism or logistical inconvenience --- keep you from voting. 

And I’ll follow the advice of Dear Abby and the Internal Revenue Service by not using my pulpit to tell you whom to vote for:

But we can look to the Torah portion that we read just this past Shabbat, Parashat Nitzavim, near the end of the parasha at Deuteronomy 30:19, to give us all the advice we need.  That’s where Moses sums of his long series of farewell admonitions by teaching us:

וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים

Choose life!

That sums it up. 

Today, with the help of our friend Maureen O’Brien, who served as our Ba'alat Tekiah, we have fulfilled the paradigmatic ritual mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah – the mitzvah of “lishmoa kol shofar” – which literally translates as “to hear the voice of the shofar.” 

May that kol shofar – that loud, commanding voice of the Shofar ----- as well as the kol demamah dakah --- that still small voice of conscience within us --- remind us of the importance of expressing our own kolot – our own voices --- on election day and throughout the year.

Shanah tovah u’metukah/ May 5777 be a good and sweet year for us, for our nation, for all Israel, and for all the world--- and may we do our part in making it so.


(c) Rabbi David Steinberg (October 2016/Rosh Hashanah 5777)



[1] https://www.abqjournal.com/845930/headline.html 


Posted on October 6, 2016 .