Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5780

Into Yourself

It was the beginning of High Holy Day services: the eve of Rosh Hashanah.

 The congregation was ready. The bima was dressed in white. The welcome tables were set outside the doors of the synagogue. The High Holy Day prayer books were on the shelves to be distributed. The ushers had been coached to be warm and welcoming and were standing by the doors and the aisles.

One of the ushers greeted an older woman, he didn’t recognize… a ticket holder, or perhaps new to the community. The usher was extremely hospitable, just as he had been trained to be:

“L’Shanah Tovah!” he said.

He gave her a prayer book and walked her into the sanctuary. Chatting away, he asked: “So, where would you like to sit?”

She answered: “The front row please.”

“Are you sure you want to do that?” the usher asked…. “The rabbi is really boring.”

The woman said: “Do you happen to know who I am?”

“No,” he replied.

With an indignant tone in her voice she said:  “I’m the rabbi’s mother!”

“Do you know who I am?” he asked.

“No”, she said.


It is the beginning of High Holy Day services: the eve of Rosh Hashanah. Do you know who you are?

Our father Abram (as he was known at the time) grew up in the cities of Ur and Haran. Following the death of his father Terah, he hears the voice of God. “Lech Lecha – Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land I will show you.”[i]

The call of God: Lech Lecha, is contextualized as “Go forth!” But its literal meaning is a command, to “Go into yourself.” God’s words behest Abram to explore who he really is, away from his native land, absent from the secure walls of his father’s house, amidst the expanse and exposure of a land that God will show him.

Bravely, Abram leaves to go into himself, his physical journey a metaphor for a much more profound spiritual journey. He pitches an open tent along his circuitous travels.

On his physical journey a tent will leave him fully exposed to all elements from north, from south, from east and west. Elements of nature: sun and rain and wind. Elements of nomads: enemies and friends and angels.

Spiritually, the openness of the tent leaves him exposed on an outward-bound, inward-centered journey of discovery. To pursue his elemental Self. Who is he?

It is the beginning of High Holy Day services: the eve of Rosh Hashanah. The season demands a spiritual journey into our selves. To do this properly we must muster our openness and bravery.

Who are you? Are you willing to find out?

It takes chutzpah to leave your comfort zone, your familiar place, culture, habits, routine.  Such a departure allows you to question everything, your thought patterns, your mantras, your norms. Abram leaves Haran. Growth begins with the leaving.

Following High School, like many young Australian Jewish people of my era, I left for a gap year in Israel. It was not my first sojourn in the Holy Land. My beloved uncle and aunt and their young children lived on a Kibbutz, and I had stayed with them in my earlier years, along with my parents and brother.

But it was my first time leaving my native land of Australia and travelling overseas on my own. Jerusalem, where I was situated, was not the western-middle- eastern hybrid that it is today. The sights and sounds and attitudes and rhythms were in many ways more Arabicized than modernized.

The end of my first week in Israel, saw me making my way to the old Central Bus Terminal in Jerusalem with what seemed half the population of the city. All of us were going somewhere for Shabbat.

I bought a ticket in my fledgling Hebrew and stood in line. The overwhelming smell of diesel and food and perspiration mixed the air.  Patiently, I took in the sights of the religious Jews, the Arabs, the families, the elderly, the soldiers slung with guns, all standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the crowd.

I was not in Melbourne anymore.

The bus pulled up. And the line I thought I was standing in, dissipated into folk pushing and jostling to make it on the bus with the urgency of Shabbat before them. I stood quietly and politely with the manners my parents had trained me with, waiting my turn. In the bustle, my place in line fell further and further behind. I missed the bus. Not just once. Another bus came and went.

Finally, an aha! I needed to push myself not just onto the bus, but into a new way of behaving. Confidently claiming my rightful place as the next passenger. I glared at those pushing in front. I pushed my way forward. I bordered the bus. I knew I had to get to the Kibbutz before Shabbat!

Being assertive in the queue was risky and brave and different to my well-behaved Australian self. Even a little Jewish guilt in what felt like misbehavior. Like Abram I had left my native land. I went beyond my comfort zone.

Our task at this High Holy Day season is to discover the essence of our selves. Like Abram, we must be willing to leave the familiar land and we also must be willing, to metaphorically leave our father’s house.  Willing to deconstruct, reconstruct, what we think we know. Leaving our father’s house means opening ourselves up to new ways of thinking and conceiving.

Two New York designers in the 1950’s, were looking for a new type of wallpaper to decorate walls. Marc Chavannes and Al Fielding sealed two shower curtains together, creating a series of air bubbles. They were convinced this was a winning idea for a wall covering.  Yet the new wallpaper failed to catch on.

Then Marc and Al, not to be defeated, decided they would try to market the product as house insulation. The re-vision failed miserably.

By 1960, back at the drawing board, they figured out that the wallpaper could be used as a protective packaging material. And they called it: “Bubble Wrap”. It was picked up by IBM and the rest, as they say, is history…[ii]

Marc Chavannes and Al Fielding were willing to destruct, reconstruct and reconceive their initial conception.  It was the rethinking of new possibilities for their invention that led to their success. 

When we strip away our thinking, our wallpaper, we do not know what we will find. When we think differently, see things differently, we can achieve different results. Know this: the world of everything you hold is but a construct. Tearing down the walls and peeling back the wallpapers, might be scary, but the exposure allows a journey into your essential Self.

When I was young, my parents renovated our family home. We were the first Jewish family to ever have lived in that house in what was largely a non-Jewish neighborhood. They stripped all the wallpaper in their bedroom.

Underneath the many layers, in red paint on the white wall, was scribed the words: “Yom Kippur” and a Magen David. Stripped bare of its wall coverings, all kinds of questions emerged from these words revealed on the bedroom wall. How did this get here? Who painted it? What was its significance to them? What meaning-making could we, a Jewish family, decipher of what was written on the walls of my parent’s bedroom, where they had slept, unknowingly, beneath these words, for years?

At Rosh Hashanah our walls are stripped bare, they become open like Abram’s tent, exposed.

At the High Holy Days we are Abram. We leave our lands. We symbolically set aside the world in which we are comfortable. We leave our father’s house. We leave behind the thought patterns we have been beholden too. And then, in our exposure we call out to our souls: Who am I? What is important? Where is my journey headed? What can my future look like?

Abram set out on a journey to a land the he would be shown by God. What land will we be shown as we open ourselves up to the sacred wanderings of these Days of Awe?

Abraham Maslow put it this way: “One can choose to go back towards safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again, fear must be overcome again and again.”

It is the beginning of High Holy Day services: the eve of Rosh Hashanah. The season demands a spiritual journey into our selves.

Do you know who you are? 

Lech lecha, my fellow travelers. Be brave. Go into yourself. Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that God will show you.

Dwell in the open tent and this journey that this High Holy Day season gifts to us.

L’Shanah Tovah.

[i] Genesis 12:1


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