This year, Richard Branson saw the planet from a completely different angle. The owner of Virgin was on board a rocket and saw the Earth as it appears from space.
It must have been incredible. The globe with its big blue oceans and grey-green continents, set against the great dark expanse of our solar system.
I have always associated that image with Rosh Hashanah. I remember being in cheder as a child, drawing out the world like this in crayon.
“This festival is the birthday of the world,” I learned.
We celebrate the world’s creation and another trip around the sun. According to rabbinic tradition, the Earth is now approaching the ripe old age of 5782. Mazal tov!
Our ancestors may not have known that the world was, in fact, billions of years old. They probably did not even realise that it is, as Branson would have seen, spherical and rotating on its own axis.
But they understood something deeply important. This planet is a gift from God. It is a sacred place, existing in an improbable balance that allows the perfect conditions for life. It is filled with more animals and plants than we will ever be able to name. As the Psalmist declared: “How manifold are your works, Eternal One!”
At the Jewish New Year, we celebrate creation and our place within it. We thank God for the bees that made us honey and the trees that bore us apples. We count another year when God placed human beings in a perfect garden and charged us with caring for it.
What Richard Branson might not have seen from all the way up there was how delicate this planet really is. Once again, we experienced our hottest summer on record, where wildfires spread across the western coast of North America. Some congregants at my synagogue in Essex lost their homes to flooding, as sudden thunderstorms struck.
Our climate is rapidly changing. We have witnessed snowstorms in Texas and flash floods in China and Germany. Whole swathes of the Amazon rainforest have been destroyed. Parts of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia have died from sun bleaching, leaving ocean graveyards behind.
Experts warn that melting polar ice caps and close contact with cattle will mean even more deadly pandemics.
The midrash on Genesis teaches that God took Adam and Eve around Eden, showing them every living thing . “Look after this world and care for it,” said the Holy One. “For if you destroy this world, there will be nobody after you to repair it.”
Now look at this world. Are we not in danger of ruining it? As it stands, the planet is being consumed by a few, while the many are exploited, in a way that could destroy us all.
We cannot separate Richard Branson’s trip into space from the unfolding ecological disaster. Every rocket launch emits one hundred times more greenhouse gases than a single flight on an aeroplane.
Right now, Branson is engaged in a battle with other billionaires for who can most colonise the atmosphere. Other heads of corporations, including Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are engaged in a space race. They want to project themselves furthest away from this planet and create an entire industry charging others for the same privilege.
I do not want to see the world from space if I cannot live in it. I certainly do not want only a covetous few to explore space if it means they leave a burning planet behind for the rest of us.
This earth cannot have been given by God only so that a wealthy few could enjoy seeing it, but that every one of us could live in it and marvel at its wonders.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The last year has shown us how fragile the planet is. But it has also shown us how adaptable human beings are.
We know how caring and supportive people have been to each other throughout the last year’s difficulties. The Jewish community has shown the very best of itself in its mutual aid and compassion for our most vulnerable members.
Incredibly, we have also seen a vaccine developed, approved, and distributed in record time. Everyone across the community has rallied to take up the offer of protecting themselves and others.
We have the power to send people into space and cure diseases. Through hard work, cooperation, and creativity, humanity has already shown it can face off its greatest challenges.
As Progressive Jews, we talk often about the importance of “tikkun olam”: healing the world. We have a sacred duty to preserve and perfect the planet.
The energy and investment that has gone into space programmes could support the development of new green technologies and a just transition to a sustainable future.
Across the country and the world, campaigners are pushing us to rethink our entire economy. They urge governments of the world to invest in jobs, resources and renewable energy. It is not too late to defeat climate change, even as it arrives on our own doorstep.
We can have clean air and clean waters; a flourishing planet for our children to grow up.
If it is possible to see the world from space, it must also be possible to save it.
This year is unlike every other in so many ways. In order to keep people engaged with the services, I delivered sermonettes between prayers, as two-minute reflections on the meaning of the festival. The seven drashes for Rosh Hashanah 5781 follow.
How wonderful are Jacob’s dwelling places! How good it is for us here, where for the first time in living memory, we are not all gathered in one place but we are all in each other’s tents. This whole community has gathered together in dispersed places. And although we are distant, we are somehow together. We are with each other, in our living rooms.
This is, of course, not a normal New Year, and this is not the usual format. Rather than preach at you uninterrupted for twenty minutes, this morning I am simply going to guide you through the service. At each stage, I will offer little sermonettes explaining our purpose here today. Welcome, and thank you so much for coming on this journey.
Jewish liturgy takes us on a journey through time. Each service is a journey from primordial history through the present towards the ultimate redemption of humanity. The Jewish High Holy Days take us on a journey from the creation of humanity towards the Messianic Age.
And today – today, right now – is where it all begins. On the seventh day of creation, at this precise time in history, the first human being was created. The Holy One breathed air into Adam’s nostrils and that wind became his soul. So, too, was his wife called Chava. Chava – Eve – literally means breath. She is both breath and life. We are here with Adam and Eve at the dawning of humanity once more.
Rabbi Zahavit Shalev taught us that every night when you go to sleep, your soul disappears and returns to God. Then, when you wake up in the morning, God returns your soul to you so that you can breathe alive once again. As we wake, we say to God: “thank you, Sacred Name everlasting, that you have returned my soul to me in compassion, unending is your faith.” We are here at the beginning of a day at the beginning of time, grateful to be alive.
Right now, you are Adam. You are Eve. You are the first person rising up on the first day, breathing for the first time, saying to God: “this soul that you have placed inside of me is pure.”
 Everything about these sermonettes I owe to my teacher, Dr. Jeremy Schonfield
Eight days after a baby is born, it becomes liable for its first commandment.
By ten days, it has been named, or washed, or circumcised. It ceases to be an embryo and takes on its first responsibilities of being Jewish. It realises that being human is a blessing and a privilege, and that it must honour the duties that come with that.
Ten days after we are created on Rosh Hashanah, we come into contact with Yom Kippur. We are forced to inspect our lives and accept that we are responsible. We take on the commandments laid down to us by God. We accept that we are not just flesh and bones, but living spirits with moral responsibilities.
Ten generations after Adam came Noah, who learned that people could fail in their responsibilities. Ten generations after Noah came Abraham, who realised how painful keeping promises could be. Abraham, we read today, was called upon by God to head up Mount Moriah and sacrifice his youngest son. Abraham encountered God and learned that this came with reward, but came with responsibility too.
Ten minutes after we wake up, we are faced with our obligations. Having thanked God for our souls, we return our debt of gratitude by doing the most important commandment that has been given to us. We study.
You are here. A ten day old baby. Abraham receiving God’s call. A full human being, learning that you are responsible. Learning that you must learn.
The Amidah is a journey within a journey. It begins with Abraham and Sarah and ends with King David building Jerusalem. When we begin this voyage in time, we cast our minds back to our ancestors. We remember Sarah’s hospitality; Rebecca’s generosity; Rachel’s patience and Leah’s humility.
Amidah means standing. It is the standing prayer, and we are literally standing in their footsteps. We are here because of our ancestors. Generations of human beings from hunter-gatherers to the creators of our modern industrial cities have brought us to this moment.
And we, as Jews, are here as Jews, because of every other Jew. For thousands of years, people have put their feet together on this day at this time of year and recited these words. By showing up today, we have kept that tradition going. We are another link in the chain.
Over time, we have come to do things differently. Spontaneous prayer gave way to memorised blessings, which gave way to words written on scrolls, which became prayer books with the advent of the printing press, that we can now see on computer screens in front of us.
Although the medium has changed, the message has not. Ethical monotheism. Judaism’s mission of doing justice in the name of the One God. We stand in the footprints left by ancient prophets, affirming the faith they once held.
* * *
4. On being yourself
Stop. Breathe. Take a moment. Shut your eyes.
Feel your breath rising and falling. Don’t try to force it. Just notice how you inhale and exhale. Pay attention to your nose, chest, lungs, shoulders, mouth. Feel the breath coming in and out of it.
When we began this journey through time, you acknowledged that the soul within you was pure. That is your natural state. Good. Honest. Righteous. Beautiful. That is who you are.
When you looked back over your ancestors, you remembered their piety. Of course, they made mistakes, but it is their goodness that has endured. So will it be with you.
You not only have ancestors. You are an ancestor. You are leaving your own tracks in the sand. What you put into the world now will stay long after you are gone.
Breathe. Contemplate. What do you want to leave behind?
Breathe. Remember. Who are you, deep down?
Breathe. Know that you are loved and lovable and able to love. Make the conscious choice to fill the world with the best of who you are.
Open your eyes. Open your lips. Pray that you may become who you are.
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5. On being vulnerable
The service is reaching its apex. When we started, it was summer. Suddenly, you look around and see that autumn is coming. We are at the turning point of the year, when green leaves turn brown and Elul’s rays give way to Tishrei’s rains. We will change our blessings. Soon we will stop asking God for dew and start requesting fertile rains. We have journeyed through the seasons.
You are older now than when this service began. Yes, an hour and a half has passed, and with it you have learnt more about who you are and who you want to be.
You are spiritually older, too. You have been Adam, Eve, Abraham, Sarah, Rachel, David. And now, you have grown enough that you can finally be you. You can find yourself exactly as you are, vulnerable and exposed. You can be present in this mortal body.
Your body is mortal. This year has brought home for many of us how fragile health can be. We have asked God to make peace for us as it is in Heaven. We ask God now for healing. We accept that our bodies are frail. Souls need plenty of sustenance. As individuals, as Jews, as humanity, we pray for God’s sacred restitution.
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6. On the messianic future
The future awaits us!
The shofar is a herald for many things, but above all it was once used as a siren to announce that a dignitary was coming. When kings and queens approached a town, the shofar would sound to announce their arrival. That sound alerted the villagers to prepare their banquets and make a welcome party.
This section of the shofar service is called malchuyot. It shares its root with melech – king; malkah – queen; malchut – sovereignty. It means royalties. This is the time of our acknowledgement of God’s supremacy over all. It is a reminder that the day will eventually come when everyone will understand God’s unity.
We sound the shofar and announce that the Ultimate Sovereign is coming. God is on the way.
When compiling the liturgy in the 3rd Century, Rav ordained that within this section we would recite ‘aleinu’ – the prayer affirming God’s majesty and our messianic future. It speaks of the coming day when all humanity will be united by a single God.
As progressive Jews, we understand this not as Davidic kingship or nationalist aspirations for supremacy, but as the coming of an age of peace and justice. We look forward to a utopian future in which all struggles are brought to an end, replaced by enduring joy. And we accept that it is our responsibility to bring about that perfect society.
You have been young and old. You have been the first human being and witnessed humanity’s ultimate redemption. You have breathed so many cycles, taking advantage of the beautiful soul placed within you. And now, having been through all of this, having seen time from every angle, all you are left with is today.
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi once met Elijah. He asked him: when will the messiah come? Elijah said: “The Messiah is at the gates of Rome, sitting among the poor, the sick and wretched. Like them, he changes the bindings of his wounds, but does so one wound at the time, in order to be ready at a moment’s notice.”
Rabbi Joshua went out to the gates of Rome, and lo and behold, he found the Messiah sitting there, tending to his wounds. Rabbi Joshua said to the Messiah: “When will you be coming?” The Messiah looked up and joyously answered: “Today!”
The next day, Rabbi Joshua went back to Elijah and complained: “The Messiah lied to me. He said he was coming today and did not.” Elijah replied: “He said he would be coming today, if only you would hear his voice.”
Olam haba zeh olam hazeh. The world to come is the world we are in.
We are here today with nothing but the present. Whatever the past and future might hold, this moment is sacred. And so we call on God – hayom teamtzeinu. Give us strength today. Give us blessing today. Remember us for life today. Amen.
This year is unlike every other in so many ways. In order to keep people engaged with the services, I am delivering sermonettes between prayers, as two-minute reflections on the meaning of the festival. The four drashes for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781 follow.
On lighting candles
The world stands balanced between darkness and light. Just as the day comes, night will surely follow. And when night falls on a night like tonight, on a holy night, we light a candle.
Adam was afraid of the dark. When the first human being witnessed the sun start to fall on his first evening on the planet, he cried out because he thought the sun would never return and the darkness marked his death. Throughout the night, he and Eve cried, until dawn came, and he realised that God had made day to follow night.
As night falls, we too can feel fear. But we know something that Adam did not. We know that the day will come. We know that even in the midst of utmost darkness, light will surely come.
This year, celebrating Rosh Hashanah may inevitably feel bittersweet. We are dipping our apples in a honey that has tasted pandemic and economic collapse. Many of us are facing uncertainty about our health, finances and relationships. It is natural that we should wonder how much we can go on.
But by coming here tonight, we affirm that we will go on. We remember the thousands of years we endured since the first human being looked upon the first night sky. We acknowledge that we do not only pray that day will come, but that we can work to bring on the day. And we know that no matter how dark it may seem, we can always light a candle.
“You’ve got to have hope. To some people the only thing they have to look forward to is hope.” These were the words of Harvey Milk, a gay Jewish immigrant in California; an activist who transformed politics in defence of minorities. As he sought election to office, he told his captive audience: “You have to give them hope. Hope for a better world. Hope for a better tomorrow. Hope that all will be alright.”
And it wasn’t alright for Harvey Milk, who was assassinated 40 years ago. But it was alright for many others. Because of his fight, I grew up in a better world than I otherwise would have done. Because of the sacrifices he made, I live in a world that gay people of the past could only have imagined. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to give up hope now.
We are all here because of the optimism of previous generations. The immigrants who packed their bags, believing they could make a better life here. The survivors who made it through the camps because they had the strength of will. The feminists who insisted that women had a place in the synagogue, not just as spectators but as leaders. Every Jew who decided that showing up was worthwhile and kept the faith of our people alive through the centuries. We owe it to them, and to the generations who will follow us, to keep hope alive.
The psalm that Howard and Fiona just read for us teaches: “When the wicked flourish, they are only like grass […] but the righteous shall flourish like a palm tree, growing tall like a cedar in Lebanon. Even in old age, they will bear new fruit and shine green in the courtyards of our God.” Remember this. Remember that the wickedness we see in the world is only grass that will wither, but that righteousness plants firm roots in the soil and refuses to be moved.
Know that just as we live in the dialectic of night and day, so too do we live in an unending struggle between right and wrong. As Jews, we will hold on to our faith in what is right. And in pursuit of it, we will remind the world of the holiness of hope.
There was a time in King Solomon’s life when he was given over to nihilism. He wrote Qohelet, the book of Ecclesiastes, in which he declared: “Everything is vanity.” He said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?”
His advisers tried to console him, but Solomon only retorted with a challenge: “tell me something that will always be true.” Many days and weeks passed, but no one could respond. One day, a jeweller came in holding up a ring. On it, she had engraved three words: גם זה יעבור – this too shall pass.
Yes, the only certainty is change. We recite hashkiveinu – cause us to lie down and let us rise up to life renewed. We go to sleep only to wake up. We wake up, and we go to sleep. We live in this constant cycle.
In a moment, we will recite the blessing for the new moon. The moon, like us, like life, exists in a constant state of flux. It waxes only to wane and fills out only to diminish again. Note that is not the full moon we bless, when the night sky is brightest and the moon appears most whole. It is the new one, when only a slither hangs in the night sky, promising only potential.
When the rabbis blessed the moon, they used to gaze up at it and say: “David, king of Israel, long may he live.” David was, of course, long dead. He, the father of Solomon, was for them the prototype of the messianic age. He represented an imaginary perfect society of the past. And he stood in as the harbinger of the future utopia. We do not live yet in a perfected world, but we can look up at the sky and see the moon as our model. Just as the moon starts out as a tiny crescent and expands to its fullest form, we too can live in the darkest of times and know that completeness will follow. Whatever this pandemic throws at us, we know that it will pass, and a brighter future awaits us.
We live in the balance between sweet and bitter; darkness and light; completion and absence; justice and iniquity. Above all, this year, we live in the balance between sickness and health.
Let us take time to reflect on sickness. On all those who have died of Covid. The 40,000 who died in the UK and over 900,000 who have died worldwide. We think of all those who have survived Covid but still live with its scars – those who still have trouble walking, breathing and carrying out daily activities. We think of all those suffering with sicknesses unrelated to the pandemic, often marginalised and ignored. We contemplate the mental health of everyone in our society, as we face anxiety, depression and trauma. We pray for everyone whose bodies, minds and spirits need healing.
But in the dialectic of health, we are also able to celebrate the vitality we still possess. We show joy at all those who are alive. We are grateful that we who sit here tonight are counted among them. We can think of the community we have built, the solidarity we have engendered and the strength we have found in each other. Let us pray, then, not only that we will be healed, but that we will be active in helping others to heal.