The most important mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah is to hear the shofar blast. We have many ways to acknowledge the new year – praying together, eating apples with honey and round challah, throwing breadcrumbs into Lake Washington. But our central religious obligation is to hear the shofar sound.
The shofar is a call to teshuvah – it is a call to return to our best selves, to reconnect with our deepest values and beliefs. It is a reminder to do right, and its loud, primal, even alarming sound is a wake-up call – to remind us that it is urgent that we do right by each other and ourselves and our community. This can’t wait until next year or even next week.
Among the many verses traditionally recited before hearing the shofar is this verse from Psalm 118:
Min hameitzar karati yah – Anani be-merchav yah.
From a narrow place, I cried out to G-d. G-d answered me with wide expanse.
I love this verse. “From a narrow place, I cried out”—its imagery resonates so clearly with my experience, the metaphor of spiritual distress being constricted and small. Stuck. Unable to see over the horizon of my own perspective. Unwilling to reach through fear of misunderstanding to be open to another person’s experience.
And G-d’s answer is equally resonate—an answer that really isn’t an answer at all – it’s a riddle, something obvious, and at the same time confounding. “G-d answered me with wide expanse…” G-d isn’t expanding the narrow place, or leading us out of it. Our liberation is simply that the expanse is there for us. And our task is to move from the narrow place into openness.
This year, this is the meditation and the intention that I will bring to hearing the shofar. Tekiah, shevarim, truah: Move into openness.
The shofar’s urgency is a demand for holiness, a demand for repentance, and a demand for change; but it is not a call to the “straight and narrow path.” Our tradition teaches us that the narrow place is a place of distress, of oppression, of small mindedness and constricted spirit. It is Mitzrayim, our place of enslavement. This alarm is not meant to scare us into staying in line. Rather each blast demands just the opposite. We are called to find righteousness in expansiveness. We are called to take up space, and to make space for one another.
The path of right acting should be the path of joy, of celebration and wholeness. As theologian and civil rights activist Howard Thurman advised, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
I think this is a message we urgently need right now. I am worn down by the narrow places.
The recent years in our country have brought more narrow places, more narrow choices. After the 2000 election, the country was strictly divided into red states and blue states. And quickly after, the whole world was divided into the now-familiar categories: “with us” or “with the terrorists.” After five years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in a time of sustained violence in Israel and Palestine, and in the wake of the vicious attack on Seattle’s Jewish Federation just months ago – the fear of anti-Semitic violence realized in our own community – the world feels more and more like a narrow place. A place of strict binaries and delineations. With misunderstanding, alienation and even terrible violence to mark the borders between. When the stakes are highest and our fear and grief right in front of our eyes – those are the times it is hardest to sustain faith in the righteousness of openness, the holiness of expanse.
Still, if the narrow place is our place of enslavement, expanse can be a terrifying freefall. So while the narrow place is our Mitzrayim, it can also be a place of tragic comfort. Held tight against the familiar, we have little room to be challenged by something new, something different. Little room for failure. The narrow place comes to be fully known, precisely mapped, its cartography constructed to clearly mark who is us and who is not.
Some of the deepest and most volatile divisions in our world right now wait for the simple—the impossible—deliverance of expanse. At Kol HaNeshamah, as a congregation, we have committed ourselves to stepping together into this open place.
In our postmodern age, we have so many different experiences of G-d and the universe to bring together. In our congregation of 125 families, we must have at least several dozen, if not several hundred definitions of Judaism. Here is my favorite: “Judaism is a 3,000-year-old argument about what Judaism is.” That is to say that Jews understand that ours is a 3,000 year old civilization that is incredibly
rich and diverse and layered. A civilization that came of age in Diaspora, our people again and again refusing to disappear into the void. And instead, improbably, enriched by embracing the expanse. Threaded through our civilization are an almost dizzying number of different expressions of how to act righteously, how to repair the world, how we connect with G-d and the infinite, and how we understand the nature of the universe, Jewish identity and Jewish community.
That we are a Reform and Progressive Jewish community means that we are both entitled and obligated to examine the tradition thoughtfully, and to make choices about what beliefs and practices we take on or reject. I am part of a generation who has embraced irony, and made an art of pulling apart meaning and symbols, rearranging them in new and unexpected ways. We make Kiddush together and sanctify wine in compostable cups. We keep kosher and have tattoos. We are sincere in blessing G-d for giving us commandments – yet we are committed to our own responsibility to determine our actions, and we are skeptical about whether Gd exists at all.
Historian David Biale has remarked that the American Jewish community of the next generation “will be the most multicultural Jewish community since the days of the first Temple.” As we embrace and build on this diversity, and continue to make room for our various experiences, we face again an age-old challenge with new insight and new tools.
This is a challenge that will be with us into the foreseeable future: The ability to create our own meaningful, personal Jewish practice is liberating, but can also be unmooring. How do we maintain any tradition if it must be so elastic, so inclusive?
According to one interpretation, it was just this sort of existential crisis that led to the creation of the golden calf, the most famous sin in all of Jewish history. After the Jewish people were liberated from slavery in Egypt and Moses had ascended Mount Sinai to be with G-d, the Israelites made an idol – a golden calf – to worship and pray to. This episode was so egregious and offensive to G-d that I really shouldn’t even bring it up right now. It is generally considered a terrible idea to remind G-d of the golden calf incident, particularly during the days of awe when we are counting on G-d’s mercy.
But what was the sin of the calf? It was not that the people Israel, the multitude of diverse people who fled slavery in Egypt, intended to worship this idol instead of G-d. The text in Exodus makes it very clear that Aaron and the people intended it to be a representation of Adonai, not any other god or spirit.
But they were tired of the expansiveness of the wilderness. Moses had gone away, and they didn’t know if they would ever get their leader back. This was a people scarcely removed from slavery, and brand new in its relationship with G-d. They didn’t have the Torah, they didn’t have the ten commandments, and now they didn’t have their prophet. The ties that bound them together in their exodus frayed in the
wilderness as the differences between the many tribes and peoples became more apparent. The ground underneath them had been shifting for years now, and they were looking for a sure thing. They wanted a way to receive G-d’s message clearly and unambiguously, uncorrupted by any human agenda. They figured, the one problem with prophets is that they are human. They had clearly seen Moses’
shortcomings. How could they be sure that when a prophet brings a message from G-d that the message is being transmitted accurately?
They were grateful to be delivered from Mitzrayim, but they were tired of the spiritual rigor of the expanse. So they reasoned, let’s make an inanimate object and use it to receive G-d’s word. Then we will know for certain that we are getting it right
But this attempt to get a purer and more reliable form of G-d is a deep affront to an essential principle of Judaism – that holiness is revealed to people. Trying to receive the word of G-d without the meaning coming through human people is idol worship—the worst transgression in the Torah. We are not meant to set G-d in stone – fix meaning in gold. We are required to engage the tradition, to insert
ourselves into it even if sometimes, inevitably, we get the message wrong.
We are not to confine holiness to one shape.
The Talmud teaches that every time a Jew studies Torah, G-d is revealed anew. And we are taught that all of these many, different, varied, and divergent revelations are required to fully realize our relationship with the infinite. If we release this notion from metaphor, if we approach it literally, we reveal a solution for the gaps in our tradition—for the many voices, many experiences marginalized in our civilization and silent in the Torah. Our lives become an extension of the written text. Our struggle to sanctify life by honestly seeing ourselves and others literally illuminates the face G-d.
I love that there is a Jewish blessing for every situation – eating a homegrown tomato for the first time this season, seeing Mount Rainier when the clouds lift, seeing a Torah scholar, seeing a secular scholar, hearing great news, and hearing terrible news. And there is one for noticing someone remarkably different. The traditional time to say this blessing is on seeing someone with a very unusual physical feature – one you’ve never seen before. Among the several interpretations of this blessing are “Blessed are You who makes all the creatures different;” “Blessed are You who makes strange creatures;” and “Blessed are You who varies the forms of Your creation.” This blessing is somewhat out of fashion, and understandably so. It can certainly be heard as objectifying or insulting to the person who inspires it. Still, as a person myself who gets my share of puzzled looks on the street (or G-d forbid in public bathrooms) – I love the idea of this blessing. I love it because it requires us to notice difference – even when it unnerves us. It is
quintessentially Jewish in that it doesn’t try to “correct” our thoroughly human impulse to be curious about each other. Instead, it offers us a framework for that curiosity. It doesn’t tell us to ignore strangeness or pity it, but to be grateful for the opportunity to notice it. In my experience, this is the difference between the look that says “wow – what a freak” and the one that says “wow – what a freak – hallelujah!”
This is our challenge of tradition, of community–to create space for one another as an experience of the divine. But how do we do it? How can we be a place of expanse, where intimacy is also possible? Jewish scholar Luke Dzmura writes that in order to have intimacy, we must know about each other’s specific experiences. He says of his experience as a transgendered Jewish man, “Through storytelling, we can narrate the part of our lives that our bodies no longer tell. If I gloss over my girlhood I am depriving myself of those precious—even if preciously difficult—experiences. If I want real intimacy with people, I need to tell the truth of my life.”
Over and over, I have been struck that our synagogue community has articulated intimacy as one of our core values. I have to admit it – when I was first looking into joining Kol HaNeshamah, the idea of being expected to form intimate bonds with people who at the time were complete strangers – gave me some pause. But I have since come to appreciate this emphasis on knowing each other. The Jewish Journey talk this morning and next week and in past years are a wonderful example of using storytelling to deepen our connection with one another.
The recent Appreciative Inquiry process reaffirmed the value of intimacy – this time as a means to building our community. Geoff and Nanette and others talked about intimacy – our close connection with each other, genuine concern for one another’s lives – as the key to doing what we’re trying to do. The upshot of our members’ wishes was that we want our synagogue community to grow and do more and expand, and yet stay small enough to be connected. Not to lose sight of one another. I appreciated the committee’s lovely interpretation of “smallness” as – not so big that we lose sight of one another. A delightfully expansive notion of “smallness”. In a word, intimacy.
And yet, too many of us know that intimacy alone does not protect us. We are – too many of us – survivors of domestic violence and child abuse, and witnesses to the enormous suffering that happens in intimate spaces. Almost every day I read about people – human beings in our communities – doing terrible, sometimes unspeakable violence to the people closest to them. And too many of us worry about the faces that we hide, that unnerve us— that we struggle with Hebrew, that our families never practiced this tradition together, that we show up here despite our ambivalence about where we fit in, or the resentment we carry about our exclusion from Jewish life.
To build an intimacy that remains open, expansive, that makes the space for each of us to see each other in our full humanity is no easy task. We have to resist the temptation of rooting our connection to each other only in our sameness, the things we have in common. And at the same time not treat another’s difference like a thing to be collected. Instead, we have to be open to an authentic experience of
each other person. Theologian Martin Buber calls this the I-You relationship, the encounter with another person’s humanity that is the essence of our experience of the divine.
In the Torah reading today, we will hear the story of the birth of Isaac. Sarah has been waiting, with determined but battered hope trying to keep her skepticism in check as she counts off the days, the months, the years, the decades that the promise to her—that her descendants would be as numerous as the stars—remains unfulfilled. Then Isaac is born, a miracle—in his tiny wrinkled hands, and squished up face the potential of hundreds, thousands, millions, rests in her arms. In her joy, Sarah has a choice to make. To embrace her baby in the expanse, in the impossible wonderment of G-d’s promise fulfilled—that all of it is there in her arms.
Or she can fall back into scarcity, worry, calculation. Sarah, our matriarch known most for establishing a tradition of hospitality, for her tent open on all sides to welcome everyone, to invite everyone in, looks at Ishmael and Hagar—her son’s brother, her son’s brother’s mother—and can no longer see them. Their humanity erased, she only sees her fears, the practice of her skepticism, the projection of scarcity and competition. G-d is with them, G-d is in them and she hardens her heart to them and casts them out. Into the wilderness.
She steps away from the promise of the expanse, away from the fullest measure of joy. And her choice reverberates down through the generations.
Our tradition teaches us that this choice, to honor the scarcity not the expanse, was an action that led inexorably to our enslavement, that led us literally into Mitzrayim. And whether fact or fable, these thousands of years later, we still are reaping the bitter fruit of this inability to see the other as bombs fall on our sisters, our brothers, our cousins. Now centuries later, the estrangement of Isaac and Ishmael is a symbol, an icon of division that is so deep it seems nearly impossible to imagine our way back to wholeness, back to peace.
This story is a family story. If a rift so deep can begin with family members turning away from love and openness – perhaps one humble way of beginning the overwhelming task of healing the divisions in the world is to turn toward each other. In this new year we are looking forward to what’s ahead. But before we can look ahead, our job is to go back to the places we have unfinished business. Our task between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is to heal the divisions we have in our personal relationships to one another. As Rabbi Michael reminded us last night, our intimate synagogue community has done a wonderful job of taking care of each other. Let us build on this foundation. Let us perfect the practice of generosity with one another, and carry our strength in openness into our task of healing the world.
And so, we hear the call and lift up our feet together. We stretch forward. For the briefest moment, for a tiny eternity, we exist in both places at once. One foot pushing off from a place that is familiar, narrow, known and the other reaching, searching for something solid that can bear our weight. For hope. And we are over, out in the wide, out in the impossible, out in the expanse.
May we all be blessed for a sweet new year.
Shabbat shalom. Shanah Tovah.