Updated: Sep 21
Rosh Hashanah Evening 5784/2023
Rabbi David Baum
Twenty-three years ago, over a different New Year's Eve, my friends and I went to a three-day music festival in Florida to say goodbye to 1999 and hello to the new millennium. This music festival was different than others as there was only one band who played: Phish. When some Jews hear ‘fish’, they immediately think about tuna with too much mayonnaise, pickled herring, and of course, lox, but there are many younger Jews who think about music when they hear that word Phish, with a Ph at the beginning, not an F.
At the time, I was flirting with becoming observant again, having taken a break in college. I was a little lost at the time, trying to figure out where my life was going, and where I might be headed as I began a new millennium that coincided with graduation. I was looking for a sign from God - where should I go now?
So we made the journey from our parent’s homes in West Broward across the state to Big Cypress, a Native American reservation in Southwest Florida. There were probably over 200,000 people present, and the traffic was a nightmare. Finally, after 8 - 10 hours, which should have only taken an hour, we arrived. The parking was organized, kind of like a Disney World parking lot, and we found our space in a sea of cars. That Friday night, I thought, perhaps our parking space wasn't so random?
A guy with a big, long beard, not an uncommon look for a Phish fan, camped next to us, but on Friday night, he pitched an Israeli flag over his tent, and donned a kippah and talit. He came to us to ask if we were Jewish and if we could help him make a minyan. He was a religious Jew who often traveled with the band, and he liked to hold a Friday night service at festivals. It was a good thing he bumped into a group of friends from USY, but we weren’t enough to make a minyan. I wished him luck and said we would help, but I doubted anyone else would come. He started the service, and something quite incredible happened. Little by little, people started coming to be part of the service. They didn’t look like you’re typical Jews going to shul on Friday night; there wasn’t a suit in sight.
I closed my eyes for one of the Psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat, and when I opened them, there was a full crowd of young Jews. Some were singing along, most just listened as they didn’t know the words, but they held the paper prayer books in their hands, and even though they couldn’t say the words, they hummed the tunes, and they clapped their hands, making music together. As I saw so many young Jews who seemed to be rediscovering traditional liturgy in the most unlikeliest of places, a thought came to me: they remembered.
Today is Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the new year. Rosh Hashanah has many names, but the name that speaks to me this evening is Yom HaZikaron, the day of remembrance. What do we remember on this day?
There is a custom by some Jews to start praying at midnight on the day before Rosh Hashanah to prepare for tonight, the night of remembering the covenant. On this night, we remember Moses’s words to God when praying on behalf of our people after they sinned in the wilderness. The Talmud says that God only started listening when Moses invoked the name of our ancestors - “Remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel, Your servants.” (Exodus 32:13). In this case, we aren’t so much remembering as reminding God of our illustrious ancestors. And so we ask God to help us because of them. But there is another side to this idea of remembering. Perhaps it is not us who are asking God to remember us, but we are asking ourselves to remember. The question is, what are we supposed to remember? I wanted to share my answer through a retelling of a midrash.
In the town of Chelm, there lived a man named Moshe. Moshe was notorious throughout the town for his eccentric behavior. He never listened to his father Avraham’s advice.
Avraham was known for his wisdom and generosity, but his health was declining. Avraham summoned his son Moshe to his bedside.
"Listen, my son,” his voice trembling with the weight of his words. "I have left you a great fortune, but I fear that you will squander it. There is one thing, Moshe, that I ask of you. In addition to my estate, I am leaving you a secret garden on a small piece of land I own. Promise me this one thing, my son: Do not sell that land, do not sell my secret garden. One day, it will sprout and provide you with the means to save your life.”
Avraham took his final breath, leaving behind a grieving son and a puzzling promise.
Moshe’s ways caught up with him, and he was broke. He sold everything, except for that little piece of land that he promised his father he wouldn’t sell. Destitute, he remembered his father's mysterious request about the secret garden. With nothing left to lose, he set out to discover it.
Moshe came to the small piece of land outside of the city limits, and saw nothing: ”Did my father mislead me?” he wondered.
Just when Moshe was on the verge of despair, something caught his eye. He saw a solitary tree that stood out from the rest, and on the tree's trunk, he saw one vertical line, with two curved lines in the middle that caught his attention. He had to do a double-take because it looked like a menorah.
Intrigued, Moshe knelt down and began to dig beneath the tree. Suddenly, he struck something solid; a chest brimming with precious jewels, coins, and priceless heirlooms.
Tears welled up in Moshe's eyes as he comprehended the significance of his father's words. The secret garden was not a garden of plants but a concealed treasure that would secure his future.
With newfound prosperity and a sense of purpose, Moshe underwent a transformation into a responsible and respected member of his community. He honored his father's memory by extending his wealth to those in need.
In the end, Moshe learned that the most valuable treasures are often hidden from plain sight, and the covenant between a father and a son can illuminate one's path even when the father is no longer there to guide him.
The midrash ends by saying that we are the young man, and God is the father. The story teaches us that on Rosh Hashanah, we may think we are reminding God of the covenant between God and our ancestors, but we are actually reminding ourselves that we are the precious treasure, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, where God’s salvation can sprout.
The work of digging is called Teshuvah, when we dig down deep to return, Shuv, to our past, and remind ourselves who we are, and where we came from. Every year, we return.
There does seem to be an interesting connection between the band Phish and the Jewish people. I recently purchased a book about the band and its relationship to Jews called: This Is Your Song Too, a chorus from one of their songs. In it, the band’s bassist, Mike Gordon, talks about his decision to bring the song Avenu Malkeinu into the band’s repertoire in 1987. He said, “I brought it as an acknowledgment of my heritage. When we play Avinu Malkeinu, I can always look up and see the Jews in the audience smiling.” One would think that the band would create a new tune for the song, but they didn’t, rather, they used the ‘traditional’ tune. When the audience hears the familiar tune, their smile suggests not just remembering the song from their childhood, but also remembering that they have a shared heritage with the Jewish bassist.
So, I return to our service today. We're not in a field, and there's no music festival, but today, we return home, and most importantly, we take time to remember and remind ourselves of who we are, and where we came from. Without this experience, there would be no Jews happening upon an impromptu Kabbalat Shabbat service, or singing Avinu Malkeinu along with the band and 100,000 others.
Over this holiday, God willing, you will sit with some young people who might be hearing our tunes for the first time. They may be squirming in their seats, or they may be looking at you asking "When is it over already?!?” but the melodies and words will sink in, and they will begin to create that secret garden through the memories you create together during these days of Awe.
My blessing for all of us, young and not so young, is that we give ourselves the chance to return to that secret garden often overlooked during the year, but is always here for us to dig deep and uncover her treasures. My blessing is that our descendants, who are here with us, will remember these moments and the music we create together. And as they venture into the world they will know where to dig so they can bring a piece of their inheritance with them.
Today, all of us must remember, especially our young, the following: Today, all of us must remember: This is your song too.
Shannah Tovah U’Metukah