Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780
September 29, 2019
Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen
3 Little Words
Those three words! What are they? What might come to mind immediately is, I love you! These are magical words that make our hearts melt. Either coming from a beloved or a child or even someone who we’ve just met with whom we’ve made a connection. These three little words are powerful. Tonight, as we enter into our new year though, I want to introduce another idea of 3 little words. This comes from Chris Brogan who started the 3 Little Words project at New Years in 2006 and he adds on to it every year.
The idea is to think about three words that will help guide us along the journey of our year. Words that will guide our choices and actions. These words can act like a lighthouse guiding us even through some of the darkest nights or some of the most unclear times of our lives. How often do we question some of our actions or wonder what direction we should turn when trying to make a life changing decision or even a simple decision as to whether or not to take on a project. With these three words we might be able to ask ourselves if through their meaning and direction we should say yes to a new opportunity.
Brogan’s first three words were, “ask, do, share.” He states that because of these three words when he would ask questions, he would learn. When he would take action, he did so based on what he was asking which would result in him making more ground and take over more of the universe. And finally, when he shared what he learned with others, he made more connections with people and created more friendships.
A few months ago I had the honor of participating in the ordination of a Christian Clergy friend of mine. Unlike our ordinations through the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, her ordination was done through her church. She still had to fulfill years of study and testing through a graduate program, but the community with whom she lived and worked was a part of that most holy day of her accepting her place as a clergy member committed to being a teacher, preacher and caregiver. During her ordination various groups came forward to bless her and lay hands on her bestowing their commitment to love, respect and grow with her. I was one of three clergy present to also bestow our blessings on her and teach. Our foundational text was that of Micah :6:8
הִגּיד ְלָך אָָדם ַמה־טּוֹב וָּמה־יְהוָה דּוֵֹרשׁ ִמְמָּך ִכּי ִאם־ֲעשׂוֹת ִמְשָׁפּט וְאֲַהַבת ֶחֶסד וְַהְצֵנַע ֶלֶכת ִעם־ֱאלֶֹהיָך׃
“God has told you, O man, what is good, And what God requires of you: Only to do justice and to love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God.”
מְשָׁפּט חֶסד וְַהְצֵנַע
Justice, mercy, humility. How can these three words guide us over the coming year?
Justice: God requires us to do justice. But what is that? The Hebrew word in the Micah text is, mishpat, meaning rules or judgements. It is not the word, tzedek, which we usually equate with justice, tzedek, tzedek, tirdof, mistranslating this as, “justice, justice shall you pursue.” Tzedek a ctually means righteousness. Justice is the concern for the just and fair thing to do; the goal of ensuring fairness in the way people are treated. Righteousness is doing the right thing.
When God tells us to do justice it is to remind us to live in the confines of the law. It does not allow us to be all over the place rather it is to give us a structure for how to look at the world.
We read in the book of Numbers, “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded.” (Numbers 29:1) This is the shofar, it is the wakeup call to remind us of the most important foundation of who we are, the people of Israel to whom God gave the gift of Torah.
In Torah, Rosh Hashanah is identified as Yom T’ruah, the day of trumpets. Philo teaches that there were two reasons given for sounding of the trumpets; one which is unique to the Israelites, and the other common to all mankind. That which was common to all mankind, was that the sounding of the trumpets was a call to war and an end to war. That which is unique or designated to us, the Israelites, is that we are commemorating the most marvellous, wonderful, and miraculous event that took place, the giving of the Torah. At that moment, on Mount Sinai, when God gave Moses and us Torah, the voice of the trumpet was sounded from heaven. Philo says, “it is natural to suppose [this sound] reached to the very extremities of the universe, so that so wondrous a sound attracted all who were present, making them consider, as it is probable, that such mighty events were signs betokening some great things to be accomplished. And what more great or more beneficial thing could come to people than laws affecting the whole race?”
In this context, Torah is the laws that we were given, all 613 of them. It is the foundational text that lays out for us how we are to live our lives and honor God. Just as with today, laws are established for a very specific reason, to give us structure and ensure order in our society. Yet, we are also open to interpreting our laws. It is from this that we understand justice to be the black and white, the letter of the law and where we move to our next word, mercy, which becomes the grey. As Reform Jews, we understand the importance of laws and therefore have a deep respect for them. And, at the same time, we balance that with the notion of mercy and humility.
I hear often, I’m Jewish but I’m not religious. What does that really mean? Are we trying to apologize for not following the letter of the law, from keeping Shabbat or kashrut or even attending services more often? While we may not live within the confines of the letter of the law or of the 613 commandments, we can be religious and Reform Jews for being religious includes embracing mercy and humility, experiencing the grey areas of the law.
The next word in our Micah text is: mercy: chesed. The definition of mercy is to show compassion or forgiveness toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm. This is central to our High Holy Days, each of us can find a place to show mercy to one another. This is the time when we show compassion to those in our lives who might have wronged us as well as us actively seeking forgiveness. We also recognize that there are instances in which we may not be able to seek or give
forgiveness for forgiveness is a process. There are stages of forgiveness and we walk through them at our own speed.
The stages of forgiveness are: First, we have to identify our hurt and the source of our hurt. Then we ask, what are we feeling, how can we acknowledge the hurtful emotions? Forgiveness also happens within; how do we forgive ourselves and let go of that hurt and then breathe in compassion? Next, we learn to forgive unconditionally, find what we are grateful for and finally, open ourselves back up to being able to love and trust again.
Just as we work to forgive and show compassion to others so too do we need to forgive and show compassion to ourselves. We can be so hard on ourselves and feel that we have to be perfect, especially at this time. We feel that we are supposed to completely wipe the slate clean so that we stand pure before God. Perfection is impossible and it’s ok for us to acknowledge that. We need to give ourselves permission to take the time we need to be in a place of mercy.
Finally, from our Micah text we are told to walk humbly with God. Humility: tznu’ah. T he definition of humility is a freedom from pride or arrogance. When we care for others, this is humility. It comes from the Latin word, humillis, low. Not low in the negative sense, but rather we remember from where we came.
When we die our bodies are to be wrapped in a shroud, not dressed in garments. Why? Each of us come into this world naked and without anything, so too do each of us leave this world. That even the wealthiest of people is wrapped in the same shroud as the poorest. That we are all equal in death as we should strive to be in life.
Tomorrow, we will hear the Unetanetokef, and as disturbing as the text is with the question of “who shall live and who shall die,” the end is powerful. What does God require of us these High Holy Days, “teshuvah, t’fillah, u’tzedakah.” That we return to our Jewish selves, that we engage in prayer or contemplation and that we do something to make our world a better place.
Teshuvah is the return to justice, to our reading and learning the laws and knowing that this text belongs to all of us as Jews, whether we are Orthodox or Reform.
Tzedakah are the acts of mercy in which we show compassion to all and allow ourselves to work through the stages of forgiveness.
T’fillah are the acts of humility, we realize that there is something greater than us. Not everything is in our hands or our control.
Three words – justice, mercy, humility. How will you bring justice into the world? How will you grant mercy to yourself and others? How will you act with humility and help others in this new year?
I pray that we add these three words to whichever three words you choose for this year. That we consciously move through the days and weeks of our year being
aware of these words and blessings for how we hope to act, how we hope to experience and how we hope to bless.