Judaism Your Way


Rabbi Amanda Schwartz’s 2022 Rosh Hashanah Sermon

This past summer I had the pleasure of officiating the wedding of a wonderful couple named Robin and Jonathan. I had the pleasure of officiating weddings of many wonderful couples but it was particularly meaningful to officiate Robin and Jonathan’s wedding because it was intended to occur in the summer of 2020 but was delayed two years due to COVID.

In some ways, Robin and Jonathan’s wedding reception reminded me of this sacred space and moment in time. It was in a pagoda with open sides and surrounded by beautiful nature, fantastic music mixing classics and new hits, and people who were thrilled to be together for the occasion.

When the extremely talented band began to play Uptown Funk and couples got up to dance, initially I felt very awkward. I didn’t have a date to dance with! I decided to stay at my table and just watch, feeling a bit like a lurker.

Yet, after about a half hour, I realized that my mouth hurt from the giant smile that was covering my face. It was as if the joy and synergy of the musicians and dancers was reflecting off of them and landing on me. What was happening? Why was I feeling so much joy, when I wasn’t even one of the people up and dancing?

Finally, it hit me. Oh right, there is a reason that lifecycle events are known in Hebrew as simchas literally meaning joys. In my COVID bubble, I had not experienced the celebration of a momentous life moment, like a fabulous couple getting married after postponing two times!

And, in the “before times” I had taken for granted the joy and magic of a simcha. I hadn’t realized it until I was watching the dance floor at Robin and Jonathan’s wedding that I had forgotten (or maybe never quite appreciated) that this is what the joy of a wedding celebration feels like.

This morning’s Torah reading perfectly echos my experience and teaches us how something that has been there all along, perhaps something we have taken for granted, can be extremely powerful when we suddenly realize or remember it.

Our reading this morning begins after God has just thrown a major temper tantrum. After witnessing humanity mucking things up, God gets so enraged that God decides to destroy the entire world except for the one decent human, Noah, his family and the animals that Noah can take aboard his ark. God causes a giant storm, which rains for 40 days and nights and causes a flood.

One hundred and fifty days after the beginning of the rain, God suddenly “remembers” Noah and all the animals, who have been waiting out the flood. The Divine in this story is presented as being an All Powerful and All Knowing being, so this language of God “remembering” Noah is surprising. Shouldn’t an omniscient deity remember the sole survivors of the earth floating around on a boat?

Skipping ahead in our story, after all of the survivors exit the ark, God promises never to destroy the earth again and points to the rainbow as a reminder of this commitment. Interestingly, this reminder is for God, not for humanity.

God shares with Noah, “My rainbow I have placed in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of a covenant between Myself and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I cause clouds to come upon the earth, that the rainbow will appear in the cloud and I will remember My covenant… And the rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will see it, to remember the everlasting covenant between God and between every living creature.”

There is an idea in Judaism that every word in the Torah is meant to teach us something and so anytime words catch our attention or, in particular, anytime words are repeated there is a message waiting for us. It struck me how this language of God “remembering” the living beings aboard the ark parallels God’s description that the rainbow will serve as a “reminder.”

What I find so fascinating about rainbows in connection to our Torah reading, is that they are a matter of perspective. In order to see a rainbow, there must be moisture in the air and sunlight behind the viewer, to refract the light. Someone who may appear to be standing at the end of the rainbow to one viewer, will be seeing a different rainbow entirely because the ark of the rainbow is always centered on the head of the viewer.

According to our story, Noah was aboard the ark long after the rain ceased. Presumably there were some sunny days and so I imagine that Noah got to experience many rainbows. If we want to anthropomorphize the Divine, which this story clearly does, then presumably the Divine may have witnessed these rainbows as well. But it wasn’t until a particular moment, that the rainbow took on meaning.

The rainbows were there all along. Noah was there all along. Wedding celebrations were joyful all along. Sometimes though, we just need to remember the importance of something that we may have taken for granted, and it then takes on new meaning.

The word in Hebrew used when describing the Divine remembering Noah or needing a reminder of the Covenant is Zocher. One of the central themes of the High Holidays, that is included in some High Holiday liturgy is Zochreinu L’chayim, usually understood as a plea to the Divine to remember us so that we may continue to live.

Reading this Torah portion through the lens of Rosh Hashanah, I now understand this phrase to mean “Let us remember, the things that were important to us, that we now take for granted, so that we may live meaningful lives.”

I suspect that I am not the only one who has lost touch with something or someone who brings our lives meaning. After all, in our story, even the Divine needs reminders of important things.

Maybe you’ve gotten in the habit of taking the fastest route home from work, as opposed to the more scenic route. Perhaps there is a friend you really miss and want to reconnect with. Maybe that person is in your own home and life has gotten so busy, that you’ve forgotten how much you enjoy that person.

I suspect we all have something. So my challenge for all of us as we enter this new year, is to reflect on this question: what is one thing that we have forgotten that we need to remember for the sake of bringing meaning to our lives?

And then, don’t just stop with the realization, find a way to bring that forgotten thing or person back into your life.

And, if you’re the type of person who may need multiple reminders to get something done, may every rainbow that you see in the coming year and in the future, serve as that automated alert to remember the important things, so that we may live meaningful lives.

Rabbi Amanda Schwartz