5772 — Erev Rosh haShanah — Mt. Sinai/Horeb: The Magic Mountain

11/10/2011 at 19:47 Leave a comment

“Mt. Sinai/Horeb: The Magic Mountain”

Erev Rosh haShanah – Day 1
Neil F. Blumofe
28 September 2011

As we sit in our sacred space this evening, on the cusp of our New Year, a time when we pause to breathe a grateful and deep sigh that past all of the challenges and unexpected snags that we may have had this year, we realize that we have made it this far – we breathe a profound breath that can restore our spirit, or we emit a seemingly bottomless krechtz that heals us as it rattles us from the inside – as we gather now, let us take this moment to do just that – to heave a sigh, to take what vexes us and challenges us and weighs us down, and as we fill our lungs, let it go – either slowly through our nose, or all at once, in relief. And then maybe when you’ve done it once, do it again and notice what changes – we may relax, we may discover some ease, and we may refocus ourselves past the details of being present and now just be present and open for what may be. We may feel lighter, and even in this space filled with people, we may feel even weightless.

I have been anticipating, as we gather again this year, what this reunion would be like. For some of us, this is our first time in this sacred space, for others, accustomed as we are to being here, perhaps we have felt distant or at this moment, for whatever reason, strangely unfamiliar. In contrast, many of us may be comfortable and feel supremely at home. I liken this experience this evening to our assembly at Mt. Sinai, as all of us stood in a mixed multitude and received a revelation of God at the foot of the mountain. We were a community; the sum of all of our parts, and each of our individual journeys was linked to create something bigger than ourselves. So, let us transform this sacred space and recognize it for what it is – a reunion among friends and strangers, alike. An ingathering – a creation of the moment at Mt. Sinai as we come together past ourselves, to dedicate this time as we take hold of Torah and apprehend the power of something much greater and ultimately unexplainable.

Take a moment and set an intention for yourself that you are not again at services, or even here celebrating the turning of the New Year. Now, place yourself at Sinai and look around and take a couple of moments to greet each other – to welcome each other to this new edge – perhaps you can get to the place that this is no ordinary time in synagogue – and you can remind yourself that you are doing something active and important and vital that has the potential to effect the rest of your life. So, take a moment and create a hubbub of Shana Tova greetings with each other – engage with each other and then after a few moments, we will reflect on the power and the parts that are left dangling after gathering at Sinai.


Earlier this week, I had the great privilege of being invited by US District Judge Lee Yeakel to help preside over a Naturalization Ceremony that welcomed 351 new immigrants from 74 countries as US citizens. This event, in the big LBJ auditorium at UT, was filled with people from all over the world – babies crying, people who were excited and filled with every conceivable emotion as they were recognized from one country where they had once resided, and then in the course of a morning, pledged their allegiance and were welcomed as legal residents of a new land. It was quite stirring as the official from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services read the name of each country, to see the people from that country stand in turn, anticipating a shift in status and identity. By the end of that long list, you could see incredible diversity and a range of backgrounds and you could even hear a wide variety of languages spoken as the Oath of Citizenship was offered and promised in the common denominator of English.

While I sat with the other invited guests, I imagined this to be a scene similar to Sinai – when the erev rav, the mixed multitude, gathered from every walk of life and situation and were brought together into the covenant with God, as a nation was fashioned. This covenant at Sinai represents a new freedom – a new opportunity to begin again together and as we join with each other this evening, to welcome our New Year, a chance to recommit and reconnect in a wholly new way with our covenant and with our traditions, going beyond our individual situations – beyond our own achievements and our restraints, looking to intermix the unremarkable with the remarkable in our personal understanding of meaning. There is an animated activism at work here that lifts us up from the regularity of our life and invites us to find magnified meaning in a community.

Torah did not come from the mouth of Moses alone – the magnificence of Torah – its power comes from a shared experience, as different and distinct people gathered from their places around a single mountain in a timeless moment.

And yet, what if that isn’t enough? The Torah teaches us that the experience of Sinai was loud and filled with colorful drama – the mountain quaked and shook and many shofarot sounded that pierced the sky — and all of this frightened the people. Maimonides, one of our greatest sages, comments that this fear was necessary in order to build a resistance against spiritual challenges to come – if the moment of ma’amad har Sinai – revelation at Sinai — was so frightening, this will be a good protection against other crises that will test our beliefs and threaten our convictions. And yet, the moment of Sinai was untouchable – ringed around the mountain, the people could not approach – they were one step removed from direct acuity and it is as if the beginning of their new selves happened to them – in a moment of human reaction to the divine.

And in the Book of Prophets, Sinai has another name that represents an intimate experience – an individual grappling with meaning and purpose – an invitation to not stand at a distance from the mountain, rather to enter the mountain itself, and work for transformation from the inside as we address our deepest doubts. In our fullest picture of revelation, there is one mountain with two names – Sinai for everyone, and Horeb for the progress and change of a singular soul.

As the people together witnessed God at Sinai, it is the lone prophet Elijah who stood within a cave in the mountain of Horeb for forty days and forty nights and who let the drama go by – the strong winds, the earthquake, and the fire – who was not moved until he heard the unlikely kol d’mama daka – the still small voice and then was able to continue to pursue a life of meaning and purpose.

So underneath the Sinai that we are creating here this evening, know too that there is a Mount Horeb within our collective experience – a place past the special music of this season, and the special books and all of the preparation – past the thrill of seeing all of us assembled – there is still a nagging discontent that leaves us hungry as it does not satisfy our most honest and penetrating matters of our heart. It is one thing to come forward and say in this time that we are here – it is quite another to have this moment resonate for us and to sit with it and struggle with it as we assess our own commitments to our timeless traditions and struggles that we have in encountering our faith.

It is not an accident that the one working through his anxieties from within the mountain is Elijah. We may be most familiar with Elijah from the days of the seder – during Pesach, when we open the door and hope that he will visit our table. This past year, many of us have been present too at one of the many brisses that we have celebrated with different families, where we always reserve a seat for this prophet – who represents with his presence, a sign of better things to come, a harbinger of better days. Yet, in our sacred texts, Elijah was grumpy and came to his task as one convinced that he was not effective in what he tried to accomplish.

Within the larger rites of peoplehood – within the prayers that we recite and the rituals that we enact, we hear the famous question that Elijah heard – provoked to answer twice by the angels, when he was in the depths of his hesitation – ma l’cha po, Eliyahu? What are you doing here, Elijah? And his answer, both times, missed the mark – as he concentrated on his emptiness, rather than on his fullness of spirit.

And our tradition builds on this question, ma l’cha po, as we ask the very same thing of each other and ourselves. Perhaps this will happen to you –

A rabbi was walking home from the synagogue after a long day of anticipating, connecting to, and responding to the needs of his community. It was later than usual and as he walked home, the sun set and then disappeared. Deeply lost in thought, he went left instead of right, in the place where the path divided. So instead of nearing home, he was walking towards a border patrol station, near a hazardous borderline. “Who goes there – what are you doing here,” boomed a menacing voice in the darkness, which shook the rabbi from his meditations and thoughts. Flustered, the rabbi wondered who was shouting at him from his own home.

“Who are you and what are you doing here,” thundered a massive guard who stepped into view. The rabbi quickly realized his mistake, and instead of answering the guard’s question, he asked a question of his own. “How much are you paid to stand here, everyday?” The guard looked at him and then answered – “minimum wage.”

The rabbi walked a bit closer and said to the guard – “I will pay you twice as much to stand at the front door of my house and ask me the same question every day, when I return home.”

Which brings us directly to another story, which grows out of the first one and challenges us to find purpose and meaning beyond the deeds that we may do publicly.

A man went up to his rabbi and dissatisfied, pledged to not give any more money to the synagogue – not to pay his dues for the next year or be a kol hakavod member or support any fundraiser, unless this man was able to see Elijah the prophet. The rabbi paused and after a moment encouraged the man to go to another shul, where the rabbi’s friend was the rabbi to share Rosh haShanah there. So, the man went and he stayed with a family and attended services and participated in the other community, and yet he did not glimpse Elijah. He returned home unhappier than before and spoke directly to the rabbi, upset that he was not able to see Elijah.

The rabbi was puzzled and convinced the man that he should return to this other community next Rosh haShanah, for surely Elijah was dwelling in that place, and he did not know it. And so, it was – in the next year, he arrived early to the same family’s home and was unpacking his things – the kids came home and excited, he could hear them exclaim through the wall – he’s back? Our guest is back? Eliyahu haNavi as returned to us again this year? How great!

And the man then understood that he was Eliyahu haNavi and after the Festival Days returned home secure in this realization, happily leading with a generosity of heart.

We too sometimes go through the motions – even spectacular ones like Rosh haShanah. Our goal is to create a second Sinai in the middle of the first one. As Judge Yeakel explained it to me – in Austin, we swear in new citizens all the time – creating a special moment does not make their citizenship any more special, however, it may inspire them to work harder, to vote more often and to take their responsibilities and privileges more seriously – if it is demonstrated that we take it seriously.

And this is the secret of standing here today – this is what makes this time special – a unique time of initiation through the tempo of experience. Sinai leads to Horeb – all of us standing together, leads to individual moments of spiritual revolution. Our collective experience at Sinai is reflected back to us, like a mirror, inspiring us to seek the answer to what we are doing here. So, those of us coming from places of celebration rise together with those of us coming from places of pain – like the span of the different countries represented earlier, we too have different places that we have experienced as we are invited around the mountain of Sinai and then into the mountain of Horeb. Like Eliyahu haNavi, we recognize our power – the power that we have to change or influence any situation – finding joy in adversity and optimism in absurdity.

I ask this year that we lead with generosity of our hearts, risk takers who found new states of holiness, grateful for our citizenship in k’lal Yisrael, the people of Israel, proud of our covenant – and all of us, new citizens of 5772, let me close with an adaption of the blessing that I gave the newest citizens of our country, a few days ago:

As we take our leave from this sanctuary this evening, may you go out into the world to build on these principles that you have today entered anew. May you work for what you desire and may you enjoy the shade of the trees already planted by those who have established roots here. May you live with respect for our laws, speaking out against tyranny and with a boundless sense of responsibility and appreciation for freedom. May you teach those who will learn from you, the greatest traditions of our people, and may you not take for granted the hard work that has brought you to this magnificent moment. May you embrace new customs as you retain your established ways of life. May you be a beacon of light that shines brightly in this world, knowing that you belong to a people who believe that anything is possible. May your journey be blessed in your way and may you open your hand to all of those in need around this world, becoming your new status – confidently answering the question, ma l’cha po — which in answering, everyday improves and transforms all before you. God bless you – go in peace from here.

Shanah Tova u’Metukah
A Sweet and Blessed Year for you and your loved ones.

(Eliyahu haNavi)

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