The New Year has dawned and we are still living in this coronavirus crisis that began to overwhelm our lives back in February. And we don’t know when it will end. So, we are marking Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah this year, not in the shul sanctuary, with the congregation gathered together, but on a technological online marvel called Zoom.

We are not together in physical space, but as Jews in the Diaspora have done for millennia, we are sharing a long sacred moment in time. And in the course of 24 hours, we will also share this sacred day with Jews across the globe.

Why are we choosing to share this moment? Each of us will have our own personal answer to that question. The New Year beckons and, perhaps, we are fearful and hopeful in equal measure. Is the coronavirus on the wane or will there be a new spike in the late autumn? Of course, we don’t know and not knowing is the heart of the issue as we face each New Year. We can never know what lies ahead – all we know is what lies behind us and what is happening right now. But this sacred moment gives us pause for thought and reflection.

Of course, there are some things we do know – albeit not with 100% certainty. The year is marked not only by festivals and commemorative dates in the calendar, but by birthdays, anniversaries and milestones in our own lives and in the lives of our loved ones. As I look ahead, I know that I will be retiring at the end of April, after serving this congregation for over 20 years – and 32 years after my ordination as a rabbi. So much has changed at Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue since I first began working here in December 2000. We have been on a journey together as a community – a journey of exploration that has involved expanding our horizons and becoming more inclusive, so that the congregation is more diverse and also more focused on our shared progressive values. I am proud of what we have achieved together.

Twenty years ago, at Rosh Ha-Shanah, shortly after I had been appointed to the post – but before I started working – I wrote a poem which is included in the meditations section before the Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah service in our Liberal Judaism High Holy Day prayer book, Machzor Ruach Chadashah[1] I would like to share it with you now because it expresses what it was like for me to make a beginning back then after a time of great trial, not knowing what lay ahead; fearful – and also hopeful:

Rosh Ha-Shanah

New Year

New moon of Tishri

Dawning darkly

First stars

Sparkling pathways

From the past

Into the future


Here I am

Standing on the threshold

Of the new year





I turn back from the brink

Sarah’s laughter

Ringing in my ears

New life?

New beginning?

Is it possible?

For me?

And then

In the desert

Of those questions

Hagar’s eyes

Opening mine

Forcing me

To turn around again

Pressing me

To look forward

To gaze into the landscape


To see

Wells of water

In the wilderness


Here I am

Standing on the threshold

Of the new year


To begin


In order to make a new beginning, we all need to turn around, and as we look forward, be prepared to see wells of water in the wilderness. Alongside our personal circumstances and concerns, as we stand on the threshold of a new year, we all face the wilderness of the continuing coronavirus crisis – and beyond that, the wilderness of continuing climate change, which we can only begin to address effectively if we allow ourselves to learn lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the most bewildering aspects of the pandemic has been that it has not only been a negative experience. We have all witnessed the way in which the lockdown created a much-needed Shabbat for the planet. We have learnt from the retreat from a 24/7 existence that we can renew our lives and renew the life of the world by ceasing from so many of the activities which we have considered essential to modern life.

In my sermon at the end of July, I spoke about the Build Back Better movement, which is dedicated to ensuring that as the coronavirus crisis does begin to diminish, we don’t go back to our old ways, but rather build together a better, more sustainable and more equal and just society. Let me remind you of the key goals of the movement:[2]

1. Secure the health and needs of everyone in the UK now and into the future

2. Protect and invest in our public services

3. Rebuild society with a transformative green new deal

4. Invest in people

5. Build solidarity and community across borders

Whatever our fears for the future, hopefully, our impulse to repair the world, will propel us forwards, or at least, enable us to take tentative steps that gain in momentum as we realise that the future really does depend on us, on what we do and don’t do tomorrow and the day after.

Ultimately, whatever my fears, I have always felt driven forward by a sense that what each individual does or doesn’t do matters and makes a difference to the world. But more than this, more than a sense of the demand for individual volition, one of the reasons I became rabbi was because I believe that individuals can make the most difference when we work together in community. Before I decided to embark on the rabbinate, I considered joining a kibbutz. I had lived on one for almost eight months in 1978 -79, and Marxist that I was back then, I loved the sense of collective endeavour. But my memory of living on that left-wing ha-shomer ha-tza’ir kibbutz in the Western Galilee, a couple of kilometres from the Lebanese border, was that, perched on top of a hill as it was, the kibbutz was a bit of an island and did not have much of an impact on the wider society. And so, I decided that becoming a rabbi and offering spiritual leadership to a progressive congregation that was part of a wider movement would provide the communal context for individuals to transform their lives and the lives of others. Considering, the journey we have been on as a congregation these past twenty years, I think I was right.

We have work to do in the world in the year ahead. But we must begin with ourselves and the work we need to do to repair ourselves and our relationships. And before we even start this work, we have to recognise where we are right now. At the end of July 2008, I wrote another Rosh Ha-Shanah poem. Aubrey Milstein, Zichrono livrachah, May his memory be for blessing, a long-serving lay leader who had been a stalwart to me and to the congregation had just died[3], and I felt unsettled and sensed his passing marked the end of an era. We have been more than unsettled by the coronavirus crisis. For those of us who did not go through the Second World War, we have been experiencing an unprecedented period of upheaval – and it’s not yet over. I offer these lines as an acknowledgement of the place of uncertainty that we are inhabiting at this moment. May we find ways of leading ourselves and our loved ones, our community and our world, towards renewal.


Here I am

Here we are


In this moment

The ancient beat of Life

Pulsing through us.

And yet

Not living


Not being

Fully present

Forever rushing carelessly into

Traps in the

Undergrowth – Underworld

Caught by




The terrifying indifference of


And then simply

Conjugating questions

Why me?

Why you?

Why us?

Why them?

And still

Here I am

Here we are


In this moment

A new beginning


And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue

18th September 2020 – 1st Tishri 5781

  1. Machzor Ruach Chadashah. Liberal Judaism, London, 2003, p. 39.


  3. On 25th July 2008. Aubrey Milstein, Z”L, was born on 30th October 1921.