Rosh Hashanah 2019
This is the sermon I delivered on Rosh Hashanah at the Jewish Collaborative of Orange County. People asked to read it – so here it is:
Rabbi Alan Lew, of blessed memory, writes that the High Holy Days season promises nothing less than total personal transformation – IF we do the work, and pay attention.
Each of us should leave these days as a different person than when we arrived. These days are supposed to work on our very souls.
Once a year, our ancient and brilliant tradition offers us this opportunity to reflect on the past year, and to consider what we need to do in order to become our best selves.
I am going to suggest today that if you are willing to take on two specific practices, over these holidays, they can pave the way for deep renewal, not only for this year, but for your life.
The very first undertaking is simple, but not easy.
It is to acknowledge, where you are right now.
What lays heavily upon your heart?
We all have something.
No conscious change happens without first sitting in the reality of what is.
We can spend the year in denial, distracting ourselves, putting our heads in the sand, or being too busy to even look. When we do that, we close our eyes to the truth.
Brene Brown writes: “The universe is not short on wake-up calls. We’re just quick to hit the snooze button.”*
HOWEVER we are lucky as Jews – because once a year our tradition reminds us – enough with the hiding – dayenu (I know, wrong holiday) – WAKE UP!!!
Look clearly at the condition of your life.
And if we are still inclined to stay asleep, we have the shofar blasts throughout the season to call us to attention. WAKE UP.
THEN – if we are willing to wake up, we need to sit with what comes up. We must allow our illusory, comfortable, dream world to fall away and give permission to experience our unvarnished truth.
We ask ourselves: What disturbs us? What is unresolved?
Rabbi Lew puts it this way:
“What is the recurring disaster in our life?
What is it that we persistently refuse to look at, fail to see.”*
SO we name it. We examine our challenges. We lay them all out with open eyes and feel all the feelings.
In this, we have the best role models for being real. Our ancestors, as described in our Torah were very human and far from perfect, like us. My teacher Rabbi Lawrence Kushner* likes to say that they were so real, you’d probably never want your kids to marry one of them- (haha) –
For example, in the Torah portion we just read today –
We see Sarah – first bursting with joy at having a son after so many years of longing – only to be then overcome by jealousy and fear – leading her to be cruel and cast out her rival Hagar and her son Ishmael to die.
Do any of these feelings evoke a place that you are in?
Next we have Hagar in the desert so distraught with the pain of her son Ishmael near death that she looks away and cries.
What in your own life is unfair, or deeply painful that you can hardly look at?
Finally, there is Hannah, who comes to the Temple in total despair because she, too, wanted a child so badly, in fact, promising to God that if her prayer is answered, she would dedicate him to service to the Temple.
Is there something in your own life that you want so deeply that it hurts?
I love that our tradition doesn’t sugarcoat the raw emotions that govern human life and the recognition that those realities can be transformed.
The poet Mary Oliver, writes: “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”
A few months ago, aware that this year has been painful to so many people in myriad ways —
I asked on my social media and to my students:
- What keeps you up at night?
- (What are the primary concerns that you are sitting with right now?)
I received over 300 responses.
Here are a few of them:
A woman over 60 writes: I have been working for years and saving money. I’ve got no pension, minimum social security…I’m afraid of the economy tanking. How will I pay the rent?
A woman wrote me: I’m worried that even with always carrying a current passport in my purse for me and my son, we won’t be able to get out of this country before it’s too late.
One man wrote: What keeps me up at night is the division between so many people (even in my own family) who, otherwise, have so much in common. Imagine what we could accomplish if we just loved each other.
Another: I’m concerned about global warming and the environment. The clock is ticking and we are doing almost nothing to stop it. We are supposed to repair the world, but instead, we are destroying it. What are we leaving for the future?
One woman cried out: Is anyone honest anymore? What about feeling safe and nurtured in your home, your school, your place of worship?
Another — What is on my mind is the increasing acceptance of gun violence and the normalization of our response “Oh another mass shooting” Also, the rise in levels of hate, including antisemitism.
Lastly, one person wrote this: The future of Judaism and our increasing tribalism stresses me. Really, Everything. What’s going on with our country. Women’s rights being taken away in front of our eyes and me not being able to do anything about it. Worrying about my kids. Worrying about other’s kids. Famine. Genocide. Homelessness. I don’t know how I sleep at all.
The issues before us are both external and internal. Some of what troubles us is within us: our persistent thoughts and emotions – and some of it is external, outside of our control.
Perhaps it’s a personal family division or estrangement. Name it.
Maybe you are distraught by the strife and corruption in our country.
#1: Say The Truth
So this is Number 1. We must start where we are. As we sit here in the synagogue – with the shofar blasting —
Ask yourself this question —
What am I being called to wake up to?
What am I choosing to not look at?
In our most vulnerable places, it is also imperative that we know how to navigate when we are faced with despair or overwhelm or helplessness or hopelessness. How do we do this?
One answer lies within the Torah portion we read today. Which brings us to Step 2, the other action we are asked to consider today.
#2: Open Your Eyes
Let’s go back to where Hagar and Ishmael are left to die in the desert. Hagar doesn’t want to see the death of her son, so she puts him under a bush, averts her eyes and bursts into tears.
God hears the cries of Ishmael – sends an angel to comfort Hagar – and the text says next: “God opened Hagar’s eyes” and upon that, she sees a well of water, which saves them both.
The text does not say “God miraculously put a well of water” in front of her. It’s not like when the people were thirsty and God told Moses to strike the rock, which he did, and miraculously, the water flowed out.
No — the miracle is that as she opens her eyes, she actually sees what is right there.
We do the same thing as Hagar, don’t we? We close our eyes because sometimes it is too painful to see –
BUT when we do so, we shut ourselves off from seeing ALL that’s right in front of us.
Hagar has a transformation. Her vision is renewed. Their very LIVES are saved.
And this is the second essential life task that these holy days, especially Rosh Hashanah comes to remind us: open our eyes to the gifts right in front of us.
Because we have to be able to hold both the reality & truth of our lives and ALSO the miracles.
A few stories about how this works:
My teacher Rabbi Kushner, who I mentioned before and recently interviewed for my Hineni program, told me that some days he wakes up very sad. He doesn’t exactly know why but it’s a real pervasive feeling.
So while laying in his bed – he calls to mind each grandchild – and a specific memory about them that fills him with joy –
He gave me a few examples: one is his granddaughter who squealed in delight at a ride at the theme park they took her to. Another was his grandson who he let win at checkers and was absolutely gleeful that he won. (Rabbi Kushner was delighted even while telling me.)
He opens his eyes to his experience and practices transforming his reality He creates his own well of water –
The other is my friend Mary Ann, who was recently run over by a car while she was walking, and actually heard her back break. Her ribs, knee, and shoulder were also fractured.
She tells me that as she is laying on the ground, hearing the ambulance sirens in the background, vaguely knowing that they were probably for her – she remembered the simple morning ritual I had taught in our local Hineni Spirituality class on Friday mornings –
I had suggested to everyone, that in the morning’s first awareness of consciousness, to take a moment and wiggle your toes, and appreciate just being alive — being given a new day.
SO as she was lying there, somehow she remembered this and wiggled her toes. And she thought — oh at least I can do that. Thank God, she said.
I can tell you so many Mary Anne stories – but she is now out of the brace she was in for 6 months, walking, and driving.
Yes, it’s been a miracle, but honestly? The real miracle is that throughout this ordeal – she has done these 2 practices: She understood and admitted from the first moments (because it was so physical): “I am broken.” AND she practiced noticing even the smallest bits of good.
Seeking the good sustained her as she recovered.
We have to learn to hold both the sadness and the joy; the unpleasantness of what is and with open eyes, to look for blessings.
Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav, the great Hasidic teacher from the 18th century, suffered what we think was bipolar depression. And – remarkably, it was HE who taught – “Find a little bit of good in others. Find a little bit of good in the world and in yourself.” This is one of his most enduring teaching that lives on.
Opening our eyes to the good is a profound spiritual practice – And it’s not a one-time thing – it is daily.
Rabbi Kushner told me that his gratitude practice is a deliberate and conscious act he does each and every day. He has trained himself to notice what brings him joy.
Rick Hanson a leading neuroscientist* – (he wrote “hardwiring happiness”) suggests that each day or even when you remember something good – stay with it for 20 or 30 seconds in a row. That’s how we give those neurons lots and lots of time to fire together so they start wiring together.
My challenge to you over the next 10 days (and hopefully you will do it the rest of your life) is to do two things:
- Take some time to think about and feel where you are right now. What keeps YOU up at night? What do you find yourself concerned about or preoccupied with? Be honest. Write it down. Perhaps talk to a friend. I would like to hear even a few sentences. I’ll give you my email.
- Starting today, notice the good. LOOK UP. OPEN YOUR EYES TO WHAT’S IN FRONT OF YOU. Collect the good. Gather your blessings. It helps to write them down. AND SAVOR THEM – It might be as simple as
- your morning coffee or tea
- A friend;
- A good laugh
I’ll end with a perfect example of HOLDING BOTH – the stark reality of our despair – and the practice of noticing the good. it is in the Mary Oliver poem I mentioned before:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
A blessing for you:
May this be a year of seeking the truth – in your lives – having the courage to stay with where you are. As well as building our ability to see
even the tiniest bits of good. May it be a year of repair & healing and of justice. Amen
Rabbi Jill Zimmerman, Rosh Hashanah 2019
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* Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
* Mary Oliver, Devotions
* Rick Hanson, Hardwiring Happiness