A few months ago I received a box in the mail from the NYTimes; a seemingly simple promotional item – but what I found truly transported me. The box itself was a pair of glasses, or to be more specific, an item called Google Cardboard. Google created glasses (like these) to be used with a smart phone, that give you a virtual reality experience, that is to say, it looks like you are somewhere else. Using the NYTimes app, you can be anywhere in the world; from underwater, to the campaign trail, to living in a refugee camp.
When I tried it, I was amazed at the clarity by which I could see the world around me. Through these glasses I could turn around, look up, down and feel as though I was actually present in places so distant, both geographically and historically, that would never have been possible before. I felt as if I was actually there. The moment I put these glasses on, I could not help but think about the places I would love to visit, from far off distant lands to specific moments in time.
While I was exploring the world through virtual reality, and realizing that Rosh Hashanah was approaching in “actual reality,” I thought about how wonderful it would be to celebrate the world itself on Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the World. Today is a day when we look at our past, we acknowledge our present and imagine our future. If this were an 80th birthday party, or a b’nai mitzvah, we would throw a photo montage or slideshow up on the wall, yet what do we do to honor our past when our stories are in our minds, and in our books? I went back to my glasses, wondering what it would look like to travel back in time, to witness some of the most important events in Jewish history, to meet some of the most important people. Would we have acted differently than our ancestors, what questions would we ask?
With your permission, we are going to take a journey together, without my special glasses, but with our eyes closed, to take a look back; taking stock of where we have come from, so we know where we want to go. I promise no rain from the ceiling or balloons falling, just you and me, on a journey together.
Close your eyes.
I want you to imagine for a moment that you are in the Garden of Eden, you can see Adam and Eve, perhaps even hear the voice of God telling them not to eat from the tree of knowledge. You see the snake hissing by…what if you could stop it before tempting our ancestors to do that which they were told was forbidden.
Before you know it the scene changes and you are now watching Joseph being thrown into a pit by his brothers and sold into slavery. You see his beautiful coat ripped to shreds, soaked in blood, and then returned to their father Jacob; telling him his favorite son is dead. If only you could console Jacob, tell him his son being sold into slavery will change the course of Jewish History forever.
Take a deep breath.
Your next stop is watching Moses being put into the river by his sister Miriam. Little does she know that her brother will become the leader of a great people. You watch Moses grow up in the palace, adored by his adoptive parents, yet always feeling like a bit of an outsider. You see him rise to power alongside his sister Miriam and his brother Aaron. You’re now in the room as Moses asks the man he called father, to let his people go for the very last time. That night you watch the Israelites mark their doorposts and leave in the morning with nothing but the clothes on their backs. You are running arm in arm with the Israelites, headed for the sea. You’re scared, now what? You reach the water, Moses walks in, raises his staff…and as if time stood still, the sea parts allowing us to walk through.
The next few weeks pass by and you are standing at Sinai. Thunder and lightning clashing all around you, you watch the leader of our people walk down the mountain with two tablets in his hands. Tablets that will become the foundation of a religion, bringing light to the world. We came from slavery to freedom and now we have our own God watching down on us…what happens next?
In the blink of an eye, you are in Jerusalem witnessing the greatest public works project ever conceived. You are in the courtyard of the Temple, you see King Solomon standing in the distance, directing his laborers on where place the massive stones. And then in a flash, you skip forward in time, standing in the same place, yet everything around you is now built and the Kohanim are now in front of you. Look around the Temple, you see the entire Jewish world standing before you wearing white and you realize you are witnessing Yom Kippur.
What must these events been like, how would our faith, our belief, our commitment to our future be altered by having been present at these ancient events? This is why our rituals are steeped in memory, yet today on the world’s birthday, we have a few more slides to honor her birthday.
Try, if you can, to keep your eyes closed.
Without even leaving your chair, we are now sitting in Rashi’s study in France. You see the old man hunched over his desk vigorously writing with students all around him, hanging on his every word. You see his daughters walk in to kiss their father, wrapped in their prayer shawls and tefillin, before going to say the morning prayers. Little does the man know that his name will grow to be synonymous with Judaism’s most treasured texts Torah and the Talmud.
Ground your feet on the floor, and with your eyes still closed remind yourself that we are here today – just looking back at time.
Our next stop is perhaps the most difficult on our journey, that is Europe in the late 30’s and 40’s. No words can do justice to the atrocities of the Shoah, of the Holocaust, and yet we must ask ourselves, would we have had the determination, the persistence, the fight to live through such horror and for those who survived to come out with an appreciation for life very few of us will ever be able to appreciate.
After years of torment and torture, it’s April 1944, what are your feelings, your emotions as you look in the distance and see tanks roll in, not German, but American soldiers as they begin to liberate the camps. While freedom is near, you are homeless, citizens of the world, surrounded by countries that have posted a sign of “no vacancy”.
You’re now in Tel Aviv, its May 1948, and a short man, with bushy white hair stands before you saying
“The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.
After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom….Placing our trust in the Almighty, we affix our signatures to this proclamation at this session of the provisional Council of State, on the soil of the Homeland, in the city of Tel-Aviv, on this Sabbath eve, the 5th day of Iyar, 5708 (14th May, 1948) [Israel Proclamation of Independence]
You realize you just witnesses David Ben-Gurion read from the Israel Proclamation of Independence.
Now, if you have not already done so I ask that you open your eyes, and see how far the world has come, how far we as Jews have come. We sit here today, celebrating the birthday of the world. There is much to celebrate and much that we still need to learn.
We have come far: In the time of Rashi, only scholars studied Torah and other rabbinic works, today these works have been translated so that no one is left out of the conversation. Our tradition is accessible and everyone’s opinion is welcomed and respected.
We have built a home: Our ancestors that were able to walk away from the camps and ghettos in Eastern Europe, today see a Jewish world that is stronger than ever before and a free sovereign state of Israel…a place to call home.
We embrace the world around us: Today in 2016 it has never been more “cool” to be Jewish. Individuals practice Judaism in more ways than has ever been possible before in the history of the world. Today, there are Jews participating in services across the country; some are in synagogues as we are, some are in a park with friends, while others are at work watching services livestreamed on their iPhone or computer.
The moments in history that we visited today, we experience through a 2016 lens and we bring with us all of what we know in the here and now. This past year our synagogue adopted a new motto: Rooted in tradition. Embracing change. I believe these words embody where we are, and more importantly, where we are going as a community. We are rooted in our tradition, however we experience it; and we welcome the changes that come with living a committed Jewish life in 2016 – in 5777.
For one last moment I ask you to take a moment to yourself, to say a prayer in your heart, on this the birthday of the world. Today is a day when we look back at our history, so that we can imagine our future. Where do you want to be in 5, 10, 20 years? What do you hope the Jewish world will look like in 2020, or perhaps even 2040?
And most importantly how will YOU make that dream a reality?
Keyn yehe ratzon
May it be Gods will.
And let us say AMEN