A Sweet New Year

We were privileged to attend a Jewish Rosh Hashanah service last night (Shana Tova!) at the invitation of friends of ours.  It was my first such opportunity, and a memorable one.  The synagogue was beautiful, and there were many folks on hand for the first of the High Holy Days.  It is a Reform Judaism synagogue, something I wasn’t aware of initially but became very clear as the service went on.

Similar to Christian worship, there was music and ritual.  There was no direct reading from Scripture, though the ‘ark’ containing their copy of the Torah was opened several times during the night for festive singing – but never to actually read what it had to say.  Fascinating!

Two moments stand out – the sermon and the after service address from the congregational president.

The sermon was delivered by an intern, a 5th year student at a Jewish Seminary in Los Angeles.  The topic was hope.  He opened with a quote, in which he told us he was going to replace the word hope wherever it appeared in that quote with the name God.  He then reread the quote with the original word hope in it.  And then he basically invited people to consider that both the word hope and the name God both made really good sense in the quote.  He then went on to preach a sermon without ever mentioning God again.  I wasn’t surprised that he didn’t mention Jesus, but he never mentioned God.  It was clear that his expectation was that many folks in the room didn’t actually believe in God, but certainly could believe in hope.  He ended his sermon with snippets of current events and the actions of individuals in the midst of tragedy and challenge as the basis for his hope for the coming new year.

It was one of the most hope-less sermons I’ve ever heard, because it grounded our hope in ourselves, despite his mention of equally jarring moments recently where humans demonstrated that they are not people to place hope in or expect hope from.  The upshot I guess is that at least some people are capable of and demonstrative of actions of hopefulness, so let’s just focus on that despite the fact that the news overwhelmingly favors the preponderance of less helpful actions.

The address by the congregational president at the end of the service was also notable.  He was extremely well-spoken and as I understand it is a man of some renown in our area.  He spoke of growing up being ethnically and ritually Jewish.  He didn’t necessarily believe any of it, but he had done the appropriate things that a Jewish person should do.  Until an event 30 years ago in the area jarred him into a sense of urgency to be more involved in Jewish leadership.  Not the faith, per se, but rather acting on behalf of Jews in the community.  He recounted his family’s personal brush with the Holocaust in Germany, and stated strong resolve to help this particular congregation remain strong and secure into the future.

Secure.  There’s a fascinating term both for Judaism and Christianity.  Certainly a review of Jewish history will quickly reveal that security has rarely lasted very long in any given place.  That since their dispersal from the Promised Land by the Romans in 70 AD, the Jews have truly wandered out of necessity.  They have settled, only to be forced to move at some point later.  Until the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the Jews have never enjoyed a very secure anything.  The fact that the state of Israel is only 70 years old only underscores this further.

Christians also have endured a great deal of insecurity.  While enjoying a privileged place in Western culture for many centuries, that security is eroding rapidly.  Elsewhere in the world security for Christians has been far more tenuous and unpredictable.

And in both cases, Scripture, the Word of God to his people, has explicitly stated that this is how things are going to go.  We might expect many things in this world based on the promises of God, but temporal security isn’t high on the list, or on the list at all.  I’ll be the first to come to the aid of someone else – Jewish or otherwise – but I won’t pretend to tell either of them (or myself, or my wife and kids) that safety and security are something we should just take for granted, or something that we can control.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t strive to be secure.  That’s human nature both individually and communally.  But for God’s people, that security is tempered with a greater understanding that the best that security can do for us here and now is ensure a somewhat smooth life for 100 years at best.  Even temporal financial and physical security doesn’t save us from Death.  Our greatest hope and goal can’t simply be security.  It has to lie elsewhere.  And for God’s people, that place has always been God.

It must be so difficult to lead a congregation of people rooted in a shared set of past experiences but not a shared interpretation of them.  It must be weird to have a liturgy that repeatedly talks about God, but have to remind people that if that makes them uncomfortable they can just close the book and think about something else.  God isn’t the source of discomfort!

I walked away from the evening grateful for the experience but aching for those people, so close to God historically and even liturgically, but for many very far away from him actually, personally.  I ached that they might hear and know truly good news in a God who has made them specific promises that are not dependent upon the actions of random people around the country or world, and are not dependent on their own contributions.  I ached for these people who have inherited not just a culture and a set of rituals but the revealed Word of God, and yet choose to keep that Word locked away, who consider it something optional at best.  This people through whom God brought the Savior of the world into creation, this people that God remains deeply committed to through his promises to Abraham and Moses and David.

I pray for them a sweet new year (a traditional expression associated with Rosh Hashanah), and as such, a new year rooted in closer experience with the Creator of the Universe and the Son He brought through them to give us real and lasting hope.


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