By Rabbi Diane Elliot
Isn’t this an amazing journey we’re on together? And I don’t just mean these High Holy Days…..
My message tonight is simple, but not easy: the strength we need to make it through these difficult times, to take the action needed, will come through cultivating joy—radical Presence in all the precious moments of our lives. The strength we need to make it through these difficult times, to take the action needed, will come through cultivating joy—radical Presence in all the precious moments of our lives.
Our HHD theme this year, “Cycles of Life, Spiraling to Unity,” was channeled from a deep state, through a group process that tapped a source of Divine Wisdom. A number of us here in this room sat together and looked back over the past year. What floated to the surface for so many were the losses—good friends, dear mentors, sisters, aunts, brothers, gone. And our losses as a people, as a nation, so much crumbling. We experienced Shekhinah welling up through the collective heart. Afterward we weren’t sure what it meant. What do the cycles of life, the sorrows and ecstasies, beginnings and endings, have to do with spirals or Unity?
A few days ago I came across this little snippet of writing by Rabbi Jacob Pressman, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, where he served for 50 years. “My very first service,” he remembers, “was a graveside funeral for a month-old baby. I was driven to the cemetery by the mother, the father being overseas in the Service. I stood, my heart in my mouth, waiting for the hearse. Finally, I timidly asked, ‘Where is the casket?’ The mother pointed to a tiny pink box lying level with the ground and promptly collapsed into my arms. I conducted the brief service, weeping, no longer pretending to be a rabbi. For in that moment, I had truly become a rabbi, and I never turned back.”
This year, side by side with you all, I became a rabbi. And side by side with Burt, I became a wife. I experienced life washing over me and others, washing away our preconceptions of good and bad, life-giving and life-draining.
I sat with folks facing difficult diagnoses, facing a recurrence of life-threatening illness, folks facing toward and away from death. When I first met with our dear Helene Goodwin last fall, she didn’t want to name the illness that was already sapping her strength, leaving her short of breath—multiple myeloma. She wanted people’s healing prayers, but not their concern, their pity. She didn’t trust the community—her many communities—to support her. She didn’t want her life to change. She didn’t want to think about dying.
When I sat with the amazing and brilliant Tirzah Agassi a few days before her death from metastatic breast cancer, she was savoring the breaded, fried tomatoes she had asked a friend to prepare. “ummmm, ummmm….” But she couldn’t keep them down.
When I visited Alison Bermond—graceful artist of interiors—in her cottage in Santa Cruz about a month before her death, also from metastatic cancer, we walked together by the beach, talking of life and love. She fed me soup and tulsi tea and sent me home with a pair of her maroon shoes.
Many of you know that in June, I married for the first time. After the bride and groom’s tish and just before the wedding itself, Rabbi Marcia Prager, our misaderet, sent all the guests into the next room, and asked me and Burt to sit facing each other. She asked us to see each other as the 8-year-olds we had been, then as seventeen year-olds, thirty year-olds, finally our present ages—to invite all the incarnations of who we each have been and are and will be to be present under the huppah and in our marriage. Then she asked us to give each other a sign that we were ready to marry all these aspects, these layers of ourselves and one another.
When we were preparing for the wedding, Burt and I had decided not to exchange rings, a ceremony carrying ancient echoes of the woman as chattel to be purchased from her father and handed over to her ba’al, her husband-master. Instead, under the huppah we did a lifting ceremony, adapted from Jewish partnership law by Jewish feminist scholar, Rachel Adler. I made this special sack, into which we were each to place something of value, and then lift it together. Neither of us told the other in advance what we planned to put in the sack. When the moment came to share our offerings, Burt revealed a beautiful silver O-shaped pendant, inscribed with the verse from the Song of Songs “ki ahaz k’mavet ahavah, for love is as strong as death.” I began to smile because, as I shared a moment later with the wedding guests, I had had a gold pendant made for him with the very same verse on it, “love is as strong as death.” The collective intake of breath was audible throughout the room.
Cycles become spirals that feed back into cycles—moments of deep loss, grief, of great happiness, openness—life washes over us and mixes it all together with our tears, sweeping away expectation, purifying our hearts.
Go back, for a moment, to the questions I posed at the beginning of RH: what am I doing here? what am I doing here? what am I doing here? and what are we doing here together?
A body-mind healer I worked with this year asked me: What is the purpose of the Jews’ wandering? The answer that came to me in a flash was this: the purpose of the Jews wandering, of my wandering, is not merely to learn to survive in Diaspora, not simply to grab on with my fingernails and carry the past like a heavy peckele on my back, but to perfect the art of experiencing joy amidst transience.
Back on Erev Tisha B’Av, when many of us prayed and mourned our communal losses in a service at Kehilla, our friend Maggid Jonathan Furst suggested that perhaps we should not grieve so sorely over the loss of the Jerusalem Temples and the exile of the Shekhinah’s Holy Presence. For had she not been sent out to wander the world, often underground, hidden from sight, but nevertheless out—in fields, in deserts, in great cities—then the particular flavor of Truth that comes through us—Yisrael—most certainly would have been lost. That uprooting, painful and violent though it was, became the source of our particular dance, our purpose and gift to the world, our ongoing source of pain and learning—experiencing joy amidst trauma and love in the face of death.
Helene Goodwin lay at home in a rented hospital bed for the last two weeks of her life, holding court like the true Queen that she was. Her Goddess group, her Jewish and Christian communities, friends and family from all over California, came to sit at her bedside, stroke her hands, sing with her and to her, laugh and cry with her. Helene’s daughter Léah told me that in the last days and hours of her life her mother was calling out, “Wash me and dress me in white, wash me and dress me in white…”
When the particulars of an individual life are fully lived, deeply felt, when the cycles of creating and joining, parting and loss are accepted, embraced, danced—then those individual turnings reveal how they have been spiraling all along from and toward Unity, the Great-Oneness-That-Is-Was-and-Will-Be—connecting, lifting, transmuting, blessing. “Wash me and dress me in white.” Ahhhhhh. We all exhale together. Something dies, something else is born. The essence of joy.
A couple of months ago, I sat in this very sanctuary to receive darshan—a transmission—from Mother Meera, one of a number of sainted women who are here on the planet at this time to channel into this world what she calls the Paramatman Light, the Infinite Light that is the Source of All Being—what the Ba’al Shem Tov called Or Eyn Sof. Thousands come each year to sit silently in her presence, to feel her hands on their heads for a moment, and to look deeply into her eyes. In her words: “Nothing must be avoided. Those who love me will work with everything in the world—all the darkness and all the difficulties. Do people imagine I do not work, or that the realized human does not work? ....People should not come to me if they just want to escape something. I have not come only to be a refuge; I have also come to give the joy and strength necessary for change.”
Perhaps this is what we’re here together for—simply to look into each other’s eyes and see the Truth of Unity shining through and give that priceless gift back to each other.
This past year, nearly forty of you joined me on alternate Monday nights at the JCC, some once or twice and some faithfully for eleven months, to steep ourselves in hesed, lovingkindness practices. Over and over we chanted the Sh’losh Esrei Midot, the 13 Attributes of Lovingkindness, which we’ll chant in just a few minutes. We grappled with the difficulty of forgiving, of letting go the stories about ourselves and others we’re all so sure of. We dove beneath the surface of our wounds, looking for the most effective ways to bring about the change we so yearn for, the transformation so needed. And something changed inside each of us and in the community.
This year I propose a study/practice group called L’hiyot B’Simkhah, to be in joy. Reb Nachman taught, “mitzvah g’dolah l’hiyot b’simkhah tamid, the greatest mitzvah is to be continually in joy.” What does this mean? How can it work? Where is the wisdom in our pain? Can joy well up through any situation, no matter what the circumstances? Even from illness, even from death? I urge you to come and find out, to sit together a couple of times a month, chanting and then resting into silence, letting the questions simply hang in the air until they magnetize wisdom to themselves.
As another lanky and, some said, inexperienced politician from my great home state of Illinois once said, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here,….” We won’t remember it ourselves, unless we commit right now, this very day, to bringing the insight and wisdom, the love and the preciousness of our time together here, basking in Holy Presence, out into the world on a daily basis, into our relationships, into our work, into the way we care for and hold others, into a joyous passion for transforming and healing our planet and all who live on Her….no matter how hard it is, no matter how weak or despairing we may feel at times.
We must create vessels strong enough to hold the hashpa’ah, the guidance, that’s coming through now, to find the song-line that leads from our teshuvah, our return to essence; through our tefilah, our heartfelt prayer; to our tzedakah—our right actions.
I hope and pray that you will join me for a year of joy-full practice, of strengthening each other to fully embrace whatever comes, so that together we may transmute powerlessness into purpose, align our individual will with the Divine Ratzon, and work for the good, the Holy, through whatever means comes to hand.
Let’s take a moment of silence now to breathe, be together, and set our intention.