Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2021 / 5782 for String of Pearls – Princeton Reconstructionist Congregation (Princeton, NJ)
By Rabbi Maurice Harris
Shana Tovah to everyone.
One of the most wondrous names of God in the Torah is Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh. This is the divine name that means, “I Am Who I Am.” You may remember the scene when God introduces Godself by this name. It’s from Moses’s encounter at the Burning Bush, that scraggly thornbush on the slopes of Mount Sinai that Moses approached because it strangely appeared to be on fire, but not burning up. That’s where God first spoke to Moses. And where God told Moses to go to Egypt and tell the Hebrews that the God of their ancestors has sent him to be the instrument of their liberation. Here’s how the scene plays out from there in the text:
Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is this God’s name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
God said to Moses, “Ehyeh-asher-ehyeh – I am who I am.’ This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am’ has sent me to you.’”Exodus 3:14
Can you imagine being Moses in that moment? First off, you might be thinking “this is a profound, mind-blowing experience. This must really be the Living God and Creator because It just told me that Its name is all-encompassing, inscrutable, fluid, beautiful, immense, abstract, and intimate all at the same time.” But if you were Moses you might also be thinking, “Hang on a moment. How am I not going to be run out of town on a rail by the Hebrews if I show up – a runaway fugitive from justice in Egypt and a former member of the royal family now claiming to be Jewish – and I tell them their God has sent me back to Egypt to liberate them, and then – when they ask for God’s name – I tell them it’s something like the riddle of existence, and that they should trust me?”
Moses’s predicament is even worse than that, because grammatically it’s not clear whether what God tells Moses is that God’s name is “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” In Biblical Hebrew, the verb tense is unclear – it could be present or future. (If you want to get really nerdy about it, it can also be causative – “I will cause to be what I will cause to be.” If you open up a typical English translation of the Bible – Jewish or Christian – there’s a good chance you’ll see a little footnote tagged to this phrase, which will take you to an editor’s note that states some of the other possible translations.
I think there’s a lesson here about both God’s nature and ours, one that’s connected to this time of year in the Jewish calendar – this time of self-reflection, of personal moral accounting, of seeking forgiveness and of working to try to become better versions of ourselves in the coming year. God reveals a crucial aspect of Godself to Moses with this famous declaration – and it’s a really intimate thing God shares. God says “I am who I am” and “I will be who I will be” in the same breath. Both are simultaneously true. And both leave us with a lot of questions. When God says “I am who I am,” does God mean to say that God also doesn’t fully understand Godself, but on some level simply accepts who God is? When God says “I will be who I will be,” does that mean God doesn’t know what God’s future being will be like – is God becoming at all times and developing in ways that the God of the moment can’t predict?
Of course, we too are who we are, and we too will be what we will be. And yet, we are also taught by our tradition that to an important extent who we are, or at least who we will be, is something we can direct, if not entirely, then at least enough to make a meaningful difference. We aren’t helpless or passive experiencers of our ever-becoming selves. Through teshuvah – the process of working to atone for the harms we’ve caused and trying our best to improve morally going forward – we have some control over the direction of who we will be.
Some control, not total control. The tradition understands that what’s beyond our control – including illness, death, loss, world events, and how others think and behave – really is beyond our control. Like they say in 12-Step, God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
So, we live our lives at the intersection of acceptance and agency. Acceptance that Life is what it is and will be what it will be. And agency – the power to use our minds, hands, and hearts to make a positive difference. The cumulative spiritual wisdom of Judaism urges us both to surrender and to have the chutzpah to try to repair the world. It might seem like a self-contradicting message, but I don’t think it is – I think it’s a message that understands that there’s a time and place to be still and accept what is, and a time and place to work and even fight for a better world.
We’re asked to surrender to what we can’t control. That includes the number of our days in this life, and the people we love and lose and then must mourn. This is surrender for the sake of sanity and for a chance at serenity. This is not a surrender of our self-esteem or of our fighting spirit. This is a partial surrender. A surrender to the things we cannot change, the people and events we cannot control, the big picture reality that Life is what it is and will be what it will be, and we are a part of it and we experience it without ever fully understanding it.
At the same time, Judaism’s message is also one of holy chutzpah, of the determination to work for the repair of the world, to work for justice, to try to repair harms we have done and to try to bend the moral arc of the universe ever more towards justice, compassion, and redemption. How much impact can we have (?) – individually or collectively – and will it be enough to save our species from our self-destructive patterns of behavior? No one knows. But our Talmudic sages taught:
אמר רב נחמן חוצפא אפילו כלפי שמיא מהני
Chutzpah is effective, even against Heaven.Babylonian Talmud: Sanhedrin 105a.
If chutzpah wasn’t effective, Abraham wouldn’t have argued with God to spare the innocent in Sodom and Gomorrah. If chutzpah wasn’t effective, Moses wouldn’t have managed to convince God more than once to give the Israelites another chance after their many moments of moral catastrophe. If chutzpah wasn’t effective, the biblical heroine Yael wouldn’t have found a way to lure and slay the brutal general, Sisera. Queen Esther? Chutzpah. David vs Goliath? Major chutzpah. Ruth refusing to leave Naomi’s side and deciding to become a Jew? In the context of that ancient story, chutzpah yet again.
And here in our own land, if chutzpah wasn’t effective, Harriet Tubman wouldn’t have become Grandma Moses. Rosa Parks wouldn’t be a household name. We could add literally scores of names of other heroes of American history to this list, and that wouldn’t begin to cover the countless poorly remembered or unknown brave people who have fought for dignity, democracy, freedom, and humanity in this country alone.
The subject of chutzpah makes me think of someone we are mourning in the String of Pearls community: our dear Lorraine Fisch, z’l. I’m struck by the ways she summoned holy chutzpah throughout her life as an advocate, activist, and supporter of human rights. More than once in recent months she was heard to say “stick it to The Man” as the closing punctuation mark at the end of a passionate call for justice.
So, I’d like to try to sum some of this up if I can. We begin a new Jewish year in a world that is broken in terrifying ways, and yet also brimming with hope and possibility. These holy days offer us the framework of teshuvah as a tool to map our path forward in such uncertain times. Teshuvah directs us to take responsibility for our impacts on others and on the environment – we try to acknowledge where we’ve done wrong and to give ourselves praise for the times we’ve done right. Teshuvah, so commonly translated as repentance, also means something much more than acknowledging the wrongs we’ve done, seeking forgiveness when doing so won’t cause additional harm to others, and resolving to work to do better going forward. That’s the repentance part of Teshuvah. But Teshuvah also includes what the rabbis called cheshbon hanefesh, making a personal accounting of our moral successes as well as our failures. An accountant’s book has both sides of the ledger, and we are taught that it is important to bear witness to our acts of honesty, compassion, courage, hope, and selflessness as we consider what kind of people we are now and what kind of people we are becoming.
And during these holy days, we do this moral accounting together, acknowledging our interconnectedness, acknowledging that we share responsibility together for our moral triumphs and disasters. We recite the traditional liturgy of confession – the Vidui in Hebrew – as one community, knowing full well that many of the sins included in that list do not apply to each of us as individuals. The teaching of our tradition is that we share responsibility as a community, and more broadly, as a society, and as a global human family.
The contemporary civil rights leader Reverand William Barber likes to say that when someone greets him and asks, “How are you doing?” his response tends to be, “We are not doing so well.” Because that matters more than how he happens to be doing in the moment. And because he hopes to muster some holy chutzpah to resist the distortions that radical individualism and a false sense of personal separateness have brought to our society.
So we move forward, into a year still marred by pandemic, still poisoned by demagoguery and the false consciousness and solidarity offered by angry conspiracy theories and overt or subtle white nationalism. We move forward into a year in which rigid beliefs that oversimplify complex issues like abortion are changing laws and discarding womens’ rights. We begin a year in which powerful voices continue to reject the basic science of public health; continue to erode the ability of many Americans, mostly citizens of color, to vote; and continue to push for an authoritarian, xenophobic, and undemocratic future.
But we also move forward into a year marked by acts of tremendous generosity and hope: of millions of vaccines donated by the US to countries like our former enemy, Vietnam; of grassroots activism leading to the successful registration of 95% of Georgia’s eligible voters; of the quiet reuniting of hundreds of cruelly separated children at our southern border with their parents; of school boards and superintendents implementing mask mandates in defiance of their governors’ threats to withhold their salaries. We move forward into a year in a world characterized as much by its millions of acts of courage and compassion as by its acts of self-delusion, misguided group-think, and public displays of cruelty.
Our tradition’s best wisdom is to do three things in the face of these circumstances: to surrender, to act with chutzpah, and to support one another.
To surrender to the unknowable mysteries of Life and chance, to the unknowable long and winding road of history, to the things we cannot change. To trust that the Universe that birthed us and into which we are woven holds all of us in ways we can only sometimes glimpse. We can ask God to help us know when it’s important, even necessary, for our sanity, to surrender, to accept, to not resist.
And we can ask God to help us know when to act with chutzpah to work for justice, to change the world for the better. Because “justice, justice shall you pursue” is one of the great mandates of Judaism; because we are called to be God’s partners in repairing the world.
And finally, we must remember that we are not a bunch of isolated individuals – no matter how much doing Zoom from our living rooms may give us that sense – we must remember we are a “we,” that we are interconnected and bound to each other, across humanity, across all that exists. We are here to care for each other, to go through joy and suffering, love and loss, life and death, setbacks and triumphs together, with love, with generosity, with confusion, with hope, with each other. May it be so in this new year, for us, for all our people Israel, and for all who dwell on earth. L’shanah tovah.