Rosh Hashanah Drash

“Rosh HaShanah: the Fount of Transformation”
By Rabbi Mordecai Finley, PhD, AJRCA Professor of Liturgical Studies and Ethics


I have experienced a much-divided self lately as I have been teaching about the Sovereignty of the Divine, the core theme of Rosh HaShanah. I have read about and seen too much abysmal evil and suffering to believe that the hand of God orchestrates history. It is hard for me to believe that God is sovereign. I do believe that the Divine Presence can shape our values, to the degree that we allow that Presence in. I believe that we can establish communion with that Presence, that we can love God and experience the love of God. I believe we can be profoundly transformed by becoming present to the Divine. But I have great trouble thinking that what happens outside of me, outside of any of us, is guided by the hand of God.

And yes, certain things that happen to us, and certain people that come into our lives make us feel that a subtle Divine wind, a ru’ach elohim,  blows us this way and that. Gifts are given us, gifts that we could not have imagined. At times, we experience the universe as being generous to us in particular. Sometime we, ourselves, act as the generosity of the Divine.

If I put my doubt about the hand of God in history aside for a moment, and think about my journey and the journey of those close to me, often I detect a mysterious presence pulling and pushing things in my life and in theirs. A great deal of life is dealing with the stuff, and now and then there are people and moments of such radiance that we feel that some force in the Universe has blessed us, guarded us, shined light our way, graced us, been present to us and has brought us toward wholeness.

These don’t take me squarely into he idea of the Sovereignty of God, a term that sounds so austere, so heavy. Yes, values must reign supreme in my life, but we are much more than values driven beings, doing our duty. We are surrounded by the souls of others – take a moment, and consider. That person over there has a soul, a God formed beautiful soul, encased in a life that perhaps honors it and perhaps does not. They are trying to find, sometimes so awkwardly, meaning and purpose, love and wellbeing. Can you bear that person a gift? Perhaps you are here to bear that gift.

My knowing of the suffering of humanity has made me know that God does not orchestrate history. There seems to be a force out there, forces in history, that steamrolls individuals’ search for love, justice, truth and beauty. This sickens me. I want to fight against that steamroller. My values drive me.

The values that drive us, however, drive us through vistas often filled with notes and chords that form a song, if we listen carefully. Now and then, we can be conscious of ourselves as being part of this divine chorus, like angels singing to God. We each have our song, our note, our instrument to play. We search for others with whom we can make music, with whom we can dance. The brutal, destructive forces are there. But so is the music.

God does not seem to orchestrate history. But we each have a seat in an orchestra that plays the song of goodness and hope.

I look forward to a year in which we can see souls and hear melodies. The Chasidic tradition sees Rosh HaShanah as the ‘fount of transformation.’   As we are renewed by that fountain, may that song of the angels flow through us.

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