Rosh Hashanah Day 2 – Tasting Eternity

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

Thank you for the honor of presenting a D’var Torah on Rosh Hashanah.

Our lives follow many rhythms as we go through the year – the seasons, the English calendar, birthdays, and others. To me, Rosh Hashanah means that the year is “officially” starting. The Holidays coincide with the academic year, and for so much of our lives, things pretty much revolved around that cycle. And in just one week, we will observe Yom Kippur, which of course begins with Kol Nidre.

My single favorite service of the year is that one – Kol Nidre. I always get a bit emotional as I hear the melody. My connection with the service and that particular prayer has little to do with its actual words. In fact, if you read the words, you can easily see why Christians used it against Jews – the prayer specifically says that all vows that we make in the coming year are to be annulled! Who could trust a person who would annul all promises as soon as they are made?

No, my emotional connection runs deep because of the haunting melody of the Kol Nidre prayer. The prayer and the melody go back centuries. Today’s melody is the same that my ancestors heard on that solemn night. I once mentioned to Cantor Zherebker at Shearith Israel what an emotional connection I had to Kol Nidre, how I envisioned my ancestors chanting the prayer right along with me. He told me that there is an old rabbinic midrash that on that night, they are all there with me. . . What a beautiful thought. Wow. . . Conjure up that powerful image for a moment. I still choke up at the very portrayal – we’re all together on that most solemn night. And even more, beyond Gd judging me, I will have to account to all those ancestors of mine as I ask the question, “Well, how am I doing?”

This year, I’ve had two emotional experiences that brought me together, if you indulge my vision, with my ancestors.

One occurred this past May. Our granddaughter Lucy had her baby naming in New York. Leah spoke beautifully about her grandmothers, for whom Lucy was named. Her Hebrew name is thus Tzippura. After Leah spoke, the rabbi said the priestly blessing over Lucy. Leah and Ross lowered their heads, and my emotional moorings began to get a little wobbly. At the conclusion of the blessing he took Lucy from her parents and – gad! – raised her aloft.

With Leah and Ross in tow, he marched into the congregation, announcing to the congregants that here was their newest member. As the rabbi held Lucy, I could feel the presence of those who were close to me – parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles – and even those who I didn’t know – the many who came long before me. They were all there, watching the service . . . and smiling. As I tried to hold it together, I kept telling myself, “This doesn’t have to be so hard!”

The second moving experience occurred as I gathered very old photos from Nancy’s and my family. I decided this spring to digitally scan many of these photos and create a book. I’m in the midst of the project now, simply awaiting the restoration of 6 or 7 old and worn photographs before they can be included in the book. I can barely look at some of these photos without becoming emotional – my parents on their honeymoon, for instance, looking right at me through the camera lens, with large, bright eyes. Or the last picture of my dad, only a month or so before he died, with the 8-year-old me draped over his shoulders, both of us smiling with glee and with pure joy.

When the Kol Nidre prayer is chanted, when I recall the image of Lucy being held aloft by the rabbi, and when I look at these old photos of my family and of Nancy’s, the two different extensions of my life come into sharp relief. One before me and one after. It becomes obvious to me that my narrative – my story – like your story – didn’t begin with me. With us. It didn’t begin when our parents met. Or even our grandparents. It goes further back – back all the way to Abraham. To Sarah. We are the sons and daughters of Abraham, of Sarah, of Rebecca, of Jacob. And our stories don’t end with us. We are part of a long chain – a chain that is as extraordinary as it is beautiful. A chain that is eternal. What a priceless gift! What a magnificent vision!

That story comes alive for me when I read the Torah each week. To me, the beauty of the Torah and in fact, of Judaism, is that our religion lives and breathes when we make its stories our stories. If we look at the Torah as a history book, we will inevitably have doubts and perhaps disappointments. But the Torah isn’t and was never meant to be a history book.

The key question isn’t, “Was Abraham a real person?” but rather, is his story real? Am I living it today? When Gd said to Abraham, “Lech lecha! Go from this place!” That’s our story, isn’t it? We don’t know what’s in store for us; we don’t even know what will happen tomorrow, but that story – our story – our narrative depends largely on us. What we do and how we act.

The Exodus – did it happen exactly as it was written in the Torah? Who cares? The lessons of the Exodus endure. Tyrants fall. Maybe not as quickly as we would like, but they ultimately fall. Freedom wins out. And making the story of the Exodus our story, we realize that it’s up to us to be Moses and help others unshackle bonds. It’s up to us to be Miriam and pack our tambourines when all looks beak, because better days are in store, if we make it so.

In some very deep sense, we all have a yearning, not only for our lives to matter today, but for our lives to have lasting significance. To leave the world better than we found it. When viewed in the context of the great sweep of time, we are here but for an instant. But if our lives are to have significance, if we are to be a force for good in the world, those seemingly trivial marks that we make each day add up, and we become part of something much bigger. And when placed in the context of those who came before us and those who will come after us, we are but a link in a very long chain. What a beautiful image, right?

In 1974, my grandfather died of pancreatic cancer. He was a tall, strapping man (like his grandson, maybe?). I never recall him being warm and overtly loving. And after my dad died in 1959, I never even recall him smiling. No laughter; no joy. He lived in Boston, where I was born and raised. His final hospitalization came while I was doing a clerkship in Hartford Connecticut, a few months before I was to graduate from medical school. I traveled home to Boston and went to the hospital to see him for what would be the last time. I recall the visit because it was so distinctive, and his behavior so unusual for him.

From his bed, saying not a word, he pulled me by my shoulders close to him, hugged me and smiled, looking deeply into my eyes. Very uncharacteristic of him. Maybe my Zadie tasted, for the first time, eternity. His father had been a doctor in a small village outside Moscow, and maybe now, in his last days, he viewed me and indeed his own life in a very different way. He was looking at eternity through my eyes, as his parents and grandparents surely looked at eternity through Zadie’s eyes, in their old Russian shtetl. They then put him on a boat to leave for America, never to see him again.

So next Tuesday evening when Mike chants the Kol Nidre prayer in that ancient melody, close your eyes. Taste eternity. Feel the presence of all those who came before you and who heard that same melody. It’s OK to shed a tear or two during the prayer. Soak in the moment. Hold it close. . .

Nancy and I wish all of our brothers and sisters in the kehillah a year filled with sweetness and joy, and may we all have much to celebrate together.

L’shanah Tovah. Chag Sameach!