Rosh haShana Meditation (2018)
(A download option for this sermon in PDF can be found below.)
Part of our liturgy is a poem by David ibn Baqūda (also known as ben Pakuda) which is only read on this first day of Rosh haShana. The poem is called למענך ה׳; For your sake, O Lord.
It is a strong plea to God to have pity and compassion with us and to remove the
misery of His people. Listen O Lord! Do not delay! ה׳ הקשיבה ועשה אל תאחר
Misery consists of real, palpable things. In the time of the poet, things surely weren’t very comfortable, to say the least. It was during Ibn Baqūda’s lifetime that the land of Israel became occupied by the Crusaders, who had left a trail of death, especially among the Jewish communities in Europe, and now also in the Land of Israel. Ibn Baqūda’s hometown Saragossa was first conquered by the Christians, who replaced a moderate Muslim regime that had been good to the Jews, and soon after by the Almoravids, a zealous Berber tribe that aimed to purge society of non‐Islamic influences.
We can all imagine what these changes meant for the Jewish communities…
How many people have been purged, tortured, killed, massacred?
We have no detailed records, but surely these were hard times as the words of the poem cry out:
“For your sake, O God, show love to your poor children! Give them joy instead of grief! Regard their oppression and their sorrow! Listen O Lord, do not delay!”
Did God listen? The least we can say is that now, in our days, there are less wars, there is less hunger, there is much less misery, slavery, less diseases. Jews can live in their ancestral land again, and what is more, they are even in charge of it. These are all things that generation after generation, our people have been longing for and praying for.
Should we then keep repeating the same plea year after year as David ben Pakuda
wrote down under so much harder circumstances? Surely, we should be thankful each day that we live under better circumstances. We must thank God for each medicine that is found to cure yet another disease; for yet another country to makes peace with its neighbor as recently Ethiopia and
Eritrea. But we cannot be fully happy, and content, as long as there still is violence, war, poverty, abuse, oppression.
In the Alénu‐prayer, which was composed for Rosh haShana and only much later incorporated into the daily prayers, we express our vision of the time when God’s values fill the world with peace and justice. Our hopes and our prayers of course do not just include the Jewish people, but the entire world. If not all God’s creatures are redeemed, can we truly say that God’s will is done in His world, His creation?
This image, this dream that we cherish, of a complete, world‐wide redemption, is illustrated for us in the blowing of the Shofar. The Shofar stands for many things, such as introspection and repentance but also for deliverance and the announcement of God’s kingdom. As we say in the Musaf prayer of today: תקע בשופר גדול; Please, sound the Great Shofar, the heavenly Shofar!
And so, it says in the addition to the ‘Alénu prayer, in the part that – in our tradition – we only say on Rosh haShana: “The world will be established under the Kingdom of the Almighty. And all the children of flesh will invoke Your name. The Lord shall be King over all the earth. On that day , the Lord shall be One and His name One.”
You may ask: But, isn’t God always One? Can He be anything but One? How can we say “on that day He shall be One? A similar question could be asked about the words “The Lord shall be King over all the earth”. Isn’t God already מלך העולם; King of the universe? Is He not in control since the beginning of creation and even before?
The answer is: God is only truly King when we accept His kingship by living accordingly, by abiding by His divine principles. Likewise, when we succeed in creating unity, by building bridges, by breaking down conflicts, by eliminating hatred and divisiveness on earth, when humanity unites over God’s values, when God’s creation – which is God’s expression – becomes one, only then will the Lord truly be One.
Is the Messianic era brought closer by persuading passersby to put on tefillin? Perhaps. But bigger steps are taken when old enemies are reconciled. We bring the dream a step closer to reality when we show kindness to people in need, when people are brought together, when old enemies embrace, and when we break down hostile biases.
Surely, the Almighty would be able to interfere in the normal order of the world and initiate a Utopian Messianic era without our efforts. But God always prefers to work through us, who were made in His image and are called to act as His representatives.
There is still a big task ahead of us, but we all can and should contribute to the fulfillment of our own prayer.