What an honor and a joy it is for me to be spending my very first Rosh ha-Shanah as a rabbi here, in Berkeley with you all, the members and friends of the Aquarian Minyan. So many of my great teachers--those who loved and coaxed and challenged me into this new role--found and forged a new way into Judaism and cut their teeth as Jewish leaders right here, in the juicy, creative, and sometimes messy midst of this very community! I especially want to acknowledge Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank, may his memory be always for blessing (and how blessed we are to have Elaine and Uri here with us this evening). I dedicate my service during these Holy Days to bringing through the Life Force he shared with so many.
Tonight we join with Jews the world over in celebrating Rosh ha-Shanah, the head of the year, also called Yom ha-Zikaron, the Day of Remembrance. On this day we recall the Birthday of the World, that mythic moment of unparalleled potential, as inspiration for our own teshuvah, the process of re-membering our selves in the light of our souls. We turn away from the stories we have told ourselves and the structures by which we have lived this past year, letting them crumble or dissolve as we reset our sights and invite—beg for —Holy Help to be —in new, freer, clearer, more joy-filled ways.
[sing] “Oy gevalt mir shluft! Oy gevalt mir shluft! Huh, oh my God, I’m asleep! I’ve been sleeping!” Re-membrance, Reb Nachman teaches us, begins with the shock of noticing that our consciousness has gone AWOL, that we are missing in action.
I want to invoke a powerful moment of awakening that happened not so long ago in the history of human beings—for many of us, within our lifetime. “What was most significant about the lunar voyage,” a commentator wrote, “was not that humans set foot on the moon, but that they set eye on the earth.” “Viewed from the distance of the moon, the astonishing thing about the Earth, catching the breath, is that it is alive…. Aloft, floating free beneath the most gleaming membrane of bright blue sky, is the rising Earth, the only exuberant thing in this part of the cosmos.” (The Lives of a Cell, Lewis Thomas)
Down here, in the small busy-ness of the every day, isn’t it hard to keep our eye on the ball? To keep sight of that natural, Earth-y exuberance? Hence our theme for these high Holy Days: “Wake up! A new day is dawning!”
[sing] “Oy gevalt mir shluft! Oy gevalt mir shluft! Oy gevalt, gevalt, gevalt,ura! lama tishan?! Wake up! To what end are you sleeping?” Once you realize you’re asleep, you’re already awake, in some measure. Yet, is there some purpose to your sleeping?
Think about it. After the jolt that infuses me with the momentary realization that, as the Beataler Rebbe, John Lennon, put it, Life is what’s happening while I’ve been making other plans, now what shall I do? Shall I cast aside all worldly trappings and run off to the Holy Mountain to meditate? Shall I run for president? What happens for most of us, I think, is that we turn over and go back to sleep. We sleep and, if we’re lucky, we dream.
Two weeks ago I was leading a pre-high holiday Shabbaton with my old friends, Havurat Shir-Ha Yam in San Diego. We gathered at Questhaven, a retreat center created by a group of Christian mystics who have dedicated themselves to stewarding the land in service of the Divine Feminine. Surrounded by encroaching development, this beautiful, protected acreage harbors tree and grass spirits, animals, birds, snakes, and angels of all shapes and sizes in her peaceful valleys and hills. After an inspiring Friday night service, I retreated to my room to rest in anticipation of the next day’s full schedule of services and activities, but was kept awake by snoring in a neighboring room. I felt my shoulders harden, my mind panic: “I’ll never get to sleep!” About 1:30 am, I threw on some clothes, grabbed my pillow and headed outside. The full moon of Elul guided me up the hillside to a building called the Academy, a library and meetinghouse, surrounded by gardens and commanding the head of the valley.
The building is normally closed to retreatants, but I had been given a key in order to store our Torah there. As I approached, motion sensor lights blasted on, startling me and making me fearful that someone on the property would notice my nocturnal wanderings. But I let myself inside, closed the door behind me, and curled up with my pillow on the hard conference room floor to try to sleep. Sometime later, I “saw” the motion sensor lights flash on again. I saw or sensed a woman approaching the door of the Academy, and I became fearful that I would be discovered and chastised for sneaking into a forbidden space. Suddenly she was inside, along with two other beings I couldn’t quite see. I saw myself curled on the floor and felt these beings circling above me, oblivious to me in the usual sense of taking notice, but aware of “me” in a greater sense, blessing me with their Presence. Then I recognized, as it says in the Song of Songs, “ani l’sheyna, v’libi eyr, “I slept, but my heart was wakeful.” (5:2) I felt enveloped in love, in mercy—El Khanun v’Rachum. Still asleep, my mind filled with gratitude for this blessed visitation, and I thanked God for the snoring neighbor who’d kept me awake to a richer night’s sleep than I’d dreamed of!
Isn’t this the nature of embodied life, sleeping and waking, sleeping and dreaming, often not knowing which is which? Isn’t this what we’re here for, to expand and contract and expand again, to rehearse transition, becoming more and more transparent within it? “What are you so afraid of?” asks God, through the prophet Isaiah (51:12). “Don’t you remember that all humans die, that children of the Earth share the fate of grass?” So get on with it! Stop kvetching!
Now, even though some might see kvetching as the Jewish national sport, I believe that Judaism as a life practice acknowledges that we are and will be asleep a lot of the time and challenges us to wake up, not despite, but through the density of our bodies and this wondrous material world. These lives, these challenges, these confusing and joyfully complicated relationships are our tools on this planet for doing the arduous and blessed work of liberation, of opening to the One. And what magnificent, perfectly imperfect tools they are! Even our stuckness, embraced fully, leads to ungluing; even our grief, felt through, stretches the heart open to the truth of life.
But, much as we want to awaken into a fuller, wider reality, to sustain that awakeness, and to translate it into substantive change in our world, we don’t always know how. In tomorrow morning’s haftarah reading, we’ll meet Hannah, the Biblical personage who teaches us about tefillah —the act of opening the depths of the heart in prayer. “Va’titpallel Khannah, and Hannah prayed,” at first in bitter despair and later in ebullient joy. The Hebrew verb root, l’hitpallel, does not mean “to supplicate” or “to ask for,” but rather “to judge oneself.” One of my teachers believes it actually comes from an Arabic word meaning “to cut oneself open.”
This has been, as we all know, a very difficult year. Illness and war, natural disasters, ruined communities, and the terror that has engulfed so many lives and constantly threatens others—these numb the mind and shut down our hearts. This is why we come together now—to re-member our highest and best selves, to go beyond where we think we can go in our prayers and in our lives. We’re here to mutually overcome what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke of as “religious bashfulness,” the stifling embarrassment that keeps us from dancing and singing, laughing and wailing in service of the Holy. Now, the Aquarian Minyan is probably the least bashful community with whom I’ve ever had the privilege to pray, and yet may there not be some place deep inside yourself that you’ve held tight, closed? That you’ve failed to acknowledge, even to yourself? In these awesome days we are exhorted to touch and move and awaken all of ourselves, to hold nothing back! Reach in there, let it move! Hinenu, we’re here, allowing the power of our words and our songs and our communal bodily and spiritual energies to shake and wake up parts of ourselves that have not stirred this year, or perhaps for many years.
So take a moment now to feel the ground beneath your feet, the space between yourself and your fellow pray-ers. Breathe into that space. Close your eyes, if you wish, and sense the air, still or moving around you; the feelings, thoughts, and unspoken desires deep within you. Can we hold ourselves and each other in loving witness, feeling that we are loved and touched by our fellow beings here and elsewhere, by animals and trees and the living earth, and the angels of the Most High, despite all of our shortcomings? Because of all of our shortcomings? This is how we begin to taste, just a bit, how known, how loved, how fully enfolded we are by the WHoly One of Blessing in whose Creation we humbly participate.
Here we sit together, poised at the top of a very steep hill on the roller coaster of these Ten Awesome Days of Contraction-and-Expansion, of Knowing and Not-Knowing and Re-Deeming and Re-Dreaming! Hang on to your hats and get ready for the ride of your life-and-death. Or better yet, undo your safety belt, jump from your car, open your mouth and your heart, sing softly or loudly, in tune or off key, look at the people around you, as you look deeply into the depths of your own body and soul, and let the tears and laughter roll. With these songs, through these prayers, in the midst of these very people, you can receive the gift of being warmed, consoled, held, rocked, surprised, shaken awake, lulled, and wakened again. Together we’ll embrace it all, as best we can, embrace the All, as best we can, and in turn be embraced, shaken from our slumber, called from our dreams to awaken to a new day and to a yet deeper, truer dreaming.
[sing Awaken, Arise—Song Sheet]
I want to begin by acknowledging a number of important teachers for me, whose work is reflected in my message this evening: Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank, Rabbi Wayne Dosick, Rabbi Miles Krassen, and Rabbi Burt Jacobson. In addition I stand here with great gratitude for all the women pioneers, rabbis, cantors, teachers, who have gone before me, opening the way for women to serve publicly as spiritual teachers and leaders among the Jewish people. If not for their courage and passion, I would not be here with you this evening.
We come together this Yom Kippur, this most awesome and holy night of the year, at a time of great darkness, of anguish and suffering in the world. So many ill, so many dying, so many displaced from homes, torn from families. So many of our fellow Jews suffering, in fear for their lives, so much hatred festering in the world, so much distrust and aggression. During these ten days of teshuvah, of deep soul-scouring between Rosh Ha-Shanah and this night, one Minyan member wrote to me: “ Maybe I am just not right for the Minyan right now, because the theme [for these High Holy Days] is “waking up to a new dawn,” and I think that we still have to get through the night.”
The Talmud teaches [Bava Metzia 59a] that from the day the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed the gates of prayer have been locked. But even though the gates of prayer have been locked, says the Talmud, the gates of tears have always been open, as it says in the Psalm: “shim-ah t’filati Ha-Shem, Hear my prayer God, v’shavati ha-azinah, and give ear to my cry; el dimati al tekh’rash, You will not disregard my tears.” [Ps. 39:14]
Yet, though the gates of tears may always be open, we don’t always take the time or have the koakh, the strength, to open to the depths of our own need and desire for peace and wholeness, for healing, for life. We come together tonight to raise a mighty wailing before heaven’s gates which are also the gates of our of own beings, to mingle our tears and our cries and our prayers of the innermost heart. We give and gain that strength from each other on this most auspicious and holy day.
On Rosh ha-Shanah we spoke of the fact that the dark, though it can be a fearful time, a time of unconsciousness, is also a time when surface mind gets out of the way, when our most powerful experiences are digested, and when, through persistent and skillful spiritual work, we may receive the powerful transmissions from Great Self that are trying to break through.
Rav Kook, the great scholar/mystic and first chief rabbi of Israel, taught that what we term evil or sin is not an absolute, self-contained force, but rather “a relative absence of the spirit or wholeness,” a condition in which the “part” loses sight of its relationship with and “seeks to usurp that which belongs to the whole.” For him teshuvah —the actual act of “turning away” from sin and the misperception that gives rise to it—implies a re-turn, a “turning around” to perceive the Divine Light present within all creation. He believed that the light of wholeness could infuse even social institutions—even governments.
We live in a time of so many great displacements, uprootings. For Jews the mass executions and transports and death camps of the Holocaust have been the most cold-bloodedly systematic and widespread brutality in a long history of violent persecutions. In rabbinic school, I wept my way through classes in Medieval Jewish history and the history of Zionism…so much bloodshed and hatred and misunderstanding, so many impossible choices.
Tonight I am holding the awareness of so many painful displacements and shiftings in our world: millions of people displaced and dying in Darfur, the displacements of our people in northern Israel and of the people in southern Lebanon, tenuous certainties and illusions of security being swept away, the entire city of people, New Orleans, displaced by hurricane, the ocean displaced by earthquake in southeast Asia and washing away homes and lives, even the icecaps and glaciers of our planet dissolving at an ever-increasing pace. Are these all failures of human stewardship, deficits of human vision and compassion? Is God asleep, hiding? Are there large movements working here, beyond what we can control or ever comprehend? What are we to do? How are we to be?
I’ve been dealing with a great deal of displacement in my personal life, and its lessons have been increasingly jarring and painful. For much of my adult life, as a student, an itinerant dance artist, a visitor, a student again—I’ve lived out of suitcases and boxes in a series of small apartments, sublets, guest rooms—never really at ease, never really settling in. I keep my packing boxes, broken down, in the basement. Soon after moving to San Diego from Minnesota, some eight years ago, I received my rabbinical calling, and for six years commuted to Los Angeles for school, sleeping and working where I could, in other people’s homes and office spaces, constantly adapting to new spatial configurations, smells, noises, traffic patterns, as I tried to keep up with and integrate massive amounts of new information from classes.
Now I’ve moved Bay Area to be with my partner—the ninth or tenth major move of my adult life. And though my displacements have all been voluntary, I’ve nevertheless chafed bitterly—more bitterly, now that I’m older—against the discomforts of not having “my” things around me, of not knowing where things are, of breaking beloved objects, losing keys, papers, my DSL modem, my mind!
I find myself reacting with anger, even outrage, and shutdown, a physical hardening of shoulders, neck, nerves, to what are in reality minor inconveniences. I have been angry and blaming of my partner, projecting again and again my internal discomfort. During these days of teshuvah, especially, I’ve become aware that I have embodied, in my moving and pervasive sense of displacement, the painful story of galut, of exile, deeply woven into Jewish identity.
The Hebrew word galut, exile, comes from the root gimmel-lamed-hey and has two primary meanings: to remove and to uncover. Both are words of movement. The meaning “to carry away into exile” comes from the hiphil or causative form of the verb; it is a removal, an exposing, that is done to us. We are uncovered, stripped of our defenses, of our property and possessions, of what has been comfortable, of what we have held sacred. In the defining myth of our people-hood, we fall into deep spiritual and physical degradation in Mitzrayim, the most confining of places, yet we have to be extracted from that place by God, acting through Moshe. Short of spirit, we complain bitterly. Then, in the wilderness, almost against our will and with great trepidation, galut metamorphoses into gilui, revelation. We receive what the Sages called gilui Ha--Shekhinah, the revelation of Holy Presence in the world. It is not an easy gifting. Midrash teaches that with each of the Ten Commandments, the people recoiled twelve miles, expired, and had to be revived and carried back to the mountain by angels.
Galut and gilui —the same root, the same movement, almost the same word, but perceived differently: galah becomes exile when we freeze in terror, in anger, in our sense of being pulled from where we want to be; and revelation, when we are somehow able to turn, lashuv, and perceive the Divine light pouring through this movement, this perhaps uncomfortable or even terrifying displacement. Then, as the Ba’al Shem Tov taught, what is untenable becomes sweetened through our spiritual labors, and though the experience may never be easy or pleasant, we can yet abide in gilah, joy. The only letters that distinguish the words galah, to remove or expose, from gil, to rejoice, are the yud and the hey —Yah.
What I see now is that very old holding patterns that keep fear and the stance of victimhood anchored in my very tissues are being forced to the surface, in this case, thank G-d, by my own choices, so that they can see the light of day. Galui v’yadua, it is revealed and deeply known. When I open my hands, my nerves and muscles, releasing old patterns, then what is revealed, galui, is the deepest truth of who I am, v’yadua, and I am known, through and through—more deeply, almost more intimately than I can bear.
This is the work of waking up! It’s not romantic or sweet or idealistic. It’s ugly and messy, and I’d rather not do it, but here it is, in my face! The Tikkunei Zohar taught, “leyt atar panui minei,” there is no place devoid of the Divine. If this is true, then what’s in my face is G-d’s face. And Reb Yaakov Yosef, one of the Ba’al Shem’s primary disciples taught: “When you realize that the Origin of the Universe is present in every tenuah, every change, every movement, that occurs in the universe, then you will be able to bear anything without suffering brokenness.”
This is such hard work. I have no answers to the large, painful, urgent questions of these times. I do believe that if we are —if I am —to awaken to the dawning of a new day, of many new days, and to move with any grace through these painful changes, which I pray and hope are pains of growth, then I—we—no longer have the luxury to say, “This is how we’ve always done it,” even in small things. As Reb Barry taught us on Rosh Ha-shanah, we have no time to waste. We must fully commit to engaging in the highest form of tzedakah —the righteous giving away of our attachment to the patterns of the past, the shutdown, the fears, the wounds, and the scars.
We, both as individuals and as a community, must try to do this where it is perhaps most difficult, where we are most unconscious—on the most subtle, minute, personal levels—to feel through the pain in ourselves, to have great compassion upon ourselves, and to refrain from attaching this pain to others—to those closest to us, our families and our friends, to each other, to our fellow Jews, and to all those with whom we join in communities of learning and spirit. Reb Moshe Aharon—Rabbi Miles Krassen—teaches that if we commit to such a practice of radical kindness internally and through all our communities of work and spirit, then we will be engaged in reconfiguring not only ourselves, but G-d as well.
[sing] ai-yi! ai-yi! ay-yi-yi-yi! oy gevalt mir shluft! oy gevalt we sleep! oy gevalt, gevalt, gevalt, ura lama tishan….. gevalt, wake up! Why do you sleep?!
The verse “ura lama tishan, why do you sleep” comes from Tehillim, the very difficult Psalm 44, which says, in effect, “God, we’ve heard about how you helped our ancestors triumph in the days of old, but now you’ve rejected and disgraced us. Though I am covered with shame from the voice of taunting revilers, though we are cast to the depths and covered with deepest darkness, we have not forgotten You! Ura lama tishan Adonai, rouse Yourself! Why are You asleep, Adonai?”
Yet, “What we may perceive as Divine disapproval or absence,” writes Reb Moshe Aharon, “is really G-d suffering along with us.” These High Holy Days are the time to call a new YHVH into existence, to “neutralize Divine judgment with kindness,” to “birth a kinder, greater G-d and draw a new YHVH into time and space.” Perhaps when we as a community commit to bringing more compassion, a deeper respect for the other, into our every interaction, we draw down compassion from above and are able to have a beneficial effect on our corner of the world. And who knows? Perhaps we will have an effect on the planet and the Cosmos and G-d, as well.
O God, God,
may our prayers on this Yom Kippur be deep and raw and true,
life-changing and G-d-changing.
Help us to shake free
from the last year’s crystallized ideas
of You and of ourselves,
to liberate an independent Shekhinah
from last year’s confining exile.
Inscribe us for blessing
so that, infused with strength,
we may continue this hard, worthy work
to ever-new days,
©2006. Rabbi Diane Elliot