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High Holidays 5780 Day 1 Rosh Hashanah Sermon-Why so important?

Rosh Hashanah Day 1- 5780  Rabbi Kami Knapp

Why Are These Ten Days so Important, Especially this Year? And, Why Should I Care?

Welcome, I’m Rabbi Kami Knapp and I’m happy to be here with you today. 

For the 5780 High Holidays, my sermons center around the theme of renewal, repair, and regrowth. Each sermon has an essential question, a question that has been pondered by our sages for centuries and a question that many of us continue to grapple with today. All of the questions will relate to our theme. I want to thank you with deep gratitude for going on this journey and exploration with me.

Why are these ten days so important, especially this year? And, why should I care?

Jews have been asking these same questions for centuries and traditionally they found their answer from the Talmud which writes: 

דתניא הכל נידונים בר”ה וגזר דין שלהם נחתם ביוה”כ דברי ר”מ ר’ יהודה אומר הכל נידונין בר”ה וגזר דין שלהם נחתם כל אחד ואחד בזמנו

All are judged on Rosh HaShana, and their sentence is sealed on Yom Kippur; this is the statement of Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Yehuda says: All are judged on Rosh HaShana, and their sentence is sealed each in its own time: (Talmud RH 16a)

The traditional answer as to why should I care about the High Holidays, has been, it’s judgement day. The judgement will be either you will live or die in the coming year. But, I’m challenged, and perhaps you are too, by this day of judgement for two reasons: 1- the concept of judgement itself; Judgement brings a tremendous amount of pressure. Not only is it external but this pressure is internal as well. I wonder how we can do a thorough job of self-assessment and repentance when we feel the gravity of judgement? And 2: I’m challenged by the length of dedicated time to repentance and pleading our case before G-d. A mere 10 days. My life for the coming year depends on a mere 10 days work? The rabbis attempted to address this challenge which we see from the piece of Talmud I just read. Rabbi Meir concludes: judgement happens by the end of the ten days, Rabbi Yehuda says yes, we are judged but the actual decree will unfold when it is meant to unfold, not necessarily Yom Kippur, not necessarily this year. 

Another traditional answer as to why are these ten days so important is Rosh Hashanah marks the day the world was created, when our world began, it is the birthday of humankind. We should care because this is the anniversary of the beginning of us.

As symbolized in the dipping of apples and challah in honey, the next ten days mark the beginning of bringing sweetness into our new year. 

But these two traditional answers pose their own challenge, especially if we try and hold them both. On the one hand we are meant to celebrate the joy of creation and the continuation of life, but on the other we find ourselves rooted in intense judgement and ultimately a determination of our fate in the year to come. Thereby people may be confused, which one is it? Which one is the reason why this time is so important. Joy or judgement?

Instead of juxtaposing these arguments against one another, I propose we accept them both. By accepting both we are taught an important lesson which may be used in our daily lives. Which in times of judgement, time which is riddled with the unknown, anxiety and distress, we need joy to lift us up from the pressure that pushes us down. 

Just this year:

  • The global sea level is now rising at a rate of 1/10th of an inch a year. The number seems small but at this rate, most, if not all of our glaciers will be gone by 2035. (NatGeo)
  • CO2 levels are doubling in rate every year. (National Geographic)
  • July 2019 was the hottest month on record for the world, the world. (

And it’s not just climate:

  • As of September 1, 2019 there have been a record 283 mass shootings in the US. This averages to 1.2 mass shootings a day. (CBS) And these numbers do not include the month of September
  • And here is one I imagine everyone in the room can relate to: Nearly 86% of Americans work more than 40 hours a week, 40% work 50 hours + a week, and 20% works 60 hours + a week (20something finance)

The statistics go on and on. No wonder as we enter the High Holidays this year we feel exhausted as a nation, frightened for the future, and perhaps even pessimistic that it will get better.

So amidst this exhaustion, why are the High Holidays important, especially this year? Our tradition teaches us an important lesson: amidst judgement and fear, we need joy. Joy not in order to ignore the judgement but joy to offset the pressure of judgement and fear. Finding joy doesn’t authorize us to not act towards justice and health but finding joy rejuvenates us so we can do this important work.

In today’s Torah portion: Genesis 21: 1-34, we read of Sarah and she is finally blessed with a child: Isaac. Before she discovers she is pregnant, Sarah feels forgotten, plagued with the inability to have children when women of her time were valued for their fertility. When she discovers that she is pregnant, she laughs and responds “G-d has brought me laughter, everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And she adds, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children! Yet I have borne a son in his old age.” (Genesis 21: 6-7)

We are Sarah. And not just we, the Jews, but we, the human race. We are drowning in the feeling that things will never get better. But yet our tradition teaches amidst our pessimism, we can find laughter. With Sarah’s joy comes a flourishing pregnancy which brings forth the child she never thought she would have.

In our Haftarah portion we read of Hannah, again a woman thought to be barren who is blessed with a child: Samuel. Rabbi David Teutsch writes: “Although the circumstances surrounding these two women are quite different, they each are ‘remembered by G-d’ in their difficulty. This can serve as a metaphor for our understanding of G-d’s presence in the world, and our desire to have the hopes expressed in our prayers fulfilled, even if we do not expect supernatural intervention.” (Guide to Jewish Practice, pg. 250)

The high holidays this year are important because they allow us amidst the pressure, deep pessimism and pain to come together and find joy in order to create hope that our pleas can be heard. This season teaches of the potential for rebirth and regrowth. If you allow it, the High Holidays provide a vehicle in which we can acknowledge the past year, celebrate the passing of time, work through the pain and wrongdoing to, like Sarah and Hannah, be blessed with renewal and rebirth.

There is a famous hassidic story which highlights the importance of hope amongst the pain and Rabbi Alan Lew gives a wonderful retelling of it in his book This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared:

Every year before the Days of Awe, the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidic Judaism, held a competition to see who would blow the shofar for him on Rosh Hashanah. Now if you wanted to blow the shofar for the Ba’al Shem Tov, not only did you have to blow the shofar like a virtuoso, but you also had to learn an elaborate system of kavanot- secret prayers that were said just before you blew the shofar to direct the shofar blasts and to see that they had the proper effect in the supernal realms. All the prospective shofar blowers practiced these kavanot for months. They were difficult and complex. There was one fellow who wanted to blow the shofar for the Ba’al Shem Tov so badly that he had been practicing these kavanot for years. But when his time came to audition before the Ba’al Shem, he realized that nothing he had done had prepared him adequately for the experience of standing before this great and holy man, and he appled. He choked. His mind froze completely. He couldn’t remember one of the kavanot he had practiced for all those years. He couldn’t even remember what he was supposed to be doing at all. He just stood before the Ba’al Shem in utter silence, and then, when he realized how egregiously- how utterly- he had failed this great test, his heart just broke in two and he began to weep, sobbing loudly, his shoulders heaving and his whole body wracking as he wept. All right, you’re hired, the Ba’al Shem said. But I don’t understand, the man said. I failed the test completely. I couldn’t even remember one kavanah. So the Ba’al Shem explained with the following parable: In the palace of the King, there are many secret chambers, and there are secret keys for each chamber, but one key unlocks them all, and that key is the ax. The King is the Lord of the Universe, the Ba’al Shem explained. The palace is the House of G-d. The secret chambers are the sefirot, the ascending spiritual realms that bring us closer and closer to G-d when we perform commandments such as blowing the shofar with the proper intention, and the secret keys are the kavanot. And the ax- the key that opens every chamber and bring us directly into the presence of the King, where he may be- the ax is the broken heart, for as it says in the Psalms, “G-d is close to the brokenhearted.”

We are broken hearted but beginning today, Rosh Hashanah, we are reminded that G-d is with us, we are with one another. Why should we care about these ten days? Because it speaks to our human condition, it acknowledges that judgement and joy can reside together. It teaches us to be hopeful despite the pessimism. It teaches us that one must confront the pain in order to continue to grow and be joyful. It teaches us that through connection with G-d and others, we find hope to make things better, to change our personal actions so that we repair that which was damaged and piece back together that which is broken. Piece back together both the world and also our hearts. Finding joy to relieve the pressure of judgement enables us to turn fear into action.

This year, our theme for the high holidays is renewal, repair and regrowth and that process starts today! Please join me, in community, as we do this work together over the next ten days.

Shanah Tovah u’metukah!