Shanah Tovah. A happy new year. It is very exciting to be here, celebrating with you all on this beautiful and holy day. On behalf of my family and I, thank you for such a warm welcome. We have felt right at home. Thank you to Alan Pierce and the leadership Temple B’nai Abraham, thank you to the minyanaires, and especially to Deb Vozella for your support during this transition. I would also like to welcome my parents, who are here from Chicago, and relatives who have joined us Newton.
Rosh Hashana is a happy time – a time when we look forward to the coming year with hope and optimism. But let’s face it: We were hopeful and optimistic last year, too, and frankly, the year 5771 was, in many ways, disastrous. So was 5770, for that matter. And now we’re supposed to face the coming year with hope and optimism — at a time of chaotic financial markets, out of control deficits; plunging real estate values, and widespread unemployment, to say nothing of drought and famine in east Africa, violence in Libya and Syria, and terrorism in Israel. What is happy and hopeful about this new year?
I believe that there is one thing that is profoundly hopeful about it: Our relationships – with our families, our friends, our communities and, of course, with God. These relationships can be like life rafts in a sea of troubles. We can help and console one another. When make each other laugh, God laughs with us. But like a garden, every relationship has to be tended, or it will wither and die. And Rosh Hashanah is a time, not only to be grateful for our relationships, but to think seriously about how to tend them and make their fires burn brightly.
Over the course of these days of Awe we will say the Un’taneh Tokef prayer. This ancient prayer of life and death asks us the most haunting of questions: who will live and who will die? This unsettling prayer also suggests three ways to alter this decree: Through Teshuvah, or turning in repentance, through Tefilah, or prayer, and through Tzedakah, or righteous actions.
But before we talk about these crucial concepts, I want to tell you a little story, one that was told by Reb Chanoch Henich of Alexander.
There once was a fellow who was very forgetful. Indeed, his memory was so short that when he awoke each morning he could not remember where he had laid his clothes the night before. Things got so bad for him that he began to not be able to sleep at all. He was so nervous that he wouldn’t be able to find things when he woke up.
One evening, however, he hit on a great idea. Taking pencil and paper, he wrote down exactly where he had placed each item of clothing. He placed his notes on the nightstand by his bed and quickly fell asleep. He slept peacefully in comfort and confidence that he would find everything just perfectly in the morning.
And indeed he did. He woke up, took the notes from his nightstand, and read off each item in turn. ‘Pants – on the back of the chair’; and there they were. He put them on. ‘Shirt – on bed post’; and sure enough there was his shirt. He put it on. ‘Hat – on desk’ and there rested his hat. He placed it on his head. In a few minutes the man was completely dressed, calm and cheery.
But suddenly a great dread came upon him.
“Yes, yes,” he said aloud. “Here are my pants, my shirt, and my cap; but where am I?”
He looked and looked and looked but he could find himself nowhere.
And that, Reb Chanoch Hinich concludes, is with each of us as well.
Where am I? This is one of the existential questions we face on these high holydays. Not “who am I” but “where am I”- And our liturgy and our time here together help us to write the clues that we might use to respond to this question. We spend these days together to relocate and renew our hearts, our souls, our sense of trust and gratitude.
The question, “Who am I?” sets the self in isolation. It is only about me. But “Where am I?” – this is in relationship to others, to God, to the universe, to life. We take this time away from our busy lives, our checklists and schedules, our electronic gadgets and our work. While we rely on many of these things to help us function and sustain ourselves, they may also distract us from other realities in our lives. We take the time now to face this profound question, together: where am I? Over the next ten days, referred to as the Yamim Noraim, we take the time, either in services or at home, during meditation or a walk by the beach to reflect: Where am I?
God poses a form of this question very early in our Torah, in Chapter 2 of the Book of Genesis.
Adam and Eve are in the Garden of Eden enjoying life but then a snake beguiles Eve and they eat from the forbidden fruit – from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad. God then calls to Adam, God says, Ayekah, where are you? Now, it’s God calling – God certainly knows where Adam and Eve are. God doesn’t ask to find out where they are in space. I believe God asks this question so that Adam and Eve might ask themselves, “Where am I in relationship to God?” I hear God’s question to mean, “Have you changed? Have you regretted what you did?”
And so it is with us on this day of Rosh Hashanah. God asks, “Where are you? Have you changed? Have you regretted anything you have done? Where are you in relationships? Where are you in your life? Where are you in relationship to the world you inhabit?”
I had about three weeks “off” in between my last position and moving here. I planned to meditate, do yoga, and go for long walks in the woods – all to prepare myself for these holidays. But packing, selling a house, and taking care of a baby seemed to take up most of the time until I found myself at the brink of September. And now, I face the question: Where am I? Am I ready to face such ultimate questions? With the help and support of these holy days, and the fact that we all are here, praying together, I am ready to face this question with you.
God calls out to the first human being in the Garden of Eden, and says, Where are you? And with all of his fears intact Adam steps out of hiding. Adam says, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.”
According to Rabbi Rami Shapiro, “This is the ultimate spiritual challenge. Can you step out of hiding? Most of us imagine that we must change before we can be present to God. We need years of therapy, meditation, and spiritual discipline before we have earned the right to be present. But the truth is that there is nowhere else we can be. Right now, with all of your fears, shame, mistakes, and muddleheadedness, just come out of hiding!”
This is what these ten days are for, from today to Yom Kippur. Where am I in my relationships? What needs forgiveness. Where am I in relation to myself – what needs nurturing? Where am I in my community? What needs repair?
It’s tempting to ask in a world where there is so much distress, not where am I, but where is God? And here we are, gathered together on this holy day, calling out to God, Avinu Malkeynu, save us! Avinu Malkeynu, write us in the book of life! Avinu Malkeynu, have mercy upon your creation.
All of us, at one time or another, have wondered what God was up to. When I was a child I remember going to synagogue on the high holidays, the choir and the cantor would sing, and we would pray. And it was as if God were like superman, who would swoop down and save us. Or, during this season, it was like God was a king with a crown and a beard, seated on his throne in the sky, judging us on our behavior.
As I grew older, I still sang the same prayers, but I certainly questioned what they meant. These questions later led me to rabbinical school. But the challenge is still there for me when we pray, Avinu Malkeinu, inscribe us in the book of life. Or, as in Unetanah Tokef – which we will chant just after the Torah service, the question is asked, “Who shall live and who shall die . . . who by fire and who by water . . . who will be calm and who will be tormented?”
If I do not believe in a God who metes out punishment – and I don’t — then what meaning have these prayers?
My teacher, Rabbi Arthur Green writes of a mystical theology, in which God is like a soul that fills and animates the universe. This is not a God in the sky, or a God out there, but One that unites all. This is the God that we acknowledge when we say, Shema Yisrael, Listen Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.
This One is also in us. Part of what makes us unique in the universe is that we know that we are created in the divine image, and can act accordingly.
According to this theology, then, when we pray, it is an internal process. It is accessing this divine spark within. If we listen deeply, we can hear a still small divine voice whispering.
This voice is asking, where are you in helping me to carry forward the repair of this broken world? If the human being is in the image of God, every single one, where are you in seeking to treat human beings in this way?
Let us focus a little more on the Unetaneh Tokef prayer:
“This day all who walk the earth pass before You as a flock of sheep… You determine the life and decree the destiny of every creature. On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: …who shall live and who shall die.”
As our Hazan chants this prayer about life and death, I will tremble as I face my own mortality. And I am comforted by two things: The first is the haunting refrain that defies translation: Uteshuvah, utzedakah, utfilah maavirin et ro-a hagezerah: Repentence (Teshuvah), prayer (tefilah) and righteous actions (Tzedakah) do something – what? Maavirin is usually understood as “cancel.” But it really means “to cross over.” Repentance, prayer and righteous giving do not change the facts of life, but a heart opened by them will cross through life’s inescapable misfortunes somewhat more gently.
Unetanah Tokef focuses us on these three questions:
Where am I in relation to teshuvah – turning in repentence – what do I need to repair in my relationships?
Where am I in relation to tefilah – prayer – How can I tend to my spiritual life, and to my place in this kehilat kedushah, this holy community, Temple B’nai Abraham?
Where am I in relation to tzedakah – righteous actions – How can I contribute, financially or with my time, to repair of the world?
Finally, in Unetanah tokef, this prayer of life and death, I am thankfully drawn to the line that says, “u-veshofar gadol yittaka, vekol demama maka yishama – a great shofar will be sounded and a still small voice will be heard.”
The blast of the shofar awakens us, to listen. What is it saying, this still small voice? If we can clear away all of worry and concern and tumult of life, perhaps we can hear it.
Perhaps it is whispering the question we contemplate over the next 10 days. The whisper of the self, the whisper of the divine…
Ayekah…? Where are you…?
May we be blessed on this day to reflect on this question. And may the answers bring comfort, meaning, and renewed relationships.
L’shannah tovah umetukah, may this be a good year, a sweet year, for you and your families.