My Rosh Hashanah Day One Sermon

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Rosh Hashanah Day One 5776 Sermon

Rabbi Adam J. Rosenbaum

Synagogue Emanu-El, Charleston, SC

When I was in Rabbinical School, my classmates and I particularly enjoyed planning silly skits and documents for the holiday of Purim. Purim, which takes place near the beginning of spring, is a day when we read the book of Esther and celebrate the Jews’ deliverance in the most irreverent ways possible. While preparing for one Purim, a group of us began a list of potential sequels to the books assigned to us in our classes. One such book was written by the great philosopher of our movement, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and it is called, I Asked For Wonder! I suggested that the sequel to the book should be called, I Asked For Wonder … And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt!

All joking aside, the philosophy of Heschel in this and in many of his other works centered around our search for wonder, our desire to feel inspired, motivated, and even to feel a touch of the Divine. And as with many times we search for inspiration, we are better off not seeking it directly, but rather exposing our souls to as many experiences as we can, and seeing what resonates with us. If we ask for wonder specifically, we risk looking too hard and only disappointing ourselves. Rather, the key to discovering wonder is to do something that sounds almost the same: In order to wonder, we must wander. For we find that the moments that move us the most happen when we least anticipate it. All we can do is wander, and if we wander enough, we will find wonder in the most unexpected places.

I’ll talk in a couple of minutes about the wandering that I’ve done in recent months, but before I do, it’s worthwhile to learn or relearn the wanderings of Abraham, the main character of our Torah readings on Rosh Hashanah. The Torah tells us that Abraham was born in Mesopotamia, then moved to Haran in his later years, only to be told by God that he should continue his journey to a land previously unknown to him. But no sooner does Abraham arrive in Canaan that a famine breaks out, forcing him to relocate to Egypt. Once he returns to the Promised Land, he must determine where he and his nephew Lot should settle as they go their separate ways. Subsequently, Abraham fights on the battlefield and struggles to establish and maintain his family, but only at the end of his life can we say that he is settled in his home, in Beersheva.

This travelogue might seem like aimless wandering, but according to scholar Bruce Feiler, that would trivialize Abraham’s journey. “Abraham is not a settled man, or a wandering man,” Feiler writes in his book Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths. “He’s a combination, who embodies in his upbringing a message he will come to represent: the perpetual stranger in a strange land, the outsider who longs to be the insider, the landless who longs for land, the pious who finds a palliative in God for his endlessly painful life.” Feiler believes that Abraham is not just wandering, but also opening himself up for wonder, trying to make sense of a mysterious God who has guided him on a remarkable path, and trying to bring meaning to his life. And many of the most moving aspects of his life – his initial encounter with God, the covenant that God gives him, and the births and the relationships he forms with his two sons – are all surprises to him, moments he may never have had if he stayed in Mesopotamia all along.

It’s only natural for us to feel like Abraham must have felt, journeying from place to place, hoping to discover something that will make our hearts leap into action. Wandering from time to time only benefits us in the long run, even if we don’t have a specific goal in mind. Mark Twain once said that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

With this in mind, I’d like to take this opportunity to talk about what I did this summer – why I wandered for two months, and the possibility of wonder that I hope we can discover together.

A few years ago, this synagogue offered me the unique privilege of granting me a summer sabbatical. While numerous synagogues allow their rabbis this opportunity, I recognize there are many that don’t, so I want to thank this synagogue’s lay leadership for giving me this chance. I’d also like to recognize and thank Rabbi Alan Cohen for coming to Charleston during my two months away and providing this community with stability and wisdom, much as he did when he led this congregation earlier in his rabbinic career.

The purpose of a sabbatical involves a lot of words that begin with “re” – it’s a chance to recharge, reflect, and refocus. It is not a vacation, although it is understood that it’s meant to be less stressful than the day-to-day responsibilities of the congregational pulpit. More than anything, it gave me the chance to wander in search of wonder. While I spent the bulk of my time in Denver, the place where I grew up and where the majority of my family still lives, I also drove through the midwest and the Pacific northwest. I focused my work in three areas: First, I visited various Conservative synagogues, met with their rabbis, compiled information about the successes and challenges of their communities. Second, I read several books about synagogue life, the kinds of books I always meant to read but never had the time to do so. And third, I studied commentaries on the Torah, the fruits of which will appear on my blog and the weekly emails I send to this congregation over the course of the next year. 

During these wanderings, I deliberately made my goals somewhat nebulous, if only because I didn’t know where exactly I might discover wonder. As we’ve learned from the example of Abraham, we learn most of our important lessons over the course of journey, when we least expect to find something that moves us. With that in mind, I’d like to talk about some of the wonderful things I learned during my recent journeys.

First, when it comes to connecting with our Jewish heritage, we can’t underestimate the power of ritual to transform a community. In his book Empowered Judaism, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer wrote that “The ultimate goal of prayer [is] to unlock some of the emotional space that is cordoned off by the modern world.” When I attended services at various Conservative synagogues, I saw that many are not afraid to make bold changes to services, all in the name of broader participation and discovering the passion that can be found in our prayer books. One particular synagogue in Denver, the Hebrew Educational Alliance, has a weekly service called “Shir Hadash” which, through a combination of a lay-led davening team and soulful yet traditional music, is a moving experience for all who attend. Perhaps not every aspect of this service would be useful for our congregation, but after attending two Shir Hadash services, I felt confident that we can refine our Shabbat service in a way that would inspire many of us to attend more often and to participate more actively.

A second source of wonder was the synagogues’ determination to be vocal and active on social issues that were important to them. Specifically, I found that many of them were determined to waste fewer resources and to be more inclusive of every aspect of the population. Whether it was entirely compostable kiddush at Congregation Bonai Shalom in Boulder, Colorado; the numerous synagogues that have specifically added unisex restrooms; or the places that have created Friday night services geared toward people with special needs, I received a clear message from these communities that all people are precious, as is the earth on which we stand. These are ideas aren’t exactly controversial, and I know that our synagogue has made great strides in welcoming diverse populations, as evidenced by the new membership structures we adopted three years ago, and in caring for those in need, as evidenced by our campaign over the last year to fight hunger. But it’s also exciting to know that we can follow examples set by others and to do even more.

The third major lesson from the summer is that synagogues are constantly discovering new ways to connect with its congregants, whether in person or electronically. In her book The Self-Renewing Congregation, Isa Aaron wrote that “The effectiveness of an organization is dependent on the synergy between its members.” There are so many ways to make this synergy possible, and easier to follow. Whether you’re in Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook, Illinois, where they post the complimentary wi-fi password all over the building so that visitors can feel comfortable to stay in the building; or whether you’re at the Eldridge Street Synagogue in New York City, which you probably found because you downloaded its free iTunes app; or whether you’re home-bound but can still watch synagogue services streaming live on your computer, there are many ways to harness technology to enable us to feel more connected. While over-reliance on the digital age has its drawbacks, when it’s used effectively, relationships that are forged or maintained online can become even stronger in-person – and as we know, face-to-face relationships are the ultimate goal.

I’m grateful for the time I spent away this summer. But I’m even more grateful to be in Charleston now, at Synagogue Emanu-El, for I am ready to act upon the wonderful lessons I’ve learned. Now that my summer wanderings have concluded, it’s time to make our strong congregation even stronger. And I believe we can do it, as long as we remember that wherever we wander, we must leave ourselves open to wonder, and to help make our community even more wonderful. L’shanah Tovah U’Metukah.