First Universalist Society in Franklin

Sermon: A Service in Honor of the Jewish High Holy Days

A Service in Honor of the Jewish High Holy Days

September 28, 2014

Rev. Carol Rosine at the First Universalist Society in Franklin, MA


Each year as our Jewish brothers and sisters mark the beginning of the Jewish New Year, we, too, pause to recognize and honor this ancient tradition.  This is not a Jewish congregation of course, however we honor these Holy Days in our own UU way, because for us, too, this time of the year marks a new beginning, and with all new beginnings it seems appropriate that we pause and consider what our lives have been in the past year, and what we might like them to become.


The tradition says that each year on Rosh Hashanah three ledgers, or books, are opened.  One for the righteous, one for the wicked, and one for the intermediates, all those who fall somewhere in between.  The righteous ones have their names inscribed immediately into the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah.  The wicked are inscribed into the Book of Death.  And the rest are given a 10 day reprieve in which they are to examine their lives, seek forgiveness for all the ways in which they have sinned or missed the mark in the preceding year, and vow to change.  It is a time for turning around, for returning to God.


In the synagogue, as the Yom Kippur service is ready to begin, the Kol Nidre is recited in Aramaic.  Ed Geiger will recite it for us.


The Kol Nidre                           Ed Geiger


Read Responsively                  “A New Heart”                               # 635


Singing Together                     “Hashiveinu”                                   #216

“Birthing A World”

An editorial in the Milford News on the 13th Anniversary of 9/11 recounted what happened on that day in 2001 and then went on to say:


“In the days that followed the attacks, America grieved.  Fiercely.  Yet Americans rallied too.

Thirteen years and 148 minutes later, whatever good will Americans shared has turned to bitter divisions that threaten to tear the country apart.

In the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands more have died.  Recession did more damage to America than terrorists could ever hope.  People lost their jobs, their homes and savings, their faith in Washington.  Billions have been spent fighting the scourge of Islamist extremism, though America fights it still.

Leaders at the federal, state and local levels, citizens in coffee shops, the workplace and on social media, engage in hateful and divisive talk.  In some ways, America has become a nation at war with itself.

On the 13th anniversary of September 11, we can’t help but think back to those 92 people who boarded American Flight 11 on that sunny morning.  They were bound for even sunnier skies but were instead brought to their graves.  America owes it to them and to the others who died that day to be better….”    America owes it to all of them to be better.


I watched all 7 episodes of Ken Burn’s documentary on the Roosevelts:  Teddy, FDR, and Eleanor, and hope that some of you tuned in as well.  We were taken through the Spanish American War and Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and the courage and bravado on display as they took San Juan Hill in Cuba.  We watched the Great War unfold, the devastation as cities were destroyed and young men slaughtered.   The nation was sobered but then the 20s arrived and the wealthy partied until the party crashed big time.   FDR put the nation back to work with the New Deal, but in the meantime European nations fell to Hitler and we remained isolationists, ignoring what was happening in Europe and as Japan invaded China and the Philippines.   FDR anticipated what was coming and started preparing until the attack on Pearl Harbor rallied the whole nation once more.  We became the World’s Greatest Power and have been ever since.  Expected to lead the way when power grabs and atrocities occur elsewhere in the world.  A hundred year history wrapped up in one brief paragraph.  A century of war and devastation.


If you didn’t have an opportunity to watch this documentary when it aired last week, I hope you will get it and watch it in the future.  Ken Burns, once again, has provided an opportunity for us to have a basis for understanding not only what happened back then, but how it relates to what is happening right now.


So here we are, recognizing the Jewish High Holidays once again.  This period of time in which tradition has us marking the anniversary of when God created the world, a perfect world in which the light was separated from the dark,  and the land arose from the oceans and filled with plants and animals, as well as fish of the sea, and birds of the air.  And into this perfect world came the perfect man, Adam, and when he became lonely, God took a rib and created for him a woman, Eve, and told them that they were to be fruitful and to multiply in their Garden of Eden, but above all else, they were not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, for then they would become like Him, like God.  But along comes temptation in the form of a snake and they do eat of that Tree and so with their disobedience, sin entered the world.


And so now, alas, there must be a time of remembering past deeds from the preceding year, admitting the ways in which we’ve fallen short, making amends, and then seeking forgiveness.  This is the annual ritual in which atonement is sought for one’s sins.  And yet we may be left wondering what good this does. Really.  When nothing changes.  We watch horrible atrocities occurring around the world.  And things don’t seem to get any better here at home either with innocent people gunned down in the streets, with domestic violence abounding, while we right here, innocent as we may consider ourselves to be, continue offending each other, hurting each other in so many ways.  Will the world never change?  Will America never be better?   Will we never be better?


Back in 1976,  an aristocratic clergyman in Great Britain, Andrew Elphinstone, attempted to answer the question of why a world created by the God of love should contain so much suffering and unrest.  Well, instead of positing a perfect world created by God, he wrote of a physical world shaped by cataclysmic forces—by volcanoes, earthquakes, and meteors striking the surface of the earth—an evolutionary process taking place over millions, perhaps billions of years.  And instead of the creation of Adam and Eve, perfect before their fall from grace, he talks of our nonhuman ancestors who were engaged in a long struggle for survival.  “They moved sharply in response to pain, they were protective of their own and aggressive toward perceived threats.   They had skill, strength, intelligence, but not love.”    He says that the evolutionary process of our physical world takes place over the millennia and continues to this day, so why should we think that the forming of a human personality which includes the capacity for love should be any less turbulent and restless than the making of inanimate rock, ocean, and hill.    This transformation from the raw material of human existence into one with a moral sense, one in which the capacity to love exists, evolves over a long time.


This example is given:  “Imagine drinking a pint of beer.  Not an insipid mass-produced lager, but a rich, full-bodied craft ale, hand-pumped from the cask.     Or, if beer is not your thing, visualize a warm loaf of bread just pulled from the oven: the crisp lightly browned crust tearing to reveal the soft, nutty insides; the aroma wafting up as you raise it to your mouth.  We enjoy these experiences, yet none of us would enjoy the raw materials of grain, hops, yeast, and salt if they were set before us in that form.  The processes of fermentation in beer and baking in bread transform the unsavory ingredients into mouth-watering food.  At the same time, the desired result would be impossible without the existence of the raw materials.  You cannot have sweet beer without bitter hops.  You cannot have rich-tasting bread without yeast and salt.  Likewise, you cannot,” according to Dr. Elphinstone, “have the joy of love without the rage of hate.”


The two are closely intertwined as we keep reminding ourselves.  That indeed, the capacity for both good and evil are found within the human heart.   Dr. Elphinstone goes on to say, “Bread and beer are not found in nature.  It takes a further work of human culture and labor to produce them.  When we look at the evolutionary process, we are astounded by its ruthless suffering.”


Charles Darwin exclaimed, “What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel works of nature!”  “In all this mess why is there no reflection of God’s love?”  he asks.  “Why, a person might ask walking through a vast prairie, is there no bread anywhere?  But take a baker to a field of wheat and she will see the potential for something quite different.”


Perhaps during these High Holy Days, this is what we should be looking for.  Not the violence that continues to roil our world, but the seeds of something else that throughout millennia have transformed our raw material into beings who have the capacity to forgive and love.  It is true, my friends.  There are still pockets in the world where untamed primal energy dominates and destroys, but most of us have transformed into beings who are quite different most of the time, beings who can recognize injustice where it exists, beings who can resist the impulse to destroy, beings who have the capacity to recognize when we fall short.  When we do not live up to the kind of people that we would like to be.   Beings who have the capacity to love.


This ancient Jewish tradition of Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur gives us the opportunity as well to pause and examine our lives.  And so, let us stand, and if you will, join in a Litany of Atonement.  It is RR #637


Sing  “O Sing Hallelujah”  # 217


Original content © Carol Rosine, 2014

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