This is a d'var Torah, or sermon, which I gave 9/18/2012, at my synagogue, Congregation Netivot Shalom, Berkeley, California.
I would like to dedicate these words to the memory of my cousin Ted Humphrey, who died unexpectedly two days ago. I decided to still be the one to give this drash myself and so my husband Stephen is going to stand with me for support.
I'm going to start as in the game Jeopardy by reading you the answer to one of the most significant questions you might be asking on this solemn day. After the answer, I'll tell you what the question was. Ready for the answer?
"Well, it's nothing very special. Uh, try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations."
Yes, you guessed it, the question is, "What is the Meaning of Life?" And that was the answer according to Michael Palin in the movie Monty Python's The Meaning of Life.
I could just stop right there, take the rest of these pages and sit down, since that's obviously all you need to know, but I'm afraid I'm going to keep talking for a little while here and expound further on what this means in a Jewish context.
On the High Holidays we spend a lot of time here together saying prayers full of huge themes, frightening themes. Mortality, human frailty, guilt, G-d judging us and deciding who to write into the Book of Life. And I should say at this point, when I use the word G-d, I don't really know what I mean by that. As the 14th-century philosopher Rabbi Joseph Albo put it, "if I knew G-d, I would be G-d."
So with these vast themes, each of us has to find our own path to connecting with our ancient liturgy. Maybe for some among us, it's easy to connect with the prayers just as written. I don't have that particular talent. My mind skitters around a lot during davenning and I fixate on prayers that trouble me.
For example, I'm very afraid of the idea that G-d has a pen poised to write me into or out of the book of life for the coming year, depending on whether I'm sufficiently sorry for my misdeeds. I see that this is a somewhat childishly literal reading, and I struggle to come up with some way I can view it as a metaphor... but I find when I have the siddur in my hand that I keep dwelling on feeling like a misbehaving kid, anxious about my flaws and frightened that I might have slipped up badly enough that I might cause G-d to say "that's it for you this time." (G-d forbid. Just kidding! Sorry if I offended You.)
And this take doesn't satisfy me, to say the least. I want to know what these holidays, what this moment in this day is really for and really means in the context of my life, just as I want to know what the larger meaning of my life is. I would like to avail myself of the permission that we have during these days of awe to step out of day-to-day living and ask ourselves the really big questions -- to borrow from our beloved teacher Rabbi Creditor, questions that actually don't have answers.
Could it be that the book of life is a reflection of how we create the narrative of our lives, whether it's a garish paperback or a list of actuarial tables or an academic treatise or a juicy novel? How we give meaning to our mundane works, how we hold up what we do from day to day for examination in a way that honors our effort and adds up to a coherent whole. In this period of stopping to connect to the holy, how do we evaluate ourselves honestly, take stock and make a real accounting of how we are doing, without being so harsh that we shame ourselves into paralysis?
According to Chazal we don't need to worry so much about whether G-d wants to write us into the book. The deck is stacked in our favor as G-d judges us. According to Pesikta d'Rav Kahana as quoted in Eliyahu Ki Tov, G-d said to Adam, on Rosh Hashana "You are a sign unto your children. Just as you were brought before me to be judged, and you emerged forgiven, so too are your children destined to be brought before me on this day to be judged, and they will emerge forgiven." G-d already knows we're not going to be perfect, and that we will be forgiven if we can have the humility to ask.
It's quite a setup for us, isn't it? We are made to be imperfect, and to come before G-d every year at this time to examine our flaws and suffer from that examination, and then to know that G-d loves us just like this, in all our weirdness and our guilt, our impulsiveness and bad judgment. Why did Hashem make us like this, creatures that yearn for perfection and are made to always fall short of it?
Perhaps G-d wants us to always have a reason to do tshuva, to miss the mark and strive to do better, over and over. I'm reminded of the Chasidic story I love, which I think I heard from my Rosh Yeshiva at Pardes Rabbi Danny Landes, of the rich man who builds an entire separate Passover house where everything is kosher for Pesach (my long-suffering husband is probably getting misty-eyed at the thought)... and his rabbi says, You can't use it, you entirely missed the point. The point is never for us to arrive in perfection, the point is the process, working towards improving ourselves, sorting through our lives and our relationships to others. This process could be part of the way we are b'tzelem Elokim, in G-d's image, always feeling the unfinishedness of the world... experiencing in our tshuva the way that we really are a spark of the divine.
Tshuva can help us see a larger trajectory of meaning in what can otherwise seem like a disconnected series of struggles, can help it feel like the book of our lives flows meaningfully from page to page. Because meaning is what we crave. We are creatures who love story. We need an arc of story. We're always trying to construe our lives as being significant, as having a shape and a purpose, being a piece of a larger narrative. It's part of being human. Maybe that narrative drive is also part of the way we are b'tzelem Elokim, in G-d's image. Rosh Hashana's being the birthday of the world, Harat olam, means that it's the anniversary of G-d stringing together events in sequence to make creation... stringing together days after nights, water next to land, and giving life to the world. That is the oldest arc of story and the one that we continue to write.
So we are here in shul to reflect on what we have written this past year for ourselves in the book of our own lives, what kind of protagonists we are, what kinds of stories we are telling in the world as we string our days together one after another. Being asked to take the long view of ourselves, to try to be objective -- that's pretty difficult. I looked for guidance about how to do this and found as a negative example, how not to do it, Parshat Sh'lach L'cha, in the book of Bemidbar, Numbers, chapter 13, in which the people are asked to send a scouting party of spies to make an assessment of the land of Cana'an. The way they assess the land gets just about the worst possible performance evaluation from G-d. Definitely they did not get a rating of "exceeds expectations."
Just to recap the story of the spies, Moshe sends them to survey the land of Cana'an. A bit similarly to the way that we are cataloging our deeds from the year, Moshe asks them to answer questions like "what kind of country [it is ...] good or bad?" "ma ha'aretz [...] hatovah hi im-ra'ah?" (Num 13:17-19) The spies go to look, and when they come back, they make public declarations that scare everyone to death -- literally, since their unflattering description and the people's easy pessimism cause G-d to bar that whole generation from the land, instead dying along the way. The spies get up in front of everyone and freak out about the powerful inhabitants of the land and how numerous they are. Calev stops them and tries to take the tale in a happier direction. He says: "Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for *we shall surely overcome it.*" "Aloh na'aleh v'yarashnu otah, ki *yachol nuchal lah*". But the spies resist this hopeful spin and continue spreading hysteria about how coming into this land is going to be impossible because the people who live there are so scary. "Va'ne'hi v'einenu k'chagovim v'chen hayinu beineihem" -- we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and that's how we must have been in their eyes also. (Num 13:33)
The spies construct a tale about the Land, and it comes out as a terrifying ghost story to scare the whole people. Calev puts together the same facts, but interprets them positively. G-d is enraged by the *way the spies shape their narrative*. It's not that they're lying, but that their perspective as they put their observations together is full of despair, and it drains the hearers of hope and courage.
What I draw from this is that the point of our self-examination right now is not to slander ourselves, not to survey ourselves overly harshly, because that's not going to inspire us... rather the point to look honestly, to be realistic, and maybe to dan l'chaf zechut, give ourselves a little benefit of the doubt, as we are called to do for others.
When we allow ourselves to get frightened by the magnitude of our own mistakes, we can lose the stamina even to keep our eyes open and keep trying. When we look like grasshoppers to ourselves, as the spies say, we forget that we *can and will overcome*, Yachol nuchal lah! in the words of Calev. On Yom Kippur we can say ashamnu, stringing together fault after fault that we ascribe to ourselves, reporting on what we really see, and yet we can put it in the context that we are good at heart, made by G-d to be imperfect.
I think we all already know before we come into the High Holidays what it is we need to reckon with about our lives. We all carry the deep knowledge of ourselves that we need to be more compassionate, act more thoughtfully, stay healthier, make better use of our time, treat other people more kindly, feel more gratitude for our blessings and see each moment in this world as a beautiful and sacred gift. We know, and we are often afraid of that knowledge.
Right now we have the opportunity to summon up in community together the strength to open that book of our own lives and really read it, knowing that we're not really going to find plot twists already written that surprise us, but we might need help not feeling overwhelmed by the task of facing what we already see.
I find support for this in the way that at this time of year we really emphasize G-d's kingship, for example as Rashi says All year long we bless "HaE-l HaKadosh" [the holy God] in the third blessing of the Shemoneh Esreh prayer. However, from the evening service of Rosh Hashanah until the Neilah service of Yom Kippur one must bless "HaMelech HaKadosh" [the holy King], for during these days God demonstrates his Kingship over creation. (Rashi, Berachot 12b; Shulchan Aruch 582:1) We could also actually think of this is an an allusion to our own malchut or sovereignty, the power to take action. You do already contain the courage to change, even though the voice that tells you what to do might be very, very still and small. "Yachol nuchal lah!" You can actually do it! And you have a better chance if you aren't seeing yourself as a grasshopper in your own eyes.
In Bemidar directly after the passage about the spies, Moshe asks for forgiveness and Hashem answers "Salachti kidvarecha," I have forgiven as you asked, which we say as part of our liturgy during this season. Numbers 14:19-20 G-d can only forgive us as we ask. We have to summon up the strength together to shine our little flashlights into the dark spiderwebby spots and take a broom to them, to call out specifically to G-d in these unfinished and troubling places where we need help and mercy.
If you didn't need forgiveness, if you didn't make mistakes, how could G-d's promise to Adam be fulfilled to issue forgiveness every year? This holiday was created predicated on your making mistakes. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in his beautiful introduction to the Koren Rosh Hashana machzor, "We were created in love and forgiveness by the G-d of love and forgiveness who asks us to love and forgive."
The gates of prayer are open for us today, and when those gates close after Neilah on Yom Kippur and we are done with this holy period of time, what will we take away? Psalm 27, the psalm for this time of year, speaks about the yearning to dwell in G-d's house, beit Adonai, kol y'mei chayai, all the days of my life. When we come together, today and all through the year, we do get to dwell in G-d's house... Whenever we pray together we make wherever we are into G-d's house. As Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels wrote in the June 2012 Pardes newsletter:
R. Pinchas of Koretz, an early Hasidic master, taught, "The world thinks that one prays before the Holy One, blessed be He, but it is not thus. For prayer itself is truly the essence of divinity. As it is written: He is your prayer and He is your God (Deuteronomy 10:21)." (Midrash Pinchas, Sec. 1:52, p. 37-38)
[Rabbi Jacobson-Maisels continues: ...] the divine is not out there somewhere but right here [...] in the sense of the full gestalt of the moment. When we take our three steps forward into the amidah we normally imagine ourselves as entering the presence of God, approaching the King. Here, however, when we step into prayer we enter the very body of God. We merge into God's presence. Indeed, the very stepping itself is the flow and movement of the divine in and through us.
As we worship, as we weave our prayers and our regrets and our hopes and our griefs and our fears and our flaws together here in community, that *is* the book of life... we are being G-d's siddur, we are forming G-d's prayer, as according to this beautiful idea G-d is our prayer. Being connected here together, being an expression of the divine together, parsing the liturgy together, striving to improve together, looking for meaning together, that is the most meaningful thing I can imagine.
Thank you for being part of what at least for me really is the meaning of life. I wish you all a powerful and beautiful holiday season and a year full of meaning, health and joy. L'shana tovah.
--Shifra Pride Raffel
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