I never completely write out a sermon word for word. Here are the notes I used for the Rosh Ha Shannah sermon I gave here at Indiana University this year (typos and all). You'll get the general idea from these notes. Wishing you all a Shannah Tovah, a good year.
Rosh Ha Shannah 2018, 5779
I think Judaism is a smart religion. How wise is it? Once a year we are given to opportunity to wipe the slate clean, repent for our wrong doings. Once a year. Not monthly or weekly. Repentance is not a regular thing for us. It is special. We prepare for it during the month of Elul, think about it during the ten days of awe between R.H. and Y.K. and then seriously try to change the direction of our lives toward the good. As a sailor I liken this process to changing the direction of a sailboat. That’s called “Coming about.” Coming about is literally taking a new tack, turning around; and since it is a dramatic maneuver, the captain must warn the crew of what he or she is about to do. The captain says, “Prepare to come about,” and crew knows to watch out and be ready. On this holiday of R.H we are preparing to come about. We will strive to change the direction of our lives in ten days, on Y.K.
1. Like coming about, repentance is a dramatic act. But, Sin sounds so…well, sinister. I mean, How guilty actually are we? Rabbi Brian Besser of our local synagogue, Beth Shalom teaches that there are actually 3 levels of sin in Judaism. The first is called Chet…as in the prayer Al Chet Shechatanu Lifanecha…”For the sin that we have sinned before you. Chet is unintentional sin. Chet is a mistake, a slight, a word we wish we could take back.
2. A deeper level of sin is Avon. Avon is an impulsive wrongdoing. Since we all possess a Yetzer Ha Tov, The inclination to good along with a Yetzer Ha Ra, an evil inclination, sometimes the Ra, evil overtakes the Tov, good. Our human weakness shows when we think or say, “I just can’t resist….”
3. And then there’s the highest or rather lowest level of sin, called Pesha. Pesha is a sin done with intent, a pre-meditated wrongful act…the most dramatic of all sins.
All of us can hang our respective hats on one or more of these Jewish concepts of sin. Our coming about, changing direction on Y.K. is called in Hebrew, Teshuvah. Teshuvah literally means “ return.” But to what are we aiming to return? The answer is in the basic core Jewish concept of the nature of Human beings. Judaism maintains that humans are born pure, without sin, righteous. We aim to return as well as we can to that state of purity, understanding that we are imperfect, will always make mistakes and so yearly have to adjust our aim. The goal is to increase our personal righteousness quotient. To move toward right… by eliminating wrong.
A professor of mine used to liken Teshuvah, repentance, to shooting arrows at a bull’s eye. The center of the target is pure righteousness. During the year we miss the target by varying degrees according to our behavior. R.H. and Y.K. give us the opportunity to adjust our aim and set out once again to hit the righteousness target.
Tzedek is the Hebrew word for righteousness. From it we get the word Tzedakah which we translate incorrectly as “charity,” when it actually means doing the right thing. A few weeks ago we read in the Torah portion, Shoftim” a phrase we often see written above the Ark in synagogues, “Tzedik, Tzedik Tirdof,” righteousness, righteousness you shall pursue. The rabbis, who believed that every word of Torah was put there for a reason, ask, “Why repeat the word Tzedek…why not just Tzedek Tirdof…you shall pursue righteousness?”
Perhaps it is repeated to tell us that seeking righteousness is multi- directional. Perhaps the first Tzedek directs us to pursue righteousness outwardly, in the world. And the second Tzedek reminds us to seek righteousness inwardly, in our own lives…Pursue righteousness outwardly, AND inwardly.
The Hebrew dictionary defines being righteous as being: just, straight, correct, precise, and repairing as in Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. English language dictionary adds: showing mercy, being virtuous, kind, fair and upright.
These definitions may help us pursue righteousness outwardly and inwardly. Outwardly, how can we promote goodness in the world? When we think of Tikkun Olam, repairing the word we list, ecology, charity, acts of kindness, and much more. But let me suggest that our country is in great need of righteousness right now. Without making any political comment here, one great step we can all take toward increasing the USA’s righteousness quotient is to make sure we are all registered to vote and to actually vote on Nov 6th. Repainting the world begins at home, in our cities, states and country. We can help by voting.
Now pursuing righteousness inwardly. Consider this…the definitions I listed are also adjectives we use in our prayer books when referring to God…Mercy, just, kind, true, fair. STORY…boy to father, If God is all powerful and invisible, how does god see god’s self? Mirror, reflection…we are god’s mirror…god sees god’s reflection through us and especially through the kindness we show to each other.
Our Teshuvah, our returning is to the realization that we are created in God’s image and we strive for righteousness by letting those god adjectives shine through us and direct our acts. Mercy, justice, kindness, truth, fairness. We have ten days to hone our aim toward the righteousness target, to change our direction, to prepare to come about.
There is one other nautical definition given for the word Tzedek in its verb form…to RIGHT one’s self, as a boat rights itself after being hit by a wave. During this period of reflection, may we return to purity, to godliness, and on Y.K., may we, like that boat, right ourselves.