Delivered by Rabbi Jill Maderer, Rosh Hashanah morning.
Why are we here? Why are we here as individuals and as a community? Generations ago, one of our prophets, Elijah, is called to answer that question.
Immersed in a spiritual quest, and frightened by a broken world, Elijah crawls into a cave where he spends the night. That’s when the word of God comes to him: God asks: “Why are you here, Elijah?” Trembling with fear, Elijah replies:
“I despair that we have forsaken Your covenant, And torn down Your altars. I am alone.”
Rings true today. This Rosh Hashanah, we too, stand at the mouth of the cave, saying in our own words:
“I despair that we have forgotten to listen, to live, to love.
That we have torn down human dignity.
I yearn to commit to something greater than myself, something sacred.”
We too tremble in fear. Frightened by the many things that make ourselves, and our world, broken.
I am frightened by the personal challenges that so many of us encounter: isolation, addiction, bullying, mental illness. …By abundant daily tasks, but scarce time to reflect, to express thanks, to grieve for loss and disappointment, to connect, to understand different perspectives.
I am frightened by anti-Semitism, still in the year of mourning for our Jewish brothers and sisters in Pittsburgh. And I am frightened by anti-Zionist advocates for BDS against Israel, because I support the rights of Jews, and the rights of Palestinians to a Two-State Solution.
I am frightened by school shooters, and by the role of guns in domestic violence, in suicide, and in under-served communities. I am frightened by white supremacy, homophobia, immigration injustice. I am frightened by abuses of power. And I am frightened by lawmakers, who seek to restrict my reproductive rights. I am frightened by my own habits—as I daily contribute to climate change. And I am frightened by the gap between my values and my actions.
Yet, I know I am not alone. Because I am here with you. When we face despair, we may be tempted to crawl into the cave.
But what does God say to Elijah?
“Come out, and stand on the mountain before the Eternal One.” God says it to Elijah, and I believe, in our own understanding of God or consciousness or inner-life, we hear it too– God calls to us: “Come out, and stand on the mountain before the Eternal One.”
With courage, bring your fullest self – your love and your doubt, your vulnerability and your hope. Come out, and stand on the mountain before the Eternal One.
With resilience, never give up on returning to your best self — Come out, and stand on the mountain before the Eternal One.
With love, discover the possibility of human connection — Come out, and stand on the mountain before the Eternal One.
The cave is not an option. Stand with each other. Stand in My presence.
That is why we are here. As the sound of the shofarcalls us, at this holy time of the new year, that is why the synagogue is here. And all year long, that is why our congregation is here: To stand together—amid brokenness—to stand together on the mountain before the Eternal One.
Elijah is frightened. But the Hebrew word for frightened can also mean “to see.” Elijah is frightened. Or Elijah sees. We are frightened. Or, we see.
This community is where we shine a light, and help each other see what we need to see. Where we illuminate something of the wholeness and holiness, that resides in each of us. Where we catch each other when we stumble, and join hands to walk the path towards renewal. Where we grapple with the meaning of tradition, and its relevance for our lives. Where we deepen our journeys, listen to others’ stories, and we draw strength from sharing them with one another. Where we make sacred sense of our world, and of our place in it. We need each other, in order to come out of the cave, and stand on the mountain before the Eternal One. That’s why we are here.
Elijah says: “I am alone.” Some days, you may feel it too. But no—we are not alone. This year, our leadership chose to see, that our reality calls for an expanded vision for our congregation. Our new vision statement, declares that we are not alone, and inspires us to commit to each other, in these 4 core principles: Immersed in Jewish time, guided by enduring values, compelled to moral action, we create profound connections.
We are here, to together, be immersed in Jewish time. Sustained by the sacred rhythms of the Jewish year, living in the framework of Jewish ritual, teaches us to gather as a community, to bring our authentic selves, as we walk with each other, through the joys and sorrows of our lives.
I recently officiated at a funeral here in this sanctuary. There, I saw a congregant who I did not realize was connected to the woman we were mourning. So I asked him: how do you know her or the bereaved family? He replied, “I did not know her well, but for every High Holy Day service we sat in the same neighborhood of pews. So year after year as we gathered for the holidays, we became acquainted. When I learned of her death I wanted to be present for her family.”
I was so touched by his choice to be there, and by his reason—this is what we do for one another in our Jewish community. The congregational condolence emails have become important, because they help us to strip away barriers and to care for each other.
Jewish ritual unites us for moments of comfort, and also of joy—moments of the lifecycle, and also of the Jewish calendar. Every person who shows up, to dance on Simchat Torah, or to pray and sing and breathe on Shabbatwhen our community gathers weekly—every person there elevates the joy for the next person.
In order to fully celebrate our tradition’s holy moments—to be immersed in Jewish time— we commit to something greater than ourselves, something sacred.
We are not alone.
We are here, too, together. Be guided by enduring values. The timeless wisdom of our tradition inspires our intentional quest for truth, and helps us to narrow the gap between our values and our actions.
Many of you have shared a concern with me. When someone asks how you are doing, you respond: “Busy. Crazy. The very pace of my day spirals out of control.” You are not alone.
Maybe we aren’t over-committed. We’re under-committed, but to so many things. Constantly fragmented, our attention is not whole. Do you ever enter your password on the microwave? A few weeks ago, I took my daughter to the doctor and when we arrived, I realized I had forgotten my cell phone! How could I sit in a waiting room without my phone? Before my child was called in, she advised me: do what you tell meto do with waiting time – meditate. (I guess she listens). She was right—Sometimes I need someone to say: Just be in one place.
Tradition has much wisdom to teach us about consciousness. At Mt. Sinai, God says to Moses: “Come up to the mountain and be there.” Sounds redundant. If he ascends the mountain, where else would he be? But maybe the Torahunderstands the extra effort it takes, just to be present. Moses: Be where you are. Maderer: Be where you are. You, too? Not easy, but when we strive together, to be present, we have a better chance of living that value. When in Jewish community we study Torah, struggle with its message and with competing priorities, when we carve out space for contemplation, we nourish each other’s pathways to enduring values—like intention, loving-kindness, human dignity.
In order to be guided by our enduring values — we commit to something greater than ourselves, something sacred.
We are not alone.
We are here, too, together. Be compelled to moral action. In a broken world, we commit to be a voice of conscience and to engage in the work of social justice.
In 1790, President George Washington responded to a letter from the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island. In his response, Washington writes: “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship… For happily the Government of the United States…gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance…”
On display at the National Museum of American Jewish History, his letter’s mandate does not come easy.
Picture yourself standing on Independence Mall, just south of Market Street. The museum with the letter, to your left. What is just across the grass, from the place where Washington’s “bigotry no sanction” letter lives? The excavated slave quarters of the very same George Washington. That grass on which you stand—that space in between, is the struggle—the complex tension between inclusion and degradation, within one man. The ideals are not achieved easily, even for him.
And the principles are not achieved easily, when it comes to us.
For me, that space, where some of us stood last month on Tisha B’Av, rallying for immigration justice, that space between “to bigotry no sanction” and, the slave quarters, that is holy ground because it tells the story of the truth of our nation and the truth of our humanity— that any one of us can fall into the trap of demonizing the other, that we are on a spiritual quest to determine who we seek to be, that we have always struggled for righteousness—in our country, in our community, in our very self.
We turn to the people we trust – those we trust for their challenging honesty, for their common values, and for their shared commitment to repair this world. That struggle for moral clarity happens together.
In order to pursue moral action— we commit to something greater than ourselves, something sacred.
We are not alone.
We are here to together create profound connections. With vulnerability and trust, courage and hope, we see one another and we feel seen. We enter the synagogue to lift each other on our journeys—to celebrate, to learn, to laugh, to heal, to challenge ourselves, and to connect with others about the deepest questions of our lives.
To create profound connections we commit to something greater than ourselves, something sacred.
All of those generations ago at the mouth of the cave, Elijah says: “I am alone.” Some days, we feel it too. But no—you are not alone. Immersed in Jewish time, guided by enduring values, compelled to moral action, we create profound connections.
Like Elijah, trembling we say: “I despair that we have forgotten to listen, to live, to love, That we have torn down human dignity. I yearn to commit to something greater than myself, something sacred.”
And God’s calling is clear: The cave is not an option. Stand with each other. Stand in My presence.
“Come out,” God calls, “and stand on the mountain before the Eternal One.”
Make we make it so.
(Attribution: “Do you ever enter your password on the microwave?” from Homiletics Online, reprinted in Rabbi Edwin Goldberg’s Saying No and Letting Go.)