Rosh Hashanah Sermon

By Rabbi Cornelia Dalton


Shana Tova, everyone – it’s good to be here with you this morning

Have you ever read something that bothered you so much that you had to go out of your way to change it? Call someone up, write a complaint, get all your friends together?

In our prayer books, our Lev Shalem machzorim, the books we have been spending so much time with over the last nearly two days, that you have in front of you, there was, at one time, a line which disturbed the rabbis so much that they actually changed it over the millenia.

The words are from the Unetaneh Tokef prayer which guide much of our time this High Holiday season, and they once read:

B’Rosh Hashanah Yikateivun, U’V’Yom Tzom Kippur Yichateimun – On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.  Mi yichiyeh, u’mi yamut.  Who will live and who will die.

U’Teshuva, U’Tfilah, U’Tzedakah, m’vatlin et ro’a ha g’zera.

Repentance, prayer, and charity nullify the evil decree.  This word m’vatlin means nullify – to get rid of it, done and gone.

Evil decree we understand to mean any and all of the bad things potentially coming our way – death, job loss, suffering, illness, you name it.  If you pray hard enough and correctly enough, this earlier text seemed to be suggesting – if you donated enough money, if you repented like you never repented before – the text seemed to say, well, then, if you did it right, you wouldn’t get what was coming for you this year.

Pretty great, right? All we had to do was make sure we did it right.

There are a few problems with that, as I see it, and as the rabbis saw it.

Everyone in this room is thoughtful enough and sophisticated enough to reject the idea that if they just do as I say, or as the rabbis say, all of their problems, struggles, challenges, sicknesses, and difficult moments will disappear – or the idea that anyone who is suffering just didn’t try hard enough

They/Another group of rabbis were so disturbed by the idea that they inherited, that repentance, prayer, and charity nullify the evil decree, that they chose to change the words to the ones we see today in our machzorim, and any High Holiday machzor you’ll open:

U’Teshuva, U’Tefila, U’Tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a ha g’zera.

Repentance, prayer, and charity change the evil decree.  Ma’avirin here meaning “to change.”

“What does *that* mean?” we want to know. “Is that any better?”

Let’s talk about those two words, m’vatlin and ma’avirin, and the difference they make to our experience of the High Holidays and of our lives in the rest of the year.  To do this, I’d like to share two stories with you.

The first is a story from the Talmud in Taanit, daf 25a.

Once there was a rabbi called Elazar ben Pedat, who was hard up for money.  He was as poor as poor gets, and one day he was in a particularly dire situation.  The text isn’t really clear about whether or not he had a medical condition and has to get his blood taken, or if he’s so tight for money that he sells his blood, but whichever it was, he didn’t have anything to eat after – this wasn’t like it is now, where you get juice and a cookie after you give blood – he didn’t have anything to eat afterward, so he finds a clove of garlic and puts it in his mouth just to have something to [sort of] chew on.  He faints and falls into a sleep, and his friends, the rabbis, come to check on him/see how he’s doing.  They see him sleeping, and while he’s sleeping, in his sleep he’s weeping and laughing, and a ray of light is shining from his forehead.

When he woke up, they said to him, “What was that about? What was going on – why were you laughing and crying in your sleep?” He said to them: I had this dream – in my dream God was sitting with me, and I asked God – how much longer is this going to go on? How much longer am I going to be so poor and so miserable? And God said to me, Elazar, My son, do you want me to start the world all over again? Just go back to the beginning? Maybe then you will be born in an hour of sustenance and won’t be poor.

He said to God, You’d do that, you’d start the whole world over for me/do all that, and even then it’s only a maybe – only a possibility that things might be different, not for sure?? (I might have to do all this again and nothing would be different?!) He says to God, listen – how much of my life do I have left? Have I already lived most of my life, or do I have a lot [of time] left in front of me? God said, you’ve already lived most of your life.  Elazar says – if that’s the case, don’t start the world all over again, it’s enough already.

God says to him, as a reward [for saying “don’t start the world all over again,”] I will give you, in the World-to-Come (in heaven), thirteen rivers of pure oil as large as the Euphrates and the Tigris for you to enjoy.

He said to God – …That’s it? (You’re going to give me some oil?) God said to him, “But if I give you more, what will I give to everyone else, your friends and colleagues?” He said to God, What are you, a human being, who has limited resources? Aren’t you all-powerful? God playfully snapped God’s finger on his forehead and said to him, “Elazar, my son, My arrows I cast upon you, My arrows.” That’s what caused the ray of light to shine from his forehead.

What I love about this story is that although it was written in Aramaic hundreds of years ago, it is shockingly close to how many of us might talk to God or respond to our circumstances, and the rabbis don’t shy away from this.  Elazar has some serious chutzpah in the way he talks to the Creator of the World, but the rabbis don’t see this as an opportunity for God to rebuke him, or for some out-of-this-world, miraculous promise from God that things will be better.

Elazar ben Pedat, I imagine, wakes up just as poor and just as hungry as he did before he fainted/fell asleep – his evil decree was not nullified.  His experience of his life, the way he sees his circumstances, hopefully, has shifted.

In his encounter with God, in this Divine encounter, what we might categorize here as some kind of prayer-ful experience, he has the chance to have it out with God, to tell God what he thinks, to say, hey – aren’t you supposed to be all-powerful? I don’t think you’re pulling your weight here.  He gets to ask for his life to be different, to imagine what it would be like for the world to start all over again and his world to be another one, any other one.  He imagines God rewarding him.  He has, perhaps, a cathartic and holy experience, which changes the way he lives his life.

The second story is from the Talmud, from Masechet Shabbat, daf 156b, and tells the story of Rabbi Akiva’s daughter, who had a prophecy told about her before she was born.  The prophecy is told to her father Rabbi Akiva that on the day of her wedding, she’ll be bitten by a snake and die.  Terrible.

Rabbi Akiva, what does he do? He hears this prophecy and he…does nothing.  He doesn’t change the way he lives his life, he doesn’t warn his daughter to be careful around snakes, he doesn’t prevent her from meeting people, he doesn’t get everyone together to kill all the snakes in the whole country.  He waits.  He raises his daughter with his wife, and one day his daughter gets engaged to be married.  The night before the wedding comes, and the family all gets together; we can “imagine all of them excited at the meal…[how dressed up everyone got] and all of the guests and relatives overcome with happiness. Only Rabbi Akiva sits in silence, worried. He doesn’t know if she will survive the night, if she will show up the next morning.”

Late that night, after the long meal and celebration, Rabbi Akiva’s daughter is getting ready for bed, and she takes her pin out of her hair, the pin that was holding up her hair, and – it’s dark – she sticks it in the wall for safekeeping (that’s perhaps where she kept her hairpins).  “Unbeknownst to her, the pin also puncture[d] the eye of a snake set to kill her, killing it instead. With this unintentional act, she succeed[ed] in saving herself and changing her fate.  In the morning, she remove[d] the pin from the wall [and discovered] the dead snake attached to it.  Approaching her father Rabbi Akiva with the dead snake, he immediately understood that she had successfully changed her destiny and asked her – “What did you do?” The [rabbis] comment that by this he did not mean – “How did you kill the snake?” but rather “What good deed did you do which enabled you to change your fate?””  She responds, ‘Last night, someone came to the door during the celebration, asking for food – everyone else was busy, and so I gave him my plate of food, someone had handed me a plate for me to eat, and I gave it to him instead.”  “She [had taken] her meal, given to her in honor of her wedding, and gave it to him.”

It’s unclear if Rabbi Akiva’s daughter knew about the prophecy and the danger she was in, or what was at stake.  As we read the text we assume she is behaving the way she normally does.  She doesn’t doubt her instincts [born from her upbringing and education], she simply gives the hungry person her plate – look, she says, someone came to the door and I had something I could give to them, so I did.

The rabbis understand this story to mean that her act of righteousness saved her life – that God had intended for the prophecy to come true, for her to die on her wedding day, but that her act of tzedakah changed it, and that our acts of tzedakah can save our lives too, if we have been destined to die.  This is inspiring, and also, for some of us, a hard story that might not feel true.  We might know someone who is the most wonderful, giving, righteous person whose life is not saved, who instead deals with difficulty after difficulty.

In Unetaneh Tokef we are told by the rabbis, in a sense, something we already know – bad things are likely going to happen this year, very bad things, and we don’t know when and we don’t always know why and we don’t know to whom, and we can’t stop it (or control it) or prevent it from happening. Good things will likely happen, too – unexpected good things, delightful good things, things which also disrupt and add stress and shift relationships.  Something’s coming, right around the corner, but we can’t see it yet/don’t know what it is.  This is terrible news for anyone who likes to plan out their life.  We know this.

Why does our tradition feel the need to remind us of this? What was the point of changing those two words?

B’Rosh Hashanah Yikateivun, U’V’Yom Tzom Kippur Yichateimun – On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.  Mi yichiyeh, u’mi yamut.  Who will live and who will die.

U’Teshuva, U’Tfilah, U’Tzedakah, ma’avirin et ro’a ha g’zera.  But repentance, prayer, and charity change the evil decree.

We might spend, over the next year, hours and hours of our life in sincere prayer.  We might donate tons of money, or tons of time, to good causes.  We might take a look at our behavior and realize hey, you know what? I was wrong – I shouldn’t do that anymore.  Maybe I should do this differently.  We should do all of these things. Even then, we still might experience deep hardship.

“The Rabbis…couldn’t stomach the false promise that doing good things would grant long life.  They couldn’t bear the implication that those who die must have done something wrong,” and neither can I.

These two stories, about Elazar ben Pedat and Rabbi Akiva’s daughter, are stories about human responses to challenges and difficulties.  Elazar ben Pedat changes his decree – his poverty and suffering doesn’t miraculously disappear, but he is better able to manage it, to move forward with a modicum of peace.  Rabbi Akiva’s daughter, on the other hand, nullifies her decree – her situation changes for the better, and she inspires acts of righteousness in others, hope that if we do the right thing, we’ll reap the rewards in a tangible way.

There is no secret to tricking God into inscribing us into the book of life, or into thinking that we are good. God already knows that we are good, inherently, all of us – God created us.  Even though we don’t always act so good, or think so good, or speak so good.

These words are reminding us that while we can’t control what’s going on around us all the time, while we cannot know if we nullify any evil intended for us (God forbid), we can control ourselves – our acts of prayer and connection with God, our return to thoughtful, ethical behavior, our giving of our time and energy and resources with patience and with generosity.  Even when we don’t know what the outcome is going to be, the way we meet the world matters.

Rabbi Alan Lew, in his book “This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared,” writes:

“Do prayer, Teshuvah, and Tzedakah actually change our fate? The rabbis who came along later realized that of course they do not. The real change is in the way we perceive the world…The act of Teshuvah is no longer seen as ripping up the evil decree. Now it transforms the evil of the decree. Teshuvah doesn’t change what happens, and it doesn’t change the way we are. It merely changes the way we see these things. We no longer see things as evil, we simply see them as they are, and that makes all the difference.”

May the year to come, 5784, bring with it only good – but in case it doesn’t, may we meet see it for what it is, and may we meet it fully as ourselves, reaching out to God and our communities, with the confidence and faith that even if we can’t nullify the decree, we can change.  Shana Tova.

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