Sermon by Rabbi Julie Greenberg
5771 Erev Rosh HaShanah
BLESSINGS FOR THE NEW YEAR
Rabbi Julie Greenberg
An important image of these holy days is the Gate of heaven that is wide open at this time. The Hebrew word for gate is sha'ar. Each one of us is a sha'ar, a gate, the portal through which God will flow into this New Year.
Take a minute to take stock of your gate. What is the nature of the gate that is you this evening? Where is it strong and where is it fragile? Where has the opening narrowed? What does it need to be a sturdy, wide gate that welcomes God into the New Year?
As all of our gates come together, we unite into a much bigger and stronger portal. Our good deeds reinforce one another, our kindnesses create luck and possibility for others in the world, our talents and commitments and love make the world a better place.
We come together in community to remember the spiritual resources that allow our gates to stay wide open. The world has so many demands, so many distractions, it's easy to forget that our job is to have open hearts, hearts that care and that comfort, hearts that have just enough self-shielding to be healthy but not a single bit of extra hardening. In the course of this service we'll exploring more the support that is available for each of us to widen the gate and let God pour through.
Sha'ar, gate, also means IMAGINE. Take a moment now to imagine what a good world it can be.
Welcome, welcome, welcome, from far and wide. I am so glad each one of you is here, whether you are new to Judaism or you're an old timer, whether you know Hebrew or not, whether this is a settled and stable time in your life or you are questioning and questing.
We welcome you to partake in these High Holy Day services. Together we forge a sacred community that will expand and shrink at various times over the next ten days, just as the walls of the Holy Temple in ancient Jerusalem were said to expand to hold as many people as needed. Our community here at the Heart of the City can be as small as a one on one relationship and as large as the hundreds of people who come through this passage into the New Year with us. We welcome each one to sanctify this New Year.
Human beings may be unique in caring about marking the passages of life and the seasons of the year. If you think about it, no other mammal celebrates birthdays or pays special attention to a New Year. In a dog's life each day is pretty much the same as the next and the years go by without any particular reflection or moral re-direction. But human beings have a need to sanctify time, to live lives that have some meaningful coherence, a narrative that makes sense: I was young then but now. . . I was ignorant about that but I have learned. . . I didn't know myself well enough but now I am learning. . . I acted impulsively and now. . .
To say, even though I was stuck in that pattern in a relationship, or stuck in that addiction, a new year opens all sorts of new possibilities. It really is a clean slate, a fresh start.
Acknowledging times of new beginnings and possibilities makes human freedom more possible. Isn't freedom, liberation, what Judaism is all about?
These moments of inaugurating the Ten Days of Awe are so powerful. It is here that we enter into the prayer, melodies, Torah, teaching that will launch all of us into this New Year. It's not just a time of sitting through services, it's an active time of opening, prying out the old gunk and clutter, abolishing all the encrustations, clearing the channels so that you can live up to your highest ideals, be your best self, be the person you want to be. The signature motion of these Holy Days is the pounding on the chest in the Ashamnu prayer, a prayer of deep repentance. We beat the breast to break open the heart, to break away the crud.
This spiritual crud has accrued all year in the course of daily life. It comes in the form of feeling discouraged and battered, of suffering from decay in both body and mind. Life can deplete and disappoint you. It is impossible to be human without being hurt in many ways and without causing unintentional hurt as well. That is the way of the world. That is the Din of the world, the harsh, hard aspect that includes loss and mistakes, absorbing trauma and painful diagnoses. Just look around the room and imagine what people have been through. We've all been through so much.
To protect our tender souls from the harsh onslaught of Reality, we develop defenses, hardenings of the heart, self-protective mechanisms. It is these self-protections ironically that clog the channels that could be re-fueling your spiritual energy. Your self-protective reactivity blocks the flow of energy and love, diminishes your vitality and joy in life and commitment to making the planet whole.
When energy is put into maintaining the self-protective blockages, there is less energy and zest for life. It actually becomes harder to re-fill your vessel from outer sources or to be aware of the inner sources that are always available for re-fueling. The balance of in-flow and out-flow can be out of whack. Consciousness is distracted and fragmented. The spiritual part of each of us knows this isn't all right. Many of us experience a yearning for wholeness, balance, inner peace.
Following this universal human craving to purify, to breakthrough, to renew, our Jewish rites give us these holy days and rituals, our own very particular Jewish way of expressing universal yearnings for a second chance, a fresh start, and a new beginning.
The spiritual resources that are here to nourish us are both external and internal. Can you picture the shofar calling you at this time of year to show up, to be here? Did you hear its call in some way? Maybe it called you through e-mail or a phone call or an invitation to help on the HH committee.
And now can you picture an inner shofar, which is the same shape as a cornucopia, the inner spiritual resource, that is always there, nourishing, replenishing, ever-flowing, abundant. It is a Kos Re'vayah, an overflowing cup, an inner source of love, of shefa, of abundance. Maybe it is whispering to you in its still small voice, its kol d'mama daka, you are a child of God, you are made in God's image, you are good, not just good, very good.
If you have that inner shofar always flowing, why do you need to respond to the call of the physical shofar? Ah,there's a connection between the outer shofar and the inner shofar. They reinforce one another. In the course of everyday life we lose consciousness of that inner shofar. We forget that there is always spiritual abundance within. It's important to come together in community because we remind each other of that inner spiritual resource. In a world that does not value the inner life, it's tempting to forget that it is always there, a constant source of sustenance. Even when life is hard, that fount is there to support and invigorate you with self-love, with God's love. But we need each other to remember this.
The outer shofar, the ritual object or sanctum, allows you to hold the inner resource in your hand, to visualize it, touch it, to hear it and allow it to activate the inner awareness of your internal possibilities. Jewish ritual items always hold a teaching that points beyond the object itself. In this case the shofar directs us to an inner awakening.
In this room, over these next ten days, there is a blessing and there is a spiritual challenge for each one of us. I don't know what your blessing or your challenge will be. It is yet to be discovered.
How do you discover your blessing or your challenge? Sometimes it helps to formulate a question in your mind. You can lay this question on the altar of these Holy Days.
Then attend to the texts, the songs, the stories. They have a message for you. You might think the language and ideas are archaic and at first glance that often seems true. We are part of a four thousand year evolution of Judaism. Our tradition is in flux; the way we do Judaism now is very different from how it was done in Abraham's time or in Solomon's time or even in your great-great grandparents' time. There have been times when Judaism changed by quantum leaps such as after the Destruction of the Temple when animal sacrifice came to an end and other ways of being Jewish such as prayer, rabbis and synagogues had to be invented. But often there is incremental change, so slow that you probably aren't aware of how different Judaism looks generation to generation.
This is a tradition that requires patience. If you decide to be Jewish, you are choosing to swim in the river of history, a river that has a before, a present and a beyond. You can't rush it. It's moving at its own pace. Change happens. We here are in that river. So right now when you look for your personal message in the text, it may or may not come in the form of a complete prayer that makes sense to you from beginning to end. It may come in the form of one word that jumps out at you. Maybe the word Faith or the word Enter, who knows?
You could distance yourself from what is happening here by saying, that language doesn't make sense to me, I don't relate to a power in the sky that has unfathomable capabilities, it seems so old fashioned. I agree that some of the traditional language of the machzor is out of synch with our sensibilities in a contemporary world. Nevertheless, I invite you tonight to ride up over that concern, and, in the teaching of Rabbi Shefa Gold, "close the back door that distances you from this experience."
When you close the back door that lets you escape from Being Here, you silence the rational mind that is a chattering inner critic always analyzing and finding fault. Instead of feeding that part of the mind, drop deeper into a different state. Tune in to the mystery, to the unknown. Ask where is the blessing for me here? How can I open myself to it?
The blessing that you find in these Holy Days, when you discover it, will allow you to be clearer and more centered, calmer and more compassionate. It will help you clear the blockages that limit your awareness of your own inner abundant and overflowing shofar.
Are you ready for the blessing? You might want to sit in a receiving posture. Prepare the space to receive the blessing with deep breathing.
(Hebrew and English Priestly Blessing)
May God bless you and keep you.
May God's presence shine upon you.
May God lift you up and grant you peace.
Love and Blessings.
(Thanks to Rabbi Shefa Gold and Reb Zalman, as always, for their teaching of Torah.}