Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5778

shana tova honey

Hebrew is a fascinating language, and over the centuries scholars have loved finding hidden meanings in words and letters. They would imagine hyper-links between words because of the letters’ numeric value, or rearrange them to “discover” new meanings to old words. And even without that level of word-play, because Hebrew is notoriously frugal with words, we often find that one word has many shades of meaning.

One such word is Shanah. We wish each other a Shanah Tova, a “good year,” on Rosh HaShanah, which literally means “head of the year,” or more colloquially, new year.

The root letters of the word shanah – shin, nun and hey – are also the root of the word le’shanot, which means to change.

So when we greet each other by saying shanah tova, we can look into the phrase more deeply, and find that we are wishing one another, “have a good year of transformation.”

And if you want to go even deeper, you can look at the word tova and discover that it has the same numeric value as the word b’yado, in his hand. Whose hand? Let’s say it’s God’s, in which case, we can discover in the simple phrase shanah tova “have a year of transformation in His hand.”

This is a terrific greeting, as we enter into a new season, into a new year. It invites us to think of the coming year as one of possibility, of doing things differently, hopefully better. It can be a year of change, of growth, of new experiences, new places, new friendships and discoveries. And it can be a year of growing one’s relationship with God.

And here’s one of the delightful oddities of the Hebrew language. The same root word also means to repeat, or reiterate.

This opens up even more possibilities. Saying “have a good year” can also carry the meaning, “continue doing all that was good in the past year.”

The coming year can simultaneously be one of transformation, and one in which we maintain the things we hold dear, in which we deepen relationships with the people we love, revisit the places that brought joy, continue to do the things that give our lives meaning.

For my congregation, the combination of change and continuity is immediately evident. This is our tenth Rosh Hashannah observance at Kol HaNeshama, and except for the first, all have been celebrated right here. There are many in this room who have been here from the very beginning, and we have all participated in creating cherished community traditions.

And there have been changes. This year we welcome Cantor Joel Gluck, who is a physician and a teacher, and now is a cantorial student, is in the process of transforming himself into a hazzan.

And the physical landscape here has changed, with a huge branch of the enormous tree behind me, having fallen in the storm.

In a very real sense, external changes are irrelevant. The branch came down. That is a fact.

How we are affected by, and respond to, the events around us is what matters, not the events themselves. Global warming would be irrelevant if we did not believe that it impacts our own survival. Our beliefs shape our reality.

Of the tree, one person might say, “What a shame,” and another might say, “How fortunate that it didn’t hit the building!” Their internal responses to the tree shaped their experiences of it. And both are true.

The Torah portion that we will read this morning tells the tale of three adults and two children: Sarah, Abraham, and Hagar, and their sons, Ishmael and Isaac. We can look at the story from each of their five perspectives, and each version will be completely different. And each will be true.

It is a story of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and missed opportunities. And it begins with the sixth character – or perhaps we should say the first: God, who tells Abraham that 99-year-old Sarah will have a child, and overhearing their conversation, she laughs.

God and Sarah don’t speak to each other. Abraham is their intermediary. Several times in this part of the narrative, Abraham stands between others, who, if they actually bypassed him and addressed each other directly, might have had a better understanding of each other and maybe, just maybe, would appreciate the other’s point of view.

We live in a time of mediated communication. And the mediator matters. If you watch Fox News, you’ll be presented with reality through a certain lens. If you watch MSNBC, you’ll see it completely differently.

During the hurricane, while it was bearing down on Sarasota but beginning to turn to the west, the local newscasters were becoming more hopeful, even speculating that it might decrease to category two before hitting us. When I texted this to a friend up north, she was shocked. She wrote, “that’s not what they’re saying on CNN!”

As we enter into the new year, we can ask ourselves: How are my relationships with the people around me shaped by how I communicate, or don’t communicate? Are there ways that I can break down the barriers between us? Can I communicate more clearly, more directly, more openly?

A key element of the misunderstandings in this biblical narrative is another Hebrew word that has more than one meaning. The name that Abraham and Sarah give their child, Yitzhak, means laughter. But when Sarah sees Ishmael interacting with his much younger half-brother, the word reappears in a slightly different form, m’tzahak. Our Torah translates it as mocking, as in “laughing at” rather than “laughing with.”

But what if he wasn’t mocking Isaac? What if the brothers were simply engaging with one another? Sarah doesn’t pause to discern the truth; she immediately tells Abraham to send Hagar and her son away.

While English words are less nuanced than Hebrew words, it is far too easy for us to misunderstand the words that we say to each other. As we enter into the new year, we can ask ourselves: What words am I using that might be hurtful to others, that could be misunderstood? Can I put more effort into thinking before I speak, to choose my words more wisely? How can I listen carefully to others, so that I do not misunderstand the intent behind their words?

Abraham, caught between the two women, the mothers of his sons, doesn’t know what to do. So he goes to the wisest counselor he knows, to God, who gives him advice. The Torah says: “And the thing [that Sarah asked] was very grievous in Abraham’s sight, because of his son. And God said to Abraham, let it not be grievous in your sight because of the lad and because of your slave; in all that Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice….”

The phrase “what is grievous in your sight” appears twice. God tells Abraham not to pay attention to what he sees, but rather to what he hears. And here again we have a repetition: “in all that Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice.”

We often say, “seeing is believing.” But sometimes seeing isn’t enough. Sometimes we don’t see the whole truth, can’t see it. And we know that our Torah wants us to listen as well as look – “Shema Yisrael, listen, Children of Israel!”

In this new year, we can ask ourselves: How can I look beyond the surface and discern the truths that lie below? How can I learn to hear the emotions, the love and fear and anxiety and joy, that lie beneath the words themselves?

And sometimes seeing is what’s most important. Sometimes our eyes are closed to what we need, to what is right under our nose. After Abraham casts out Hagar and Ishmael they run out of water, and Hagar sits and weeps about her son’s imminent death. But God speaks to her, and the Torah tells us, “God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water.”

God didn’t perform a miracle to make the well appear. It was there all along. And we the readers knew that already, because earlier in the story it says that she wandered in the desert of Be’er Sheva. Be’er Sheva is a place. But it is also a description. Be’er means “well,” as in a well with water. It also means to explain or clarify. And sheva? It’s the number seven. And it also means to be satiated, as in full of food.

So where is Hagar? She is in the place of seven wells, the place of clarity and of fullness. But she doesn’t know it. She needs someone to show her.

And so in this new year, we can ask ourselves: Where am I in my life? What gives me clarity, what helps me feel full and satisfied? Where do I find meaning? How can I open my eyes to the gifts and opportunities that are before me?

Soren Kierkegaard said: “It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.”

Asking ourselves these questions can help us look back on our lives, as we prepare ourselves to live forwards.

Shanah tovah u’metukah – May this year be one of transformation and growth, deepened relationships with those you love, and insight into yourselves, and may it be as sweet as honey.

Honey image from