In the book of Nehemiah (chapter 8), we find a description of an ancient Rosh HaShanah at the time of rebuilding Israel after a period of exile.
“When the seventh month arrived – the Israelites being settled in their towns – the entire people assembled as one man in the square (in Jerusalem) before the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the scroll of Moses .. On the first day of the seventh month (Rosh HaShanah) Ezra the priest brought the teaching before the congregation, men and women and all who could listen with understanding…”
“Nehemiah….Ezra… and the Levites….said to the people” This day is holy to the Lord your God; you must not mourn or weep” …”Go, eat choice foods and drink sweet drinks and send portions to whoever has nothing prepared, for the day is holy to our Lord….Then all the people went to eat and drink and send portions and make great merriment, for they understood the things they were told.”
This was a time of rebuilding, of the return of Jews having been exiled. It was a time of renewal for our people. The return to Israel from Persia was not easy. The work of rebuilding a society and way of life was hard. Sometimes the people were discouraged and unhappy. Immigration and rebuilding are not so easy. The Temple was functioning, but not fully rebuilt or glorious as in the time of Solomon. Ezra recounts problems of determining who was really an Israelite, and what to do about marriage with the non Jewish folks in the midst of the land. And yet, Rosh HaShanah came to teach about hope, joy, merriment…and yes, equality.
We often think of the High Holidays as somber, a time of reflection. To be sure, there are such elements. I prefer to focus on the instructions of Ezra to learn our Jewish way of life together; “men and women and all who could listen with understanding.” There was no mechitza, no separation of Jews by gender. This was a time when all Jews were present.
There’s an old Yiddish expression: “Shver tzu zein a Yid” – “It’s hard to be a Jew.” We too often focus on the difficulty of being a Jew, especially when we think about Israel and Jerusalem. We were exiled twice; we have two fast days to commemorate these exiles; we leave a corner of our homes and congregations unpainted to recall Jerusalem’s destruction. Jewish law does not allow for weddings during the period from the first fast of the 17th of Tammuz, the siege of the walls of Jerusalem until the second fast of Tisha B’av, the day of destruction.
Ezra comes to teach us that even if it is true that it is hard to be a Jew (a notion I reject in our own time), we should focus on the simchas, on moments and times of joy. Surely this is the meaning of Rosh HaShanah when we are instructed to celebrate by “eating choice foods and drinking sweet drinks.”
We must also be ever mindful of our communal obligations, of acts of righteousness that we now call tzedakah as a furtherance of our obligations to “send portions to whoever has nothing prepared.” What an honor to provide support for the renewal of Israel, both spiritual and physical.
All of these actions, all of Ezra and Nehemiah’s teaching are in the context of building our land and safeguarding our beloved city of Jerusalem. These pioneers, chalutzim of their day, returned to Israel so that the Jewish people could again emerge as a member of the family of nations. We the Jews are a nation, a civilization, an Am Kadosh, a holy people.
The tasks and responsibilities of rebuilding Israel yet again, of renewing our national life in our own land, are with us today. We have not completed our work. Israel may be physically safe, a topic of much debate, but she is not yet politically safe within the world body politic. The security of Israel’s soul – and thus the soul of our people – is also not yet fully secured. As Reform Jews, working to promote equality, religious freedom, and social justice, we have a particular role to play in securing Israel’s soul. This Rosh HaShanah, we must be proud and happy that we are a privileged generation that has the opportunity to work to build an ever more inclusive, democratic, pluralistic Israel.
This new year, as a proud Reform Jew, rejoice in Rosh HaShanah and pledge to participate in invigorating Israel. Make your plans to visit Israel this year. Learn to speak Hebrew. Read the daily news from Israel available in English. Go to rallies and meetings. And of course, be a member of ARZA – your voice as an American Reform Jew in the life of Israel.
David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, said: “Without moral and intellectual independence, there is no anchor for national independence.” Together, we can be Israel’s anchor.