Originally posted Thursday, September 24th, 2015
(Sermon for First Evening of Rosh Hashanah, September 13, 2015)
Tonight is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year 5776. The words Rosh Hashanah literally mean “Head of the Year,” in the sense of the “start of the year.” However, in the traditional liturgy for this holiday, the name more commonly applied to it is Yom Hazikaron/ The day of Remembrance.
There are many ways in which our tradition addresses us with the command: “Zachor!” / “Remember!”
The Fourth of the Ten Commandments calls upon us to “Remember the Sabbath Day” / “Zachor et Yom Hashabbat.”
The Shabbat evening kiddush describes the Sabbath as “zikaron lema’asey vereyshit” (“a remembrance of the work of creation”) and “zecher litziat mitzrayim” (“a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt”).
The mitzvah of eating matzah on Passover is explained in Deuteronomy 16:3 as being “lem’an tizkor et yom tzetkha meyeretz mitzrayim kawl yimei chayekha”/ “so that you will remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your life.”
Indeed, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel goes so far as to assert that: “Judaism does not command us to believe; it commands us to remember.” (quoted in Kol Haneshama Machzor, p. 648)
But our capacity as human beings to store up important information in our individual memories is limited. What if we can’t remember?
A well-known Chasidic tale addresses this question. As recounted by Elie Wiesel in his book The Gates of the Forest, the tale goes like this:
“[Once upon a time], when the great Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.
“Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Maggid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: ‘Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I still know how to say the prayer.’ And again the miracle would be accomplished.
“Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: ‘I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.’ It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.
“Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: ‘I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.’ And it was sufficient.”
A story like that acknowledges what we all know to be true – that even when the passage of time distances us from important events, we can still keep alive the lessons learned from those events through the act of remembering them.
I experienced this first hand a number of years ago, back in 2003 to be specific. That July, while I was visiting friends in New York City during my summer vacation, I went back to Coney Island, the neighborhood in Brooklyn where I had lived from the time I was four years old until just before I turned 12. My family had moved out to the suburbs of Long Island in 1973, and I had last visited Coney Island in 1983. So this 2003 visit was the first time I had set foot there in 20 years.
This time around, I walked along the Boardwalk that I had played on as a child; past the elementary school I had attended; past the high-rise building on Surf Avenue where my family had lived in a tenth-floor apartment overlooking the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel; past Sea Breeze Jewish Center where I had gone to Hebrew school.
Everything seemed in a certain way familiar.
And yet, walking those streets again after so many years I felt like a ghost. Or like an actor on the set of a play authored by someone else. Or like someone walking in a dream being dreamt by someone else. So much time had passed that I no longer actually remembered living in that neighborhood. What I remembered was the remembering itself.
I’ve heard it said that after a certain amount of time, all the cells in our body gradually get replaced so that, physically, we become entirely new people even in the course of the same earthly lifetime.
That’s sort of what the experience of visiting Coney Island was like that summer afternoon in 2003. It was as if some other person – coincidentally named David Steinberg – had been the one who had lived there.
With the increasing distance of the passing of the years, memory of the actual experience had evolved into memory of the memory.
And that, as it turns out, is sufficient. I may no longer have visceral memories of being a little boy in Brooklyn, but I have narrative memories of it. Because I have rehearsed and retold the tale, they are now a part of me. The elementary-school aged boy David Steinberg is still the same person as the grown-up David Steinberg who is now well into middle age – even if the two do not share any of the same cells.
What works on the level of the individual also works on the larger level of the Jewish people. Because we have rehearsed and retold the tales of our people, they are now a part of us. You or I may not have physically left Egypt on the first Passover, or physically stood at Sinai on the first Shavuot, or endured the Babylonian exile after the destruction of the first Temple, or physically celebrated with the Maccabees in the rededicated second Temple at the first Chanukah. And most of us did not personally endure the living hell of the Nazi concentration camps, or physically dance in the streets of Tel Aviv in 1948 on the first Yom Ha-Atzma’ut.
Yet spiritually we have all experienced this and more.
For we are the same nation, the same people, the same Ahm Yisrael – even though we have been dispersed around the globe, and even though our customs, our theologies, and our worldviews have evolved and continue to evolve over the course of the centuries. The details change but the identity remains – encompassed by a single narrative, a communal story, whose words we ourselves write as we live our lives as Jews.
But Rosh Hashanah as Yom Hazikaron/The Day of Remembrance is not just about OUR efforts to remember people and events of the past. It is also about our faith in GOD’S limitless capacity to remember us. For even when the ground under our feet seems unstable and the passage of time seems to rush by out of control --- our tradition teaches that God, as it were, understands the larger picture, as the words of Psalm 90 declare: “ki elef shanim be’eynekha keyom etmol ki ya’avor, v’ashmurah valaylah.”/ “For in Your sight a thousand years are like yesterday that has passed, like a watch in the night.” (Ps. 90:4).
The scriptural readings for the first day of Rosh Hashanah echo the theme of God’s capacity for remembering us: Tomorrow morning’s Torah reading from Genesis 21 opens with the words “Vadonai pakad et Sarah” / “Adonai remembered Sarah”. And the Haftarah from the First Book of Samuel referring to Hannah says “vayizkereha adonai”/ “Adonai remembered her.”
On Yom Kippur, the most important part of the day for many worshippers is the Yizkor service, which takes its name from the first words of the individual meditation recited at that service – “Yizkor elohim nishmot yakiray”/ “May God remember the souls of my dear ones.”
Throughout the ten day period that begins with Rosh Hashanah and ends with Yom Kippur, we insert into the Amidah a plea asking God “zochreinu lechayyim”/ “Remember us for life.”
And an entire section of the Rosh Hashanah daytime prayers is entitled“zichronot” – quotations from the Bible on the theme of God’s remembrance. In each of these biblical quotations the idea seems to be that to remember a person is to remember the relationship that you have with them.
I think the most poignant example of this connection between remembrance and relationship is a verse from the Book of Jeremiah quoted in the traditional Rosh Hashanah zichronot liturgy – “Koh amar Adonai, Zacharti Lakh chesed ne’urayikh, ahavat kelulotayikh, lechteykh acharai bamidbar be’eretz lo zeruah” (“Thus says the Eternal, ‘I remember the devotion of your youth, the love of your bridal days, how you followed me through the wilderness, through a land unsown.” [Jeremiah 2:2]) [A paraphrase of this verse can be found in your machzor on the bottom of page 205.]
We see here a concept of relationship that involves mutuality, loyalty and commitment through both good times and bad. To use religious terminology, what we are talking about here is “brit” or “covenant.”
Our tradition teaches that God maintains a covenental relationship with the Jewish people: “v’zacharti lahem brit rishonim…” (“I shall remember for their sake the covenant of former generations, whom I brought forth from the land of Egypt in the eyes of all the nations to become their God, I the Eternal.” [Lev. 26:45])
And the prayers of the machzor affirm as well God’s covenantal relationship with all of humanity: “V’gam et Noach b’ahava zachartavatafkideyhu bidvar yeshuah v’rachamim…” (“And so with love did You remember Noah, and appoint him for a fate of mercy and redemption… Because of the memory of Noah that came before you, Adonai, you made his descendants as numerous as the dust of the earth, as the sand of the sea.”)
This day is a day for zikaron/remembrance. May we remember this Rosh Hashanah the blessings we have experienced and continue to experience; the love we give and receive; and the divine power that abides with us through it all as we strive to be better people in the year to come.
Zochreinu Lechayim/ May God remember us for life on this Yom Hazikaron.
Shanah tovah u’metukah/ A good and sweet year to one and all.
(c) Rabbi David Steinberg 5776/2015
 Israel Independence Day.