It’s just about at this time of year that I begin thinking in earnest of the topics that I want to address in my High Holiday sermons. Some years ago, in a fit of preparedness, I wrote my sermons early in July, and then Yasser Arafat and Yitzchak Rabin shook hands on the South Lawn of the White House in August and ruined every rabbi’s already-written sermons for that year. I’ve learned!
That first, piercing blast of the shofar, sounded at morning services on Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of the new Hebrew month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, reminds me that it’s time to start thinking- and writing.
There’s something remarkably unsettling about hearing the shofar sounded for the first time. It jolts you out of your summer routine, and reminds you that the days of awe are but a month away. It is, simultaneously (at least for me) disquieting and re-assuring.
The disquiet lies in multiple realizations- that the summer will not last forever, that a return to work lies ahead, and, of course, that the Days of Awe await us, and there is no avoiding the look inward that must accompany that experience. And yet, by this point in the summer, it feels good to me to know that the cycle of our Jewish year is about to offer us another chance to “get it right” in our own eyes, and in God’s.
There are certainly more than enough issues and ideas out there this year that merit our consideration during this penitential period, perhaps none more important that the seeming breakdown of the connection between Jewish values and practices and the relentless pursuit of money. Bernie Madoff, the rabbis in the Syrian community accused of peddling human body parts and money laundering… I’m reminded of that old commercial about the environment, where shots of polluted rivers and streams were followed by a Native American with a tear streaming down his face. At the risk of a major anthropomorphism (though not more daring than the kind regularly employed by the rabbis of the Midrash), I have to think that God is crying at what has been done to sully His good name- as it were.
So, it’s Rosh Chodesh Elul, and it’s time to think. Even in these waning days of my vacation, that feels like the good and right thing to be doing as we lurch towards Rosh Hashanah.