Reaching for Royalty: Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5783/2022

Editor’s Note: Rabbi Julie originally gave this sermon during the Rosh Hashanah Day 1 service 5783 (Sept 2022).

In 2005, the year I was ordained as a rabbi, Queen Elizabeth II was out for a walk in the hills near her Scottish castle Balmoral together with her royal protection officer, Richard Griffin. They came across two American tourists and one of them struck up a conversation, asking the queen where she lived, so she said London. He then asked whether she’d ever been to this area before. She said she started visiting this part of Scotland when she was a little girl, more than 80 years before. Aware that the castle was in the vicinity, the hiker then asked her if she had ever met the queen. “Quick as a flash she said, ‘I haven’t but my companion meets her regularly.’

The hiker then asked Griffin what the monarch was like in person. He said, ‘oh, she can be very cantankerous at times, but she has a lovely sense of humor.’ Delighted, the hiker then put his arm around Griffin’s shoulder, gave his camera to the queen, and said, can you take a picture of us?’ The queen obliged and then Griffin took the camera and snapped a picture with the queen and the two tourists. Later, Griffin said, the queen told him: “I’d love to be a fly on the wall when he shows those photographs to a friend in America and hopefully someone tells him who I am.”

Queen Elizabeth II, died just over two weeks ago at her Scottish castle in Balmoral, completing a 70-year reign as Queen of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth. She was the longest reigning monarch in Britain and the longest female reigning monarch in world history. Her likeness, on postage stamps, is the most reproduced image in the entire world. When she was coronated as Queen in 1952 at the age of 26, broadcast television brought the splendor of monarchy to millions of people around the world.

Now I’m not sure that I would have recognized the Queen out for a walk in the hills of Scotland, but I do know her, through newspaper articles and television series, as the most concrete and familiar example of a Sovereign in my lifetime. Whatever her personal strengths and flaws, whatever criticisms we or others might have of the royal family, of the British empire, or of monarchy itself, I can’t help but think of Queen Elizabeth II this year on Rosh Hashanah as we pray to our own Sovereign, Melech malchai hamlachim, the King, the King of Kings, haKadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy Blessed One.

These words are taken from the Aleinu, one of the oldest and best-known prayers, originally written for Rosh Hashanah. When we recite it at the end of services year-round, the melody is simple and quick, (sing) Aleinu l’shabeyach l’Adon Hakol opening with the words, Aleinu, it’s on us to praise the Ruler of All, to declare the greatness of the Creator of the world. On all days except Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a few lines later in the prayer, we bend at the knees and then bow at the waist when praying the words, (sing) v’anachnu korim umishtachavim u’modim. These simple motions, remind me of the tradition forms observed when greeting the British monarch in both public and private. Though not required, many people follow the customs, with men bowing at the neck and women curtseying when greeting the Queen or King.

But on the High Holidays, it is customary to fully prostrate to the ground with a grand melody that evokes the magnitude of bowing before the Sovereign of Sovereigns. Aleinu l’shabeyach l’Adon Hakol (sing HH melody), v’anachnu korim umishtachavim umodim, lifnei Melech malchei hamlachim, haKadosh Baruch Hu (sing HH melody & prostrate). I first bowed all the way to the ground when I was a sophomore in college at Brown.

At my home synagogue, in Cleveland, only the rabbi and cantor would fully bow to the ground during the Aleinu, everyone else would bow at the waist like on any other day. But my Hillel Director, Rabbi Alan Flam invited everyone to step into the aisles or even join him on the bimah to experience this prayer fully. I remember looking around and seeing some other students step out of their rows so I decided to join them. It was one of the most profound religious experiences I’ve ever had. I hope when we get to the Aleinu prayer in Musaf (first I hope you’ll stay for Musaf), you will accept my invitation to join me in fully bowing, especially if you’ve never done it before.

The bowing has four parts. On the word anachnu, which means we, we stand tall and focus on the ‘we ‘of community, reminding ourselves that we are not alone. On the word korim, which means to kneel, we bend our knees, on the word u’mishtachvim, which means to bow down, we bend forward, and on the word modim, which means we give thanks, we pause, in the position of supplication, and open our hearts in gratitude.

When I bow to God in prayer, in the moments when I am able to move past personification and gendered language and my own preferences for democracy over monarchy, in the moments when I let myself let go, I feel in the movement an awakening of humility. Humility in Judaism is the ability to be neither self-deprecating nor arrogant, the insight that allows us to neither underestimate nor overestimate our place in this world. Humbleness is the starting point of teshuvah; it is a requirement for even beginning to look for our flaws, let alone admitting to our wrongdoings and apologizing to others. And humility is also required for us to forgive others.

When I bow to God in prayer, in the moments when I am paying attention, I think about the power of believing that our lives are Ruled by values and teachings, by rituals and customs that transcend the problematic and superficial values and practices we see in our leaders here on earth, far too often. When I bow before Melech Malchei HaM’lachim, I bend before a Sovereign who embodies not wealth and power, but holiness and justice, a Sovereign who rules not out of ego and personal gain, but out of concern for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. I bow before a Melech chafetz chayim, a King who desires life, a Queen full of mercy and compassion.

Every time we bow, as Jews, in prayer, we also stand up straight again. I’ve always wondered why we stand up before reciting God’s name, rather than remaining in a position of supplication, as established by Rabba bar Hinnana Saba in the Talmud. For me, standing up straight again, specifically before I say God’s name or acknowledge God as the ultimate Power, is a physical symbol as important as bowing. Like when we raise up on our toes with the words, Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh – Holy, Holy, Holy, standing up after bowing is a rising towards my own potential for greatness based on being created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. Metaphorically, our Holy Sovereign, on these High Holy Days, sits on the throne of Judgment asking us to do better, to examine our deeds from the past year, to seek forgiveness, to strive to live lives of meaning. HaKadosh Baruch Hu wants us to stand up and reach towards our potential, to aspire to fulfill the sparks of divinity and royalty that are within us, to unfold and rise up in holiness, justice, and compassion.

* * *
When Queen Elizabeth II died, her coffin, was accompanied by a solemn procession through the streets of London to Westminster Hall where she lay in state for four days. Her coffin was adorned with the royal standard, a special flag that was flown whenever the Queen was in residence at one of the Royal Castles, along with a jeweled crown on a purple cushion. Marching alongside the coffin were the iconic soldiers from the Queen’s Guard, dressed in red uniforms and tall black bearskin hats. More than 250,000 people waited in a queue 10 miles long, some waiting for over 24 hours, to have a final moment to pay their respects to the Queen. One writer described the experience as ‘cold, boring, and exhausting, but a deeply moving reminder of the power of monarchy.’

He writes, ‘Westminster Hall’s atmosphere was undoubtedly the most emotionally charged experience I have ever had. The reverential hush was akin to being inside a place of worship during an important religious festival, just much, much more intense. Everywhere I looked, people seemed utterly in awe. Many were weeping as they approached the wooden platform upon which the Queen’s coffin lay. After around two minutes of peaceful mourning, gazing at the coffin draped in the Royal Standard, we left the hall. I could not speak for several minutes afterwards, and I was close to tears when I tried.’

The reverence and the awe of that short moment when he stood in the presence of royalty, alongside the long and sometimes boring wait, describes what our High Holiday services might feel like to us. That is if we’re fortunate enough to have a moment or two during the many hours we sit together in prayer when we actually feel or at least imagine ourselves to be in the presence of our Monarch. Our liturgy evokes a collective audience with Avinu Malkeynu, our Father, our King, in one of our most beloved prayers. The intimacy of Parent allows us to approach the majesty of God with a list of requests, beginning with the words, Avinun Malkeynu, we have no sovereign but you. Avinu Malkeynu, make this a good year for us.

And in other moments of our services, when we stand and bow and rise up during the silent Amidah, we have a private audience, an opportunity to tune into the yearnings of our own hearts. Our Torah reading and Haftorah reading from today lift up two examples of prayer – one of distress and one of hope. Hagar cries out for water and survival, for protection and a path forward after being banished with her son Ishmael to the wilderness and Hannah pleas for a child of her own, a legacy, a future, a new way to serve God, a hope fulfilled. What is your prayer, your yearning, your request, your hope for the year ahead? What will you ask in your moment of audience with our Holy Sovereign? What do you need from the Monarch of Monarchs? What would you want God to grant you in 5783?

In the U’netaneh Tokef prayer, before the famous chorus, (sing), B’rosh Hashanah yikateyvun, u’veYom Tzom Kippur y’chaoteymun, On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die, the prayer speaks of each and every creature that lives passing before God, like a flock of sheep. It’s as if we will stand in a line, waiting, each in turn, for a few moments alone in the Presence of the Holy One. In that moment of encounter, whether words allude us or we have a sudden insight, whether we feel numb or our eyes well up with tears, maybe, just maybe, we can remember the humility that opens us to change and the aspiration that calls us to be worthy of this life we have been given.

* * *
I caught a glimpse of Queen Elizabeth II in an interview where she talked about the weight of the crown, not figuratively, but literally. Her diamond encrusted Imperial State Crown, which she first wore at her coronation at age 26, was so heavy, she could not look down to read her speech. She explained that you had to take the speech up because if you looked down your neck would break or the crown would fall off. I imagine that for our Sovereign, the weight of judgement on these High Holy days is a heavy burden given all our imperfections and shortcomings. My hope is that Melech Malchai Hamlachim, our Sovereign, will lift up our merits and not only look down at our faults. That God will look at us one by one and see within us both humility and greatness, see our willingness to admit our faults but also our potential to live lives of holiness and justice.

And I also hope that as we gather together on these High Holy Days, we won’t miss realizing that Hakadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy Blessed One is right here among us. May our hearts be filled with compassion and courage, to live in service of our highest ideals, emulating the divine and royal sparks within us. Then, maybe then, together with Avinu Malkeynu, our loving Sovereign, we will chadesh aleinu Shanah Tovah, we will make this year a good year for all of us.

Shanah Tovah.
Rabbi Julie

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