Rosh Hashanah 5775 Sermon — Let Us Sing Our Songs Together

September 30, 2014
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Rosh Hashanah 5775 Sermon — Let Us Sing Our Songs Together

Let Us Sing Our Songs Together

Rosh Hashanah 5775 – September, 25 2014*

Rabbi Ari Saks

Congregation Beth Mordecai


Picture this. You are an Israelite in approximately 1600 BCE. You, your family, and your people have just escaped the torture and slavery of the Egyptians with the help of God and Moses, and as you turn back from reaching the other side of the Red Sea , you hear the deafening, vicious sound of waves devouring your Egyptian pursuers, until the last of them are no longer seen.

You stand there aghast, not knowing what to say…you are free! After a moment or two of reality sinking in, you feel this overwhelming urge to shout out for joy. To sing praises of thanksgiving, of joy, of life, of freedom! You just want to yell out all of those feelings of longing that have lied dormant within you for too long. And so you try to sing…but nothing comes out. You are speechless, devoid of music and of words. It’s as if the longing in your heart is so powerful that it can’t be spoken, and all of a sudden, just as powerful as the waves crashed over the Egyptians to give you freedom, you feel your own inner waves silencing any hope to express joy. It is as if the Egyptians have returned, to never let you stop feeling pursued. Freedom feels no different than slavery.

Yet at that moment, coming out of the east you see a flock of birds, a flock greater and more beautiful than you could ever imagine. What’s more there is a sound coming out of their beaks, a beautiful serene sound that quiets your mind and miraculously releases your angst. As your bird arrives, she begins to sing one of the most beautiful songs you have ever heard; a song that seems to come out so easily; a song that is meant for you.  And at that moment, with the bird’s song filling your heart and your mind with it’s simple elegance, the song you wanted to sing but seemed so elusive just a moment ago fills your lips as well as the lips of every Israelite around you, and together you sing the most beautiful song recorded in the Torah: The Song of the Red Sea. And because of this great deed that the birds did for our ancestors, so the midrash goes, there is a custom to feed birds on the Shabbat in which we read the Song of the Red Sea.

The story I just shared with you is based on a midrash in the Arukh Hashulkhan (OH 324:3), a 19th century commentary by Rabbi Yechiel Michel ben Rabbi Aaron HaLevi Epstein of Russia. According to Rabbi Epstein:

יש מתרעמים על מה שהמנהג בשבת שירה לזרוק חטין לפני העופות — There are those who are annoyed at the custom on the Shabbat in which we recite the Song of the Red Sea that we throw bread to the birds

אין אנו טורחים בשבילם אלא בשבילנו דמרגלא בפי ההמון שהעופות אמרו שירה על הים  — We don’t burden ourselves for their sakes but rather for our sakes, because of the popular tradition that the birds sang the song red sea

ולכן אנו מחזיקין להם טובה — and thus we attach goodness to them

Rabbi Epstein’s explanation is meant to teach us why there is an ancient Ashkenazic custom to feed birds on Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat in which we recite the Song of the Red Sea. He does not go into detail about why the birds sing to the Israelites in the first place. I imagine though that if he thought about that question, he might have come up with a similar story as I shared with you just a moment ago – that the Israelites were so overwhelmed by all that they experienced – in being slaves and in achieving their freedom – that they could not find the music or the words to express what was in their hearts. They needed help to sing their song, and they found help in the song of birds. As we sit here in this moment of reflection at the beginning of a new year nearly 3600 years after our ancient ancestors achieved their freedom on the banks of the Red Sea, perhaps we feel a similar angst as they did. Though the holiday of Passover speaks to our achievement of physical freedom, it is the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in which we reflect and think about our inner lives and ask – am I truly free? We may not have lived through slavery, but we may feel that our lives are bound to certain structures, of our own making, that enslave us. We may not be physically pursued by armies, but nevertheless the beeps and sounds of modern communication may make us feel pursued. And for all of these reasons, as well as those that we may not fully be aware of, we may also find it difficult to sing our song – our unique expression of love embedded in our inner lives that when shared with the world will truly make us feel free.

So, if our emotional and spiritual situation is akin, albeit with a grain of salt, to that of our ancestors escaping the Egyptians, is there something analogous to a bird’s song that will help us sing our own song? To answer that question I’d like to turn to a source that is not as ancient but perhaps just as venerable as the rabbis. Mary Poppins. In the iconic musical Mary Poppins, the whimsical nanny teaches her two wards that when faced by a task they don’t want to do, like cleaning their room, that“just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” In the course of teaching this lesson through song, Mary Poppins opens the window to find…

A robin feathering his nest

Has very little time to rest

While gathering his bits of twine and twig

Though quite intent in his pursuit

He has a merry tune to toot

He knows a song will move the job along…

What is striking to me about this scene is the natural, almost innocuous manner in which the birds sing – there is little effort involved, little meaning associated with the actual song, it’s just a part of what they do to move the job along. According to the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, some birds sing 20,000 songs a day ( The sheer ubiquity of their song repertoire makes it seem that their singing prowess comes so easy to them. Perhaps the rabbis viewed this effortlessness in being able to sing as why birds were chosen to be the antidote to the palpable silence emanating from the Israelites as they reacted to their newfound freedom. The Israelites were full of love and excitement, but also of trepidation and fear. They were like young babies wanting desperately to explore the world yet so terrified of that new world that they scurry back into the arms of their parents. The result of this confusion is that the love they want to sing becomes silent – in the words of the greatest love song, Song of Songs: “A garden locked is my own, my bride, a fountain locked, a sealed up spring” (Song of Songs, 4:12).  As the biblical scholar Benjamin Segal writes about this imagery: “The growing closeness achieved…is put aside. A frustration of inaccessibility now dominates” (The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love, 47). Perhaps then the birds of the midrash are used to help the Israelites overcome their emotional paralysis simply by teaching them that they don’t have to think or worry about what’s going on. They can just do it; they can simply sing.

Perhaps when it comes to things we’re thinking of this Rosh Hashanah, the tunes we want to sing, some of us are like birds – effortlessly able to sing, and others are like the Israelites, paralyzed in not knowing where to start. And sometimes the calming and loving reassurance of birds singing sweetly in their ears is all the Israelites need to have the chutzpah to sing their tune, just like the calming reassurance of friends, spouses, parents and partners. Maybe some of us need to sing our own songs starting this Rosh Hashanah

Let’s say that we have a hint of what our song sounds like. Just as the Israelites knew that they were experiencing a miracle crossing the Red Sea, we’ve had experiences of our own “miracles,” those often private moments when we are truly the selves we want to be – when we are truly free. It is in those moments when our inhibitions disappear, in which all of the restrictions that stop us from being who we want to be cease to exist. It is those moments, like when we sing in the shower.

Yes, there is something special about singing in the shower. The acoustics are more perfect than Carnegie Hall, the audience is more supportive than the first day of Rosh Hashanah services (laugh), and you’re just so comfortable that you literally feel like you can take off your pants. Most likely each of us has caught ourselves for at least a moment singing in the shower and when we do, we feel that nothing sounds more beautiful, nothing sounds more perfect than that song. We are able to effortlessly create the sound we feel in our hearts – but the moment we step out of that shower is the moment that sound turns into silence, and we don’t dare let others hear us singing in the shower.

In the 2012 Woody Allen movie “To Rome With Love,” Woody Allen stars as an eccentric opera director visiting his daughter’s future in laws in Rome. There he discovers that Giancarlo – his daughter’s future father in law – is an incredible opera singer…in the shower, but when Woody Allen’s future machatanim goes to try out in a live opera he falls flat on his face, embarrassed, unable to sing what’s in his heart. Perhaps it is the pressure of a critical audience, perhaps it is the pressure of having any audience, but like the Israelites who crossed the Red Sea and were overwhelmed by the moment, Giancarlo is left dumbstruck and silent. How many of us have experienced a similar moment, in our personal lives, in our careers? How many of us know that we have a song that sounds beautiful in the shower, but we struggle to find the chutzpah, the audacious confidence needed to sing it in public?

Woody Allen recognizes that fear in Giancarlo and has a magnificent idea to build his confidence. Instead of taking him out of the shower to sing in public, let him sing to the public while singing in the shower. And in classic Woody Allen fashion, the next thing you see onscreen is a montage of Giancarlo singing classical opera to adoring fans…while cleaning and scrubbing himself in a makeshift shower onstage. It is brilliant, funny, and also poignant. Like the birds with the Israelites, the shower gives Woody Allen’s protege the chutzpah he needed to JUST DO IT, to sing, because when it comes to our song, we may know the lyrics and the tune, but we sometimes need a little help to find the chutzpah to JUST sing it.

I’m not a singer, but the reason I have the chutzpah to try goes back to my 8th grade music teacher Mr. Gatti. More than teaching me particular strategies on how to sing, Mr. Gatti gave me a chance to sing, to practice in the supportive atmosphere of a choir. Flash forward many years later, it was that experience that gives me the chutzpah to get up on the bimah every Friday night and Saturday morning to belt out tunes that I know can be sung better. But it doesn’t matter if someone can sing it better, because it’s my song, it comes from my heart. It is an expression of my love.

That’s the thing with our unique songs. Whether it’s literally a song, a creative idea, an experience you want to have, or a desire you have bottled up inside, each of our songs is a unique expression of our love. Love is the art of recognizing the beautiful song within me and within you, and to let love flourish means to have the chutzpah to sing my song and to support you in singing yours.

It’s hard to discover what we truly love, what our unique song is, without the love and support of our friends, our family, and our community. The Israelites needed their birds, Giancarlo needed his shower and Woody Allen, and I needed Mr. Gatti’s choir. Chances are that if we turn to our right and to our left we will find someone who helped us discover a verse of our song. Yet what about those verses that are still a work in progress? Or what about those verses which have yet to be discovered? If this is truly a season of reflection, and we are thoughtfully and intentionally going to look into our souls to discover what we need to do to be the person we truly want to be, we need to be open to the possibility that what we discover is not what we expect at all. And that possibility – that searching for our true song may lead us down a different path we are currently headed – is scary, especially for the people who love us as we are. As Rabbi Irwin Kula, a contemporary rabbi and author, writes: “All relationships are dances of giving and receiving, taking and offering. The more intimate we are, the more dynamic the dance. And sometimes it’s a real challenge to give without resentment and to receive with grace” (Yearnings, 149). If we want to take an opportunity for deep and personal self-reflection this High Holiday season, are we willing to ask our loved ones to offer their support if we don’t know what the end result will be? Are we willing to be that support for our loved ones, that if they discover that they need to go on a different path to find their song that we will be with them to give without resentment and receive with grace? It’s not a coincidence that today we read of the story of Abraham desiring to sacrifice his son Isaac as a korban, as an offering to God. Korban literally means coming close or near. We come close to God – or perhaps to our best selves – when we offer ourselves to that goal. Yet, what happens to a korban? It burns up into the air. That’s our fear, that when we open ourselves – either to go through the search or to support our loved ones in their search – that we will get burned. We fear that our loved ones will judge us when we try to express the deepest form of our love because we suspect that if the roles are reversed we might judge them.

Yet despite that very real fear, despite not knowing if we can truly expose even our loved ones to see us singing naked in the shower, we desire the strength to let our love flourish; to just do it; to approach life with child-like curiosity for who we can become; and to support our loved ones in their endeavor as well. As a community, let us be a place that follows the teaching from the verses we just recited before blowing the shofar – Alah Elokim Bitruah, God rises from the throne of Judgment – Adonai B’kol Shofar – and moves to sit on the throne of Love and Mercy because of the sound of the shofar. Let us be a community that judges each soul softly, and loves each soul deeply. Let us be a space in which when someone shares their most precious, passionate, and most vulnerable song with us, we do not say “How could you,” but rather say “How could you not;” Let us be a shul in which we do not say “I can’t believe you would,” but rather “I can’t believe you would not;” Let us be a home in which we do not say “That’s ridiculous,” but rather “That’s beautiful.”  Let us be a Jewish Home for the Soul where those who easily sing can whisper into the ears of those who are trying and say “You can do it. We believe in you.”

So let this Rosh Hashanah be a moment in which we not only say we’re going to work on the small things in our lives, but to imagine what our deepest and most intimate song sounds like, what our truest love looks like, and with the support of our cherished loved ones, in the midst of this holy congregation, let us have the chutzpah to sing our songs together…like we will right now…(sing).


*Note: The High Holiday sermon for “Rosh Hashanah 5775” was delivered extemporaneously off of notes. This copy was the written draft used to create those notes. As such, the actual delivery of the sermon did not match word for word with this written draft. 

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