Rosh Hashana Day 1 Sermon

The KittelThe story is told that Elijah the prophet once showed up to a wedding dressed as a beggar. “Please sir,” he asked the father of the bride, “May I come in and have a bite to eat.” Seeing this disheveled man standing before him, the father of the bride ordered to leave – and quickly, too, or else he would call the butler to boot him out. A while later, Elijah returned, this time dressed in a well-tailored suit, an elegant sable hat and carrying a cane with a golden handle.  He was greeted warmly by the father of the bride and seated at the table with the bride and the groom.  As each course of the meal was served, he took its contents and shoved it into his pockets – meat in his right pocket, potatoes in his left, carrots in his vest pocket … and then poured fine red wine over it all! Of course, the guests sat there astonished. What, on earth, was he doing?  Then Elijah explained. “When I came to your door dressed as a beggar, you practically threw me out. But when I came dressed as a wealthy man, you could not do enough for me. Clearly, it is the clothing that you honor, not the man. Since you showed such respect for my clothes, why should I not feed them at your wedding feast?” This morning, your rabbi and cantor stand before you dressed in special clothing for Rosh Hashannah. The clothing is not elaborate, nor gaily colored, nor fashionably tailored. The clothing I am wearing is called a kittel.  It is a Yiddish word, very close to the German word for “plain housecoat”. In some communities, it is customary for everyone in the congregation to come dressed in a kittel on Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur.  This morning I am going to speak about four meanings of the kittel and its significance for these holidays. Wearing of the kittel symbolizes 1) our equality in the eyes of G-d, 2)the potential that lay within each and every one of us, 3)G-d’ s love for us, and 4)the fragility and uncertainty of life. First: Our equality before G-d — The kittel did not originate as clothing for Rosh Hashanah, but as burial clothing. Two thousand years ago, in what was then called Palestine, the leader of the Jewish people was named Rabban Gamliel.  He was from an aristocratic family and was very wealthy. At the time, the upper strata of society would bury their dead in expensive garments such as silk and royal garb. It was said that for the common folk, burying a relative was even more emotionally difficult for them than the death itself. They felt ashamed that they could not bury their beloved in the expensive garments of the wealthy, and so took to abandoning the body and leaving it to be buried at public expense.  They felt such shame that they could not give their relative a “proper burial” that they abdicated doing the burial at all!  When Rabban Gamliel died he requested his body be buried in inexpensive linen clothing. Everyone, from every class of society, began to follow the example he set. They buried their dead in plain linen garments. Feeling no more shame, the poor began attending to their dead again! This plain burial shroud of Rabban Gamliel, the kittel put everyone on an equal footing, and came to symbolize our equality in G-d’s eyes on this holiday. G-d cares not for the external superficialities by which we may cloak ourselves; G-d is not fooled by the expensive clothing we may wear, or the grand houses we may live in, the luxurious cars we may drive, the fancy clubs we may belong to – the standards by which human beings often judge one another.  The kittel is a reminder that G-d sees right through us. G-d sees beyond our material trappings into our very souls. Second:  The kittel symbolizes the potential in each and every one of us But why wear a white garment on Rosh Hashannah? This is the beginning of the Ten Days of Repentance, when we examine our sins and ask G-d for forgiveness.  At our afternoon service on Yom Kippur we will once again read the story of Jonah. Jonah travels to Ninveh and proclaims that in forty days Ninveh shall be overthrown. In response, the people proclaim a fast and put on SACKCLOTH. Word gets to the king and he, wanting to repent, also fasts and puts on sackcloth — a course garment made of cotton or hemp. Elsewhere in the Bible, for example in the Book of Daniel, people don sackcloth when they repent. Why did our tradition not turn toward sackcloth as the traditional garb for the High Holidays? Fortunately, we do not wear sackcloth – thank heavens, it sounds very itchy! – but rather the special garments that the High Priest wore in the Temple in Jerusalem on Yom Kippur. The High Priest was dressed in white linen when he made his confession in the Temple in Jerusalem on Yom Kippur. The whiteness of his garments symbolizes the spirit of purity and humility with which he approached G-d on that day. By wearing white, we recall the garments of the High Priest in the days when our Temple stood in Jerusalem. These white garments serve as both a connection to our ancient past and a as reminder that we are “a nation of priests”. In Judaism there is no society of holy men and women who have special knowledge that only they have access to. It is part of our belief in the United States that any child born here can someday grow up to be President.  In Judaism, we believe that with the proper education, anyone can aspire to be like Moses!  Rabbi David de Sola Pool calls this “the democracy of holiness.” Third: The Kittel symbolizes G-d’s love for us: The wearing of white on Rosh Hashannah also symbolizes that even as we stand in judgment on Rosh Hashanah, this day should not be viewed as a somber day.  We might very well think it would be a somber day. After all, tradition holds that on Rosh Hashannah the entire world, not only the Jewish people, come before G-d in judgment. As our prayers say, we are judged as to “who will live and who will die, who by fire and who by water…” These are sobering, even terrifying thoughts.  Consider the experience of Mathew Schrier. He is a 35 year old American war photographer whose story of capture by jihadi rebel forces in Syria in December 2012 was in the newspaper this summer. You may have heard about him. He was held for seven months without charges. He had no idea why he was being held, only that he was being held for trial before an “Islamic Court”.  “In your country you have a saying,” his guard, Abdullah told him one night, ‘Innocent until proven guilty.’ Here we have the opposite. You are guilty until proven innocent. We do not know who you are.” Just imagine what that must be like! To come before such a court in judgment must be a soul shattering experience. Fortunately, Mathew Schrier was able to escape from his captors before he was brought before this court. The Jerusalem Talmud describes someone in this situation. It notes that when a man comes before a judge for a trial, he commonly dresses in black, and wears a black cloak. He grows his beard, for he does not know the verdict that is to be handed down.  He is terrified, and ready for the worst. His is in fear and in mourning for his life! This is not the case, however, says the Talmud, with the Jewish people when we come before G-d in judgment.  We wear white, we cut our beards and we eat, and we drink and we are happy. Why? Because, says the Talmud, we have confidence that G-d, who loves the Jewish people, will be merciful and forgive us for our sins. We are certain that G-d will accept our repentance. We are not strangers to G-d. G-d knows who we are. G-d is like a compassionate parent, and we have no reason to fear, for we are certain that if our repentance is sincere, G-d will judge us kindly on this day. Fourth: The kittel confronts us with our mortality The wearing of a kittel, the garb that we will someday be buried in, is a reminder that we do not know the day that we are going to die. It may be tomorrow. We better be prepared. The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Eliezer had a favorite saying. “Repent one day before you die.” He students asked him, “How do you know which day it is that you are going to die?” Rabbi Eliezer replied, “You do not. That is why you must repent every day of your life.” We may not know when we are going to die. Neither do we know how we are going to die – this knowledge is beyond human power or human control. But there is one thing within our power, within our control — we can determine how we live. We can make peace with ourselves, and we can make peace with others. We can reconcile with our loved ones.  We can get our affairs in order, so that others do not have to clean up the messes we leave behind.  We do not have an infinite amount of time to do this. In truth, we do not know how much time we have. Therefore, we must act today. I hope you will remember that the kittel we wear represents the idea that no matter what our station in life we all stand before our Creator today as equals;  I hope you will take away with you the phrase “the democracy of holiness” and the idea that each of us has infinite potential for holiness, I hope you will remember why these holidays are joyful, not somber days; I hope you will be more determined to live each day with love, and cherish each moment, and do not delay. With that last thought in mind, I close with this true story. It is from a book called, My Grandfather’s Blessings, by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen. Dr. Remen was brought up by parents who were atheists and by a spiritual and mystical grandfather who died when she was seven.  She remembers the Friday afternoon rituals with him, and how after he lit the candles, he would turn to her and say, “Come, Neshumeleh”.  “Then I would stand in front of him and he would rest his hands lightly on the top of my head. He would begin by thanking God for me and for making him my grandpa.  He would specifically mention my struggles during that week and tell God something about me that was true. Each week, I would wait to find out what that was. If I had made mistakes during the week, he would mention my honesty in telling the truth. If I had failed, he would appreciate how hard I tried.”  Remen went on saying, “These few moments were the only time in my week when I felt completely safe and at rest.  My family of physicians and professionals were always struggling to accomplish more. It was never enough. If I brought home a 98 on a test, my father would ask, “What happened to the other 2 points.”  But for my grandfather, I was already enough.  And somehow when I was with him, I knew with absolute certainty that this was so. He called me by his special name, Neshumeleh, which means ‘beloved little soul’. After he died, no one called me that anymore.  At first I was afraid that without him to see me and tell God who I was, I might disappear.  But slowly I came to understand that I had learned to see myself through his eyes. And that once blessed, we are blessed forever. Many years later when, in her extreme old age, my mother surprisingly began to light Shabbat candles.  I told her about the blessings from my grandfather and what they meant to me.  She had smiled at me sadly. “I have blessed you every day of your life, Rachel. But unlike your grandfather, I just never had the wisdom to do it out loud.” “Today, we are reminded of the urgency of this moment. We wear white to keep in mind how essential it is to say: I love You, I bless you.  I forgive you, please forgive me.  I admire you; I appreciate what you have done, Thank you… Say these words OUT LOUD, and regularly, to the people who are in your life.  Every one of us is a unique gift and a blessing in this troubled world.  We do matter and we can make a difference.  Let this year be the time to make it so!”[1] May we all be granted another healthy and meaningful good year. AMEN          

[1] Concluding Quotation from Rabbi Toba August from her Kol Nidre Sermon “Say It Out Loud”. Rabbi August inspired this sermon.