Erev Rosh HaShanah 5773
Temple Sinai, Reno, NV
As many of you are aware, the focus of my sermons, this High Holidays, is upon some of the prayers of our Jewish liturgy. Specifically, we’ll be looking at the opening prayers of our worship service, that is, the Shema and its surrounding blessings. To do so, I lean very heavily upon the work of Rabbi, professor, and liturgist extraordinaire, Lawrence A. Hoffman. If this is a topic that interests you, I recommend to you Hoffman’s multi-volume series titled My People’s Prayerbook. This series brings together commentaries from all perspectives of the Jewish world – commentaries that illuminate the traditional Jewish prayer book as the spiritual resource it can best be.
Larry Hoffman calls our liturgy the “spiritual tel” of the Jewish people. A tel is an archaeological term for a mound of earth that turns out to house successive layers of a civilization. It is in this sense – as spiritual tel — that our prayers and prayer book capture who we Jews are. And so, as we begin a new Jewish year, we’ll explore the meaning and relevance of the opening prayers of our worship service. We’ll come better to know and understand, I hope, those prayer book words that we regularly invoke. And we’ll try to find special meaning within them for the tasks and challenges of this sacred time in our Jewish year.
And so we begin at the beginning . . . with the Barchu – the opening prayer in that package of blessings with surrounds and includes the Shema. We invoked the Barchu, in song, early in tonight’s service back on page 24. Now if you’ve been to even just a few Jewish worship services, you’ve no doubt heard the Rabbi introduce this prayer by saying something like, “We turn now to our ‘Call to Worship,’ the Barchu.” For, indeed, the Barchu is the official opening of a Jewish worship service. It calls us to begin our formal process of prayer. And yet, I remind you that we didn’t get to the Barchu tonight until page 24! One would think that an “opening” prayer would be on page 1. Or even allowing for the candle blessing to come first, at least on page 2 or 3. And yet our “Call to Worship” is always preceded by some significant amount of other prayer material – indeed, the more traditional the prayerbook, the more liturgical prelude you will pray before even getting to the Barchu. That this is so is our first prayer book lesson for these High Holy Days.
We hear this lesson in a story. The Rebbe of Tsanz was asked by a Chassidic disciple: “What does the Rabbi do before praying?” The teacher replied, “I pray . . . that I may be able to pray . . .” This simple truth is that all our lives are cluttered with matters most un-prayerful. There isn’t a magic switch to flip, from profane to sacred, when we cross the synagogue threshold. So we need a kind of warm-up to bring us to a place of holiness. I tell my B’nei Mitzvah students that the “Barchu” is like a baseball game’s call to “Play Ball.” And all those pages that precede it, in our prayer book, are akin to the batting practice.
And so too has there been – or there needs to be – a great deal of “prep work” prior to this task of Teshuvah, or repentance, that is at the center of our High Holidays. In a traditional Jewish setting, the shofar is blown every day during the month prior to Rosh HaShanah, as a call to get going on all that introspection and forgiveness-seeking. A little over a week ago, we observed Selichot, a service of penitential prayers that also is designed to get us ready. And if somehow, we’ve missed all of that High Holiday prep, then we’ve still got the upcoming ten days of Awe prior to Yom Kippur. So those pages before the Barchu remind us that no pursuit really profound is accomplished without much prior work. It’s an unlikely batter who will hit a home run without some batting practice first. Worship begun quickly will not likely be deep. Teshuvah undertaken without deep forethought will surely be barely superficial.
And so our Barchu Call-to-Worship, the beginning or our service, is nonetheless never the first page of our prayer book.
But let’s imagine we’ve done the proper prep work, and we now come to the Barchu in our liturgy. What exactly is this prayer?
Well, what it isn’t is Biblical. You won’t find these words anywhere in our Bible. In fact, we don’t know exactly where this prayer came from. We have evidence of this liturgical formulation as early as the second century, but not necessarily as a call to prayer introducing the Shema. Some scholars of liturgy think these words may have first been associated somehow with the Kaddish, and that they were said not only at the beginning of the service but later on as a part of the Amidah. We even have some fragments of liturgy that suggest that Jews in Eretz Yisrael, as historically late as just prior to the Crusades, may not have said the Barchu at all. Instead they introduced the Shema with a benediction that we no longer have.
Whatever the historical case, the first line of the Barchu – Barchu et Adonai ham’vorach. Bless Adonai who is to be blessed. – this first line of the Barchu that we do now have is clearly a call, or invitation, to bless God. The second line of this prayer – Baruch Adonai Ham’vorach l’olam vaed. Blessed be Adonai who is to be blessed forever and ever. – the second line of this prayer is a congregational response technically known as a doxology, from the Greek word meaning glory. We accept the Barchu’s invitation with unbridled praise of God whom we reference as being “forever.”
But with that we come to a rather perplexing aspect of the Barchu. For whatever our varied notions of God – whether person, concept, or even human conscience – Whoever or Whatever or However we hold God to be, we surely use that word to reference something Ultimate. Which raises, then, the question, “How is it possible for us to bless God?” We’re the creatures. God’s little pischers, if you will. How can mere mortals bless God?
And so you may note that many prayer books – including the one we’re using tonight – many prayer books translate the Barchu as “Praise the Lord, to whom our praise is due.” But that is just flat-out a mistranslation. The Hebrew word for praise is hallel – as in Hallelujah. We all know that baruch, in Hebrew, is about blessing. That the translation “fudges” the real meaning of this Hebrew prayer simply affirms the conceptual difficulty. How can we bless God?
Rabbis – both classical and contemporary – have, of course, asked that question. And their answers may give us insight for these most holy days of our Jewish year.
Some suggest that to bless God means to acknowledge God’s ultimacy and in doing so to transcend our self-centered view of the world and our often self-congratulatory sense of our place within it. To bless whatever our notion of the divine is a kind of humility that admits we are not fully in control. This is to profoundly recognize our creatureliness and all its limitations. And this is surely the attitude with which we enter into this season of awe.
But more radically — and somewhat almost the opposite – is an interpretation offered by an 18th century Kabbalist by the name of Chaim of Volozhyn. This Chaim suggests that a person blesses God merely in the saying. By speaking God, we actually call forth that One — He, She, or It – that might otherwise have remained only latent. When we bless God, we become the agent of self-realization for the divine. Yes, God would exist without our blessing. But it’s an unrealized existence until we bless. We’re kind of like a coach giving God encouragement to come forth.
Now, how’s that for human power? Maybe God “needs” us as much as we need God . . . In the words of the Rabbis, “When we are God‘s witnesses, God is God, and when we are not God’s witnesses, God is, so to speak, not God.” Or, as contemporary feminist theologian and poet, Marcia Falk, puts it, “finding and naming what is holy is a fundamentally human act. In a covenantal context, God is not alone and self-sufficient, indifferent to human praise and rejoicing. God needs a community in order to witness and give meaning to God’s sovereignty.”
Wow! The awesome work of this Jewish season just got exponentially more so! If there is to be holiness – divinity, even – we have to find it, name it, and live it. No, we’re not the sacred center of the universe. But we are intrinsic to making that sacred center live. We begin to do that through prayer. We continue to do it when our prayer moves us to deeds. We do it, specifically now, as we look back upon the year gone and determine where we went astray and how we’ll fix our transgressions and then live more rightly. And we do all of that in community – with and for one another – for the Barchu is an imperative verb in the plural. All of you . . . Barchu et Adonai Ham’vorach . . .
Barchu et Adonai ham’vorach. It’s a call to worship and a call to the sacred work of these Days of Awe. It’s a call to bless God and our community and one another and ourselves. It’s an awesome call at an awesome time of year.
May we answer that call, not just with the responsive words of the prayer, but with and through our introspection and atonement in these days to come. For then, surely, as we are called upon to bless . . . so too will our year and our lives and our loved ones and our aspirations all be blessed as well.
Kein y’hi ratzon. May that indeed be the outcome of these Days of Awe now before us.