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Rosh Hashanah   5779  - Rabbi Celia

If you have seen the movie “The Greatest Showman” feel free to let your mind wander for thirty second while I attempt to summarize it. Or you can listen with great care and attention and decide for yourselves if you agree with me.

With music and dancing, the movie tells the ever so slightly Hollywood-ed up life story of P.T. Barnum, the founder of the circus, who defined himself as a professional showman. He gained fame by promoting museum hoaxes, and human curiosities, basically exploiting individuals who were outcasts of society.   There is very little doubt that his objective was to make money and fit into the upper class having grown up very poor and as an outcast himself, and at the same time, I have to wonder if these outcasts did not mirror his own insecurities and fears.

In many respects, there are a number of parallels we can draw between The Greatest Showman and Rosh Hashanah- we have singing, we have exciting story lines (were you not all on the edge of your seats as you listened, yet again, to the story of Abraham almost sacrificing Isaac and wondering how it would all end), we have strong, simple yet powerful messages from our liturgy, we don’t have dancing- yet…. But the day is still young, and there is always tomorrow…and there is drama- to speak only of our liturgy that is filled with key points meant to stir our emotions, and encourage us to consider how we live our lives.

Unetaneh Tokef, the prayer that is inserted into the Musaf Amidah, and that we will shortly recite is the epitome of that drama: it is meant to inspire awe and fear, as we are reminded in the traditional text that on Rosh Hashanah, the Book of Life is opened and on Yom Kippur it is shut, and in between God decides who will live and die, and how one will die. It is a hard piece of liturgy to listen to, to read and to absorb. What makes Unetaneh Tokef so difficult is that it forces us to confront our vulnerability and our mortality- it forces us to confront ourselves in a rather harsh manner, without allowing space for comfort and reassurance. It is as if we are confronted with our own reflection in a mirror and forced to examine it. But all of this is completely understandable, if we consider the prayer solely based on the story, the legend of how the prayer came to be:

 It is said that it was recited by Rabbi Amnon (Mainz, c. 11th century), who had failed to reject a proposal of apostasy immediately and instead asked for three days to consider it. When he did not agree to give up his faith, he was taken away and tortured brutally. It was Rosh Hashanah, and he asked his disciples to take him to the synagogue, where he interrupted the service and recited this prayer in order to sanctify the name of God. Upon completing the recitation, he died. Later, the legend continues, he appeared to Rabbi Kalonymus in a dream and asked that this prayer be recited each year. (myjewishlearning.com)

The text is tragic and full of sadness. But that certainly does not mean we should not be troubled and challenged by it. Theologically, it is a difficult reading- Judaism is grounded in hope and the promise of empowerment and independent thinking. Unetaneh tokef encourages us to take a hard look at our reflection in the mirror and carefully consider what we see- not so we can despair, be critical or harsh towards ourselves, but rather, so that we can learn to appreciate who we are- the good the bad and the ugly- and what we have to offer. I want to believe that the severe language of Unetaneh tokef is meant to be an impactful point that reminds us that it is time to take stock of our lives.

Rabbi Joseph Meszler recently wrote and shared his version of Unetaneh Tokef, the text of which he grounded in rabbinic literature. This version offers a kinder, more generous and positive text, which is more effective in acknowledging both our faults and the hope we can hold on to as we strive to correct them:

An Alternate Unetaneh Tokef by Rabbi Joseph B. Meszler

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed: That this year people will live and die,
some more gently than others
and nothing lives forever.

But amidst overwhelming forces
of nature and humankind,
we still write our own Book of Life,
and our actions are the words in it,
and the stages of our lives are the chapters, and nothing goes unrecorded, ever.

Every deed counts.
Everything you do matters.
And we never know what act or word
will leave an impression or tip the scale.
So if not now, then when?
For the things we can change, there is ​teshuva,​ realignment, For the things we cannot change, there is ​tefilah,​ prayer, For the help we can give, there is ​tzedakah​, justice. Together, let us write a beautiful Book of Life
for the Holy One to read.

Choosing to take stock, to take the time to examine oneself in a mirror is never an easy task- it takes courage and strength to see what the reflection is sending back to us. There is a key moment in the movie, when after a series of failures and misfortunes, Barnum finds himself staring at a series of pictures marking his success, covered by glass, in which he sees his own miserable reflection. Rather than being an exercise in introspection, as this season calls for, this becomes a moment of perspective. As we face our reflection in the mirror, how many of us will take the time to also consider both the physical surrounding and the metaphorical baggage that we see in the mirror? How many of us will remember that the angle at which we hold the mirror or choose to look at the mirror will change what we see. A step to the left will include the sight of my cat, grumpily reminding me that he has not had fresh food for at least 5 minutes, but another step to the right will exclude him from the reflection. The exercise is completely subjective, and we definitely have the power to influence and affect the final image that we see.

I spoke last night of our inability to often not see past the minute details, to sweat the small stuff, rather than taking the time to focus on the bigger picture, on the vision we set out for ourselves. The details are important to us, because they ground us in a reassuring structure and allow us to evolve in our comfort zone, even if we struggle to cope with the details. These details are the first things we see in the mirror and might well hamper our ability to literally see the bigger picture.

There is a Hassidic story about a very beautiful and very special mirror. It hung on a wall in the dining room of a fine house belonging to a rich man.

The mirror was large and square, with a wide, thick gold frame carved with beautiful designs of leaves and flowers. Everyone that saw the mirror admired it, but everyone also noticed that it was imperfect. On one of the corners, you see, the silver backing had been scraped off so that this part of the mirror was plain glass. People would remark upon its beauty and then say, "Oh, what a pity! Too bad the mirror is damaged." To everyone's surprise, the mirror's owner would tell his visitors that it was he himself who had deliberately scraped the silver backing off! Can you imagine owning such a costly mirror, a work of art, and then ruining it?

The corner, the story tells us, had been scraped off by the owner who realised that his beautiful mirror and his window were made of the same material, but that one had a silver backing that prevented him from seeing through it, so that all he could see was himself, and his newly acquired signs of his fortune.

He had his “unetaneh tokef” moment, and realised that his life was not defined by his tangible riches, just as we are not required to simply look at ourselves in the mirror or to accept the words of the prayer for what they are but can look through the words, through the glass and are empowered to affect our lives as we would like to live them.

From Now On, is the title of the song that accompanies PT Barnum’s “unetaneh tokef” moment- from now on, let us not be defined by the words laid out in front of us, but let us define them, through our actions, through our words, through our deeds- let the reflection that we see in the mirror reflect the wonderful and inspiring individuals we can be, remembering the words of Rabbi Meszler:

Every deed counts.
Everything you do matters.
And we never know what act or word
will leave an impression or tip the scale.
So if not now, then when?

 

Rabbi Celia Surget

10.9.18.
 

Wed, 23 January 2019 17 Sh'vat 5779