Rosh HaShanah, 5781: Rabbi David Aladjem

Sermon for Rosh HaShanah – 5781/2020, Teshuvah and the Small Still Voice

Rabbi David Aladjem’s Rosh Hashannah Sermon

Holy Friends:

Shanah tova u’mitukah – may this be a good and sweet new year for us and for all the world!



To state the obvious, when we gathered together last year at this time, welcoming in the year 5780, I certainly could never have imagined the year that we have had.

  • The worst global pandemic in a century, which is estimated to take the lives of as many as 400,000 people here in the United States and close to a million people across the globe by the end of the year.
  • The worst economic collapse in almost a century, with more than 30 million people (i.e. probably about 20-25% of the U.S. labor force) having lost their jobs at some point during this year.
  • The largest single movement for racial and social justice since at least the 1960’s and possibly since Reconstruction.
  • The worst fire year ever in California and across the western United States, not to mention hurricanes, flooding and other natural disasters across the country and around the world. A year where – please G’d – we have begun, even if belatedly, to recognize the reality of climate change.

It has been a year that is hard and scary, a year where we have been tested in ways that are unprecedented.  I don’t know about you, but there have been many times when I have been tempted to just give up, to say that I can’t go on any more.

I hope that I am alone in these feelings, but I doubt it.

And so, on one of the days this past summer when I was feeling low, I happened upon a teaching by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, one of the most modern and compassionate of the Hasidic masters.  I want to share that teaching with you today as a way for us to begin this new year with hope.

R’Nachman teaches (Likutei Moharan 105:1):

Behold, the world is in need of overflowing compassion

Graciousness in our spiritual lives and in our physical lives

Everyone seeks G’d’s compassion and no one knows where to find it.

That was my summer experience.  With the daily drumbeat of the news, I knew that I needed something more, some Place of compassion.  But like a person in a dream, wandering aimlessly, I didn’t know where or how to find it.

R’Nachman continues:

We need compassion – for ourselves and for others

But because we’re in exile from ourselves, from our feelings

We’re not able to pray in a way that can open the Divine wells of compassion.

Here, I think that R’Nachman speaks for many of us.  The stresses of this past year have been so great that even those of us who have in the past derived comfort from prayer, from lighting Shabbat candles, from learning Torah, from making Havdalah, now find those words caked with dust.  The words seem empty and lifeless and we are adrift in an empty ocean.

R’Nachman then tells us what must happen:

The Holy Blessed One – G’d G’dself – must pray for us.

Just think about that for a moment.  Rather than telling us that we should pray to G’d, R’Nachman is saying that – in a time like this – G’d should pray for us!  Please G’d, please please please.  Pray for us!  We need You.

I can’t imagine any better – or more effective – prayer for these Days of Awe.

And how can we help G’d pray for us?  R’Nachman tells us that it is through teshuvah, through repentance.  He says that when we make teshuvah with a full heart and soul, we are able to re-align our spirit with that of the Most High.  We become – again – centered and grounded.  We know who we are and what we are to do with our lives.  In brief, we become whole.

And that is our task on these Days of Awe.



But – how can we truly make  teshuvah?

The first thing we need to remember is that we actually can make teshuvah.  No matter how bad this year has been, we can always turn from the paths we have been following to a new path, a path that makes us more whole, more loving or – to put it simply – more of a mentsch.

Our doubts about our ability to turn our lives around – to change and to move in new directions – aren’t new.  A long time ago, Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our greatest Teacher, told us in Deuteronomy 4:29 that, “if you search for the Lord your G’d, you will find G’d, if you search for G’d with all your heart and with all your soul.”  Note that Moses didn’t say we could make teshuvah if only “we put our mind to it.”  He said that we can make teshuvah only if we put our heart and soul into seeking G’d.

So, I want to invite you take a few minutes.  Press “pause” on this Zoom recording and sit quietly.  Put your feet on the floor and breathe deeply.  Listen to the deepest yearnings of your heart and soul.  Let them tell you how you need to make teshuvah in this new year; what are the things that you need to do in this year that is beginningI can’t tell you nor can any of all of the other rabbis of the last two thousand years.  But Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our greatest Teacher, told us long ago how to make teshuvah:  simply to follow our hearts.

When you have listened to your heart and opened your soul to speak to the Holy One of Blessings, when you have listened to the “still small Voice” of the Divine, please return to this recording.



R’Nachman also has something to say about making teshuvah.  Likutei Moharan 105:5:2.  He teaches that the reason we “miss the mark” in our lives is that our inner essence is all jumbled up.  All of the impulses of our souls, all of the desires of our hearts, are working at cross-purposes with each other and so we – naturally – miss the mark.  It’s as if an archer is aiming at a target but their eyes are looking one way, their feet are pointed in another direction, their mind is wandering off looking at the clouds and their arms don’t want to stretch.  With such confusion, without all of our inner soul energies being in alignment, we can’t become the people whom we are meant to be.

But when we work on ourselves, listening to our hearts and souls, we can become more than we have ever dreamt possible.  The Talmud teaches us (in TB Brachot 34b:22) that the place where a ba’al teshuvah – a person who has done the inner work of listening to their heart and soul – stands, even a perfectly righteous person cannot stand.  This statement anticipated – by a millennium and a half – a deep teaching from the Kotzker Rebbe:  nothing is as whole as a broken heart.  No person can become fully human, fully whom they are meant to be, without listening to their heart and soul, listening to their own brokenness, and then putting all of the pieces of their heart and soul back together.  That is a gift of rachamim, of Divine compassion.  It is the gift of hein, of Divine grace.  It is the gift of being who we are meant to be and it is the gift of these Days of Awe.



But there is more.

When we are able to make teshuvah, we are able not only to redeem our own lives but we are also able to redeem this broken world.  One of my foremost teachers, R’Benay Lappe writes: “Teshuvah is not about rewriting your history. It’s about acknowledging some of the most painful parts of our relationships, honoring and remembering the pain and the violence, and then saying “yes, this happened and it caused death,” and expanding the story so that it has the space to hold not only our painful past, but a more liberatory future, for all of us.”   The beginning of this new year is a time for us not only to remember the pain and the death that all of us have suffered (both in this year and in the past) but also to envision and dream of a community, a country, a world where all of us can live in harmony; to dream of a world where we see each other as B’tzelem Elokim, as being created in the Divine image.   R’Benay teaches us that “traditions do teshuvah, too. Traditions learn.”  And I would add that so do “cultures, communities and countries.”

Now is the moment for us to make teshuvah.  And when we do, all of us together, 5781 will be a year filled with goodness and sweetness, for all of us and all the world.

Shanah tova u’mitukah – may this truly be a good and sweet new year.  And may the Holy One of Blessings help us to make it so.

Kein y’ratzon, may this truly be G’d’s will.