Erev Rosh HaShana Sermon, 5768
Rabbi Julie Greenberg
In past years, on this auspicious evening, as we step into the New Year, I have frequently spoken about the sense of home: all of us from far-flung places, honing in as if by instinct, coming to this holy place at this holy time. We’ve talked about the yearning for home and the challenges of realizing that home means something different for each one of us.
This evening I want to talk about an idea that is about as opposite from home as one could possibly get. Instead of talking about comfort zones, I want to delve into our tradition’s wily commitment to jerking us out of our comfort zones.
Think of Abraham and Sarah, happily living in their polytheistic homeland in Mesopotamia when they get the call “Lech lecha,” “Lechi lach.” Go on a journey to find yourself. And they set forth on this adventure, leaving behind everything they know in a quest for their future.
Think of Moses, happily herding his sheep in the desert of Midian when he gets the call to lead the campaign to free the slaves.
Not just our biblical ancestors but our personal ancestors often took amazing leaps of faith that helped us reach this day. My grandmother, Bertha Greenberg, was 15 years old when she, alone, left her village in Bukavina, in eastern Europe, to travel to the big city to get on a boat to cross the ocean. Her brave actions planted our generations here in this country.
The whole Torah and much of Jewish history is one big tale of journeying. In the Torah, there isn’t even a conclusion to the story. The big story in the Torah, as you know, is “We were slaves in Egypt, we wandered in the wilderness, we got to the edge of Israel”. And that’s the end of the story. The Torah ends. Can you imagine a movie that is framed like that? What kind of a movie director would end the story right there? Rabbi Avram Davis teaches that through this framing, Torah emphasizes that the journey towards freedom is what matters, not the destination. The Promised Land is not a place, but a process.
In the journey of life, all of us get stuck in ruts at times. There are the grand ruts that come along with the particular scripts handed down from generation to generation:
There are the small ruts of habit.
Someone recently described these ruts to me like this: it’s as though you load up a wheelbarrow and push it on a certain path toward the forest. The next day when you do it again, it’s easier to take the same path the wheelbarrow already went on. Every day that wheelbarrow track gets deeper and it becomes harder and harder to move away from that well worn rut even if you want to go somewhere else.
The New Year is a huge invitation to leave these comfortable ruts, to be more aware, more free, to be more of who you can be, to make this world more of what it could be.
The New Year is a wonderful invitation to make choices about what scripts from the past are life affirming. What patterns in your life are effective and actualize your vision? What needs to change?
Torah proclaims,“I put before you this day the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life.”
Following in the tradition of our ancestors, what would it be like to shake it up a little, try something new, try a new attitude, a new behavior? Could we each leave our homeland whether it be Mesopotamia or Egypt or Center City Philadelphia, the Main Line or South Jersey? These Holy Days provide tremendous collective support for the inner work each of us is called to do to grow ourselves. We’re here together providing a spiritual container, otherwise known as community, to make it possible for moral development to happen.
These days are about change. They are about not just having to do and be the same old, same old, but with the power of prayer and the strength of community, taking a step into a New Year with greater clarity and greater consciousness to fuel the good deeds we hope to do in the year to come.
In the Torah that we learn on these days, there are stories that teach us to take the power to choose our perspective on life.
In one story, Hagar and her baby Ishmael are about to die in the desert wilderness from desperate thirst. There seems to be no hope at all. All of a sudden she lifts her eyes, the text says, and lo and behold there is water. She had to change her perspective by lifting her eyes, our sages teach, before the water could save her life.
In another case, Abraham is on the verge of sacrificing his son Isaac. There is Isaac bundled on the altar about to be slaughtered. There seems no way out of this debacle. Then Abraham looks up and lo and behold there is a ram in the bushes. He had to change his perspective by looking up before that ram could save his son. We get to choose our perspective even when that means leaving the comfort zone of habitual mindset.
Maybe you’d like to choose a new perspective on some of the questions that often arise when we all come together for a service such as this. Naturally questions arise such as will I feel comfortable in this service? Are these my kind of people? Do I belong here? What a liberating idea, that each one of us can choose our own vantage point. Of course you belong, of course you are welcome, of course there is something for you here.
Today, I am taking stock of where the Jewish people are on our collective journey and I am particularly going to look at where we are stuck. I see some stuck places where old pain is keeping people from moving freely forward. It’s like we are camping out with the wagons circled, protecting entrenched positions, well defended but unable to move forward on the journey. I’m going to name some of those stuck places.
A big stuck place that is really hampering our journey has to do with past disappointments and hurts the Jewish people have experienced.
The Holocaust of course was a huge, devastating wound for us. The six million included a generation of teachers who could have enriched Jewish life for years to come. As the Rabbis said, when you save a life, you save a whole world and we lost many many worlds. Our people has not recovered from this terrible trauma.
On a different scale, but still significant, there are also more recent Jewish wounds that many of us carry with us. People pour their hearts out to me as a Rabbi, at social events and in counseling sessions. It’s amazing how many stories I hear about what didn’t work for individuals in their past relationships with Jewish community. Sometimes Hebrew school is the sore spot. Hebrew school failed many people—- “I never understood a word of Hebrew and so it’s all meaningless to me.”
Sometimes insensitive clergy people fail those who seek them out, especially in interfaith situations. For instance a Rabbi refuses to participate in the sanctification of love between a Jew and a non-Jew and judges or dismisses a couple’s relationship. This has caused terrible hurt feelings and pain about Jewish community life.
Another example of past hurts, that is extremely prevalent, is how painful the finances of Jewish community life have been to many people. It has shamed and enraged people to have to pay for their religion. Again and again I hear powerful negative reaction from people who have been asked to buy tickets for prayer services, or to pay to belong to a synagogue.
Each of these areas—the Holocaust, the question of Jewish education, of interfaith relationships and of how to sustain a synagogue without offending people—-are very complex. At this moment I am only looking at how painful these issues have been for many Jews today. We are a wounded community. We are literally survivors of trauma. Our ability to move forward is severely hampered.
Specialists who study trauma have identified pathways to recovery that would be very relevant to Jewish experience. Judith Hermann, a respected leader in the world of trauma recovery, posits three stages of healing: establishing safe space, remembering the trauma, moving on into new relationships and commitments. As a spiritual community we have many resources for establishing safe space. Our liturgy is a liturgy of remembrance; and most exciting of all Jewish community offers new opportunities for learning, relationship, fun and caring.
But none of this communal resource will do any good unless each one of us does the holy inner work of renewal. This is the time of year to open the heart, to let God’s grace, God’s healing chesed gently in. This is the time to let some of that old pain melt. Jewish baggage is unavoidable, but you don’t have to carry quite as much of it into the New Year.
I’ll share with you a very powerful image. Midrash asks, where will we find Messiah when the time comes? Where will mashiach be? And the answer is, mashiach will be sitting outside the gates of Jerusalem bandaging his/her wounds. From the wounded comes hope and renewal. Mashiach is hurt and yet brings forth a time of redemption, justice, peace. This is such a rich image of transformation.
If any one of you experiences yourself as holding back, staying on the margins of Jewish community life, because of old hurts, I want you to know two things: I want you to know that there are people inside, power-houses of Jewish continuity, who are lonely for you, who need you. And number two, there are young people and people new to Judaism coming into the Jewish world who need the strength of our people, standing together in all of our diversity, to welcome them.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in Dignity of Difference (quoted in the article by Rabbi Sheila Weinberg, “Spiritual Direction: No Inside, No Outside” that we are reading in community this week),
How can I let go of that pain when it is written into my very soul? And yet I must. For the sake of my children and theirs, not yet born. I cannot build their future on the hatreds of the past, nor can I teach them to love God more by loving people less…. The duty I owe my ancestors who died because of their faith is to build a world in which people no longer die because of their faith. I honour the past not by repeating it but by learning from it…by refusing to add pain to pain, grief to grief. That is why we must answer hatred with love, violence with peace, resentment with generosity of spirit and conflict with reconciliation.
I picture a New Year, in which all of us who harbor old Jewish pain, are able to let that melt a bit in the light of new possibilities. It’s a time for second chances, a time for healing. To stay in the disappointments and failures of past Jewish experience is like taking that wheelbarrow down the same path again and again. It’s staying in a comfort zone of familiar pain that isn’t really very comforting. The call of the shofar is to leave that well worn place, to discover bravely, together in community, a new way.
This new way will have deeply personal ramifications and also vast political ramifications.
In the realm of the personal, it is a blessing to clean up the misery that holds you back from joy and right action.
In the realm of the political, look at the impasse we are in in the middle east. There is a place of such stuckness for Jews: a place where we are so hurt and so fearful that we can’t listen to other voices, we can’t do creative problem-solving, we become part of the problem rather than the solution. We need to clean up our collective pain in order to step into our future.
In the spirit of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses, of Bertha Greenberg, my grandmother and all the other brave ancestors of each one here, let’s let go of the debilitating stuck places, let’s let God in, and let’s choose a future of involvement, respect, co-operation, sharing, and peace. Living in the painful memories of the past damages our prospects for a future. Memory is important but let’s also remember that we are a people called to pursue justice, called to create peace, called to live in holy community.
Let’s accept the invitation to choose life.
Welcome to Leyv Ha-Ir~Heart of the City! We look forward to journeying with you into the New Year. May it be a year of consciousness and commitment. May it be a year of fun and happiness. May it be a year of abundance, friendship and good deeds. Shana Tova!