Awaken My Soul: A sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah

Shana Tovah

Wow! Wasn’t this something.  Thank you Cantor and Jeremy and the Kol Ami New Year’s Band for such an uplifting beginning to our Rosh Hashanah 5775!

 

We all need awakening for the New Year.   Tonight we can say goodbye to the tzoris of last year.  For the last few months I just wanted to pull the covers over my head and keep sleeping.  I wanted to pretend that the turmoil of the world was not my concern. So many tragic happenings: War on Israel and the Gazan people who are hostages to Hamas, Ferguson, Mo and the turmoil there; drought, Children fleeing as refugees from violence to America only to be treated horribly warehoused and becoming a political football; ISIS and beheadings, Anti-Semitism in Europe and around the world, the Ebola virus growing in Africa. It is enough to crawl away and not deal with it.

But this time of year-calls us, calls each of us to wake up and anticipate the possibility that with the New Year blossoming before us tonight, together Jews around the world might coach out our eternal prayer of hope for us and for the world.

We are a people who have been schooled in tragedies throughout our history. And yet, we the bearers of Jewish history, custom, tradition and values, time and again, believe that the world can be better. We cannot and must not give up the hope that through our prayer and our actions we can affect positive change.  This New Year’s arrival calls us to implement change within ourselves and in the world around us. The sounding of the shofar is vehicle for teshuvah, repentance. Its sound—the sound of a child sobbing in search of the parent he has abandoned—wakens our hearts to return to God and restore and intensify the relationship we have damaged with our transgressions.

I have taught you time and again that Teshuva, means not only repentance but also turning around.  This holy day period- this Asseret Yamei Teshuvah, These Ten Sacred Days of Turning-means that we turn ourselves around, we repent of those words and deeds that harm ourselves and our families, our world, and we turn it over to create a new life for ourselves and our world.  Think of this as a holy dance to the sacred music of the Shofar. This is the hope of our people.  We believe humanity can be better. We believe the world can be better. We believe that we can strive to walk in the ways of goodness, righteousness, and compassion. We believe that we can triumph over evil.

These are our values and the Shofar is our clarion call.

A story:

A professor walked around a room while teaching stress management to her students.

As she raised a glass of water, everyone expected they’d be asked the “half empty or half full?” question.

Instead, with a smile on her face, she inquired: “How heavy is this glass of water?”

Answers called out ranged from 8 oz., 12 oz to 20 oz.

She replied, “The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long I hold it.

  • If I hold it for a minute, it’s not a problem.
  • If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache in my arm.
  • If I hold it for a day, my arm will feel numb and paralyzed.

In each case, the weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.”

She continued, “The stresses and worries in life are like that glass of water; think about them for a while and nothing happens. Think about them a bit longer and they begin to hurt.  And if you think about them all day long, you will feel paralyzed – incapable of doing anything.”

So too with our sins and transgression and the problems of the world in the world. The longer we hold on to them the more incapable we become of doing anything about them.

This is what we hear in the blasts of the Shofar—tekiah, teruah, shvarim, tekiah—wake up you and you and you, wake up world, awaken your soul, and turn around. Get rid of those things that are chipping away at your soul. The sounds of the shofar are calling us to focus on hope and the New Year rather than our worries.  It’s calling us to get rid of the errors, the lies we tell ourselves and others. It is telling us through each note:  Hate evil and love what is good, as our Prophets Amos and Micah taught.

The holy days are here to shake up your soul to engage in Teshuvah and to help restore hope in yourself, the Jewish people and the world!

The Baal Shem Tov, the great founder of Chasidic Judaism, taught that just as one can grasp a physical thing by holding on to it, so can one grasp the soul by calling its name. For this reason, a sleeping person wakes up when his name is called,  (Toledoth Yaakov Yosef, Shemoth (42d)  Sefer Baal Shem Tov  Bereshit 121 Keter Shem Tov 104).

Tonight and tomorrow, the Shofar is asking you to awaken-it is calling your name out loud… Jew.  Tekiah, Jew wake up. Teruah-it’s time to turn and change, Shvarim, it’s urgent now. Tekiah—don’t go back to letting your soul sleep- awaken your soul, its time to overcome- and restore faith and hope in yourself, God, the Jewish people and in the world!

Maimonides the greatest of our Jewish philosophers and legal interpreters wrote in the opening to the Laws of the Shofar in the Mishneh Torah,  “It is a positive mitzvah of the Torah to hear the blast of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, as it is stated: “It shall be a day of blowing the horn to you. (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shofar, 1:1)

The mitzvah, your responsibility is hearing the notes of the Shofar. Maimonides continues “Although the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a Torah decree, there is an allusion in it as well. It says: “Be roused, sleepers, from your sleep, and slumberers, wake from your slumber; search your deeds and return in teshuvah…” remember your Creator and return to God in repentance. Do not be like those who miss the truth in pursuit of shadows and waste their years seeking vanity. Look well to your souls and consider your deeds; turn away from your wrong ways and improper thoughts.” (Mishneh Torah 3:4)

Maimonides understood exactly what I am saying tonight to each of you. Wake up people.  Wake up Jews.  Wake up world.  We cannot sit idly by without hope for if we do we will succumb to the evil and the horror that is present.  It will incapacitate us. In fact the Hebrew root of the word Shofar, L’hishtafer means to make better, to improve…. The Shofar is calling us to make ourselves and improve the world!

And there is evil in the world right now.  We see it every day in the headlines.  Judaism has struggled for a long time with the notions of good and evil.  But evil doesn’t exist as a separate entity challenging God.  It’s not like “the Devil made me do it!”  The Jewish truth is that human beings have the capacity to do evil. We have the moral responsibility to make a choice. And our Torah is very clear—Choose life over death. Choose goodness over unkindness; our system of Torah, our mitzvoth, our values try to elevate the human soul, shape the human soul so that we aspire to being honorable and righteous rather than to evil.  This New Year being together, hearing the shofar is a hedge against those evils.

The problem of evil also played an important role in the Jewish philosophy of Martin Buber. For Buber the source of evil was the failure to enter into relationship with others and God, and conversely evil can be redeemed by the reestablishment of relations. (Hu)Man(ity) is not evil by nature, but the misuse of (human) nature generates evil. (Some) can carry evil so far as to give it a kind of independent quality. However, evil is never an independent entity but such (people) crystallize it into a perverse resistance to the individual’s self-fulfillment in relation.

The late great poet and author Maya Angelou reflected on evil

We need the courage to create ourselves daily, to be bodacious enough to create ourselves daily — as Christians, as Jews, as Muslims, as thinking, caring, laughing, loving human beings,” she says. “ I think that the courage to confront evil and turn it by dint of will into something applicable to the development of our evolution, individually and collectively, is exciting, honorable.”

Both Maya Angelou and Professor Buber understood that the courage to confront evil and immorality that lurks in human beings has the power to elevate us. On this Rosh Hashanah, the sound of the Shofar urges you to detach your soul from those actions that literally pull you into the chaos of our times.  Hear the call of the shofar pulling you back toward balance.  Hear the call of the shofar urging you to improve. Hear the sound of the Shofar calling for your essential beauty.  Hear the sounds of the shofar awakening you to do teshuvah. And that teshuvah is turning inward so we can turn outward. Teshuvah will allow us to redefine ourselves. We are no longer the person of the past: the person of weakness; the person who couldn’t control herself; the one who harmed others with words or actions. The process of teshuvah urged on by the sound of the Shofar will call us toward repentance of our sins and will help us restore our connection to ourselves, to God and our place in the world.  True repentance returns us to spiritual balance.

It was a snowy night and Robert was recalling the time two springs ago when he was determined to paint the family room. Up early, he was out the door, to the hardware store gathering the gallons of red, the wooden mixing sticks, the drop cloths, and the one-time brushes that always harden, no matter what you soak them in.

He mixed the paint outside and waddled to the door with a gallon in each hand, the drop cloth under his arm, and a wide brush in his mouth. He began to chuckle in telling what happened, “I teetered there for minutes, trying to open the door, not wanting to put anything down. I was so stubborn. I had the door almost open when I lost my grip, stumbled backwards, and wound up on the ground, red gallons all over me. I lost my balance carrying too much”

At this point, he laughed at himself, as he has done many times. Amazingly, we all do this, whether with groceries or paint or with the stories we feel determined to share. We do this with our love, with our sense of truth, even with our pain. It’s such a simple thing, but in a moment of ego we refuse to put down what we carry in order to open the door. Time and time again, we are offered the chance to truly learn this: we cannot hold on to things and enter. We must put down what we carry, open the door, and then take up only what we need to bring inside.

It is a basic human sequence: gather, prepare, put down, and enter. But failing as we do, we always have that second chance: to learn how to fall, get up, and laugh. (http://www.marknepo.com/books_awakening.php)

This is the time of year for Jews. This is the time to put down the past and enter the New Year, pull away from temptations, have the courage to face the inner self ushered and strengthened by the sounds of the shofar.  The shofar is calling us to awaken.

 

The challenge this New Year’s Eve-is the same for each of us.  Through Torah, prayer, reflection, and meditation; by rebuilding our relationships to one another, to the Jewish people and to God we can restore balance to the world. We can as Professor Buber teaches us overcome the evils that human beings create by committing to live a different kind of life.  By setting down the past, and walking through the opening of a new day and a New Year; through this holy day season and for the next Ten days try to restore our spiritual balance. Through making teshuvah and the call of the Shofar we can awaken to a new day and yes, a new world.  By recommitting to our covenant, our Jewish responsibilities we too will have a stake in restoring balance to the world and ourselves.  At this New Year we must awaken ourselves, our souls to the cause of justice, and hope. Of combating the evil we create. We can heal the world if we begin to heal ourselves through teshuva.

May this be our prayer.

So said the Holy Blessed One to Israel.

“My beloved children. I lack nothing that I should ask of you.  So what do I ask of you? Just that you love one another and respect one another and be awed by one another. (Tanna de be Eliyahu 2b).

This indeed is our task-so let the shofar awaken our souls to love one another.

Ken Yehi Ratzon

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775

Remember Maya

 

Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou

Today one of America’s most beloved poets and writers died.  Maya Angelou gave voice to the struggles of growing up in the Jim Crow south. She gave voice to black women and men. She gave voice to Americans who struggled in poverty and she inspired the world with her courage.  She was a dancer, an activist, a writer and a poet.  In addition to her books and poetry, Maya Angelou wrote numerous plays, children’s books and essays. She wrote cookbooks and was an actress starring in movies and television.

Her day of birth fell on April 4 the same day that Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and for many years she refused to celebrate her birthday. Angelou’s distinctive voice whether in interviews or reading excerpts from her books or pieces of her poetry or on stage had a clarity and strength that was conveyed through her words and her eyes.  She had seen suffering and pain and also known joy and success as President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  She tried to describe the fullness of life through her writings.  Her memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is an American classic.  She was nominated for a  Tony, a Pulitzer Prize,  and won two Grammys and a National Medal of Arts and had more than 20 honorary degrees from various colleges and universities.

I will never forget listening on that cold January morning in 1993 when she read a new poem at President Clinton’s inauguration. She captured for many the moment and our America.  Here is her poem.  May her memory live as a blessing and her writings and activism continue to inspire all.

ON THE PULSE OF MORNING” by Maya Angelou written: Spoken at the Presidential Inauguration Ceremony, January 20, 1993.

A Rock, A River, A Tree

Hosts to species long since departed,

Marked the mastodon,

The dinosaur, who left dried tokens

Of their sojourn here

On our planet floor,

Any broad alarm of their hastening doom

Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

 

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,

Come, you may stand upon my

Back and face your distant destiny,

But seek no haven in my shadow.

I will give you no hiding place down here.

 

You, created only a little lower than

The angels, have crouched too long in

The bruising darkness

Have lain too long

Face down in ignorance.

Your mouths spilling words

 

Armed for slaughter.

The Rock cries out to us today, you may stand upon me,

But do not hide your face.

 

Across the wall of the world,

A River sings a beautiful song. It says,

Come, rest here by my side.

 

Each of you, a bordered country,

Delicate and strangely made proud,

Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.

Your armed struggles for profit

Have left collars of waste upon

My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.

Yet today I call you to my riverside,

If you will study war no more. Come,

Clad in peace, and I will sing the songs

The Creator gave to me when I and the

Tree and the rock were one.

Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your

Brow and when you yet knew you still

Knew nothing.

The River sang and sings on.

 

There is a true yearning to respond to

The singing River and the wise Rock.

So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew

The African, the Native American, the Sioux,

The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek

The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheik,

The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,

The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.

They hear. They all hear

The speaking of the Tree.

 

They hear the first and last of every Tree

Speak to humankind today. Come to me, here beside the River.

Plant yourself beside the River.

 

Each of you, descendant of some passed

On traveler, has been paid for.

You, who gave me my first name, you,

Pawnee, Apache, Seneca, you

Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then

Forced on bloody feet,

Left me to the employment of

Other seekers — desperate for gain,

Starving for gold.

You, the Turk, the Arab, the Swede, the German, the Eskimo, the Scot,

You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought,

Sold, stolen, arriving on the nightmare

Praying for a dream.

Here, root yourselves beside me.

I am that Tree planted by the River,

Which will not be moved.

I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree

I am yours — your passages have been paid.

Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need

For this bright morning dawning for you.

History, despite its wrenching pain

Cannot be unlived, but if faced

With courage, need not be lived again.

 

Lift up your eyes upon

This day breaking for you.

Give birth again

To the dream.

 

Women, children, men,

Take it into the palms of your hands,

Mold it into the shape of your most

Private need. Sculpt it into

The image of your most public self.

Lift up your hearts

Each new hour holds new chances

For a new beginning.

Do not be wedded forever

To fear, yoked eternally

To brutishness.

 

The horizon leans forward,

Offering you space to place new steps of change.

Here, on the pulse of this fine day

You may have the courage

To look up and out and upon me, the

Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.

No less to Midas than the mendicant.

No less to you now than the mastodon then.

 

Here, on the pulse of this new day

You may have the grace to look up and out

And into your sister’s eyes, and into

Your brother’s face, your country

And say simply

Very simply

With hope —

Good morning.