- The Washington Times - Monday, September 18, 2000

Excerpts from a talk given Tuesday by Rabbi Daniel Lapin at Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac.

Many American Jews view Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year and the start of the high holiday cycle, as something of an ordeal. Lengthy synagogue services and sermons, and the inevitable fund raising, account for declining observance. To its enthusiasts, however, Rosh Hashanah is an annual two-day infusion of spiritual vitamins that thrills, sustains and inspires devotees for an entire year.

Rosh Hashanah makes a grab for our attention with one of the most remarkable human attributes laughter. All the primal appeal of a popular television sitcom, a nightclub comedian, or a gathering of good friends guffawing in gales of laughter is captured in this religious experience that, contrary to popular perception, celebrates the role of laughter in the human experience.

The most conspicuous event, unique to Rosh Hashanah, is the blowing of the ram's horn, the shofar. When people misrepresent it as symbolizing the sound of crying, they are guilty of the same one-dimensional perspective as those who describe getting married to be torture-by-photographer. Crying is part, but only a small part.

Most parents have experienced hearing bloodcurdling cries coming from a child in the next room. They often call out, "Are you laughing or crying?" In the absence of visual clues, it is hard to tell whether a human is convulsed in laughter or engulfed by grief.

The three distinct sounds of the shofar are intended to replicate that entire range of sounds which could be a person either laughing or crying. With its optimistic outlook, Judaism naturally analyzes the sound from the point of view of laughter.

The Torah reading for both days of the holiday revolves around the life of Isaac. Not only does his God-given name mean laughter, but practically every reference to laughter in the five books of Moses is in the context of Isaac's life… .

Animals are incapable of humor and laughter. This uniquely human expression of delight is rooted in our deep awareness of justice, or of how things really ought to be. For instance, only adolescent school boys giggle at jokes about bodily functions. Why might residents of federal penitentiaries respond to the same jokes with straight-faced irritation? To the schoolboy, those "dirty" jokes violate every norm of decency… . To the convict, the joke is merely a lifelike depiction.

For this reason, laughter is an almost holy acknowledgment that there really is a set of inviolable human standards without which nothing would ever be funny… .

Only a hair's breadth separates the tears of laughter from the tears of grief. People sometimes "laugh till they cry." We sometimes console a child who has suffered some minor setback by assuring him that, "By tomorrow you will have forgotten all about it." … Through the lens of cosmic time, the only appropriate response to almost any event is laughter… .

On the other hand, through the lens of the thinly sliced instant, the significance of even the slightest mishap becomes grossly exaggerated. If the present moment is all that matters, then a coffee spill will never dry, the burn will never heal. Tears of grief are the obvious reaction to any event in a life lived only in the present instant.

Rosh Hashanah begins the year and announces the Jewish relationship to time. As 20th-century quantum mechanics recognized, time is relative [and] is related to light, the dual nature of which [with particles and waves] the Torah addresses in the oral transmission to the first chapter of Genesis.

Celebrating Rosh Hashanah with the shofar and Torah affirms that the creation of the world depended on light, which in turn is related to time. It helps us develop a morally correct relationship to time; one in which life's accidents and events are neither exaggerated nor made meaningless.

Next week: a sermon by the Rev. James Patterson at St. Mary AME Zion Church in the District.

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