Dvar Torah, Erev Rosh Hashana 2010/5771

This is a d'var Torah, or sermon, which I gave 9/8/2010, at my synagogue, Congregation Netivot Shalom, Berkeley, California.

L'shana tova tikateivu v'tichateimu.

I'd like to dedicate this drash to the memory of the family members we have lost in the last two years, including Stephen's father William Maurice Pride, my cousin Amy Raffel and my beloved uncle Yuri Humphrey.

I'm not the first to remark that when we Jews bring in a New Year, it's not exactly a fabulously festive New Year's party. We spend a whole lot of time sitting (and standing, and sitting, and standing, and sitting) in shul and in sober prayer. With no disrespect to everyone who has worked so hard to make these services happen, including the machzor committee, among them Rabbi Kelman, who worked for 12 years to bring us these beautiful new machzors we are using, I know I can sometimes go through these long long services of the High Holidays feeling disconnected -- maybe not particularly thrilled to be here -- maybe even a little, dare I say it, bored.

Those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, you guys might want to spend this time getting a start on saying Al Chet, cause you're already totally set up to have a great High Holiday season. This drash is for anyone else who, like me, has found yourself in shul for the High Holidays without feeling fully present.

So I don't know about you, but for me, I think disconnection tends to happen because I'm distracted, usually because I feel like my emotions are at odds with what I'm supposed to be thinking about. For the past few years I have been arriving to shul with a lot going on inside, and trying to say "shush" to my own thoughts.

So I'm talking to myself as much as anyone when I say, it's all right not to shush your own heart. If you are preoccupied, maybe kind of doubting what the whole thing is about anyway, even if you feel angry at G-d for the way your life is right now, that is not something you have to try to ignore or banish in order to be here.

It is truly all right to bring what is really in your heart into the High Holidays.

And you don't need me to be the one to give you official permission. In Ashrei, a prayer traditionally said daily, that appears in our Shabbat services and in our machzor, there is a line: "Karov hashem l'khol kore'av, l'khol asher yikru'u v'emet." (p. 120) G-d is close to everyone who calls out to G-d, everyone who calls out to G-d in truth. B'emet -- truly.

What is the truth of this turning of the year for you? What is true in your life, what's truly in your mind right now? When you can be in touch with the emet, the truth, of where you are and where your heart is, that's the beginning of our first task of the season, Tshuva, repentance or turning, the work of reviewing our lives and trying to turn back to the path that we know is right and that we lost during this last year. That is first of all the work of being able to confront the truth of our lives as they really are. Sometimes that can be quite painful.

In my family in the past few years it's been a time of a lot of loss. And at any given moment most of us here are probably dealing with one form or another of loss, which you can think of as being: when your heart is going one way and your life is going another. If you are lucky enough not to have lost a person in this last year, we are always facing big or small losses in our lives, loss of youth, loss of possibilities, even the sadness of knowing that last year's bright shiny hopes for our own behavior during the year may not have turned out to come true.

The pain of loss should not be something that shuts you out of High Holiday prayer. Indeed it could be thought of as being part of what we are doing here.

The wikipedia article on Kaddish, the prayer said after study that is a key part of our rituals of mourning, points out that the line in Kaddish "Yehai shmei rabba m'vorach l'olam u'almei almaya" could be thought of as an Aramaic translation of "Baruch shem k'vod malchuto l'olam va'ed." -- that's the phrase that we say quietly all year round after the Shema, and once a year during the High Holidays, on Yom Kippur, we say it out loud together.

So some of the specialness of our liturgy for the Chagim correlates directly to our traditional prayer of commemorating loss. And to follow that connection further, Leon Wieseltier's book on Kaddish cites Rashi as saying that we say Kaddish at least partly because G-d needs consolation for having destroyed the temple and exiled us. Wieseltier cites a 13th-century commentator, Elaezar ben Judah of Worms or the Perfumer, to the effect that Kaddish is in Aramaic so that the angels, who only speak Hebrew, won't know that G-d is sad and needs comforting -- G-d is not comfortable letting the angels in on the secret. So if you come to shul feeling lonely and self-conscious about whatever sadness you are carrying, not only are you probably not the only person present to be feeling that, but in fact G-d is also apparently shy about G-d's own feelings of loss.

Revealing our own pain to ourselves and letting ourselves know what we already know about our own hearts -- that is one definition of tshuvah. That may include remembering and vividly feeling your love and longing for whomever or whatever you have lost.

And if people are going to really allow themselves to feel deeply during services, sometimes tears will come. So I just want to add a gentle public service announcement about what it's like for some of us to have a big emotional experience during services. It can be embarrassing. For many of us, even though your intention is very loving, it's not helpful to ask a crying person to talk about what is wrong. You can let them know you're there with a sympathetic look, a pat on the arm, a hug if you know them well, but it can be best, instead of asking directly, to invite them "I'm here to listen if you ever feel like telling me what's going on for you." Sometimes they might not want to say or might not even be able to articulate it in that moment.

When we do allow ourselves and each other to be safe to feel deeply together, that can actually bring us all great richness and beauty. Bruce Springsteen in his lovely album The Rising, written in response to September 11th 2001, portrays eloquently what it is like to try to carry on in the face of loss. "How do you live broken-hearted?" he asks in the song "Mary's Place". "I got a picture of you in my locket I keep it close to my heart... Your favorite record's on the turntable I drop the needle and pray."

I am so inspired by the way that Springsteen created something unifying and very beautiful out of his own pain in the face of our national crisis. The hope is always there for us that we will be able to make something redemptive out of agony. Letting in the reality of pain is the beginning of healing. "There is nothing as whole as a broken heart," the Kotzker rebbe is supposed to have said. (p. 62 of machzor)

Because when we are aware of hard truths, when we let our hearts speak freely to us, then we can really connect -- we can turn toward other people and toward whatever G-d is for support and help. Connecting to G-d is the second prescription of our tradition at this time of year: Tfilla, prayer. Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, summarized a talk by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to the effect that the definition of Tefillah is when "the person seeks to attach himself to G-d. It is a movement from below, from man, reaching towards G-d." http://www.chabad.org/holidays/JewishNewYear/template_cdo/aid/4453/jewish/Teshuvah-Tefilla-and-Tzedakah.htm

And that reaching doesn't necessarily mean the set prayers in the machzor. If those prayers don't articulate for you what you need to say, what about calling out to G-d with the real truth of what you're feeling, what about saying during the silent amidah, the silent prayers in the services of this season, "Okay, G-d, whatever the heck you are, this seems kind of stupid, but that lady Shifra said to try talking to You. I don't have any idea what you are or where you are, G-d, but I wish I did. G-d, I'm lonely for something. I feel far away. G-d, please help me open my heart."

And if that doesn't work for you, there are a whole lot of quite diverse supplemental readings and prayers in this machzor -- the left-hand column of every page through the whole machzor, as we heard in the Yeshivat Lev Shalem learning we had before the chagim, was deliberately filled with a very wide range of voices that even express doubt and alienation. One of them might speak to you or speak for you if you feel you have nothing to say. One of my favorites is on p. 116, a prayer that really struck me, about sounding the shofar. (I promise not to check as I walk back to my seat how many of you are driven to reading page 116 before I get done.)

Or if this Rosh Hashana you don't have the patience for any words at all, every time the Shofar sounds, you can close your eyes and let the shofar be the sound of your heart crying out with whatever it needs to say to G-d.

And if you try that too and instead of feeling any closer to G-d you find yourself still sitting there wishing you were closer to the trip home, there's one more traditional prescription for this season, Tzedaka, giving charity or acting righteously. Acts of remembrance dedicated to something or someone can help those of us who are coping with loss to feel that the world can be repaired to feel hopeful for you again. Giving away a set part of your income, the traditional fraction being one tenth. Volunteering. Taking on Jewish learning and dedicating it to a cause or a person. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein in a Yom Kippur sermon called "Missing Pieces" says about tzedakah, "we can reach out and use our pain in "rachmones", in compassion, to someone else in pain." http://www.kolel.org/pages/holidays/5762_YKS2.html Acts of tzedakah can be a way to make vividly alive the memory of a loved one, to help live through the pain of loss, and to remind us that we have a community to which we can matter no matter how small we ourselves are feeling. It's another way to have the truth of our lives be felt and expressed, to make a dedication of some act of kindness.

The way we remember loss, and can create art and pray and cry and speak in eulogy and do acts of tzedaka in memory, is part of the way we are b'tzelem elokim, in G-d's image. G-d also mourns with us and our expression of sorrow is part of the connection that we have with the Divine.

Tshuva, tefilla, tzedaka. These tools are available to us in this season. I wish us courage to use them and I bless us that we should feel present with whatever is really true for us, and not to feel alone. May we be brave enough to bring our full hearts and the truth of our longing to shul with us during these high holidays and all the year round... and may that help us all bring our full selves with us to shul, because after all, that won't actually take up any more folding chairs. Genuinely good davening to you and l'shana tova.

--Shifra Pride Raffel

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