For Awe Intensive Purposes
Rosh Hashanah 5777
According to our tradition, Rosh Hashanah has several names.
Rosh Hashanah is part of what we call Yamim Nora’im – the Days of Awe. And yet, tonight some of us in this sanctuary sit with heavy hearts and awe is nowhere in sight. Our year has been one of struggle and pain. Perhaps you’ve lost someone you love or let go of a hope that you just couldn’t hold on to any longer. A hope that your marriage would come back to life, that your job would take on more meaning or that your kids would want a relationship again. Perhaps you’re saying to yourself, or to your neighbor at this moment, “You want me to experience Awe, Rabbi? Good luck. Maybe next year.”
Rosh Hashanah is called the Birthday of the World, Yom Harat HaOlam. And yet, maybe you feel far from the idea of birth yet alone rebirth. Perhaps you are frustrated with your aging body or the aches and pains of your young body. Maybe you have parted ways with an old friend, lost contact with your sense of purpose or are deep in the throes of fertility treatments. You could be thinking to yourself, “Ha! She wants me to wish the world happy birthday, no thanks.”
Rosh Hashanah is also called Yom haDin, the Day of Judgement. This was the day when creation was complete and Gd sealed the intention that this world should be ruled by justice and fairness and yet, we read the news and between the shootings and politicized calls for intolerance and bigotry, justice feels far from our reach.
Tonight, as we settle in to Rosh Hashanah, there are two other, critical, names of Rosh Hashanah I’d like to focus on. These two names: Yom HaZikaron and Yom Truah.
Yom HaZikaron, literally, means the Day of Remembrance. On Rosh Hashanah, tradition prods us to remember. To remember our way, our place in the world and take our seat, in this room tonight – to get present to what’s going on in our hearts and our lives. Tonight beings our ten-day soul retreat. Yes, that’s right, my friends, we brought Esalen to San Diego, minus the baths.
On this Yom HaZikaron, this day of remembrance we tune back into who we are. Today, in our tradition, Sarah was visited by Gd – Adonai pakad et Sarah – and the impossible was announced that she and Abraham would have a child in their senior years. What did Sarah do when she heard that she, at age 90, would have a child? vaTomer Sara: tachok asah le Elohim – She said: Gd caused me to laugh. She named her son Yitzhak, meaning laughter.
So what is it that you want to remember this Rosh Hashanah? What is inside of you that is yet to be born, whether you’re 9 or 19, 59 or 99. What would take your breath away? What would cause you to laugh, because after all, how can a 60-year-old go back to graduate school or a young woman buy her first house or a senior take herself skydiving for her birthday?
This name, Yom haZikaron, challenges us to reconnect to the larger story of what’s possible for our lives. What is the life that yearns to be lived through us? This might not necessarily be the easy or comfortable path, but it’s the path that creates LIFE, the path that looking back we will be proudest to remember and be remembered by.
The second name of Rosh Hashanah I want to raise up is Yom Truah. The day of the blast. Tomorrow is the launch of our shofar blowing. Over the holiday we will blast it 100 times. Rav Sa’adya Gaon says that there are 10 reasons we blast shofar. While I won’t list all ten for you, I am struck that these 10 elements tie strongly into this idea of remembering.
The blasts remind us of the creation of the world, Gd’s coronation as sovereign, the call for t’shuva – repentance and changing our ways. We remember the binding of Isaac and the call for the future gathering of our people. The shofar is our call to come home.
This name for Rosh Hashanah – Yom Tru’ah is the one that personally calls to me this year.
Rabbi Arthur Green, beloved founder of my rabbinical school in Boston writes about Shofar in his book, Seek My Face, Speak My Name:
Rabbi Green says: “the dream of restored wholeness – [on any level, personally, as a family, a nation] this dream is sounded out dramatically by the shofar blasts, the central symbolic expression of the t’shuvah season.”
“The shofar,” he says, “represents prayer beyond words, an intensity of longing that can only be articulated in a wordless shout.
But the order of the sounds, according to one interpretation, contains the message in quite explicit terms. Each series of shofar blasts begins with a teki’ah, a whole sound. It is followed by shevarim, a tripartite broken sound whose very name means “breakings.”
Tekiah … I started off whole, the shofar says
Shevarim … I became broken, she continues
Then follows teru’ah, a staccato series of blast fragments saying, “I was entirely smashed to pieces.”
But, each series, Rabbi Green points out, has to end with a new tekiah, promising wholeness once more.
So tomorrow we will hear this primal call. We will hear, tekiah, I started off whole,
Shevarim, I became broken and was smashed to pieces.
Over these next ten days we will hopefully, if we are willing to get quiet inside, we will hear how we started off whole.
How we are each an olam katan, a small, yet complete, perfect world, each created in God’s image, to be God’s agents for good in the world.
So, in my mind, this is our first project, reconnecting with how we came into this world.
As whole and complete as could be. Fingers and toes, hearts and bones, we arrived, born through love to love.
Then, throughout our lives, perhaps especially this year, many of us have become broken. This is our second project, to acknowledge and bravely own our brokenness.
In this way, ashamnu, bagadnu, we have forsaken, we have mistaken, your sins – your ways of missing the mark – are mine and my sins, – all the ways I’ve screwed up – are yours.
Audre Lorde, one of my heroes – poet, civil rights activist famously wrote that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Meaning to me, my stubbornness cannot resolve my stubbornness. My entrenched desire to be right cannot resolve my pushiness or lack of consideration for others.
Audre Lorde lived for, fourteen years after diagnosed with cancer, first breast and then liver cancer. In her book, Sister Outsider, she writes “In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions become strongly etched in merciless light, and what I most regretted were my silences.”
She continues, “Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed could have meant pain or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and the pain will either change or end.”
The pain will either change or end.
Here Lorde instructs on how we might move from our brokenness to becoming agents for our own wholeness and the wholeness of those around us.
She summons, “And I began to recognize a source of power within myself that comes from the knowledge that while it is most desirable not to be afraid, learning to put fear into a perspective gave me great strength.”
So how can we find this strength, to recognize the source of power within us? How can we move from brokenness to wholeness yet again?
Here comes the reason and why it’s so important that you’re here. Why I’m so glad I’m here.
During these ten days we lean on each other. We find out who’s in the room and what burden they are carrying in their heart. We ask people, what are you carrying this year? What are you ready to set down and let go of?
I’m reminded of Gd’s first question to Adam in the garden, “Ayekah?” Where are you?
Of course Gd knows where Adam is? Gd created Adam in the garden. According to midrash, Adam replies to Gd (don’t you love this about being Jewish, we just reply directly to Gd!), “I heard the sound of You in the garden and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.”
Rabbi Rami Shapiro calls this the ultimate spiritual challenge. Can we each step out of hiding?
Most of us imagine we must change before we come out of hiding, we must have all the answers and have it all together before we can respond to Gd. In fact, this is where our tradition steps distinctly in.
We don’t do life alone. We may live as if, but nope. Gd put us here and this is the garden to ask each other:
Ayekah, where are you?
Ayekah, where are you?
Ayekah, where are you?
To this I hear Audre Lorde’s talking to each of us, “For every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with others,” other seekers of truth and kindness, these seekers, their stories, your truths, gave me the strength to speak and to listen.
We can only overcome our silence, our brokenness and our pain, our hiding by imitating Gd. Gd created the world through words. We’ve got to speak! We’ve got to name. We’ve got to ask ourselves and each other Ayekah! Where are you? And then really listen.
Yom Tru’ah, Rosh Hashanah is the day of the primal call. Tomorrow the sound of the shofar will ring around us and through us. We are empty vessels with lots of holes and openings. Nothing happens in us or through us without Spirit.
Spirit speaks through us. Breaths through us. Lives through us. We are Gd’s shofarot.
It’s time to blast off. It’s time to sound out and let her rip. Yes, living is risking business.
“Death, on the other hand, is the final silence” and whether we like it or not, we’re not there yet. We are here, living and breathing and the only question remains, after the tekiah, the shevarim and the truah, will we bravely hear the new tekiah?
My blessing for each of us is that we may hear this strong resounding call for wholeness. A wholeness that launches us into a new year – worthy of love and loving and worthy of goodness and justice. May our response to Gd and each other’s Ayekah call be lives worthy of new beginnings and bold blessings.