Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2015 – Our Ark of Memory

What is an ark? The English word comes from the Latin, arca, meaning a box or chest. This ark – that we keep our Torahs in – does indeed seem to be a box, or a chest – albeit an exceptionally beautiful one! In Hebrew, this ark is called Aron Hakodesh – basically, a holy cupboard. The original ark, which held the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed, in Hebrew is called Aron HaB’rit, the covenant cupboard. In English it’s the Ark of the Covenant – (Raiders of the Lost Cupboard just doesn’t have quite the same ring!)

It’s a little more of a linguistic puzzle why Noah’s boat was called an ark, as well. Noah’s ark, in Hebrew, is not an aron, or closet, but neither is it an oniya, or ship. Noah’s ark is called a teva – a box, like the Latin arca. In Modern Hebrew, for instance, we say tevat do’ar – letter box. Nowhere else in the Bible is a boat called teva. The best guess about Noah’s ark is that it was a box-like boat, and a container for the animals, so…

It turns out that aron also used to mean box – and that both teva and aron at one time also meant a coffin or sarcophagus. A box for something precious, in other words, something you want to honor and remember. Aron comes from the root aleph-reish-heh, arah, meaning to gather. One amateur linguist notes, “In the Bible [the word arah] related to the sacrifice or offering that the children of Israel are to make. This is the source of the word Aron, which is the place to hold the sacrifice or offering[…]. The Ark of the Covenant was placed within the holy of holies of the temple but taken symbolically refers to your heart […]which you are to purify in order for God to enter your temple body.” So each of us has an ark within us – we only hope it’s as lovely and carefully-made as this one!

Let’s consider the liturgical themes of the Days of Awe. The insertions and additions – primarily to the Amidah – center on three themes, which are summed up in the titles of the sections of the shofar liturgy found traditionally in the musaf Amidah: Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot. Kingship, Memory, and Shofar Calls. In this season we engage with the image of G-d as King or Sovereign – a Divine Ruler grander and more mighty than any human ruler can ever be, a Power, as the Twelve Step folks have it, higher than any human power. We connect with memory, asking G-d to remember us for life, while we ourselves remember our connection with the spiritual, with our Jewishness, and with our past. And we blow the shofar to call ourselves back, to elicit teshuva – return.
Tonight, these themes were all introduced. Before the Amidah we announced, Tik’u vachodesh shofar ¬¬– “Sound in the new month the shofar,” a quote from Psalm 81. Then in our Amidah we sang, Zochreinu l’chayim, Melech chafeitz bachayim – “Remember us for life, King who delights in life” – and Mi chamocha ba’al harachamim/ Zocheir y’tsurav l’hayyim b’rachamim? “Who is like You, Master of Mercy, He Who Remembers his creations for life with mercy?” The theme of Sovereignty is invoked when we address God as Melech, and the theme of memory is emphasized, entwined with two other great themes of the season, life and compassion.

What lives in an aron kodesh, a holy ark? Memory. The first ark, aron ha’brit, carried the most primary instructions for the Jewish people, the Ten Commandments. Inscribed on stone, never to be forgotten, the basic rulebook from which all our other 613 biblical commandments are said to derive. They are mostly “Nots” as you will recall – “Do not murder, do not steal.” (A recent New Yorker cartoon depicts a mellow Moses, tablets in hand, inquiring of the cloud, “Now, how about some affirmations to balance all this negativity?”) But there are two commandments written in the positive: honor your father and mother, and remember the Sabbath to keep it holy.

In our ark, as in arks around the world, live our Torahs – the first five Books of Moses, which contain the Ten Commandments plus the rest of the 613, summing up all the rules that make Judaism distinct, our map for a Jewish life. The She’ma is in there, our statement of faith – Listen up, Yisrael, Adonai is our G-d, Adonai is One! The stories of our patriarchs and matriarchs are in there – Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel – and of our first great leaders, Moses and Aaron, and our first prophet, Miryam. The rules of the Book of Leviticus are there, and the moral instruction of the Book of Deuteronomy – including the great passage that we will read on Yom Kippur, “See. I place before you a blessing and a curse. Therefor, choose life!” See! Listen! Remember! This is how to be a Jew, the book we begin from, our collective memory.

In this ark is another set of memories. This ark carries BAJC history, while at the same time being a unique thing of beauty in its own right. This ark, as you see, resembles our permanent ark that lives in our shul on Greenleaf Street. Our stationary ark once lived here at All Souls, in the parlor where this ark will now live when not in use. It was designed and donated more than thirty years ago by Marvin Neuman in honor of his parents. This ark shares some design features with our permanent ark, with its Hebrew letter/numbers (aleph=one, bet=two, and so on, up to ten for the Ten Commandments) and its Tree of Life. It carries both the memory of the artist who built this ark, Jason Breen, and of the woodworkers and artisans who created our stationary ark, George Newton and Bob Perrone.

Jason has spent a fair amount of meditative time in our shul looking at our other ark. He worships in our space on Sundays with the West Brattleboro Quaker fellowship. He also made special trip to check out our stationary ark with me. We talked about the unusual font on our stationary ark – copied, I only just learned, from the Dead Sea Scrolls – and decided to use something a little more familiar on this one. We talked about measurements, and about the parochet –curtain. This ark carries the memory of Jason’s attention to detail, and his respect for halachah – Jewish law — and minhag – Jewish custom. The new ner tamid –eternal light – -that hangs from this ark carries also the memory of a local craftsman, glass blower Robert Burch from Putney, who made it for us to go with this particular ark.

This ark carries the memory of our long and happy history with the other congregation that worships in this space, the congregation with whom we share our President Daniel Kaznitz, the Unitarian Universalist congregation of All Souls. It carries the good will of our friends from All Souls, otherwise known fondly to all of us as the West Village Meetinghouse. Once again they have made a place for our holy cupboard to live. This ark carries the friendship that exists between our congregation and the folks here who invited us into their space for so many years. It carries also the friendship between our congregation and the congregation that we have invited into our space over on Greenleaf Street, the West Brattleboro Quakers, Jason and his family among them.

It carries the memory of Michael Knapp’s energy in making it come into being – for while Jason’s attention and skill created it, it took the word of Michael to make it so. It carries the love and respect of all the many, many people people who donated to help it be built. Like the Israelites who brought their gold and silver, purple and blue thread, and acacia wood to help make the Tent of Meeting, members of the BAJC community, former members, and friends, have given generously to build this ark. It carries also our love for this community, our good memories of BAJC services and celebrations for decades past. This ark and this eternal light even carry the memory of our previous portable ark – the shoe box, as I like to call it – and previous nerot tamid, including the famous Halloween caldron! How can we look at this new new beautiful aron hakodesh and ner tamid without a smiling remembrance of things thankfully past.

Most of all, this ark contains our memories of Faith and Abe Schuster, in whose honor it was built. It carries all our kavod for Faith and Abe, two of BAJC’s own avot v’imahot – forefathers and foremothers. We will remember them and everything they have given to our community when we use this ark in our High Holy Day and B’nai Mitzvah services for decades to come.

Our new ark contains all of this. It will remember with us. Indeed, it will remember beyond us. L’dor VaDor, from generation to generation of BAJC members, not to mention members of All Souls UU and of the West Brattleboro Quaker Fellowship, this ark will continue, as strong and as elegant as the Ark of the Covenant was in its time (perhaps – dare I say – more elegant? I always think those winged golden keruvim sound like a bit much…) This ark will remember with a plaque to Faith and Abe– but even more with the very cells of the wood it is built of, with the prayers that will be said before it, the songs that will be sung in its presence, the hands that will open and clos it, the hopes and dreams that will be expressed or held silently in its presence.

Zochreinu l’chayim, Melech chafeitz bachayim. Remember us for life, Life-loving Ruler. Write us down for another year of life, with all the joy and all the suffering, all the learning and all the forgetting, all the insight and all the cluelessness that any one of us experiences in a year. Write us down – kotveinu – in the book of life – b’sefer hachayim. In return, we will remember You, G-d – even those who don’t happen to believe in You. We will remember our Torah, our general guide to being a good Jewish person, our collected history, ethics, ritual, and mythology. We will remember gathering here year after year, and we will remember to return here again to refresh and renew ourselves for another year of trying to be good Jewish people. We will remember Faith and Abe, and all the founders and elders of Congregation Shir HeHarim. And everything that we remember, our ark will remember with us.

Sing shehechianu and zochreinnu l’chayim