Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

September 12, 2018
By Beth Mordecai
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Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

King Solomon challenged his wisest advisors to find him a ring that when worn could make a person cherish their joy and bring comfort in their sadness.  The advisor searched high and low. With the deadline to the challenge approaching, the advisor went to the local market where he found ring with the following words engraved on it, “Gam ze ya’avor. This, too, shall pass.”

King Solomon was delighted that his advisor had completed this seemingly impossible task. He saw when he was melancholy, the message on the ring would comfort him and remind him of sunnier days ahead. When he was at the height of contentment, the ring would humble him and remind him of life’s fleeting nature. Legend has it he never took it off and could be heard saying to himself “Gam ze ya’avor. This, too, shall pass.”

In modern times, the phrase Gam ze ya’avor was made popular by Abraham Lincoln who used it often in his speeches (in the English translation) to challenge and inspire his listeners. This phrase is timeless and it’s meaning rich. It should resonate for each of us. Every individual knows melancholy and joy. And each of us knows how quickly things can change.

Rabbi Lisa Rubin writes:

For the most part, we don’t use the phrase, “This too shall pass” when we’re in a good place; we use it in times of difficulty and darkness. It is reassuring and comforting, with its promise of an end to troubles. Distressing times in life can be overwhelming and suffocating. Sometimes just living feels like a burden and the stress always seems to come when we feel least able to carry it. Professional challenges, maintaining a home, difficult children, aging parents, dealing with illness and death—whatever it is—we take a deep breath and remember in times like these, there have always been times like these. This too shall pass. Gam ze ya’avor

We join here together on Erev Rosh Hashanah.  We celebrate the passing of one year into the next.  In the past year, much has changed.  Lives have been added to this world and many have been lost.  I often find incredible difficulty in accepting the passage of time. Days seem slow and the years so fast.

I hope you feel as I do that in many ways your life is better than it was at this time last year.  For some of us, we may feel the sting and heartache of an empty seat next to us.  That seat was once filled by a loved one who has passed away.  Whether in these particular seats or in others, we see and feel the empty spaces in our hearts. We look back to our loved ones who are no longer with us and we look forward to all that lies ahead and the next generation. Time is always moving.

I think of the many times in my childhood, when my own mother was ill, she would look to me and say those wise words, this too shall pass.  As she was in pain, she comforted herself that every day would not be a bad day.  This too shall pass, have hope and that will propel you through to the next moment. Those words brought incredible comfort.

Yet how can we hold the moments of joy that overwhelm our hearts with love?  Those times when it feels like your heart will explode with joy, pride and contentment.  Unfortunately, if we are not careful, those moments do pass and are gone from us forever.

The book of Ecclesiastes speaks of life as a ephemeral.  There is no way to grasp on and hold it. We try and cannot be successful. I often think of time as sand in a clenched fist.  It seems that the harder we try to hold on, the more it slips away.

As we try and close our fist, we focus on the outside, on the act of closing the fist, rather than enjoying our holding of the sand.  Inevitably, no matter what we do the sand slowly falls out from our hand.

Despite this, anyone who has gone to the beach knows that we always bring home some of that sand with them.  In the dead of winter, I have found bags that I emptied months ago yet some sand remains. While annoyed I have to vacuum, for just one moment, I am able to feel the warmth of the sun, hear the crash of the waves and my children’s laughter playing in the sand.

When we try to hold onto time, it always slips away, yet remnants of those times and experiences remain with us just like those grains of sand hiding away.  The grains of sand that never leave us, those are our stories.

In difficult moments in our lives, I recall a loved one telling me, we can’t stop time, we cannot hold on, yet our memories will remain with us.  No matter what, our experiences are ours and they shape who we will be. When we share our stories, we connect back to those moments.  Even though the moments have passed, we are able to tap back into our feelings at those moments.

What do you want to hold onto?  What reminders can we give ourselves so that we are better able to keep those moments of joy with us.  Maybe it is an object, a souvenir from a trip or a picture.  When we see and feel those objects we are able to remember.  Yet it is more than remembering, it is keeping joy for past experiences with us.

In Jewish practice, God gives us similar reminders.  When we enter and exit a room, if we look, we see the mezuzah on the door.  This is to remind us of God’s continual presence.  The tzitzit that are affixed to the corners of the tallit, those are to remind us of God’s commandments.  When we are consumed within our own thoughts, hopes and fears, we are to look and see the tzitzit. We are to remember that we are but one piece of this world.

We also have the holidays that serve as a time for us to join our communal memory.  On Passover we remember our exodus from Egypt, our journey from slavery to freedom.  We tell this story to our children so that each generation remembers the exodus.  The longest section of the haggadah is called, Maggid, meaning telling.  Similarly, we are told 36 times in the Torah, do not oppress, the orphan, widow or immigrant because we were immigrants in the land of Egypt.  We continually tell our story to remember what it was like to be oppressed and then we are commanded not to do that to others.

Our way of telling this communal story connects us together to Jewish communities around the world.

We all have a deep connection to our stories. They tell of our personal and our communal experiences.  They connect us to our past and our community.  Through this, they help us be resilient.  In the act of knowing and retelling the stories of our own ancestors and the ones we name in the Torah, we gain greater connection and strength.

They help us to be part of a timeline that is much longer than our own lives. Through it, we draw strength and comfort from texts and prayers that have strengthened and comforted numerous generations.

When we pray using the words of the siddur, we are saying the exact words that have been said for thousands of years.

Most of those words are fixed and written down in the prayer book. We are encouraged to add our own prayers but mostly we say the same words, day after day, week after week and year after year.  We say these same words with Jewish communities and individuals around the world.  We connect ourselves to each and every one of them through time and space.

Sometimes when I recite the words of the shema, whether it is at night three separate times with each of my three children or with this community, I try to listen as I am saying the words.  I try to remember the many other times I have recited these words.  The words are the same, but I am different in each instance.  Each moment passes giving way to another.

Many years ago, as a teen, I drove with a close friend to visit relatives a few states away.  As we were sitting on their porch in rocking chairs.  We looked out into the woods and beautiful scenery.  My friend looked at me and asked, “Do you think we will remember this moment in 5, 10 even 20 years from now? Do you think we will remember wondering if we will remember?”

Turns out I do.  I remember feeling carefree, enjoying the moment, the crisp evening air and wondering about the future. Partially I remember that evening because this friend and I have mentioned it numerous times through the years.  We have told stories and remembered.

However, we cannot just look back.  We must use our positive experiences from the past to continually bring joy to the present and ease our worries about the future.  When tragedy strikes, we are devastated. We may feel as though the deep and raw grief will never pass.  Slowly, in time the intense pain fades to a dull ache.  The loss is always present yet we are able to feel contentment remembering the joy we shared.

In our New Year, we look back and we look forward.  We do this to find ourselves and our convictions.  Over this next week, I urge you to contact a loved one, share a story, enjoy the present because this too shall pass.

Gam Ze Ya’avor

Category : High Holidays Rabbi Rabbi's Journal Rosh Hashanah Sermons