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The Best Day of My Life

6 Sep

Rosh HaShanah Evening, September 6, 2021

Congregation Beth Emeth, Herndon, VA

Shanah Tovah.

What a blessing it is to be with Congregation Beth Emeth on this Rosh Hashanah. Indeed, what a blessing it is to be alive and to usher in a new year. Before I reflect more deeply on this blessing, I would be remiss in failing to note, that both Rabbi Aft and I are from Chicago and both of us root for the Chicago White Sox, who are closing in on the playoffs. It is an honor to serve the Beth Emeth community in this time of transition. We Chicagoans know how to help out in a pinch. 

You will also be pleased to know that my daughter Esther, who celebrated becoming bat mitzvah in January of this year, is a die hard Washington Nationals fan. We live in South Florida not far from the Nats’ Spring Training site in West Palm Beach, and Esther has made them her team. She also has a flair for design, and she wanted me to share that she always thought it was cool that the font in the team logo looks a lot like the font in the Walgreens corporate logo. Esther loves to call the Nationals, “The Walgreens Team.” 

In 2018, we were in Chicago for a family gathering. It happened that the Nationals were playing the Cubs at Wrigley Field. So, I went with my kids and my father to the Sunday night game. My dad and I were rooting for the Cubs—I am a rare Chicagoan who roots for both the Sox and the Cubs—It’s complicated. My kids were rooting for the Nationals, especially Esther. Max Scherzer—remember him?—was pitching for the Nationals and was unhitable. However, he was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning as the Nationals were clinging to a 1-0 lead. The strategy worked perfectly. The Nationals scored two more insurance runs in the 8th and took a 3-0 lead. It was at that point that Esther kissed me on the cheek and said, “This is the best day of my life.” Well, poor kid, she spoke too soon. With two outs in the bottom of the 9th, the Cubs loaded the bases and sent up a pinch-hitter named David Bote who hit a walk-off grand slam, and the Cubs won 4-3. The crowd went wild, and my father and I enthusiastically hugged. My joy was short-lived, though. Esther had burst into tears. She was inconsolable. I spent the rest of our trip trying to be my best chaplain self and comfort her. 

Whenever I reflect on that evening, I can’t help but think of the innocence of my child saying “This is the best day of my life.” 

Esther’s optimistic words echo words of thanksgiving in Jewish tradition. On Jewish holidays throughout the year we sing in the Hallel prayers of Thanksgiving: Zeh hayom asah Adonai nagilah v’nismechah vo—This is the day that God has made. Let us celebrate and rejoice in it. 

Oddly enough, we do not say that prayer of Thanksgiving or any part of Hallel on Rosh HaShanah. Why not? 

The Talmud teaches: 

דאמר רבי אבהו אמרו מלאכי השרת לפני הקב”ה רבש”ע מפני מה אין ישראל אומרים שירה לפניך בר”ה וביום הכפורים אמר להן אפשר מלך יושב על כסא הדין וספרי חיים וספרי מתים פתוחין לפניו וישראל אומרים שירה לפני

As Rabbi Abbahu said that the ministering angels said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: Master of the Universe, for what reason do the Jewish people not recite songs of praise, i.e., hallel, before You on Rosh HaShana and on Yom Kippur? He said to them: Is it possible that while the King is sitting on the throne of judgment and the books of life and the books of death are open before Him, the Jewish people would be reciting joyous songs of praise before Me? Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are somber days of judgment whose mood is incompatible with the recitation of Hallel. (Arachin 10b)

We don’t say Hallel on Rosh HaShanah because the mood of the day is too heavy and somber. Nevertheless, we should be grateful that we are here together right now. Rosh HaShanah is a joyous day. It is a festive day. It may even be the best day of our lives. How do we know this? 

We find a beautiful reference to Rosh HaShanah as a day of joy in the Hebrew Bible, in the Book of Nehemiah. In the Torah and the rest of the Bible this day is the first day of the seventh month.  Nehemiah is set around 444 BCE. Jews who had been forced into exile by the Babylonians were allowed to return to their ancestral land by Persia, the new super power of the time. The Jews were once again allowed to gather in Jerusalem in large numbers after a prolonged absence. They were starving for leadership and sought guidance in reclaiming their traditions. On the first day of the seventh month, Rosh HaShanah, throngs of people assembled in the main square before the Water Gate (that’s in Jerusalem, not DC).  They asked Ezra the scribe to bring the scroll of the Teaching of Moses with which the Lord had charged Israel. Ezra the priest brought the Teaching before the congregation, men and women and all who could listen with understanding. He read from it, facing the square before the Water Gate, from the first light until midday… (Nehemiah 8:1‑3).

The people were overwhelmed with emotion. 

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר נְחֶמְיָ֣ה ה֣וּא הַתִּרְשָׁ֡תָא וְעֶזְרָ֣א הַכֹּהֵ֣ן ׀ הַסֹּפֵ֡ר וְהַלְוִיִּם֩ הַמְּבִינִ֨ים אֶת־הָעָ֜ם לְכׇל־הָעָ֗ם הַיּ֤וֹם קָדֹֽשׁ־הוּא֙ לַה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֔ם אַל־תִּֽתְאַבְּל֖וּ וְאַל־תִּבְכּ֑וּ כִּ֤י בוֹכִים֙ כׇּל־הָעָ֔ם כְּשׇׁמְעָ֖ם אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֥י הַתּוֹרָֽה׃

Nehemiah…, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites … said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God: you must not mourn or weep,” for all the people were weeping as they listened to the words of the Teaching.

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לָהֶ֡ם לְכוּ֩ אִכְל֨וּ מַשְׁמַנִּ֜ים וּשְׁת֣וּ מַֽמְתַקִּ֗ים וְשִׁלְח֤וּ מָנוֹת֙ לְאֵ֣ין נָכ֣וֹן ל֔וֹ כִּֽי־קָד֥וֹשׁ הַיּ֖וֹם לַאֲדֹנֵ֑ינוּ וְאַל־תֵּ֣עָצֵ֔בוּ כִּֽי־חֶדְוַ֥ת ה’ הִ֥יא מָֽעֻזְּכֶֽם׃

He further said to them, “Go, eat choice foods and drink sweet drinks and send portions to whoever has nothing prepared, for the day is holy to our Lord. Do not be sad, for your rejoicing in the LORD is the source of your strength.”

11

וְהַלְוִיִּ֞ם מַחְשִׁ֤ים לְכׇל־הָעָם֙ לֵאמֹ֣ר הַ֔סּוּ כִּ֥י הַיּ֖וֹם קָדֹ֑שׁ וְאַל־תֵּעָצֵֽבוּ׃

The Levites were quieting the people, saying, “Hush, for the day is holy; do not be sad.”

12

וַיֵּלְכ֨וּ כׇל־הָעָ֜ם לֶאֱכֹ֤ל וְלִשְׁתּוֹת֙ וּלְשַׁלַּ֣ח מָנ֔וֹת וְלַעֲשׂ֖וֹת שִׂמְחָ֣ה גְדוֹלָ֑ה כִּ֤י הֵבִ֙ינוּ֙ בַּדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר הוֹדִ֖יעוּ לָהֶֽם׃ {פ}

Then all the people went to eat and drink and send portions and make great merriment, for they understood the things they were told.

On this particular Rosh HaShanah Day 2500 years ago, the people of Israel renewed their covenant with God and accepted the Torah as their basic law. The people wept when they realized how far they had strayed from the teachings of the Torah. But they were admonished not to mourn because “this day is holy to the Lord your God” (Nehemiah 8:9).

As we begin together a new year on the Jewish calendar, we acknowledge the hardships of the last year the we have endured as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over 600,00 people have died from COVID-19 in our country, and the virus is still disrupting our lives. We have witnessed and experienced illness, death and isolation. For many of us present in the sanctuary now, this holiday might be the first or one of the first in-person religious gatherings. And we also acknowledge that there are many in our community who are worshiping with us virtually because we are not yet out of the pandemic. There are many other distressing challenges. The withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan took place amidst violence and disorder that has been shocking to watch. Climate change is wreaking havoc in so many ways and throughout the world. Democratic institutions in America and around the world have been tested in ways that we have not previously seen in the West in most of our lifetimes. In addition, many of us has different levels of individual challenges with health, family or work or any combination.  

We can relate to our ancestors in the time of Ezra and Nehemia, perhaps more now than ever before, to their sense of profound loss mingled with their gratitude and joy for being together. 

Yes, there is a somber element to the High Holidays, but even within the solemnity there is hopefulness and joy. The message of the High Holidays is that we do not have to be stuck in the same habits of the previous year. We can improve, we can be better, we can make up for the mistakes we have made in the past. 

The High Holidays are the most optimistic holidays of our tradition. Instead of dwelling on our past faults, we recognize that God has given us the ability to overcome our faults and to grow as human beings. On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we are reminded that God believes in us. Teshuvah (repentance) is, therefore, an act of joy. If God believes we can be contrite and do teshuvah, that is God’s vote of confidence that we can do better and be better. And that in itself is cause for joy. 

We are gathering in person and online to celebrate Rosh HaShanah together as a community. We are reaffirming our faith in God and, more important, we are reaffirming God’s faith in us. What could be better than that? 

Let us resolve to make this Rosh HaShanah the best day of our life. As we observe the holiday together, let us affirm life, celebrate life and resolve to live the best life possible in the year to come. 

Please join me in a very familiar Jewish expression of gratitude for life, the she-he-hiyanu: Baruh ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh HaOlam she-he-hiyanu v’kiyemanu v’higiyanu lazman hazeh. (sing)

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