Erev Rosh HaShanah Sermon: Making Personal Meaning of the Tradition Rabbi Heather Miller, September 24, 2014


I’d like to start out with a confession tonight. There’s a little dissonance between what I’m feeling and what the universe is providing. Do you know that feeling? Like when it’s your birthday and everyone remembered, and you’re going to your birthday dinner….but then get stuck in a horrible traffic jam and end up an hour late to your own party?

There’s a dissonance between what you’re feeling, and what the universe provides. Or, on the flipside, there’s dissonance when you’re deep in mourning the recent death of a loved one, you’ve been cooped up in the house… but then you step outside to get the mail, and it’s a glorious beautiful sunny amazing day and your neighbor runs by with her happy dog?

There’s a dissonance between what you’re feeling, and what the universe provides. Well, that dissonance is what I feel every year when I think of the Torah selections associated with the two days of Rosh HaShanah.

The traditional Torah portions, which we will read tomorrow morning and the morning after, just don’t feel like the right parts of the Torah for this happy holiday of apples and honey and fresh starts and a new year.

For goodness sakes, it begins with Abraham and Sarah’s infertility, then, it notes that when they FINALLY overcome that infertility and they bear Isaac at the ages of 100 and 90 respectively, God commands Abraham to sacrifice that very child! And Abraham would have done it, too, had not the angel interceded and a ram appeared and could be sacrificed instead of Isaac.

This selection represents one of the most troubling episodes in the Torah. Not only for the brutal description of near-infanticide, but for us post-modern rationalists: for the blind following of God’s command.

Why, is this the selection the one we read on one of the holiest days of the year– the New Year?
Why couldn’t we read something else on this birthday of the world– I don’t know, like maybe, the Creation Story, Genesis 1?!?

There’s a dissonance between what I’m feeling, and what the tradition is providing. In fact, I know several Reform rabbis who would agree, and have therefore instituted it as practice to read the Creation Story instead of the Akedah/Sacrifice of Isaac on Rosh HaShanah.

In fact, there are now Reform and Reconstructionist machzorim, High Holy Day prayerbooks, that affirm the legitimacy of this kind of substitution. They note that the Sacrifice of Isaac actually originally became associated with Rosh HaShanah not until around the 4th century when the rabbis of the time, made a political decision to link it with Rosh HaShanah.

Why? To counteract another popular story about a father and son and unthinkable events taking place atop Mt. Moriah- to counteract the Christian story of the crucifixion of Jesus.1

That’s how some scholars believe this story became associated with Rosh HaShanah– it was a rabbinic religious political assertion based upon the fear that Jews might otherwise convert to Christianity. No wonder I feel it is so out of place!

Now, some people still push for the continued reading of the traditional text as we have for 1700 years now and they insisted that we as modern rabbis should be motivated to see its difficulties as a challenge, a kind of gauntlet thrown down, to find relevance for our communities today. Others, understandably, argue that it would be more desirable to change the reading to the story of Creation to be more obviously on theme with the spirit of the day. And many do make the decision to read the Creation story on Rosh HaShanah instead of the story of the Binding of Isaac for these reasons.

The Reform movement, from which the Conservative movement would later spring, was predicated upon the idea of this kind of inspired, intentional change-making- this kind of informed choice.

The earliest founders spoke of removing what they called the deadened, restrictive “husk” of tradition from the inspired values-based “kernel” of the tradition. To not fall ill to deadening rigid practices that can suffocate inspired religion, but rather to uplift people by emphasizing the core values of our faith.

These ideas were radical at the time. One of the early radicals, Ludwig Philippson, wrote in his circular in 1844, “The issue before us is concerned with the entire content of our religion, which we must present and strengthen in its purity -in order to rescue it from deadening rigidity on the one hand -and from benumbing unfaith on the other.”

He and the earliest reform rabbis were called heretics for promoting change that would render Judaism relevant in the contemporary era (actually they were called worse than heretics but I can’t share that here– if you think a twitter flame war is bad, you should have seen these 19th century circulars!).

But adapting customs to uplift Judaism in the present era is not heretical– Jews have been making Judaism their own for years.

Back in the 5th century, when the latest home decorating fad was tile mosaics of the Astrological zodiac, what do you think the Jewish synagogue community of Bet Alpha in Israel did? Naturally, they installed a mosaic of the Astrological zodiac in their synagogue floor. Their synagogue faced towards Jerusalem as all Jewish synagogues are accustomed to doing, but yet, they made it their own according to their own aesthetic tastes. So, how can we make Judaism our own today?

We may take a cue from a bat mitzvah student I am working with.One afternoon, we were studying the morning prayer thanking God for the intricate design of the body. After we read the text she turned to me and said, that she didn’t agree with praising God for all of the vessels being open that should be and closed that should be because, she said, that’s not God– that’s nature.

We clarified that what she considers to be the mystery of nature behind this phenomenon could be considered the mystery of God to others. I asked her to reread the text substituting the word “Nature” for “God,” and after she read it, I asked her what she thought about reading it this way. “I feel much more connected to the text. I can get behind it now,” she answered.

This student, had made the prayer her own. She didn’t allow the plain meaning of the words on the page, the husk, get in her way of appreciating the kernel of beauty which was behind the prayer, namely the gratitude for the complexity of the human body. Instead, she challenged herself to take a second look at the prayer and made personal meaning of the text.

Similarly, we can learn from poet Ruth Brin, may her memory be for a blessing, who, rather than abandon Jewish prayer that she saw as alienating, offered poetry that transformed our understanding of the limited language that the prayerbook sometimes offers. She wrote:

When men were children,
they thought of God as a father;
When men were slaves,
they thought of God as a master;
When men were subjects,
they thought of God as a king.
But I am a woman, not a slave, not a subject,
not a child who longs for God as father or mother.
I might imagine God as teacher or friend,
but those images, like king, master, father or mother, are too small for me now.
God is the force of motion and light in the universe;
God is the strength of life on our planet;
God is the power moving us to do good;
God is the source of love springing up in us.
God is far beyond what we can comprehend.2

Her writing, too, reminds us that when we feel limited by the words on the page, we can substitute them for what we know to be true; for words that reflect our spirituality. Both of these examples remind us that we can look beyond the plain writing in the prayerbook, and see it as a human attempt to inspire, uplift, and connect us back to our own values.

Therefore, we can transfer and translate the words into a language that our souls know to be true. Not only can we do that, but we can also add our own prayers into the mix. Just as the rabbis of old did, and have done, for thousands of years, we can add to the endeavor by offering our own suggestions for prayers that are contemporary and relevant.

For example, did you know that the Babylonian Talmud3 codified in the year 500 CE, records 11 possible personal prayers to be said at the end of the Amidah? Rabbi Yochanan had one, Rabbi Alexandri had one, Rabbi Meir had one, Rabbi Sheshet had one and so did 7 others. But out of the 11 possible prayers, only one was chosen to be included in the prayerbook. The one by Mar bar Rabina, and it became known as the Elohai Natzor which we recite today: The one that ends,“…may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable before You, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer!” We still recite it because, though it was written over 1500 years ago, it is ever relevant in our lives. Mar bar Rabina showed us that prayers can be added to the prayerbook. And the other rabbis’ recorded prayers remind us that we can each utter the prayers of our own hearts even if they are not included in the prayerbook.

Our own BCC B’nai Mitzvah Class knows how to do this as well. Each of them used inspired hearts to craft personalized prayers for one another. In this way, they engaged in the creative endeavor of expressing prayers in their own words. Our own offerings of spontaneous prayers throughout the service, too, keeps this timeless conversation alive and allows us to feel both rooted in the past and relevant in the present.

A bride that I had the pleasure of working with this past year found similar inspiration. You see, as I usually do, I shared with the couple three different ways that Jews have, throughout time, made meaning of the ritual of breaking the glass at the end of the wedding:
1) as a memorial to the destruction of the second Temple in 70 C.E.
2) those in the middle ages explained the breaking of the glass as a way to scare off any evil spirits that may otherwise plague the marriage or
3) many, in modern times, break the glass as a reminder to us all that marriages are as fragile as the finest crystal and that the breaking of the glass should remind us all to treat one another with care, dignity, and respect.

Most couples really like the third option. But not this bride. I could see the disappointment on her face and she said, “Oh. That’s it. I was really looking forward to breaking the glass but not anymore. I’m not comfortable smashing it for any of those reasons.”

She was ready to give up the entire ritual just because there wasn’t a framework yet that she really philosophically could get behind. Naturally I offered, “Well, let’s see if we can think about what part of it is meaningful to you? If you were to break the glass on your wedding day, what would it symbolize to you?”

And, there, her deep, intentional thought came through. “If I were to do it, I would emphasize that the breaking of the glass at the end of the ceremony symbolizes that the fragility of our relationship is gone. As lesbians, we worked hard to get the right to marry, and so, what this legal marriage represents to me is that our relationship ISN’T fragile anymore. So, my breaking of the glass symbolizes the destruction of such a fragile and tentative status with the replacement of the more solid and permanent bond- legal marriage.”

My jaw dropped. Her connection between the ritual of breaking the glass, and the meaning she made of it took my breath away. What a clearly beautiful way to end a wedding ceremony. And, so, I did just that. But not before telling this born-Jewish now agnostic bride that she was a natural rabbi– in the tradition of the rabbis, making new spiritual meaning of the ritual symbols.

But the truth is, one doesn’t have to be a rabbi to make personal meaning of their Judaism. YOU don’t have to be a rabbi to make personal meaning of YOUR Judaism. We, in the LGBT Jewish community, have been making personal meaning of our Judaism since before LGBT Rabbis were ordained. We founded this synagogue for goodness sakes over 40 years ago.

Our founders revamped the liturgy to provide the new, gender-inclusive language that we use today and which is now standard across hundreds of communities. We created a Holy Day – our annual holiday called Pride Shabbat, and wrote the prayer for Pride Shabbat, which we included in the Amidah section of the prayerbook, the most sacred and pinnacle prayer that there is. We found ways to, instead of being put off by homophobic opinions on difficult Torah passages, we have re-engaged the texts, studied them, resurrected old ideas, and established new opinions. For us here at Congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim, the House of New Life, we breathe new life into our Judaism; our Judaism is personal.

We honor and respect the tradition, and engage with it, but we also allow for old paradigms to shift and transform into a new relevance — for the sake of Judaism itself, and to inspire us and the generations that follow with new ways of relating to the tradition. This IS precisely what the tradition is. The only thing that hasn’t changed in Judaism is that it has always changed. I mean, if not, we might still be sacrificing animals in the Temple, our leadership would still be passed along through the blood line of the Kohanim, and perhaps even the most Orthodox wouldn’t wear suits in the relatively modern style of 19th century shtetl Europe, they’d wear ancient shepherd’s clothing a la patriarch chic.

We all make changes. But what really makes it Jewish is not doing this willy-nilly. Rather, making sure that backing our choices is information, historical research, soul searching, and earnest engagement with the tradition. This gives us the authority and legitimacy to make the evolution happen.

And, since the rabbis wrote the prayerbook, and rabbis are not God, we can find ourselves looking at the translations or creative readings on the pages in front of us, we can find ourselves in quiet meditation on an aspect of our lives that popped into our heads when a thought or memory jumped out from the words on the page. That kind of activity is not degrading to the service-in fact it is the purpose of why we are here.

Your clergy team, Rabbi Lisa, Cantor Juval, and I would like to encourage you to ruminate upon the prayers and rituals that point you in the direction of taking account for your actions from the past year, let them set you up to make amends for them in the next 10 days so that you can set yourself up for a sweet and meaningful new year in 5775. Afterall, why sound the shofar if it is just a performance of breath? Rather, let it remind all of us that our lives are not infinite and we should be stirred, woken up from our own zombie like trance of the regular days of the year, so that we can more fully appreciate each day. Or why beat our chests while reciting the Ashamnu alpha bet of sins that we as a community commit if if it doesn’t lead us to reflect upon how our actions affect the world. Why eat apples and honey? I mean besides for the taste…. why do that if it doesn’t lead us to consider what we can do to ensure for ourselves a sweet and happy new year?

Ritual is not meant for show. It is meant to point us to experiences of introspection and ultimately change. This High Holy Day season, we will try to point to what each of the rituals are meant to inspire us to experience. But, some of the most beautiful meaning is made by you, yourself. So, look for meaning in the text, not just now during these Days of Awe, but all year long. Make personal meaning of the text. And, don’t see this as some sort of deviation from tradition– know that in fact this is what traditional Judaism truly is. We are using this prayerbook, On Wings of Awe, from the 1960s, here for the last time this season. Next year we will make room for the newest edition of a prayerbook intended to open our hearts in a contemporary way, (which itself will become outdated in time).

Let’s therefore appreciate the pages of these books one more time–and the publishers’ attempt to inspire us, to move us, and to give us room to find places for reflection and contemplation of the meaning and purpose of our lives and what we would like from the new year.

Let us no longer feel exiled and alienated by our own tradition and the sometimes odd or awkward and other times outdated or outright offensive frameworks Jewish leaders of old used to inspire their congregants.

We don’t have to feel exiled from our own tradition any further. We can take the initiative to make it our own. Not only is this important for each of us personally, but it is crucial for the survival of Jewish life. Because, if we ossify in the past, if for even a second we stop making personal meaning, we, if not the next generation, will be that much more likely to abandon the enterprise because the tradition is just way too far behind the times. And the core of our values are just too beautiful to let fall by the wayside. What I am suggesting is that instead of heeding the inclination to abandon part of tradition or the Jewish endeavor altogether when something troubles us, let’s re-engage and renew this ancient tradition.

So, I’ll start with my discomfort with this most difficult Torah text about a father attempting to sacrifice his son, which feels utterly dissonant with our celebration today of the renewal of the world. Yes, this is one of the most disturbing passages of the Torah. So, I will ask myself again, before abandoning it to instead read the passage of Creation, what meaning can I make of reading this Torah portion on Rosh HaShanah?

Well I notice: The portion features prominently a central character, Abraham, who is in relationship with his precious son and wife, and with his Creator. Yet, it seems, he is doing things “just because.” He tries to make the sacrifice “just because” God says so, and he almost loses his son because of it. His wife, Sarah is never recorded as having spoken to him again after this incident. In fact, she dies soon thereafter.

Therefore, perhaps I might see that this Torah portion as a warning for each of us to not take our relationships with others or with our God as just something that happens. This portion shows us the dangers of just kind of going along with whatever forces are there. We can apply this principle to our own religious practice as well.

As the good Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pakuda of 11th century Spain reminds us, this Torah portion teaches us: “Do not accept tradition without examining it with your own intellect and judgement.”

This narrative therefore teaches us the absolute necessity of being intentional in our relations with others and God. It invites us, in the broadest way possible, to consider how we are living and if we are living thoughtfully and with purpose. And if we are not, it begs us to begin. And isn’t that the heart of the message of Rosh HaShanah?


1 From Mountain Heights Our Hearts Cry Out, Rabbi Aaron Bisno, 2004.
2, poem by Ruth Brin.
3 BT Berachot 16b-17a, translation adapted from: and the New Union

Leave a Comment