Rosh Hashonah- Sermon 5773

Rosh Hashanah Eve 5773

When I told my husband I was planning to speak about “unetaneh tokef” this evening he asked, “Why do you want to talk about the shtetl Tevye had to leave in Fiddler on the Roof?”


What I was referring to, of course, is the passage in the High Holy Day services we read tomorrow morning; a passage that probably is familiar and even beloved to most of you.  It’s called the “unetaneh tokef” because those are the first words: “let us proclaim the power of this sacred day.”  It has those haunting images of God opening the books of our lives and judging our merit.  On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die.


Our prayer book introduces the passage with a legend about a Rabbi Amnon composed the words because he was distraught with himself for showing a lack of faith.  But we know he can’t be the author because manuscripts have been found from hundreds of years before Amnon lived.


Passages like “unetaneh tokef” were often written to focus the service – which remains pretty much the same no matter what holiday or festival it is – on the themes of the particular day being celebrated.  The poet usually wove together different Biblical verses that referred to the holiday.  But there’s a problem here.  There is no mention of Rosh Hashanah in the Bible.  The only thing the Torah tells us about the first day of the month of Tishrei (which began this evening) is that it is a day of no working, proclaimed by the blast of the shofar, a day of remembrance.  In fact, the month of Passover was explicitly named as the first month of the year.  So why did Rosh Hashanah become such a big deal?


As sometimes happens in Judaism, a poem or a song can transform a sacred day.  Think of Kol Nidre – the haunting melody we will hear ten days from now.  Even though the rabbis for centuries tried to get rid of the passage, they could not defy popular demand.  And now we don’t even call that night Erev Yom Kippur, we call it Erev Kol Nidre.


Unetaneh tokef might very well have had that same effect.  But where did its author get those powerful images since the Bible doesn’t mention Rosh Hashanah?

There is a sentence in the poem that comes not from the Bible but from the Mishnah, the law code complied after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed – some time during the second century of this era.  After the poet has woven together all these biblical verses about God as the ultimate Judge, and each of us having a ledger book of our deeds, and the shofar sounding the day of judgment, all of a sudden the mood shifts suddenly to God as a shepherd, and we are sheep passing under God’s staff to be measured and evaluated.  The poem quotes not the Bible, but the Mishnah:“kol ba’ei olam ov’rim lefanekha kivnei maron” .  “And everything moving on the earth passes before him “kivnei maron.”



There’s a problem here, but it just may be the key to how Rosh Hashanah became such a big deal.


At the beginning of the chapter in the Mishnah called Rosh Hashanah it says:


ארבעה ראשי שנים הם


There are four new years: the first of Nisan is the New Year for kings and festivals.  The first of Elul is the New Year for tithing cattle… The first of Tishrei is the New Year for years, for sabbaticals and for jubilees, and also for planting and vegetables.  The first of Shevat is the New Year for trees.


Okay, so the first of Tishrei was the new year for counting sabbaticals and jubilees, and you owe last year’s taxes on any vegetables that were planted before this day In other words, even if you are still canning tomatoes in October, if they were planted before the first of Tishrei you have to contribute a tenth of them to the Temple.  But this still doesn’t explain to me the fuss we make over Rosh Hashanah.


You may recall from the Passover Haggadah that the rabbis loved groups of four, and so the next passage goes on to say:


In four sections the world is judged:  On Pesach; by produce of the field. (In other words, if you were really good, then you’ll have a great harvest in the spring.)  On Shavuot, by fruits of the tree – similarly.  But then…On Rosh Hashanah, all the world passes before Him “kiv’nei maron”, as it says in the Psalms:

“The one that fashions as one their thoughts understands all their deeds.” And then it goes back to nature: on Sukkot, they are judged for by water – (and as some of you know, it is during Sukkot that we begin praying for rain.)

Something is very strange here.  First of all, “Rosh Hashanah” is used, not Tishri, or the seventh month.  So all a sudden, the Mishnah takes for granted some holiday that is simply called Rosh Hashanah.  But what is even stranger is that phrase, iurn hbcf uhbpk ihrcug okugv htc kf     that finds its way into “unetaneh tokef.”

Kiv’nei maron is usually translated as sheep – possibly because “amar” was the  Aramaic word for wool (think of “tzemer,” if you know Hebrew).  But it makes no sense because nowhere in the Bible or the Talmud are sheep ever referred to as b’nei maron –the children of wool.  It just isn’t used.  And the Talmud realized this was a problem.  In fact, among three different suggestions the Talmud offers to try to make sense of kivnei maron is one from Rabbi Judah that says, “Like the troops of the house of David.”  Judah probably had a different copy of the Mishnah – one that had not the words kiv’nei maron, but rather k’v’numeron – a Greek word for troops, or a cohort of soldiers.  It looks almost identical in the Hebrew, and manuscripts have been found where this was clearly the spelling.  All living creatures were supposed to pass before God like troops being reviewed by their commander. 

Does this explain how Rosh Hashanah became such a big deal?


It could indeed hint at what the first day of the seventh month was originally all about.  Remember that today is called “yom t’rua” the day of the blast of the horn. Where else in the Torah does it mention “t’rua” or the blast of horns?  Would you be completely surprised to learn that it’s almost always in the context of being called to battle?


Last Tuesday, at the beginning of Hebrew School, we spoke about what our students knew of September 11, 2001 – since the oldest was only three at the time.  Then we spent a moment of silent remembrance for all those who died on that day – including a member of this congregation – and we also remembered all those who have since died as a result of that attack on our soil.  In Israel the whole country does that, twice a year – once on Holocaust Remembrance, and once on the Day of Remembrance for all those who died defending Israel.  The only difference is that in Israel a siren is heard throughout the entire land to signal the beginning of the moment of silence and all the “ba’ei olam” – everyone who is moving around — at once pauses, no matter where they are or what they are doing, as soon as they hear the sound of that blast.


Perhaps our Rosh Hashanah originally goes back to a time of remembering physical battles, a time when every individual knew that he or she might be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice for the survival of our people, and a time of remembering those who had already made that sacrifice.  Once the Temple was destroyed, once the Jews had no sovereignty over a piece of land, the rabbis transformed that ritual into a spiritual call to battle.  (Of course, I can’t help thinking of the old story about the little child who was looking at a plaque on the synagogue wall dedicated to those who had died in the service.  With serious anxiety, the child asked a nearby adult – do you know whether it was a morning or evening service?)


This evening begins a period of intense personal self-examination; a time to weigh our deeds in the balance of righteousness and pray that we have lived a way that merits an extension of our days on earth.  Perhaps, though, our reflections should not be so personal, so individual. Maybe it’s time to get the sheep out of our imagery.  Instead, consider that this is the day of the year on which the ultimate “Commander in Chief” calls us to stand in formation to be reviewed, not passively like gentle animals who have no moral struggles, but actively – with courage and dignity.  This is the day on which we muster the troops – when it is determined whether we are secure enough, proud enough, and knowledgeable enough to serve.

This day calls upon us to take our place in the ranks, to be counted and judged as members of a community. 


I know that a great many of you are enlisted in the congregation’s “reserves” as it were – not necessarily on active duty, but ready and willing to be called up for a few days each year.  I am also encouraged to note that we have increased our total “troops” at Riverdale Temple by some 25% this year.  It looks like a good year at Riverdale Temple!


But these are tense and frightening days on the global scene.  That you have chosen to “muster” here, in this synagogue, on one of the holiest days of the year, is a signal that you have answered the call to stand for what is most precious and sacred in our heritage.  Our world is beset by hatred, prejudice, injustice and violence.  This is not a time to be sheep.  This is a time to march forward with confidence and courage to bring to our world understanding, respect, justice, and peace.  Kein Yehi Ratzon.  May this be God’s will.