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Rabbi Miriam Berger

2nd Day Rosh Hashana 5781

You can listen to Rabbi Miriam’s sermon or read it below.

My kindle has a tendency to lead me down a literary rabbit warren. Its Artificial Intelligence is hard to resist “If you enjoyed that book, you will like…” is even more astute than the “Rabbi, I’ve just read…” which is of course also a source of fabulous recommendations – don’t be offended I haven’t replaced you with AI but with fewer kiddush conversations for the last six months the metaphorical pile on my bedside table was getting smaller.

So, I’ve been on a jaunt of fictional and non-fictional novels which have, all in their own beautiful, haunting or terrifying ways, shown me that we cannot run away from the person who we were born. Not the same as destiny but perhaps there is something predetermined by the to whom, where and when we were born.

Whether you are Tara Westover, born on a remote mountain in Idaho, to Mormon survivalist parents with their paranoid patchwork of isolating and brutal behaviours who used education as her attempt at escape, leaving us with the very unresolved question of, is a new learnt normal the same as escaping from one’s past? Or If you are Delia Owens’, Kya, the marsh girl of North Carolina, living with abandonment and learning human behaviours through those of the animal world, can you ever become acceptable to the people around you?  Are we the master of our fate or are we the product of who and where we’ve come from?

Even the most happy, middle class childhoods leave us with expectations, a sense of entitlement which leaves us open to disappointment and failure or unattainable expectations from which people try to flee.

Most of us thankfully do not have extreme experiences to turn from as we start this New Year but most of us, if really pushed, could list the defining moments in our life which have made us who we are and the impact from which we cannot run. The impact of “to whom we were born” may be a simple predeterminism in many of our positive life choices and is often so easy to see (even if you marry and change your surname so their aren’t two Rabbi Bayfields) and yet for some, it’s a complex narrative which may unpack years of pain or take years of therapy to understand.

I wonder if it’s why on Rosh Hashana we read the earliest chapters of our own communal coming of age narrative – our shared horror of being born into the most dysfunctional family. It’s a narrative of jealousy, humiliation and religious fundamentalism leading to abuse. Maybe as a community we continue to write our auto biography? We try to extol the wonders of where we have come from and look what we have managed to make of ourselves despite our challenging start: children of Abraham, slaves to Pharaoh, individuals like Hannah who suffered for so long.  What scars did that leave on subsequent generations? Yet however far we’ve moved geographically, however embarrassed we are of the family broiges that simmer, however different we know life is, we cannot distance ourselves from this past. It is who we are and who we will always be.

As we read in our study passage “to a very significant extent we are, each of us, who and where we have come from.”

The New Year messages and liturgy, our whole journey from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur is all designed for renewal, remaking ourselves and the world. But what if we can’t? What if we are who we are, who we were born to be? Year after year we take a deep breath on Rosh Hashanah knowing the breast beating starts with these ten days and leaves us feeling wretched, living with a perpetual punishment, in a cycle of self- loathing, misery or despair and crying out to be forgiven, remembered or simply released from this pain.

The Bavli Moed Katan (28a) shares a teaching of Rava who said “length of life, children, and sustenance depend not on merit but on mazel. Take Rabbah and Rav Hisda, both of whom were sages, both saintly.  When one prayed for rain, it came, even as it came when the other prayed for rain. Yet Rav Hisda lived to the age of 92, while Rabbah died at the age of forty. In Rav Hisda’s house sixty wedding feasts were celebrated; in Rabbah’s house sixty bereavements. In Rav Hisda’s house dogs were fed on bread of fine flour, which was never missed; in Rabbah’s barley bread was for human beings and even that was hardly to be had.”

Not merit but mazel.

Yet we sit here a community of Hagars, cast out by our families or feeling rejected by partners. We are Ishmael the child growing up with a mother who struggled having been cast aside and whose wailing we heard while she thought we slept. We are Sarah and Hannah who for decades lived with bitter jealousy or we are Samuel or Isaac, so longed for, so smothered, trying to fulfil expectations far greater than one child can shoulder.  It means these days become gruelling because we are the product of where we have come from. We know life’s events and the rough cards dealt were not based on merit but simply on mazel. So why does the great shofar sound, heralding a day of judgement when we judge ourselves more harshly than any external forces could and make us question our destiny, one that a lifetime of trying to flee from and reverse, seem so inevitable?

Learning to acknowledge that we are a product of where we have come from and what we have experienced could be the ultimate act of teshuva, of return. Forgiving ourselves is accepting who we are and why we are and not punishing ourselves by seeing punishment or disgrace in who we reveal and what we see. Being open with ourselves and being honest with other generations is woven into our DNA. The High Holydays try and make us run; there’s an urgency in liturgy: change before it’s too late.  But what if instead we simply said, this is me? No new beginnings or starting afresh.

As our service takes us into Musaf and what, in years outside of global pandemics might be a shocking reminder of the fact that people die in terribly devastating ways, we hear it underpinned with the randomness of Rava, the “it’s not merit but mazel” and rather than running, being kind to oneself and accepting.

I’ve decided for balance or perhaps as an antidote that William Ernest Henley’s words of Invictus should be a rolling reminder across the top of every page of the machzor.

“It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul”

It could work in a similar way to the two pockets of “I am but dust and ashes” and “for me alone was the world created.” We would have these words “master of my fate” on one side of a coin with, on the reverse, Bayfield’s “to a very significant extent we are, each of us, who and where we have come from.”

Life is fragile and a gift we cannot take for granted. Life is a cup so easily broken, like grass that withers or flowers that fade. While 5781 looks like it is going to start with so many of the challenges of 5780, be kind and gentle with yourself. Let us not spend it punishing ourselves for who we are but rather accept who we are and use that knowledge and acceptance to move us forward in the New Near. If we spent less time fighting ourselves and more time using that awareness to free us from the burdens of self-reproach, perhaps we would open ourselves to teshuvah real change, teffilah an honesty in our prayers and tzeddakah being able to show compassion to others. We invoke God’s qualities as “slow to anger and eager to forgive” so perhaps it’s those qualities we need to find in ourselves for ourselves.

And it is with that lens that we transition into our Musaf service.

Tue, 9 August 2022 12 Av 5782