Context is Key – Rosh Hashanah 5783

As we prepare for Yom Kippur, enjoy the audio recording and text from my Rosh Hashanah sermon, delivered on September 26, 2022.

Let’s play a game. There’s a table in front of me, and on it I have eggs, flour, sugar, oil, and salt. What am I making?

Let’s add chocolate chips to the list; now what would you think?

Ok, what if I swapped out the chocolate chips for yeast?

What would I be making if cheese was an ingredient?



Now that we’re all hungry, I’m sure you’re relieved this isn’t a Yom Kippur sermon. The ingredients for so many culinary treats begin the same way, and yet, based on the time of year or an added ingredient, the end product could be completely different. Similar ingredients, different result.

Keeping with our food analogy for just another minute, have you ever noticed that you can make the same dish a thousand times, and even though most of the time it comes out perfect, once in a while it just doesn’t quite get there? When I bake challah, I use the same recipe every time, but some weeks I need to add more flour, other weeks a little less, based on the humidity. 

We have routines for our meals at home too. We tend to stick to the same basic weekly menu, and by “we” I mean my children. The repetition helps them feel secure, and the routine gives them space to worry about other parts of their days and weeks. Plus, it takes some of the stress off of us, knowing these meals are fairly reliable.

What are your routines? Maybe you can think of  a few. In the thick of Covid, many of you witnessed me walking outside during a Zoom meeting. The question I’m usually asked is where I’m walking, and the answer is I do loops around my neighborhood. It’s kind of like a big track, so I walk in circles, some days 10 miles, some 20, but this loop is my routine. It’s easy to do because I know the route so well that I can focus on the meeting instead of worrying about crossing the street or getting lost. I know where each crack in the sidewalk is so I don’t trip, which means I can actually be more present in the meeting than I could have been otherwise. 

Repetition is the building block of Judaism. I’ll repeat – repetition is the building block of Judaism. See? It’s a combination of repetition and context that holds us together. You know the old joke that the essence of most Jewish holidays is “they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat”? Or, as I like to say, “let’s help make sure everyone has food”? That’s the repetition part. The context is how you distinguish each holiday. You know it’s Rosh Hashanah if you’re eating apple cake, and you know it’s Hanukkah by the latkes. Purim by hamantaschen, Passover by matzah, and any number of fast days by the growling in your tummy, although maybe that’s every holiday when you’re sitting through the sermon. The repetition keeps us grounded, and using the context clues around us allows us to dig deeper into the meaning of the moment, the holiday, or the prayer.

Why does this matter? Well, for one thing, I’m feeling how different this year is from the last two years. For the first time since the High Holy Days of 2019, I’m in a room packed with people davening together. Not to take anything away from the wonderful Shabbat services that have been back in person, but these days of awe always feel different, and the last couple of years, very different. I was in the sanctuary alone, hearing only my own voice when I sang. But what I was singing was the same. Those prayers, the words I’ve said since I was old enough to sit through services (maybe), were the same ones that had always brought me to tears or brought me joy, but in those moments alone, they felt a little foreign. This year, surrounded by voices, feels like a one-eighty from the silence of the past. Same text, different context.

But again, that’s how Judaism works. There’s no Torah without interpretation. It’s called a tree of life not just because it provides for us, but also because it’s alive; it grows with us. That’s because context is key. So much of our lives and understanding of the world around us is about knowing the recent history of people, conversations, and events. And the Torah is very well aware of this.

Think about it this way: we read the Torah again and again each year, and yet each year the same words can strike us in a different way or teach us something we’d never thought about before. And for goodness sakes, the last book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, comes from Greek, literally meaning “second law” or “repetition of the law.” We haven’t even finished the Five Books of Moses before we start repeating ourselves. Why? 

We actually got a little hint of an answer recently. A few weeks ago we read Parshat Shoftim. Here’s a little bit from chapter 17, verses 8 and 9: “If a case is too baffling for you to decide, be it a controversy over homicide, civil law, or assault – matters of dispute in your courts – you shall promptly repair to the place that the Lord your God will have chosen, and appear before the levitical priests, or the magistrate in charge at the time and present your problem.” 

It doesn’t just say, “report the crime.” It says go to “the magistrate in charge at the time.” As if to tell us, the time is important. The authority needs to know not only the law, but also its context in society at that time. Or this time right now. The Torah says only a judge living in today’s world can understand how to apply the law today.

Context. It’s always context. And the good news is you don’t have to wait for me or Rabbi Kosak or the wonderful Downstairs Minyan sermonizers to draw these parallels for you. There are some amazing resources out there that summarize the parshiyot, and finding a spark of connection to your life is actually easier than you might think.

Context isn’t just how we understand ancient Torah today, but how we understand each other. If what you’re going through resonates with me because it connects or relates to something in my life, you’re no longer a stranger. Speaking of the courts, I’m sure you remember literature’s great moral compass, Atticus Finch. Harper Lee gave his character these words: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” We can fill our lives with repetition, but we will not understand the Torah or each other without applying context. We have to live in our time, and that means we make tradition, ritual, and mitzvot meaningful and relevant all over again every year and every day.

Rabbi Ben Bag Bag taught in Pirkei Avot, “Turn it over and over again for everything is in it.” By the way, how appropriate for a sermon about repetition to quote Rabbi Bag Bag, the rabbi with a name so nice he used it twice. Whether we’re talking about the repetition of reading Torah, or reciting the same prayers over and over again, it forces us to examine what’s there in a different way.

Some of you read my weekly d’rei Torah in the Friday email blast. Did you know I started these writings in 2006? That’s a full year before I even met Duncan. Not every single one has been commentary on the Torah portion, but for 16 years I’ve been relating my life to my faith. I can’t encourage this enough. Explore the weekly portion or a midrash or even just rewatch The Prince of Egypt. It’s pretty good. But find something that speaks to you, in your language. Sibling rivalry, leadership development, romance, gardening advice . . . there is nothing else like our text. There is nothing like our Torah. Perhaps we might rediscover our relationship with it, and with ourselves, in the coming year. Shanah tovah. 

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