Just a few more days….Can you begin to picture it? We will all gather together, in anticipation of the New Year, and the new beginnings that come with it. The melodies we wait for all year will be surrounding us. Our prayers and supplications will rise towards the heavens and we will pray “Sh’ma Koleinu” – that God will hear our voices. The Shofar will wake us from our physical and spiritual slumber. The sweet apples and honey will delight taste buds of all ages.
The wonder, grandeur and splendor of the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, the High Holy Days, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, will create a mood within us that we feel at no other time during the year. We gather as a community, sit in our pews or seats while the rabbis, cantors and choirs create an intense worship experience. We may feel as if we cannot create such a meaningful, moving, or educational experience on our own. We turn to our Jewish leaders, professional and lay, and find ourselves hoping they will tell us what to feel when – how to read the Torah text, what mitzvot to focus on in the coming year, how to be a good person, how to properly repent, and how to understand the messages of the season.
But, (and don’t tell them that I told you!) the words of Deuteronomy 30 convey a very important message to all of us about how to approach the High Holy Day season:
Surely, this Torah which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.
So what is the message delivered by this text? That Torah is not in the heavens, out of reach, but very close to us. So close that it’s in our mouths and hearts. How empowering!
Now, as Dr. Leonard Kravitz, a wonderful professor of mine back at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion always liked to say, “No one votes himself out of business,” and I am not trying to talk you out of employing your wonderful clergy and staff here at your synagogues.
Rather, I am reminding you of something you perhaps already know within you, but may be afraid to acknowledge: You don’t need an intermediary to learn, to understand, or to live Torah. You don’t need someone to reach up into the heavens and get it for you. You don’t need someone to go across the sea and get it and impart it to you. Rather, the Torah is in you – in your mouth and in your heart. And I don’t just mean the Torah scroll found in the sanctuary in the Ark. I mean Torah in its widest sense: all that makes us Jewish.
Living Jewishly is not some difficult, unattainable goal. Instead, as the Torah states, it is how we use our mouths: The words we say, the way we speak to one another. It is the encouragements, apologies, and hopes that we share with one another. It is the speeches, teachings, protests, and songs that leave our lips and attempt to find a willing ear.
It is the prayers for peace, health, and justice that we pray communally or privately.
It is how we use our hearts: The love we share with our family and friends, the connection we feel with the divine within us, the eagerness with which we open our hearts to those in need, the manner in which we try to repair the brokenness in ourselves, our loved ones, and the world.
God said, “I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but with those who are standing here with us this day before Adonai our God, and with those who are not with us here this day.”
“Those who are not with us here this day” – That’s you and me. God made the covenant with us, and with each generation that enters the world.
So, as we look forward to a new year, I would like to encourage all of you, during this time of new beginnings, No matter how comfortable or uncomfortable you feel in your Judaism … or how much or how little you have studied… or what in level of observance you place yourself…
That one of your personal themes of this year might be the words: “Lo Bashamayim Hi” – It is not in the heavens. Rather, it is here, “B’ficha u’vil-vav-cha” – in your mouth and in your heart. Let’s all work to make the New Year, 5772, one of continued growth, one of further ascent, one of faith in oneself and others, and one in which we all live a little more Torah than the previous year.