From the Pulpit: Perfecting the world

By Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton, Or Haneshemah

On Rosh Hashanah we reach out for the perfection of the world, because on the first of Tishrei, we remember the world is like a newborn, crying out with new life and hopefulness.

A personal way I understand this: I remember well the moment that I realized that there would not be one day on which my newborn first-born would not cry! It was her rightful, life-given need, for behind whatever might have been eliciting the persistent wail, the cries were fundamental sounds of life and growth, and therefore, of hopefulness.

A cry – something needs to change. A cry – I am feeling. A cry – someone hear me, listen! A cry – soon, things will be different, things must be different.

On Rosh Hashanah, we reach out for the perfection of the world, and we cry, as the shofar cries, because perfection seems so far away.

When we reach the shofarot moment at services, we will pronounce the Aleinu, a passage that began its liturgical life here, during Rosh Hashanah services, and then found its way into every service, every minyan, every time a group of Jews prays. Each time we recite it, we bow and invoke its vision of oneness and wholeness, “letaken olam,” to repair the entire world, for all peoples who dwell on this earth.

The bowing of the Yom Tov Aleinu can be like our own personal tekiah gedolah. With our bodies, or the kavanah (intention) we pour into the words, we can make ourselves hollow, like the ram’s horn. The filling of a vessel – us – with breath can remind us what we are capable of, and that reminder can echo throughout the year. As the sound blows through the curves of shofar, as we bend our bodies, we take in the truth of the inevitability as well as the randomness of challenges we are dealt, and, at the same time, the power we embody to rise to those challenges.

On Rosh Hashanah, we reach out for the perfection of the world by working on ourselves, or, in the language of the Kotzker rebbe, “arbeten af zikh.” Working on oneself and committing oneself to participate in perfecting the world are thus intrinsically intertwined through these liturgical rites, the sounds heard, the songs sung – all of our communal and personal acts of prayer and reflection.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves,” teaches Victor Frankl. What matters, he wrote, “is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best.”

Though each of us, individually and collectively, may have been buffeted and challenged in a thousand ways, we are not powerless. The Days of Awe are a tool to root ourselves in the potential for transformation that each year, each call of the shofar, and each Aleinu can bring.

Our teruahs and our crying can be heard as calls of hope; our shevarims and our silence include sighs of longing, our tekiahs and our songs can erupt with optimism.

On Rosh Hashanah, we reach out for the perfection of the world and of ourselves, knowing that next year, we will reach out again, and the following year, and again and again.

So may it be, this year, for us all, and all who dwell on earth, a year of perfecting the world. Shana Tova Umetukah.