Erev Rosh Hashannah drash, 5780

L’shana Tova.

It is an honor to be in front of you tonight. I hope my drash is worthy of your attention.

I have driven by our shul on many a Sunday nights, going hither and yon. The gates have always been closed and I have continued onward. But tonight, the gates were open, and through them I have come. It appears that I am not alone.

Whether it is the force of tradition or obligation that draws you here tonight, we are acknowledging as a community the beginning of Yamim Nora’im and the journey that lies between and ahead of us in these next ten days. RH and YK are like navigation marks in our religious calendar. Some of us might define this season by the start of the Cal Football games, or the end of wild blueberries and tomatoes at Monterey Market. Jewish tradition sees Erev RH as the day when the divine presence, having completed the world of creation, is crowned king. This night has traditionally been called the Night of Remembering the Covenant. The special prayers in the Amidah are ones of hope for preservation of life and living. And scattered frequently throughout our prayers are reference to HaShem as ‘the sovereign’, the grantor of this life, the ‘one’ who will hear our prayers, as heaven and earth draw closer during this 10 day period for this purpose.

On this night when I begin reviewing my behavior and actions towards others, I think about what communication signals HaShem has relied upon to draw our attention to the moral and ethical principles set forth in the Torah? We know that the shechinah no longer communicates directly, mouth to mouth, ear to ear, in the manner in which s/he guided our patriarchs, matriarchs and prophets of old.

I ask myself, “Have I lost my belief that our supplications/prayers for forgiveness will be heard?”. Rabbi Lew, of blessed memory, author of “This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared”, noted that self forgiveness is the essential act for the high holiday season. We can forgive others on our own, but we turn to God (says Rabbi Eli Spitz) because we cannot forgive ourselves. We need to feel accepted by a Power who transcends our limited years and who embodies our highest values.

What confidence do you retain that the creator of this universe is still listening?

It is to this query that I address my drash…

In order to do so, I direct your attention to the man God selected to lead us out of bondage, to a land that would nurture us, the land of milk and honey. Moses; A humble man, with a communication disability. There has never been a clear interpretation as to what Moses meant when he tells God that he is ‘chevad peh’ and chevad lashon, heavy or slow of mouth and tongue. It has been pointed out that he is certainly, in pages hence, able to articulate God’s commands and his own struggles as a leader. However, the question remains as to whether Moses understands God’s words in Exodus 3:14, when he asked God, “Whom shall I say has sent me?” and received the reply, “Eh hey ey Asher eh hey ey,”. Oceans of ink have been poured on the interpretation of this response, variously translated as I am that I am or I will be what I will be. To this day, its actual meaning eludes past and current biblical scholars. If we have such trouble understanding what God said, why didn’t Moses say, in essence, “Could you explain what you mean by that?”. However, presuming, just presupposing Moses had an auditory processing deficit, where, he was quite verbal and fluent in expressive speech, but had a comprehension deficit, could this phase have been conveyed as a troupe, with inflections and tempo long lost to time? A collection of sounds that transcended verbal communication? Sounds that reassured Moses of a presence, a presence with a nefesh of an ineffable, divine being? And, for those of you who have always believed Moses had a stutter, I direct your attention to Queen Elizabeth’s father, George, who inherited the throne after his brother abdicated to marry Wallace Simpson; in order to overcome his significant stammer, George’s speech therapist, Lional Logue, taught him to sing his sentences.

As a neuropsychologist, let me put it out there by saying that God took no chances, knowing that we all have different learning styles. God made sure that Moses ‘saw’ his presence via the burning bush, and that Moses ‘felt’ his presence by being commanded to take off his shoes and place his feet on the ground so as to feel its holiness. All this seems to say that HaShem, with prescient insight, knew that words and exhortations alone would not influence our ancestors at Sinai or beyond, to give up all their cult practice, especially if these practices provided reassurance and comfort.

So, I ask you again, what sounds from the womb of creation would reassure you that the divine presence is still PRESENT?

In order to address that question, I take you back 40 – 50 million years before God created man, but was actively involved in creating and populating the universe with light, water and creatures. I specifically take you back to the time that the progenitors of the honey we use on this night were created, well before God gifted man the skill of speech. Some scholars assume that the honey, devash, refers to the substance produced from fruits such as dates and figs. But recent archeological evidence from Tel Rehov in the Beth Shean Valley, revealed that honey bees were present, kept in hives and valued for their honey as far back as 3,000 years ago in Biblical times. Rabbi Rebecca Joseph, in her presentation this year at our Shavuot night of learning at the JCC, notes that Torah scholars wanted to play down the presence and importance of honey bees because of the spiritual and demonic associations cults made and projected onto honey bees. Alas, as God predicted, the early Israelites did not hesitate to adopt some of the cultic practices. At Tel Rahov, clay figurines, some in the form of the Ashirah, the female goddess partner to earlier gods, were found.

On this eve of creation, how much of haShem’s spirit is reflected in their society of honey bees, and in the sovereign of THEIR nation, the Queen (a female!), is a worthy question. I am about to tell you that by peering into a hive, even more significant, by listening to the bees, one answer to my query is provided, and another answer is presented to a question not asked.

I know bees well. I personally know auditory processing deficits well. During my daughter’s pre-adolescent and early adolescent years, I was desperate to find an activity we could share; an activity that would give her confidence in herself, improve her self esteem and attract her attention which, due to her learning deficit and hyperactivity were causing her to lose ground in school, be closed out of activities because she couldn’t seem to grasp the meaning of words given in a string of directions. She was beginning to gravitate towards what my mother would have called, ‘the wrong crowd’.

My two hives were nestled in their own Garden of Eden, offered to me by my friend who hailed from Idaho. She had planted 8 different species of fruit trees in her expansive backyard in Walnut Creek. The first indication that I was on to something came from my daughter’s response: She quickly settled into a lounge chair close to the hive, and remained seated for the length of my endeavors. This was an answer to the question not asked: could there be any intervention besides medications? I considered this unexpected, non-pharmacological intervention nothing short of a miracle, as well as paradoxical.

Each hive, when healthy, shelters about 60,000 bees. They live in a highly cooperative and organized society consisting almost entirely of females – the sterile female workers, a few drones and one queen. All 60,000 bees are loyal to and guard their queen, in whose image they are entirely created. All the queen does is lay an egg, every minute to the tune of 1500 a day. She neither feeds herself, nor grooms herself. Her excrement is carried away by another worker bee. The Queen’s devotion to her task of creation is unrelenting. The social cohesion of the hive is admirable and has nearly been lost in time as a human skill. Just as in a new Jewish community, where the first thing done is to establish an old age home and a funeral society, the bees have undertakers. (it is a sight to behold: the dead bee is dragged to the edge of the outside platform, and pushed off. …No taharah here)… We are not the only community that needs guards: The bees have them too. No stray honey bee from another tribe – or should I say, hive – can gain entrance to ‘check out’ the neighbor’s honey stores.

To determine the health of a hive, one has to know the health of the queen. And, this is where, I confess, I earned a grade of B minus, as far as beekeeping goes: Being Jewish, the thought of going into the Holy of Holies, the ‘brood chamber’ as it is known, was unthinkable. But just as God and God’s voice, remains elusive to us in modern times, the queen, by its nature and genetics, does not want to be found either. Once you open the hive and light pours inwards, the queen immediately retreats to the most remotest part of the hive, usually four or five boxes down from the top. Each box of honey, by the way, weighs about 60 pounds. Stories of crushing or rolling the Queen abound in bee culture, and whenever I did make an attempt to find her, I was always unsuccessful.

One day, an elder of the bee club took me aside and said, “Don’t follow the notion that you MUST see the queen every time you open the hive. Just look for her newly laid eggs, the sign and symbol of creation. That will tell you how well she is performing. In fact, her laying pattern tells you more than actually seeing her. In time, he said, You’ll start to see her even when you’re not looking……

After this lesson, I became more bold in my beekeeping. The lifting of 60 pound boxes of honey became harder as I edged into the middle of middle age, yet my duty and responsibility to my hives did not waver. My technique did change however. I found that a contented hive had a particular chant when the queen was productive and laying her eggs. While I could hear it when just sitting quietly at the side of the hive, I also brought a stethoscope for a second ‘reality check’. The chant was soothing enough that it could lull me into a brief lapse of consciousness called a nap. However, the niggun sung when the Queen was dead, was a sound so distinctive, so mournful: it could not be mistaken for anything but a dirge of collective sorrow. Then, observing the bees and how they loitered at the front of their hive, only further confirmed the tragedy that had taken place. It is hard to describe in words what a depressed bee looks like, but as the expression goes, you know it when you see it. The power and importance of this centralizing force in their lives is plain: A life without their sovereign is no life at all. The bees become listless, aimless, and develop diseases. They stop producing honey.

And, what about swarming, the bee’s version of leka lecha? This is the biggest bee mystery of all. Even the scientists at the Cornell Bee Laboratory, a multimillion dollar facility devoted entirely to the scientific study of bees, have not been able to unravel the ‘chant’ sung within the hive that signals almost all of the 60,000 with their Queen to exit and find a new home so that they can multiply and be as innumerable as the stars above. What disembodied voice do they hear that tells them to begin the journey? Whatever it is, like Abraham, they trust the signal, and they go forth.

I conclude this drash by expressing faith that long before Adonai created man, he/she utilized a shofar of sounds and vibrational energy understood by creatures placed on earth before our arrival. We do not need to see nor hear a heavenly creator to feel reassured that the underlying pulse of the universe instructing Moses to lead us out of Egypt is still listening to our prayers for redemption and forgiveness.

Maybe our human hive is not quite as cohesive as that of the bees’, but this sanctuary is our shelter, our home, nevertheless. Let us remember to care for one another so we can draw strength from one another as we look forward to the year ahead. And, let us pay tribute to our Queen, our rabbi, who puts forth such effort to guide and inspire us as we undertake our collective and individual journey in these ten days ahead.

Wishing you all a sweet New year,

L’shanah Tova tikatevu v’tikhatemu.