When is a sunrise more than just a sunrise?
I asked myself this question on Sunday morning. I went to bed on Saturday evening after attending the Selichot service at our sister congregation, Bnai Torah. It was a beautiful evening filled with beautiful voices, and beautiful Torah. I have to admit, waking up the next day at 5 am wasn’t easy, but I had something to look forward to: a beautiful sunrise on the beach.
Our tradition has a beautiful teaching about the surnise. The question the rabbis asked was, when can one put on their talit in the morning? We have to keep in mind that most humans woke up either before or during the sunrise. If one wakes up before the sunrise, can they put on their Talit and start praying? The rabbis decreed that there must be light in order to start the morning prayers, the question is, how much light? The Talmud offers an interesting teaching.
One opinion states that “dawn” is defined as “when one can recognize the face of a friend” (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 9b).
After a three-year hiatus from our sunrise service, I was ready to see faces again in person. This year, we invited new faces to join us as we welcomed members of the Bnai Torah community to join us. In a sense though, we were all new faces.
Our musical service that morning, led beautifully by Cantor Hadash, was centered around the gift of our souls (our Neshamah) and breath (our Neshimah). I added guided mediations to the liturgy and Yoga movements led by Cantor Hadash (who is also a Yoga instructor!). Seeing the world come alive, the sunrise, and slowly lighting up the faces around us is always a Divine and soulful experience, but perhaps this year, I appreciated it more because of the distancing of the last two years.
Sometimes, we are blessed with gifts in the form of chance encounters. As we were praying, I saw others going to the beach in the darkness of the morning. It happened to be our friends at St. Gregory's Episcopal Church led by Father Andrew J. Sherman and Father Ben who are leaders of our interfaith group, BRICA Boca Raton Interfaith Clergy Association. Although not planned, this coincidence is a testament to the unique nature of our faith community; we truly do stand together!
As Americans, we have an uneasy relationship with public displays of religiosity, and as Jews, we tend to keep our services to ourselves considering the troubled 'climate' we live with (anti-Semitism). But here we were, three communities coming together separately, at the same place, to worship according to our own faith tradition. We could hear each other's prayers from a distance, and yet, we were focused on those who were around us, our community members from our respective faiths. Speaking to people after the service, many of us felt safer knowing that others were worshipping in their own ways at the same place (although separated) but at the same time.
On Rosh Hashanah, we acknowledge the creation of all humanity. As the Mishnah teaches, every human stands in judgment before God during these days. In this way, Rosh Hashanah is a universal holiday. There was something special about standing in the public sphere with our people, and our fellow citizens.
But the high holidays are also deeply particularistic - a time for the Jewish community to come together and to become whole again.
We ended our service with bagels and coffee (of course), and, like good Jews, we had more food than we needed, so we gave out bagels to all those early risers who came to the beach that morning. We left our final leftovers for those who may not be able to afford a meal. As Ilene Prusher pointed out: it shows the 'Jews' were here!
Speaking of those who are hungry, we did meet someone who was hungry for something other than bagels and coffee. Whenever we have this public service, there are inevitably Jews who happen upon the service on their way to see the sunrise. This year, a young Jewish woman who had just lost a parent just a day or two before the service was present, watching us from afar, but still a part of the community that we created. When we lose loved ones, when their light is seemingly extinguished, our world becomes darker. Our role as Jews is to bring the light of community and God to those lonely souls.
As the sun rose, so too did the light on her face. I was glad we could bring a sense of the Divine to her during this difficult time in her life, and I was grateful that she taught us a valuable lesson with her mere presence. Bringing light to people’s faces is arguably the most important job we have as a congregation.
This year, on Rosh Hashanah, I will be speaking about issues that go beyond the issues of the day. As we come out of this pandemic, we must confront the epidemic that plagued us for years before we heard of Covid-19. I don’t want to spoil it, but it relates to the words I presented. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I tend to address more universal ideas; after all, Rosh Hashanah is both about the creation of the world, but also, the creation of a people as we read about the first Jewish family, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Hagar, and Ishmael. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I will lean into the particularism of the holiday. We speak often of ‘Jewish Unity’, but what does Jewish unity actually mean, and why is it important?
I look forward to ‘seeing’ your faces in person, or virtually over these days of Awe.
From our family to yours, we wish you a Gmar Chatimah Tovah - May we all be inscribed in the book of life.