Rabbi’s Sermon — Rosh Hashanah 2020 / 5781

We are pleased to share Rabbi Ari Isenberg’s sermon from Rosh Hashanah Day 1:


Joni Mitchell, the renowned singer/songwriter, did not have the easiest start. She was in her early-20s, became pregnant, and as a single-woman struggling to make it in the music business, gave her child up for adoption. Shortly thereafter, she married; a marriage that would last less than a year.  In 1967, at the age of 24, while on a plane, she heard her tekiah, her call of the shofar, if you will – reading Saul Bellow’s book “Henderson the Rain King”, she looked at the clouds below her, and immediately started writing her famous hit, “Both Sides, Now”. With this song, born out of a call to delve deeply into the darkest places, Joni Mitchell found herself on the cusp of fame. What ensued was a series of hit songs, songs that reflected her pain, her loss, picking up the pieces of her life. Through that, she would eventually find healing, experience wholeness, and would even reunite with her daughter, the one she had put up for adoption in her youth.

Rabbi Steve Greenberg, author of the book “Wrestling with God and Men” and the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, grew up feeling isolated in his sexual orientation. Without the ability to speak it, keeping it tucked away, hidden inside, it was like a dream. Greenberg dated women throughout his 20s, even getting engaged to one. In 1999, Rabbi Greenberg heard his tekiah, his call of the shofar.  It was then that he came out, publicly. That revelation initially stung – to be sure, some of his professional and social ties shattered. But through that shattering, for decades now he’s lived a very happy, full life with his husband and daughter and has established a notable rabbinic career.  

In sharing these two accounts with you, it occurred to me: could it be that to live lives that reflect our truest selves, to instill shleimut – wholeness into our lives, to establish teshuva in our lives, we first have to endure a measure of brokenness and vulnerability?  

The Talmud seems to think so – quoting tractate Nedarim: “Once a person renders themselves like a wilderness, like at Mount Sinai, utterly exposed, deserted before all, only then is Torah, wholeness, and teshuva given as a gift”.

But here’s the problem: who among us actually enjoys feeling vulnerable, feeling exposed? Professionally, we live in a culture of caution – beware of the paper trail, of overexposure, don’t tip your hand. In our personal lives, most of us have some thoughts, experiences, and memories that we suppress, ensuring they never bubble up to the surface.  

And this year, as a society, in the face of a pandemic, of a raging climate crisis, and of levels of anti-Semitism and racial tension as high as ever in this country, becoming numb to the numbers and turning a blind eye have become coping mechanisms. 

It seems we face a conundrum: In order to attain wholeness and teshuva, Jewish tradition suggests we need to open ourselves to the brokenness that exists in our lives and in our world. And yet, we spend most of our lives trying really hard to ensure we never feel broken, creating a protective shell around us.

Rosh Hashanah, however, is the call to crack that casing, to break down the walls we’ve put up.  Rosh Hashanah is the call to come face-to-face with our brokenness, with our vulnerability, with our fears and faults.

And this breaking is actually a common Jewish theme.

Moses smashed the first set of tablets. And what happens to those tablets? Are they discarded? Quite the opposite. They are kept sacred, along with the second whole set, in the tabernacle. They travel all the way to the Land of Israel. Through Moshe’s smashing, the Israelites heard their tekiah, their call of the shofar. They were forced to reckon with and examine the darkness in their lives – slavery, idol worship, endless complaining in the desert – and through that journeyed to wholeness, resolving their history as slaves and idol worshippers … complaining, on the other hand … I’m not sure that’s been resolved yet. 

Descriptions of brokenness are also woven into our Rosh Hashanah liturgy, notably in the Unetakeh Tokef prayer we sang earlier this morning. In it, humans are compared to cheres ha’nishbar – broken, shattered earthenware.  

Why are we compared to broken earthenware? Rabbinic tradition prescribes that when an earthenware vessel is deemed unfit for use in the Temple, the way to purify it is by first breaking it apart and then reassembling it. The result: a purified, augmented vessel. What this also means is that in its broken state, each individual piece is still sacred and should not be discarded.  

So, too, with us. Even in our brokenness, even in our loneliness, we are still sanctified, still sacred; we can still be reassembled and brought to a heightened sacred plain.  

My challenge to you is to shatter the numbness, shatter the protective shell, and feel it — on an individual and communal level. Psychologist Esther Perel described the pandemic as a loss of a predictable future. Life is lived in the details, she asserts … we had plans, we had goals, we had celebrations ahead; I wanted to spend the month of July in Israel … but with all of that postponed, what’s behind the details of our lives could be profound loneliness, brokenness … not just at the loss of plans, but also at the loss of touch, the loss of hugs and handshakes and kisses. 

But hope grows out of fracture. The notes of the shofar indicate as much. First, the tekiah, the piercing, then the shevarim, the breaking down of the whole, but the drop isn’t bottomless …  the shofar swerves up … teruah, tekiah gedolah …  for when we blow the shofar we blow a whole note, followed by broken notes, followed by a final whole note. The shofar offers us a challenge, yes, but it does so with the understanding and the promise that at the end of the process there is hope, there is revelation, and there is redemption. From allowing ourselves to feel the shock of this global deprivation, we might even extract a deeper love for all we are given.

Maybe that’s why we sing Ashrei Ha’Am Yodei Teruah – Happy Are the People who know the call of the shofar.

For God’s best work is done with broken tools. So as we break through the casing, when we peel away the numbness, when we get a glimpse of the other side, what we discover is that God is right there — God resides in all of our faults, all of our misdeeds, all of our imperfections, personal and societal. Once we are brave enough to see that; once we are strong enough to endure the pain of rebuilding, knowing that Godliness lies within us; well then, what we begin to see, is life from both sides. 


Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”

Rows and flows of angel hair

And ice cream castles in the air

And feather canyons everywhere

I’ve looked at clouds that way


But now they only block the sun

They rain and snow on everyone

So many things I would have done

But clouds got in my way


I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now

From up and down, and still somehow

It’s cloud illusions I recall

I really don’t know clouds at all


Tears and fears and feeling proud

To say “I love you” right out loud

Dreams and schemes and circus crowds

I’ve looked at life that way


But now old friends are acting strange

They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed

Well something’s lost, but something’s gained

In living every day


I’ve looked at life from both sides now 

From win and lose and still somehow 

It’s life’s illusions I recall

I really don’t know life at all