"Why Are We Here?"

Why are we here?

What exactly is it about the High Holidays that draws more people into the synagogue than anything else?

The creators of our liturgy, Rabbis both ancient and modern, provide us with a clear sense of the work that we should do in this time. We must reflect. We must take stock of our actions. We must petition for forgiveness for the times we fell short.

Beyond providing us with a script for our prayers and a roadmap for תשובה, for repentance, the liturgists also wove in poems and readings that evoke the spiritual and emotional state that they intend to be a part of our Holy Day experience. In just a few minutes, we will read the powerful prayer, Unetaneh Tokef, which focuses our attention of what might happen in the year to come:

Who will live and who will die;

Who will live a long life and who will come to an untimely end;

Who will perish by fire and who by water;

Who by sword and who by beast;

Who by hunger and who by thirst…

These words are clearly designed to evoke fear. To remind us of the fragility of our lives and the uncertainty of the year to come. Disaster can befall us at any moment.

The insecurity that our liturgy expects also appears in the text of our haftarah this morning. Jeremiah’s words include a lament. The prophet paints a picture of desolation and sadness, following the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the exile of the 10 Tribes who lived there.

Jeremiah refers to these tribes as “Ephraim,” after Joseph’s son and the most powerful tribe in the Kingdom. He personalizes the lament by telling us that the Matriarch, Rachel – Ephraim’s grandmother – cries out, over the loss.

“מֵאֲנָה לְהִנָּחֵם עַל־בָּנֶיהָ כִּי אֵינֶנּוּ”

she refuses to be comforted over her children, who are gone.”

This year, more than any other that I can remember, fear and insecurity are easy to access. A year ago, antisemitic attacks were something that happened in other countries, not here. America was a place unlike any other in Jewish history, the Golden Medina, the Golden Land where anything was possible. It was a haven in the Diaspora, where, even though we lived as a minority, we were safe and accepted.

I knew, intellectually, that this had not always been the case. There had been restrictive housing covenants and university quota. There were companies and social organizations where “Jews need not apply.” At the PJC we had our own struggles, forced to turn to the courts to defend our right to pray in this very space. But the courts took care of us. They upheld our rights. Quotas were abolished. Housing covenants were eliminated or ignored. Things got better. We were safe.

All of that was shattered on October 27th of last year. It was shattered when a white supremacist chose to act on his hate and slaughter our brothers and sisters as they prayed on Shabbat morning in their beloved synagogue in Pittsburgh. Eleven lives were cruelly cut short in an act of antisemitic rage.

Afterwards, we were scared. We came together for safety and comfort. We mourned. We told ourselves that this was an isolated incident. Such an attack was unique in American history and would certainly stay that way. We began to reevaluate our security protocols and we sought to move forward.

Then, exactly six months later, on April 27th, there was another attack, this time at a synagogue in Poway, California. Once again, a white supremacist sought to slaughter our people at prayer; this time only one person was killed, due to the training and quick action taken by the members of that community.

Suddenly, fear and uncertainty were easy to access.

In this same period, smaller, less cataclysmic acts of antisemitism have been on a slow but steady rise. In New York, hate crimes in general have gone up 64% in the past year, and antisemitic hate crimes have nearly doubled. Many of these attacks have been caught on camera, they are terrifying not only in their brutality, but also in the randomness of the violence. The perpetrators did not seek out their Jewish victims, they attacked them because they were there.

Antisemitism can and does appear on the Left in our society, as well. Whether it is in the condemnation of Israel that traffics in antisemitic tropes or intersectional marches that make Jews feel that they have to check part of their identity at the door, antisemitic assumptions, beliefs and stereotypes often go unchallenged among those who consider themselves to be the most inclusive of diversity and difference.

If fear is the goal of these ימים נוראים – these Days of Awe (or perhaps Days of Fear), then this year must be the easiest in recent memory for American Jews. We have experienced fear, coupled with grief and disappointment after each attack and each antisemitic comment from an elected official.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik recognizes this fear as a powerful motivation to align oneself with a community. When we are afraid of attacks from outside forces, we come together for mutual protection. He writes, “Fear of destruction moves one not to sympathy for the thou but to love of oneself: by helping others, I find a refuge for my own tormented soul, terrified of what the morrow might bring. I believe the thou will not be ungrateful and will return my favor when I am in need.”

He describes such a community as a “camp” and that the experience of community in the camp is inherently tragic, where each individual would rather be independent, but is too scared to act on that desire.

When we are alone, not members of any group, every threat and challenge is existential. If there is no one for me to rely on, then anything and everything has the power to destroy me. The safety that comes from being a part of Soloveitchik’s “camp” is real. But it comes at a cost. When we join a community out of fear, then fear permeates every interaction with that community. It shapes how we see the world and ourselves. It impacts the decisions that we make and the relationships that we develop. We may gain physical safety, but we will always be scared.

What are we meant to do with these emotions? How should they impact the holiest days of the year? How do we bring this fear into our prayers?

We come here on the ימים נוראים to plead our case before God. We strive to do תשובה for our sins and beg for forgiveness. We come for reassurance that our fears will not be realized in the year to come. But the liturgy in our hands promises that we already know God’s answer. God will forgive. After all, over and over we sing together the words of the 13 attributes, describing God as

רחום וחנון, ארך אפים ורב חסד ואמת, נצר חסד לאלפים, נשא עון ופשע וחטאה ונקה

“Merciful and compassionate, patient, abounding in love and faithfulness, assuring love for thousands of generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon.”

This could make the whole experience anti-climactic. There is no reason for us to be afraid of Divine Judgment. If we sincerely repent of our sins, if our תשובה is authentic, God will forgive us.

It makes the entire service, the entire holiday season an act of theater, in which we play the role of fearful penitents, and God plays the role of strict judge. If fear is the emotion that these days are meant to evoke then our service spoils the grand finale. But the Rabbis are not clumsy in their liturgical creation, there is another reason that we are here, another emotion that we are meant to experience:


We come here to remind ourselves that hope is possible. That redemption is possible. More than possible. Guaranteed. As long as we do the work we will be forgiven and redeemed. We aren’t meant to gather out of fear that God won’t forgive our sins, we are here to celebrate in community the fact that forgiveness is assured and to hope for a better year to come.

Rabbi Soloveitchik perceives a second, higher, motivation for us to come together. It is true, he writes that “The Jewish people are set apart from other nations; they are harried and oppressed; their burden is shared. But Scripture refers to a more exalted meaning, as well: to a common destiny that is complete unity – unity of vision, hope, faith, prayer and way of life.” When we come together this way, we do not form a defensive camp, but an “edah” – a community. In such a community, there is a hopefulness to our prayers. There is a hopefulness to our interactions. We can imagine the possibility of a brighter future.

This is the message of Jeremiah’s prophecy in its entirety. It does not focus on the suffering of Rachel but uses it to help us appreciate the possibility of redemption.

The Rabbis were audacious in choosing this text as our haftarah. Because on its surface, it fits perfectly. It speaks of the immanent return from exile and concomitant forgiveness of sin. We are reassured by the promised redemption of Ephraim.

But that redemption never happened. Jeremiah’s prophesy has yet to be fulfilled. Ephraim is still lost. And yet, this does nothing to reduce our confidence in the possibility of forgiveness and redemption in our own lives. In fact, it increases our sense of hope and expectation: Not only will we be redeemed, but maybe this year will be the year that the Lost Tribes will return! On Rosh Hashanah, there is the sense that anything is possible.

Anything is possible, but we all know that there is nothing that we can do to change the minds of those who hate us. We can’t make ourselves sufficiently inoffensive such that they will not take offense. Nor can we make ourselves sufficiently pious and impressive such that they suddenly see us as the אור לגוים, the light unto the nations that the Torah promised.

How, then, should we respond to the world around us?

First and foremost, we must respond. We must call out antisemitism whenever and wherever it appears. We must make it clear that “innocuous” comments are not innocuous. Verbal attacks and actions that single out Jews from the wider society – and the Jewish state from the community of nations – are harmful in themselves and can be used to justify physical attacks. We must call them out.

We are all sadly aware of the division in American society today that prevents people from hearing one another across political lines. This is dangerous to the health of our nation and it has real implications in the fight against antisemitism. Those on the Left are unable or unwilling to listen when a conservative points out that a statement or an action is antisemitic. Those on the Right are equally deaf to calls of antisemitism from a liberal.

This means that we must be willing and able to point out antisemitism in those with whom we otherwise agree. This is a daunting responsibility. It is hard to challenge someone on “my side.” But that is the most likely way for our voices to be heard and for people to change.

The recognition of our physical insecurity reminds us of the need for the camp, as Rabbi Soloveitchik predicts. But when we come together today as part of a קהילה קדושה, a sacred community, we are reminded of the possibility of so much more than physical security. We remember the promise of redemption and forgiveness. Through the realization of that promise, our sacred community can give us the existential security that we desperately need.

Jeremiah’s words give context to the promise that is emphasized in the liturgy. It is true that תשובה, brings with it the promise of forgiveness. But as Jeremiah accidentally shows us through the unrealized promise of return, תשובה and forgiveness are not the same as material safety. Ephraim has not returned. In our lives, the work that we do over these Holy Days will not guarantee our safety and security in the year to come.

What this leaves out is the hope that Jeremiah promises, the hope that is meant to be a part of this Holy Day as we look to the future. For Jeremiah’s original audience, for those of us who listened to his words today, and for every generation in between, that hope is found when we come together in community. Soloveitchik tells us that when we take part in community, “Love emerges when the individual begins to notice a new truth – shocking but at the same time comforting and encouraging. I am not alone, I am not forlorn, I am not barren.”

Jeremiah envisions the redemption as including everyone. He tells us that God plans to “bring them in from the northland, gather them from the ends of the earth – the blind and the lame among them, those with child and those in labor”. It will include every class of society, the artists, the farmers, and the first-responders. Young and old, all genders, everyone will gather together to dance and celebrate.

It is in that gathering that we find hope. It is through the commitment to a community and a cause greater than ourselves that we find meaning. It is in the eyes and arms of the קהילה קדושה, the holy community, that our “mourning is turned into joy” and we are “comforted and cheered in [our] grief.” Even in the darkest night the dawn will come; we wait for the light together, ready to greet it with song and with joy.