Shalom and my wishes to all of you and your loved ones for shana tovah u’metukah, a good and sweet year (5777)
From the outset of my remarks, it is clear that the way we Jews welcome the new year is unique to the Jewish people and our Judaism, and to no other faith.
Normally, the passage of time is marked by raucous celebrating, imbibing, eating and dancing – a logical way to mark the coming of a new year and the blessing of life. However, in Jewish tradition our celebration is not with noisy drinking and dancing but by sitting with our families at the festive dinner table, dipping our challah into honey and thanking God for the renewed possibility of a good and sweet new year.
I can also understand why we wish our friends and loved ones a “good” year because, in Jewish terms, if we do not add goodness to our lives, the new year is just another day, a part of the cycle of nature. When we come to synagogue to pray, it is not to ask God for material needs but spiritual strength, new ideals, gratitude for what we have, a changing and healthier perspective on our lives and the world around us.
We study and hear the words of Torah reconnecting us to our past and to our people. We all know that the example of spiritual and religious resolve set by our Jewish ancestors at the start of our recorded history has stood the test of time.
They knew the power of words, that ideas are stronger than the sword. So Babylonia is in rubble, the remains of Assyria are in museums, Greece, Rome, Persia, the Holy Roman Empire, Islamic Empire, Communist bloc, Nazi Third Reich are all gone and we, the Jews, less than %.002 of the world’s population, are still here.
The theme of this year’s Holy Days is “The Importance of our Vision: Finding Meaning”. On Erev Rosh Hashanah we will introduce our journey into why ideals and dreams matter, by focusing on a talmudic text that tells us exactly what we should be praying for on Rosh Hashanah.
On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the subject is “God: Why do our Beliefs Matter?” They certainly matter a great deal to the dregs of extremists and terrorists today, but what about us? Do we have any core beliefs? Why God? And what kind of God it is that I reject or accept?
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah we turn to our texts, the stories and history that give us vision.
On Kol Nidre: What is the mission of the Jewish people? Is it important to articulate what exactly we, the collective whole of the Jewish people, want for this world? What is the purpose of remaining Jewish? Plus a few words about how Belsize Square Synagogue fits into our people’s vision. Does our Synagogue need goals and a mission?
For Yom Kippur, what does all this search for meaning and vision mean to me as an individual? What do I live for? Should I be a part of something greater than myself?
At Yizkor, remembering: the importance of incorporating our memories of loved ones into our ideals and aims. Yizkor is all about remembering the past for the sake of our future.
At Neilah, before we say goodbye to our holiest time of the year, we will summarise and contemplate where we are headed as individuals and as a community.
We all begin our new year by dipping our challah into honey, which is perfectly kasher! Why is that an odd thing? Because normally something that is tamei (ritually impure) is forbidden, treif!
Milk products, eggs of kosher animals are just fine, but how can the product of a non-kosher creature – a bee – be considered kosher? (footnote: I love honey – good decision, Rabbis!) but why did they come up with a ruling that not only allows us to eat honey all year round but tells us we should eat it specifically at Rosh Hashanah? Why is it made the exception to the long list of prohibitions in Maimonides, Hilchot Ma’achalot Assurot 3:3?
According to the Rabbis, honey represents a food which turns “bad, non-kosher” into good – and kosher. That is the concrete form of what we express in our prayers: there is always a future for happiness. Good will emerge from past unhappiness, suffering and dissonance.
So what are our greatest hopes and dreams at this time of the year? The food – the honey – symbolises our quest for 5777 to see good emerge from our misfortunes, wars and crises; to see taharah (purity), the good, emerge from tumah (impurity) and our world move toward the fulfilment of our hopes and ideals.
See you all in our beautiful Sanctuary.
Ketivah v’chatimah tovah,
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler