Rabbi Hillel Skolnik
Sermon for first night Rosh HaShannah 5774
Southwest Orlando Jewish Congregation
I know this is a dangerous request to make in a rabbi’s sermon, but I’d like to ask you all to close your eyes for a moment and think of your favorite memory of Rosh HaShannah. For me, I admit this is a challenging exercise not for lack of memories, but due to the overabundance of recollections that are sketched into my mind. To mention but a few, I remember when I was younger, how we would host the family of the rabbi who would be leading the overflow service at my father’s synagogue. I always looked forward to their visit and enjoyed a sometimes three-day-long sleepover. I remember fighting other kids off, not literally though I probably would have, to be the one who got to call the sounds of the shofarduring our Junior Congregation service. I remember the many delicious meals that I enjoyed at my parents table and the delicious foods that we share now with our children. I remember when I first started leading Shacharit in the main sanctuary on the High Holidays and how the Cantor’s choir would occasionally already be in the room as I was finishing up and they would back me up with a big and well harmonized “amen”. And I also remember the first time that I had the privilege of leading High Holiday services here at the Southwest Orlando Jewish Congregation, how special a moment that was for me.
With our favorite memories fresh in our minds, it is my pleasure to be one of the first to wish you a Happy Memorial Day! No, wait, that’s not right, let me try that again. Happy Day of Remembrance! Why do I keep saying that? because if you look in the liturgy of Rosh HaShannah, that’s exactly what today is – a Yom Hazikaron – a day of remembrance…just not the kind of memorial or remembrance day you and I are used to.
If you look on any Jewish calendar that also includes significant days of the secular year here in the United States, you’ll find three memorial and remembrance days. The first is Yom HaSho’a, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Just a few days after the conclusion of Passover, we recall the six million men women and children who were murdered during the Nazi Holocaust of the Second World War with ceremonies and moments of silence and a promise to never forget.
Then a week later comes the day that we more commonly refer to as Yom Hazikaron, which is Israel’s Memorial Day, and which falls on the day before Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day. Each year on the 4th day of the Hebrew month of Iyar, we pause to remember all of those who fell in defense of the state of Israel and those who were killed in senseless acts of terrorism and in our homeland. This is precisely the type of Memorial Day that we would expect with ceremonies and a nationwide moment of silence when people literally stop their cars in the middle of the road, step out and stand in silence as sirens wail marking the solemn occasion through the country.
Our secular calendars also show a Memorial Day on the final Monday of May, which serves as a day that we remember all the soldiers who have given their lives in defense of the United States of America. Although for many of us this day has become one on which we search out the best holiday weekend deals on furniture and big screen TVs before enjoying a barbecue, for many of the citizens of this country, Memorial Day remains a more solemn occasion as we remember the millions of men and women who laid down their lives for this country over the past almost two-hundred fifty years.
And yet I have never seen a calendar that calls Rosh HaShanah either Memorial Day or a Day of Remembrance. If you wanted to make the argument that one of the High Holidays should be called Yom HaZikaron – a remembrance day of some kind, Yom Kippur would be the obvious choice since its services include Yizkor when we remember our loved ones who have gone to their eternal homes. And yet not five minutes ago while reciting the silent Amidah we each recited a bracha that will be part of every Amidah we recite over the next two days, “Melech Al Kol Ha’aretz, M’kadesh Yisrael v’yom Hazikaron, Soverign over all the earth, who sanctifies Israel and this Yom Hazikaron, this Day of Remembrance.”
So we must ask, what exactly are we remembering on Rosh HaShannah that gets it this title? Not surprisingly, there are several answers to this question. Firstly, Yom Hazikaron is not a title for Rosh HaShannah that was made up by the rabbis of the past two thousand years or even the past twenty years, but one that comes directly from the Torah. It is the book of Vayikra, or Leviticus, chapter 23 verse 24 that refers to Rosh HaShannah as day of “Zichron T’ru’ah Mikra Kodesh – a day of sacred commemoration with loud blasts.” What we are commemorating is that on Rosh Hashannah we celebrate the birthday of the world. We even sing our own version of Happy Birthday three times during Musaf when we declare, “Hayom Harat Olam, Today the world stands at birth.”
The title of Yom Hazikaron is also meant to inspire us to remember the year that has past and the behaviors we have exhibited during 5773. This is the time for t’shuvah, the time for repentance, and it is difficult, if not impossible to take part in this process if we don’t first take a moment to recall all that has happened in the past year both positive and negative, the good choices that we have made and the bad ones as well.
Yom Hazikaron also draws our attention to the section of the Musaf service entitled Zichronot, when we recite ten verses from the Tanach, from the Bible, that include a version of the word Zikaron, or remembrance. Those verses are meant to be used as a reminder us and to God of all the times God promised to remember our ancestors and the promise God made that we would be forgiven for our sins, making the task of t’shuvah more attainable for each of us.
But what I’d like to suggest this evening is that instead of calling it a Remembrance or Memorial Day, we should instead call it a memories day. What makes Rosh HaShannah so special are the memories we all thought of before of Rosh HaShannahs past when we’ve been together with friends and family here in Orlando or elsewhere in the world. When we’ve heard the blast of the shofar, ate something delicious, heard a particularly inspiring sermon or were moved by a beautiful chanting of a prayer by the Cantor. It is these memories that create the meaning we all find in this day and the reason we keep coming to services year after year. We hope not only to relive these experiences but to create new ones that will continue to make Rosh HaShannah two of the most wonderful and powerful days on the Jewish Calendar. I hope and pray that in the coming days we can call on those memories to inspire us to engage in the act of t’shuvah, of repentance for our sins, and that we have the privilege of making new memories with each other that will remain with us for the rest of our lives.