Shanah tovah tikoteivu, may you be inscribed for blessing in the Book of Life! I am truly honored to be standing here before you on this important day, this holy day, as your rabbi. To be here at Riverdale Temple is to connect to all of the great rabbis who have stood here before me, and to connect also to all those who have called this synagogue their congregational home.
All of you, whether this is your fiftieth year at this synagogue or your first, are also joining a distinguished line of people who built this beautiful building, who cried tears of joy and sorrow here, who confronted their deepest selves, who renewed their commitment to the religion of their ancestors while sitting in the very seats in which you now sit.
Not only do you join tonight all of the former members of Riverdale Temple, you are also making a connection to your own ancestors, your parents and grandparents and those you never met, going back thousands of years. For thousands of years, your ancestors celebrated this night with a family dinner, with prayers, with attendance at a synagogue, perhaps like this one. And if in some years they were refugees, if in some years they were in camps, all the more would they be joyful to know that their descendants were free, here in this room, celebrating the beginning of the Jewish year.
You are also connecting tonight to Jews all over the world. Orthodox Jews down the street, secular Jews in Israel, Jews in South America, in India, in South Africa, in China, and in a Eu- rope where Jews have risen like a phoenix from the ashes. No matter their different practices, their different languages, their different melodies, all of us are brothers and sisters tonight. I hope you feel good about that, I hope that you feel that you are doing exactly what you should be do- ing right now, because you are. But it is not enough.
It is not enough to be sitting here in these seats, to be listening to the beautiful music, to feel a connection to Jews all over the world. We are here not because our ancestors came to Rosh Hashanah services. We are here not because other Jews attend these services. We are here be- cause we wish to remake our lives. The year 5776 has just been born and we also wish to be re- born. To change who we are. To awaken our souls and have them fill our existence with meaning and purpose. We are here to connect to the Living Gd.
I know that some people are uncomfortable talking about Gd. I remember a cartoon I saw once; people were walking out of a church, shaking the preacher’s hand, and one of them was saying “Nice sermon, Reverend, except for all that Gd stuff.”
There are two reasons people don’t like to talk about Gd. One is that we may not want to be associated with the kind of people who talk about Gd too much. The people for whom Gd is an excuse for not confronting life.
The second reason is that many of us are not sure if we believe in Gd. And others are sure that they do not.
If someone tells a rabbi that she does not believe in Gd, the rabbi will probably respond: What kind of Gd do you not believe in?
One of my teachers, Dr. Carol Ochs, would say that by the time most of us are six, we have a concept of Gd. That concept is usually a mixture of a few things we have heard in church or synagogue, with a bit of our parents, Santa Claus, and someone we once saw with a long white beard thrown in. I can define that god for you, although you already know who he is.
He is male, first of all. Probably caucasian, probably dressed in a long white robe. He sits in a throne on a cloud, looking at the earth. He is all powerful, all knowing, loving and kind. He created the world and he wrote the Bible. You learned about this god when you were a kid, and then your main responsibility in this relationship was to go to religious school and to pray to him. His main responsibility was to protect you and to give you the things you asked for when you prayed.
Only even when you were a child, that definition didn’t work so well. You didn’t get all the things you prayed for. You prayed for small things, a toy, a better grade on a test, that someone would like you. And if you didn’t get it, you may have thought that you didn’t deserve it. Or that Gd couldn’t be bothered with something small like that. Or that Gd was teaching you a lesson.
But sometimes kids pray for big things too. For a parent to get a job. Or to stop drinking. For parents to stay together. For someone to survive an illness.
And if your prayer was not granted, how did you feel? Even as a child, perhaps you asked yourself, what kind of god is this?
Or that question may have arisen later, when you were sixteen, or twenty-five, or fifty. You needed Gd. Because you needed Gd to do something for you, or you needed to understand why the world works the way it does, or you needed to give your life meaning. So you fumbled around in the attic of your mind, and out comes the guy with the white beard sitting on a throne in the clouds.
And you reject him! You say ‘I don’t believe in god.’ Well, of course! If that concept of god doesn’t work for a smart six year old, why should it work for you?
So who is Gd? This is an important question that we don’t consider enough. Since the be- ginning of humanity a great deal of time and effort has been spent to get close to Gd. If we are here in this synagogue tonight not out of habit, not because it is a tradition, not because other Jews are doing it, but because out of a sincere desire to awaken our spirits, to connect to the sa- cred, and to get something real from this service, we need to have some idea of the answer to that question. Who is Gd?
Not a man in the clouds. Not Santa Claus who grants prayers. Gd cannot be described, only experienced. We are here in this synagogue tonight, and whenever we are here, to try to ex- perience Gd.
But honestly, that statement is not very convincing for those who do not have a clue what or who Gd might be. So I will say a few words about the Gd that I experience.
The great Jewish thinker Maimonides once said that Gd could only be described in nega- tive terms. Not human. Not created. Not limited. The more positive terms you use to describe Gd, he said, the further from Gd you get.
So let me begin by saying Gd is not male and not female, is not caucasian and does not sit on a throne in the clouds. Gd is not human, although we must try to see Gd through the lens of our humanity. Our tradition tells us that Gd created time and space, which is another way of say- ing that Gd is not part of the physical universe. We cannot use any of our five senses to perceive Gd. Science will never find Gd. But everything that connects us to holiness, that is real, but not physical, is Gd.
Let me say that again: Everything that connects us to holiness, that is real, but not physical, is Gd. That experience of something sacred, that is our experience of Gd.
The feeling of awe at the beauty of the world. Your connection with your grandparents. The feeling of being loved when you smelled someone baking challah, or cookies. Your birth- day. The ache you feel when you love someone more than you can put into words. The desire to be understood. All of that is a feeling that we have because in some way, no matter how slight, Gd has touched us. We have encountered the living Gd.
Everything that is holy, is holy because it is connected to Gd. The Torah, of course. Your ketubah. The first picture your child drew. You hung it on the fridge not because it was beautiful, but because you feel that ache of love when you see it. That love is holy, which is why we thank Gd at the birth of a child, or her bat mitzvah, or his wedding.
You know that experience of the sacred is real, because you have felt it. You may not have known what to call it. But you have been moved. You have felt meaning. You have felt the holi- ness of the moment. On Friday nights we sing a wonderful song, ײַ מעשך גדלו מה . How great are Your works, oh Gd. One year and three days ago my daughter Runia Leah was born. She was born at home, and when I first held her in my arms, I sang that song. How very great are Your works, Oh Gd! That was a holy moment! Gd was there!
Another example– how many people here have a wonderful memory of Passover seders? Perhaps seders that happened many years ago, with people who you wish you could see today, parents, grandparents… If you only have a few seders under your belt, the seders you are having these days will be the ones you remember. What was that feeling of connectedness? What was that feeling of tradition? It was the holiness of the day, of the people, of the ritual. That was your connection with Gd.
At this point you may ask yourself how can this concept of Gd can be reconciled with the Gd we see in the Torah. In the Torah, Gd has a personality. Gd wants people to do certain things and doesn’t want them to do other things. Gd rewards and punishes. Gd gets angry.
Our sense of the sacred is our only way to perceive Gd. And it is true, some actions are holy and some actions are not. Loving behavior, giving charity, honoring your parents, those things are holy. The things that are forbidden in the Torah, to lie, to steal, to murder– those things take you away from holiness. So does Gd have desires? Does Gd want you to act a certain way? Absolutely. Gd wants you to be holy. Gd wants you to be close to Gd.
We understand being kind to the stranger, pursuing justice, loving your neighbor, we un- derstand that these things are holy. But what about the ritual commandments? Why is it holy to light candles on Friday night, to say a blessing before we eat, to say the Sh’ma before we sleep?
Because Judaism wants us to find holiness everywhere. In the passage of time, in sleeping and eating. These mundane things that every animal does, Judaism says they are sacred. Judaism connects them with Gd.
To make a blessing when you eat, to make a blessing when you see the ocean, when you lie down and when you rise up, is to infuse this world with holiness. To be mindful of how you do business, how you treat strangers, is to say that there are more important things in the world than the physical. It is to declare the world holy. It is to encounter the living Gd.
That is why we are here this evening. There are things we could be doing that would be more fun. There are things on TV. We could be out to dinner with friends. Those things, too are important. Sometimes they are even holy. But tonight we want the most direct connection to Gd we can get. Tonight we want to infuse our lives with meaning and passion and holiness, and to commit to doing it for the entire year. That is why we are here tonight.
By being here we get a taste of the holy. We read beautiful prayers in our own language and in the sacred language of our ancestors. We hear the beautiful singing of our cantor and our choir. We spend time thinking about what is sacred in our lives, and confess those things that keep us separate from holiness. Going to the synagogue for our sense of the sacred is like going to the gym for our health. We are training, so that we will sense holiness in all aspects of our lives. We are flexing our holiness muscles. We do that all year long, whenever we come to syna- gogue. But tradition tells us that this day is special. This day, and the days that follow, are holier. If we come to synagogue only once a year, we come this day. This day reminds us what it is like to sense the holiness in the world. To connect to our tradition of thousands of years. And to en- counter Gd.
Take a deep breath. Gd is here. You can feel Him in your heart. She is in your prayers. Be- lieve in Gd again. Not the old man in the clouds. But that feeling of meaning, of connectedness. Remember the world is a sacred place. Let this fill your heart and your soul. Let it last through- out this year, this 5776th year of our people. That’s why we are here.
May Gd be with you this year. May Gd shine the light of His countenance upon you all this year. May Gd lift up Her face to you and grant you holiness. Shana tovah.