A Congregational Rabbi Responds to What David Harris Hopes to Hear at High Holy Day Services: Yes….And.

Our tradition teaches that Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world, ha-yom harat olam. But the words can mean something else —Ha Yom: “today”; Harat: “is pregnant”; Olam: (the) “world”… or “forever.” Today the world is pregnant… but it doesn’t ever give birth. How do we approach this New Year — as the birthday of the world or as the day of a pregnancy that doesn’t end?  I never really paid attention to the two different interpretations until this year.   The source of the image, harat olam, is from the prophet Jeremiah bemoaning the day of his birth, wishing his mother had an eternal pregnancy instead of giving birth to him.  Jeremiah had lost hope, and at least at that moment, wished that he had never been born.  This year it is also hard for us to be hopeful, given all the hate and violence in the world.  But even when it feels so hard, our tradition chooses to see every New Year as a new beginning, for us as individuals and for our world.

Some of you may have seen the Times of Israel article entitled “What I Hope to Hear at High Holy Day Services,” written by David Harris, the president of the American Jewish Committee.  The article was forwarded to me by easily a half dozen people… and after reading it, I understood why.  It was quite powerful. Harris wants to hear two things:  first, an acknowledgement that anti-Semitism is on the rise, particularly in Europe. I saw this first hand during my trip to Berlin this summer.  And we all heard the frightening stories of demonstrators in Paris shouting “Death to the Jews” and the mob that targeted a Paris synagogue.  We also know that this hatred is manifesting in other places beyond Europe.

And, yes, we will talk about this as a congregation, on Yom Kippur afternoon in our Contemporary Issues Forum called “Is it Time to Worry ? Anti-Semitism in Europe. “

The second message David Harris wants to hear is that this is a time to reaffirm our enduring bonds with Israel. Temple Emanuel already does that.  We do it in every service, when we say the Prayer for Israel. We do it in our congregational trips to Israel, like the family trip my colleague Rabbi Aaron led this summer. We do it in our advocacy with university presidents to stand up against the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. We do it through encouraging our congregants to support the Jewish Federation’s Israel Terror Relief Fund.  We do it through the many Israeli speakers we bring to the synagogue.  And we do it in the programs we have created for our congregants  to share not only their fears for the security of Israel and their devastation over the deaths of Israeli soldiers and civilians, but also their sadness that innocent civilians in Gaza have died as well.

However, we are not going to preach sermons about the political situation in Israel.  We are not experts on politics.  Our responsibility is to remind our congregation that we need to tell our Israeli family that they are not alone and that we are committed as individuals and as a community to work to strengthen Israel as a democratic Jewish state.

At the same time, there is another message I believe our congregation wants to hear as well. Yes, Rosh Hashanah is the time when Jewish memory and Jewish community bring us together. What happens to Jews around the world and what happens in Israel really matters.  Yes… and.  Yes… and Rosh Hashanah is birthday of the world…. not the birthday of the Jewish people.

So I believe our congregation wants to hear another message as well, in addition to the rise of anti-Semitism and the urgency of supporting Israel. It is a message of connection to people all over the world who are suffering: those school girls still missing in Nigeria; the Yazedi refugees and so many others terrorized by the brutal barbaric ISIS; the children fleeing violence in Central America hoping to reinvent their lives in the United States; the citizens of Ferguson who know that though 2014 is the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, there is still so much work to do to realize its promise.

What our congregation wants… and what we clergy want… is a message of hope… for the Jewish community, for the larger world and for our own personal lives. What we want is for this to be the birth day of the world… where we can be hopeful about the future and trust that we have the power to be a part of the change for which we so fervently pray.

If not now, when?

About the Author
Rabbi Laura Geller is Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, California. She was named one of Newsweek’s 50 Most Influential Rabbis in America and featured in the PBS Documentary called “Jewish Americans.” Rabbi Geller is a Rabbinic Fellow of the Hartman Institute, and a Fellow of the Corporation of Brown University from where she graduated in 1971. She was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1976, the third woman in the Reform Movement to become a rabbi.