Our Torah teaches: “Count the days from Pesach during which the grain offering was brought. And on the day after the seventh week is counted, the fiftieth day itself shall be a festival for the new grain offering.” On that fiftieth day, our ancestors camped before Sinai. On Shavuoth, they were ready to become the free people of God’s covenant. Every night, we count these fifty days as fulfillment of the mitzvah from Torah:
Hineni muchan um’zuman l’kaiyeim mitsvat asei shel sefirat ha’omer. See how ready we are to count the days of the Omer.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָּ אֱלֹ הֵֽינוּ מֵֶֽלֶךְ הָּעוֹלָּם אֲשֶר קִדְשֵָּֽנוּ בְמִצְוֹתָּיו וְצִוֵָּּֽנוּ עַל סְפִירַת הָּ עמֶ ר Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam asher kideshanu bemitsvotav vetsivanu al s’firat ha’omer. Blessed is the Eternal our God Ruler of the universe who makes us holy by commandments and commands us to count the omer.
Count in the evening of the first night (28 March / 2 night of Pesach): Ha-yom yom e-chad la-omer. Today is one day of the Omer. Continue every night until Saturday 15 May, the night before Shavuoth.
This Shabbat is a time of endings and new beginnings: It is the last Shabbat of 5780, opening the gateway to Rosh HaShanah We are bidding farewell to the past, and moving forward into something new. Like the ancient Israelites we are poised to enter what is metaphorically a new land; our new buildings and a brand new year. Have you ever thought what an appropriate season this is to begin a new year?
Spring is a time for looking both forwards and backwards. As we see nature awakening, and the new flowers blossoming, and the sun shining brighter and lighter than before, we prepare for the next season as well. And so it is with our lives. In the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we seek to rid ourselves of the habits, the thoughts, the actions that blemish our lives, and we enter new paths, leading us to become better people.
How can we bring more light and colour into the new year? One way is through teshuvah. Teshuvah is far more than repentance. “It is,” argues Adin Steinsaltz, “a spiritual awakening to the possibilities within us. It is not just remorse, but a profound change of one’s life, a break, a reformation. We alone of all creatures have this power to turn, to recreate ourselves anew. Teshuvah at its heart is a creative process. It is not a turning back, but rather a turning forward, a turning to a new creation. Our teshuvah allows us to turn to who we have always possibly been and indeed are meant to be, but have not yet become. We turn to the growth and possibility that is inside us, but which has lain dormant. Like the sculptor who creates a work of art from what appears to be a block of stone, we create the person we truly are but which we may have kept locked inside us, not knowing how to release it or perhaps even afraid to do so.”
This process is not always easy. We might face both an intellectual and emotional block to our teshuvah, yet, teshuvah, though sometimes painful can also be joyous. As we create our true selves, we truly become partners with God in the process of creation.
We all stand here in the doorway of a brand new year. What will we do? We have the opportunity and the potential to create both ourselves and the world anew—today, tomorrow and in this new year.
May you be inscribed and sealed for a good new year
This is an incredibly special time of the year. In a few weeks we will celebrate, separated but still together, the High Holy Days; Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, then Sukkot and Simchat Torah. With all the uncertainties that surround us these days, the High Holy Days will be very different this year. But what remains constant is the ability of Bet David to enter the High Holy Days on a path toward forgiveness, repentance, reflection, and renewal. We have worked hard and thoughtfully to ensure that these spiritual themes and prayerful experiences, as much you seek them, find their way to you.
The Torah declares:
“Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Nitzavim, Dtn. 30)
On Rosh Hashanah we affirm that we can change. We proclaim that we can fix our mistakes and mend our ways. We believe that human beings are capable of repentance and change. Change however comes with difficulty. We know that we all have a tendency to resist it. This is part of our human nature. Everyone wants to hold on to the past and their image of the past. However, when we attempt to hold on to such imaginings, we never serve the future. We find ourselves alone and comforted only by memories. Thus, change is necessary. It is required for our society. It is required for our people. It is required in our personal lives. We must regularly reinvent ourselves.
On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate our ability to change. We dip the apples into honey and say, “May it be Your will, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors, to renew this year for us with sweetness and happiness.” The Hebrew word for renew is chadesh. We make new. We make the old new. We are never trapped in our old ways. Our lives are not predestined. Our choices are not predetermined.
Too often we feel that our lives are beyond our control. The past six months have proven that there are things that we cannot determine. Our health is not entirely in our own hands. Often, other people’s choices affect us and direct our lives in uncharted territories. Yet our choices remain in our own hands. This is what we can change. And this is what we mark on Rosh Hashanah.
For Chayim and me these High Holy Days will be a time of a huge transition, moving from Johannesburg to the UK. The beginning of 5781 will also be the end for us of six wonderful years at Bet David. It is a time to say goodbye, but also to embrace the change that will be happening. I know that Bet David is in good hands and that you will continue to go from strength to strength.
Chayim joins me in wishing all of you and your families a blessed New Year filled with love, peace, joy, health, prosperity and Yiddishkeit.
May you be inscribed and sealed for a good new year.
The past few weeks have been difficult here in South Africa, as they have been for almost everyone. We said goodbye to cherished friends, family members and congregants who were laid to eternal rest due to the pandemic. As we continue to make sense of the turmoil and disruption this crisis has caused, both close to home and to society as a whole, I find myself – as I often do – turning to Jewish heritage and tradition to help find meaning in the world around me.
Last week, we marked the 17th day of the Jewish month of Tammuz, the beginning of three weeks of ritual mourning. These weeks follow a path that begins with this anniversary of the Babylonian breach of the gates of ancient Jerusalem and carries us until the anniversary of the burning of Solomon’s Temple and the start of the first exile. That date is marked, along with a great many other Jewish tragedies, including the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans and the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, by a fast on the 9th of Av, observed this year on July 30th.
I’m always struck by the liturgy of this period. The words of Psalm 137, By the Rivers of Babylon are exemplary for the profound mourning of our people’s loss:
There we sat, Sat and wept, As we thought of Zion… How can we sing a song of our Godon alien soil? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, Let my right-hand wither…
Still, as we read Lamentations on Tisha B’Av, we find, even in the words of sorrow, messages of hope and of the possibility of renewal. Even the fast itself is considered a Mo’ed, a festival. For though it is a day of profound sadness, it is also a day of promise for a joyful future, as the prophet Zechariah assures the people it “shall become occasion for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah.” (Zech. 8:19)
These texts and our tradition hold all our emotions that feel so right for this moment in our world. We hold the sorrow of profound loss, we sit with anxieties and fears in this time of transition, and still we find a way to express our hope for the future.
We need to grieve. We need to name the anxiety and fear that comes with this crisis and we need to lift up hope – hope for what is possible, hope for a brighter future, hope for what we will build together in the years to come. And we need to do all these things at the same time.
I invite you to share your losses, your fears, and your hopes as we continue to walk through this crisis.