Near the Jaffa Gate, inside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, there is an ancient block of stone.
It sits in a very busy place, and most people rush by without really noticing it. But if you stop and look closely at it, you can see, carved on that stone, the letters LEG X.
It is a relic of Titus’ Tenth Roman Legion, the legion which destroyed Jerusalem and the Second Temple almost two thousand years ago.
Recently, something quite interesting has happened to that block of Roman stone. It has been recycled. It now serves as the base for a perfectly ordinary street lamp.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, in teaching about this new, yet ancient, lamp-stand, observes: “Giving light:
a strange renewal of the old Menorah. And a strange reversal of the Arch of Titus: where the Arch turned the light from the Menorah into stone (by depicting an engraved image of the capture of the Menorah on its side), this street lamp turns (a) stone (of Titus’) back into light.”
Judaism is filled with clever teachings and metaphors about renewal. This day, Rosh Hashanah,
the beginning of the year, is often filled with references, teachings and discussion about forgiveness. Its proximity to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, necessitates that our attention be grounded in the work of repentance, preparing ourselves and our souls for that holiest of days.
But Rosh Hashannah is not just about repentance and forgiveness.
Lest you are in doubt, look no further than your Twitter feed – or, if you’re not into that sort of thing,
the Twitter feed of someone who is. In the Twitter community, or the “Twitterverse” as it’s more commonly known, one can organize Tweets thematically with the use of a hash-tag.
For example, when tweeting about their jobs, Rabbis will often conclude their tweet with #whatrabbisdo. Then, if one were to do a search within Twitter, using that hash-tag, one would come up with a list of all the tweets that used it, and thus an interesting study on what rabbis do,
or more accurately, what rabbis tweet about doing.
A recent phenomenon comes under the hash-tag “PopCultureElul”, which is like a game that Jews in the Twitterverse play with one another by quoting pop culture references (usually lyrics from contemporary songs) that relate to the month of Elul (we also have PopCulturePurim, PopCulturePesach, PopCultureChanukah, and so on).
A recent Twitter search of PopCultureElul brings up quotes from Bob Dylan (“You better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone”), the Indigo Girls (“the sweetest part is acting after making a decision”), Philip Phillips (“If you get lost, you can always be found, just know you’re not alone”), Mumford & Sons (“Awake my soul”), the Broadway Musicals Wicked (“Some things I cannot change, but ‘til I try I’ll never know”) and Les Mis (“To love another person is to see the face of God”) – Even the Hokey Pokey gets a mention, since “You put your whole self in and you shake it all about”.
Interestingly enough, these quotes focus less on ideas of repentance and forgiveness, and relate more strongly to the theme of renewal.
Really, Rosh Hashanah is about all of these things.
Rabbi Kerry Olitzky writes, “(This is) the beginning of a new year. We have examined our deeds,
made amends, and been renewed. But recovery and spiritual renewal do not come quickly or easily.
Repentance, teshuvah, is hard work. That’s really why when we finally – after the long hot summer – get to Rosh Hashannah we call it a New Year, because through honest repentance we are given the opportunity to begin life anew and get a fresh start on the year, and our lives…”
The Gaon of Vilna taught us: “Each day should be a new experience Each day we have the opportunity of a fresh start. A person who has made teshuvah is like a newborn child.”
Similarly, Rabbi Leila Gal Berner teaches that, “With the New Year, we have a chance for newness within or hearts, a newness that can change the course of our lives.”
But it isn’t only on Rosh Hashanah that Jews think about and pray for renewal. In fact, whether you are aware of it or not, each time you come to temple and participate in worship services, you sing or read or listen along to the G’vurot. Over the course of this year, you may have noticed this prayer more than usual – it’s the one where there are bracketed words in the Hebrew; the one where sometimes Howard sings one word and I sing another.
Maybe you have found this to be confusing. Maybe you even thought one of us was making a mistake! But the truth is, like with most of what we do during our Jewish prayer service, there is a reason for there being two different words that can be said during this prayer.
This prayer, the G’vurot, acknowledges God’s divine power. G’vurot in Hebrew, means great or mighty. The prayer emphasizes how God is so great that God able not only to take life but to restore it – by setting captive people free; by restoring health to those who are ill, and – according to the original, traditional version of the prayer – by restoring life to the dead.
We often think of resurrection as a Christian notion. Many liberal Jews, when asked, might even say it’s a very un-Jewish idea. But the truth is that techyat hameitim, the Jewish belief in resurrection has been around for centuries, if not longer.
If we go all the way back to the time of the Ancient Israelites though, we find that the Torah has very little to say about notions of resurrection or life after death. However, as our religion evolved, our Rabbis and Sages devised clearer answers to the question of what happens to us after we die. According to the traditional rabbinic understanding, we are taught that at the time of death, the soul separates from the body and journeys to God, while the body returns to the dust of the earth. After the End of Days, we are taught, the body and soul will be reunited and individual human beings will be reconstituted as during their time on earth, in order to stand before God’s judgment.
This is an idea that contemporary Judaism focuses very little attention, if any, on. But until the early 19th century, this is what all Jews believed!
But as Jews emerged from the ghettos into the Enlightenment, they found their traditional ideas
increasingly challenged by modern science, and time-honored doctrines were replaced with more secular, liberal, rational, and universal ideas.
Judaism, like everything else in early modernity, was subjected to scholarly criteria, and the belief in bodily resurrection slowly gave way, in non-traditional circles, to a belief in spiritual immortality, the idea that the physical body dies, never to be restored, but the soul lives on forever.
In 1885, Reform Judaism formally rejected belief in resurrection, declaring that it, “has no religious foundation.” Throughout the Classical and modern periods of Reform Judaism, many argued in favor of these innovations. Understandably!
After all, for modernists and post-modernists (that’s us), belief in bodily resurrection is almost impossible. Everything we are taught about the physical world flies in the face of the belief that Maimonides included in his Thirteen Principles of Faith – the belief in the resurrection of the dead.
And even though the traditional words of the G’vurot teach us that nothing is impossible for God,
who is all powerful, to accomplish, our modern and post-modern sensibilities leave us, at the very least, with an ongoing paradox.
Maybe God can resurrect the dead, but the Laws of Physics teach us that whether or not God can, it seems pretty clear that God doesn’t, and it is hard for us to image that one day God might.
Even for those who are willing to suspend disbelief, it’s still an incredibly uncomfortable notion.
More than that, Rabbi Richard Levy explains that techiyat hameitim, the doctrine of resurrection, not only violates our understanding of the natural and irreversible process of decay and disintegration of the body, but psychologically, “it impedes what is perhaps the most important part of grief-work, accepting the finality of a loved one’s death and resisting fantasies about the person’s return.”
All of which leaves us with a prayer- the G’vurot – that means less and less to us the more we understand its traditional wording. If we don’t believe that God can or will resurrect the dead, then how can we rise each week and declare, “Great is your eternal might O Lord Our God, you give life to the dead in your great mercy”?
Well…we don’t. Or at least, for the past 200 years or so we – Reform Jews – did not.
Classical Reform prayer books, from the 19th century on, replaced the G’vurot’s image of physical resurrection of the dead with a more generalized imagery. Instead of saying mechayei ha’meitim, the One who gives life to the dead, we declared God to be mechayei haKol, the One who gives life to all.
It seemed like a good solution, and it lasted through many revisions of liberal Jewish liturgy. However with the creation of our most recent Siddur, Mishkan T’fillah, another revision, or rather, a reversal, was introduced.
The rabbis who worked on the new Siddur felt that the traditional wording, mechayei ha’meitim, could be reintroduced to Reform Jews, not as a way of encouraging us to reconsider a belief in physical resurrection, but as a metaphor for rebirth and renewal.
Two verses from Talmud are cited in our Siddur to affirm the idea that these words can be used metaphorically. In both cases, the verse from G’vurot is recommended to be said at a time of renewal – in the first case, when greeting a friend after a lapse of seeing the person for twelve or more months, and in the second case, as a verse which can be recited upon awakening from sleep.
Using these sources as a guide, we can see the traditional language of the G’vurot as symbolic. We can declare God to be the One who gives life to the dead, not because we believe we will one day rise from the grave, but because we experience moments in our lives where we feel the revival of our spirits, our energy, or our health.
Imagine how powerful it might be to say these words after recovering from a period of illness or depression, where one feels close to death and then returns to life.
And so we find in the new Siddur, both the traditional and Classical Reform wordings, so that contemporary Reform Jews can choose the language they are most comfortable with. Thus, Howard, our esteemed Cantorial soloist chants the prayer using the Reform language of mechayei hakol, and I chant the prayer using the traditional language, mechayei hameitim – understanding it to be a symbolic and not literal resurrection that God bestows upon me, each time I am healed; each time I wake; each time my spirit is revived.
Regardless of which language you choose (and you need not worry about fitting it into the melody –
both options work!), you will likely agree with Conservative theologian Elliot Dorff who writes, “Most (liberal) Jews prefer to interpret “life after death” as living on (through) the influence that they have on others, possibly through their children…Even those who doubt that God’s power extends to restoring life to the dead can appreciate the assertion here that God is manifest in the many things that transcend our understanding and control.”
Thus the words of the G’vurot can also be a weekly reminder to us that our lives will continue on through those we love even when we are no longer physically living among them.
At this time of year, as we contemplate our past behavior and ruminate on our goals for self-betterment, the G’vurot acts as a motivational prayer as well. If we are to live-on through those who remember us, we must strive to live lives worth remembering.
It’s never too late.
Even if we have spent our whole lives as an unnoticed block of stone, we can recycle ourselves into something useful; Something needed; Something that makes a difference.
I can’t tell you how to do this. For each of you, it will be different. But I can tell you that it probably won’t be easy. And I can tell you that it will be well worth it.
Atah Gibor L’olam Adonai: Great are you, O God, who revives the dead; Who can turn stone into light; Who provides for us, each year, a chance to consider how to recycle ourselves,
renew ourselves and revive ourselves.
And who has granted us Torah, and one another, so that we never have to do that difficult work alone.
This year may we be inspired by the vision of renewal – by the vision of ancient stone becoming new light. May we seek out the parts of us that have been turned to stone for too long, and may we begin to seek out the light within.
Kein Yehi Ratzon.