Rosh Hashanah Day 2: Hope, yearning, Israel

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
Day 2 RH
October 1, 2019
Tishrei 5780

Main point: We may think of ourselves as complainers, but hope is integral to Jewish thought. We have yearned for Zion since the beginning and we are better for it. We must rejoice in our hope and our dreams.

For the last several months, Hannah and I have been reading the Harry Potter series. There is such joy in reading with children. Our time reading together has been incredible. We have discussed big ideas and thought deeply about hope. Harry Potter is a character that has virtually every crazy thing happen to him, yet he continues to hope, he continues to survive and even thrive. In a way, he is very Jewish. No matter the odds, no matter the improbability of survival, he continues, just like us.

Hatikvah, our hope, has been with us throughout Jewish history. It has been with us in little moments and big ones. It has been with us every morning, evening and every moment in between. Hope can be fickle. It can shift from moment to moment, but a Jew always has hope. On the second day of a holiday, every rabbi is hoping for a full sanctuary!

Hope seems particularly relevant to those who live in Florida. It is especially relevant to us right here in Saint Petersburg. Last year, the Tampa Bay Times wrote an article of what would have happened if Hurricane Michael had hit us. With 98 years since our last major hurricane, we are hopeful that there will not be another big one. As we prepared, and waited and watched Hurricane Dorian unfold, hope was ever present in my mind. We saw the vast destruction, the tremendous power of nature. Yet, there is no where else we would rather be!

While supporting a member of our community, I sat in a local ICU. Amidst a conversation of pain and loss, we turned to the power of hope. We discussed the yearning that has been part of our Jewish consciousness, the hope that is evident in every Amidah, the hope of the Jewish future. We all have struggles. We all have fears. We wonder what the future will look like. Afterall, prayer requires us to be optimistic.

Amidst this pastoral conversation, we debated the name and spelling of Naftali Herz Imber, the poet who wrote Israel’s most famous song.

כל עוד בלבב פנימה 
נפש יהודי הומייה 
ולפאתי מזרח קדימה 
עין לציון צופיה. 
As long as within our hearts
The Jewish soul sings,
As long as forward to the East
To Zion, looks the eye –

עוד לא אבדה תקוותינו 
התקווה בת שנות אלפיים 
להיות עם חופשי בארצנו 
ארץ ציון וירושלים
Our hope is not yet lost,
It is two thousand years old,
To be a free people in our land
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

It has been less than 20 years since Israel officially named Hatikvah the national anthem. It remains a challenging choice. While the song was popular at the First Zionist Congress in 1897 and drew acclaim and many repetitions, Herzl himself sponsored a competition for a different national song. He disliked the Moldavian melody and the Bohemian poet who wrote the lyrics saying “Imber was a perpetual ne’er-do-well, described by one contemporary as ‘a vagabond, a drunkard and a Hebrew poet.’” 

I find it inspiring that one of our most famous, most identifiable songs was written by someone with less than perfect character. It makes me reflect on our patriarchs and matriarchs. Some Jews reimagine them as perfect archetypes, who do no wrong. I have always found their examples more powerful when we see their imperfections. We try to emulate them at their best, while acknowledging their faults. Yesterday and today, we read of Abraham sacrificing everything for his faith--even putting Gd before his family. In our readings for Rosh Hashanah, we see Abraham and Sarah struggle with their fertility, struggle for their desire to live the lives they had expected, struggle to deal with the pain of expectations that did not meet reality.

Today’s haftorah comes from the book of Jeremiah. It is a challenging book, filled with pain. The prophet is persecuted for his message. Eicha, the book of Lamentations, is attributed to his witnessing the destruction of the First Temple and the tremendous pain and chaos surrounding that loss. Chapter 31, which we read today, is far more positive. Amidst the pain, it is a reassuring message:

Jeremiah 31:2-20
Chapter 31
3 The Lord revealed Himself to me of old.
Eternal love I conceived for you then;
Therefore I continue My grace to you.
4 I will build you firmly again,
O Maiden Israel!
Again you shall take up your timbrels
And go forth to the rhythm of the dancers.
5 Again you shall plant vineyards
On the hills of Samaria;
Men shall plant and live to enjoy them.

Jeremiah’s message here is reassuring. We are not alone. We are not abandoned. It will get better. Remain hopeful. We will sing again. We will dance again.

Today is the second day of Rosh Hashanah. We stand here with fear and trembling. Will we live another year? Do we have the strength to continue? Are we living the way we must? Jeremiah says pay attention! We hear him say: Ephraim is dear to me. I will receive him back in love.

Even more straightforward:

וְיֵשׁ־תִּקְוָ֥ה לְאַחֲרִיתֵ֖ךְ נְאֻם־ה" וְשָׁ֥בוּ בָנִ֖ים לִגְבוּלָֽם

And there is hope for your future — declares the Lord: Your children shall return to their country

Ephraim was not always the most well-behaved tribe--for Gd to say that EVEN Ephraim will be brought back--Jeremiah is saying that we are ALL welcome back. All of us. All of us who have sinned. All of us who are imperfect people. We are ALL welcome back. We have work to do. We must try. We must make an effort. We are welcome back and we hope that we can make those changes. We must believe that we have the capability, the capacity to make those changes.

On a daily basis, as I daven my Tefillot, as I pray my daily prayers, I see words speaking of a return to Zion, of a restoration of Israel. From the quashing of the Bar Kochva Revolt in 135CE to the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948, the tiny territory that we call home has changed hands many times. The Jewish people found ourselves on every corner of this planet from Shanghai to St. Petersburg. Living without a state, without the protection of a defense force, left us seemingly alone in the world. Yet our tradition teaches us that we were never, ever alone.

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild, a British rabbi serving a congregation in Milan reminded me that:
“When ten gather for prayer, there the Shechinah rests” (Sanhedrin 39a, Berachot 6a). That “The Shechinah dwells over the head of the bed of the person who is ill” (Shabbat 12b). It tells us that wherever we go, this aspect of God goes with us – “wherever they were exiled, the Shechinah went with them” (Meg 29a), and yet this aspect of God also remains in Israel waiting for our return “The Shechinah never departs from the Western Wall” (Ex.Rabbah 2:2)

The Shechinah is Gd’s presence. It is feminine, warm, almost physical. Rather than arguing that Gd abandoned us when our ancestors were forced to leave Israel, our tradition teaches that Gd came with us into exile. Gd is with us in St Petersburg, just as Gd was with our ancestors in Babylonia (modern day Iraq). Yet our connection to Gd is strongest in the land of Israel itself. Feeling that power is why I try to return to Israel every couple years and why I try to bring all of you with me.

Every moment in Jewish life has a connection to Israel. From welcoming babies, to building homes, to marriage, to prayer. Every single moment includes a connection to Israel. Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel (then called Palestine) from 1921-1935, taught "Eretz Yisrael is not something apart from the soul of the Jewish people, it is no mere national is bound organically to its very life and inner being."

There is not a day in our prayer lives that does not have a connection to Israel, to hope for true peace, to hope for a better world. While every generation of Jews has prayed for Israel, there have been those who never left our homeland. In Abba Eban’s book, Heritage: Civilization and the Jews, the Israeli statesman, scholar, and author reminded us that:

“it was not only a matter of prayer and hope. The physical link was never broken. A thin but crucial line of continuity had been maintained by small Jewish communities and academies in Jerusalem, Safed, Jaffa, and Hebron. Palestine never became the birthplace of any other nation. Every one of its conquerors had his original home elsewhere."

Throughout Jewish history, wherever we were, whenever we lived, we yearned for Zion. In this yearning, we had an eternal optimism, that this world could be bettered. When we look at our history, our circumstances have varied tremendously. We have been joyful and distraught. We have been successful and unsuccessful. We have been political leaders and we have been persecuted, oppressed and the victims of genocide. Throughout it all, we have dreamed for Zion, we have hoped for the future.

When I was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary, given semicha and declared a “Rabbi, Preacher and Teacher” of Israel, I was asked to put in the program a verse that was my inspiration. From Hallel, from the 118th Psalm, verse 24.

זֶה־הַ֭יּוֹם עָשָׂ֣ה ה' נָגִ֖ילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָ֣ה בֽוֹ׃

24 This is the day which the LORD hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch comments on this verse and notes the parallel of the vocal, outward joy, and the quiet, inner joy. He says this verse looks forward to Gd bringing “about this day when Israel, redeemed, returns to its Divine sanctuary crowned by universal recognition.”

To me, this verse is about possibilities. It is a reminder that EVERY single day is a gift. Talking to people at all stages of life, we hear this thought expressed again and again. When we have little children, we are told “don’t blink”, it goes by in a moment. As we get older, we are told “be grateful for every moment”, since we do not know what will happen to us next. While the specific phrases differ, we are told over and over to celebrate our lives, to be happy with our gifts. We are told to spend time with our families, that “No one ever says on their deathbed, I wish I spent more time at work.”

This verse is a philosophy of life. It is a declaration of hope. It is a command that we stop and reflect, not just on Rosh Hashanah, but on every day. This one verse from Psalms can bring us such joy, such hope, if we only consider it. We do not have to wait until we found our soulmate to enjoy life. We do not have to wait until our children are born to enjoy life. We do not need to wait until our children are grown to enjoy life. We do not need to wait until retirement to enjoy life. We can celebrate our lives RIGHT now, today. Through the mitzvot, through the commandments, through our love of Gd, Torah and the people Israel, we can find holiness, love, hope, today.

Hope is essential to our lives. It is essential to our spirit. Our tradition shows us again and again how to integrate it into our lives. Even in our darkest times we must dream. Yet we cannot ONLY dream. We must work to bring our dreams to fruition.

Herzl’s 1902 AltNeuLand, dreaming of a Zionist Utopia, had Wenn ihr wollt, ist es kein Märchen, translated to Hebrew as Im tirtzu ein zo agadah, and finally to English, If you will it, it is no dream.

In the moments to come, we will begin the very special Rosh Hashanah Musaf service. It is a service that is filled with hope. It tells us that WE, our imperfect selves, can better ourselves. It reminds us again and again, that we ARE capable of doing better, that we CAN better ourselves and the world around us. We are capable of teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah, commonly translated as repentance, prayer and charity. In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, we will discover that “By returning to one's innermost self (teshuvah), by attaching oneself to G-d (tefillah) and by distributing one's possessions with righteousness (tzedakah), one turns the promise of Rosh Hashanah into the abundant fulfillment of Yom Kippur: A year of sweetness and plenty.”

זֶה־הַ֭יּוֹם עָשָׂ֣ה ה' נָגִ֖ילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָ֣ה בֽוֹ׃

24 This is the day which the LORD hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.

L'Shanah Tovah Tikatevu, May you be written for a good year.