Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2014
Rabbi Dawn Rose
As most of you know, this will be my last Rosh Hashanah here at Temple Emanuel in Lowell. It’s been a good six years of learning and worshiping and growing. Now it is time to for my family and me to make a change.
Soon after announcing to the Board that I would be leaving this June, I went on a camping trip up on Lake Champlain to recoup. Now, I love camping. However, I am very particular about my campsites. My campsite must have three definite characteristics. It must have trees to shield me from the sun and wind. It may not be anywhere near any major or minor human edifices [with the possible exception of hot showers]. And, finally, my campsite must not be near any major thoroughfares.
So when I came to this Champlain campground and the ranger showed me the campsite that I had allegedly reserved, I was appalled. There was not a single tree in site. The campsite was a lonely fire pit on an empty flat expanse of dried mud on the edge of a cliff overlooking the lake. Most startling was that it was eye level with the Champlain Bridge, which was just about a couple hundred yards away—the huge bridge and all its noisy traffic.
If you have ever seen it you know that the Champlain Bridge is very high and strikingly beautiful. That was the only amenity. Up there on the barren cliffs, my campsite was broiling by day and a wind tunnel by night. The bridge took up all the view during the day and at night flooded my entire camp with light. The traffic sounds were constant. It was so annoying.
However, by the third day, I began to feel rather fondly of the bridge, its constant presence, its beauty and strength, even its utility. I began to internalize its inescapable symbolism. The week of camping became a sun drenched meditation on moving on.
I began to think about how leaving Temple Emanuel, would be like crossing that bridge in front of me. Getting to the other side meant finding new employment, perhaps moving to another city or state, outfitting a new home, learning new streets, making new friends, helping my children through the transition. It was an overwhelming proposition.
In many ways, we humans just don’t like change. We want to know that our home is at the same address as yesterday. We might get bored, but we still like having a job to go to and a regular paycheck in the mail.
Changing any one of these things can strike fear and sorrow in our deepest innermost places, and because of this fear, many of us prefer no change of any kind. We like the same breakfast food, vacation place, and Ma Johnn afternoon.
We come to depend on this sameness to help us feel anchored against the turmoil we see around us. We crave continuity to close away the chaos that we already know about through the testimony of addicts, Holocaust survivors and yesterday’s child TV stars.
We need to know with certainty that we and our loved ones are safe and secure and on our way to success. We believe that stability and continuity will help us achieve these goals—help fill that college fund, pay for long term hospitalization, provide in perpetuity that home everyone can come to share Thanksgiving and Passover. If we are going to take the risk of camping in the wilderness we want at least to be able to reserve the exact right site, away from the unwashed masses, surrounded by shielding trees.
In order to secure this security, to nail down this continuity, we want, within the circumference of our own little spheres, to be in control.
As a rabbi and a mother on the brink of a major change, I stand here today for and in solidarity with all of us in this temple and beyond that is, or will be faced with change. The truth is: Change is inevitable. Climates change, beloved parents die, jobs end, identities are stolen. Neighborhoods decline and others rise. Manual labor gives way to micro chips. One day, we all stand at the bridge whether or not we want to be there.
And what does Judaism have for us at this hour of change? I’m glad you asked.
On the one side Judaism is an eternal religion with God at its compassionate core. On the other hand, Judaism is a quintessential religion of change.
For example, consider today, Rosh Hashanah, a day of ritual and prayer bridging the change between last year and the next. Tonight and tomorrow, we will recite: ‘may it be a good year for us and our families…’ It is a very real prayer because we know all the terrible things that can happen.
The realities of the expanding threat of war and plague and hunger are ever present in our lives, just look at Iraq, Israel, Africa, and even here in Greater Lowell.
Our prayer book helps us to voice these, and other real and present fears. If we open up and admit these fears, confront our powerlessness, there comes the possibility of God moving into that open, exposed place, offering comfort and solace. Perhaps there is even a promise, intangible, but a sure promise nonetheless of Someone remaining in control, somehow. In these ways, Rosh Hashanah services help us walk over that high expanse bridging one year to the next. Because we are gathered here, we will walk over together. Because we have acknowledged powerlessness, an opening has been made for God to join us also.
In ten days we will we will observe Yom Kippur. This eternal holy day is all about change as well. We ask for forgiveness from God and each other, and thereby cross a bridge from old self, mired in bad habits, secrets and resentments, to new self, forgiven and forgiving, ready to start over. If we are sincere, that is a huge step from what we know, to a life that we don’t know yet.
All our life cycle events mediate and celebrate change: birth and bar mitzvah, marriage and death, all of these often unpredictable yet inevitable life events bring us to the bridge. All of these, Judaism marks with song and prayer and ritual, with gatherings and meals, introspection and sometimes even wild dancing.
It can be said that the entire Jewish ritual cycle comes to mark the changes in our lives. As much as we love and need the many stabilizers anchoring us against wind, rain, sickness and death, as hard as we worked to get our furniture just so, and our retirement this high, Judaism come to teach us that all these things that anchor us so deliciously to the ground, are indeed anchoring us to the ground. All our safety belts and buckles that we can look at to feel secure, just might be preventing us from seeing what lies beyond.
Sometimes the only time we can break free and look beyond is when we are wrenched away by one or more of these awful changes, the forced transitions. And that of course is going to be bad unless we reach through and make it for the good.
For most of us, it is impossible to deepen our spirituality if we are mired in our routine days. It takes some sudden hiring or firing, some forced migration or sudden surgery to wrench us from the safe and familiar. Sometimes, that’s the way we find our deeper or different levels of spirituality.
The Dalai Lama tells the following story about his own life. Though his spiritual framework is different from ours, his biography beautifully illustrates my meaning tonight.
When I was young and living high above the Tibetan city of Lhasa in the Potala Palace, I frequently looked at the life of the city through a telescope. I also learned a lot from the gossip of the sweepers of the palace; they served as my newspaper, telling what the Regent was doing, and what corruption and scandals were going on.
It is at once an astounding and serene scene, this young boy, the Dalai Lama, protected and pampered in his high palace, looking down over his realm through a telescope.
Then he goes on to describe the terrible events beginning with the 1950 invasion of Thailand by the Chinese military that destroyed his tender reality, pried him from home and comfort. He tells of the dangers he faced as a virtual outlaw, hiding in poverty until his clandestine flight across the mountains to India.
This terrible upheaval in his life, catalyzed by military invasion and occupation, was indeed fearful. Yet, for the Dalai Lama it was also an opportunity, as he explains.
[T]he invasion in 1950 forced me to become directly involved in issues that otherwise I would have been kept at a distance. Over the years, I have come to prefer the life I now lead, committed to social action in this world of suffering….
Looking back I can see how my own practice has benefited from a life of great turbulence and trouble. You too, can come to see the hardships you endure as deepening your [spirituality].
How to Be Compassionate: A Handbook for Creating Inner Peace and a Happier World Dalai Lama 2011 p. 18-19, 21.
The wisdom that adversity and change can bring us to a better place inside ourselves is already deep in our religion and in our culture, as illustrated in this song sung by country western artist Sara Evans.
A Little Bit Stronger
After all of the stealing and cheating You probably think that I hold resentment for you
So I wanna say thank you ‘Cause it makes me that much stronger Makes me work a little bit harder It makes me that much wiser So thanks for making me a fighter
A hard, poor or challenging life can be like the moment of change, only all the time. Sometimes scarcity and adversity are like that bridge, forcing a daily opening up to all of God’s creation. Reminds me of a story-parable from back home in Cottonwood, CA, where I grew up.
Cottonwood is an agricultural town in a desert valley. We were always looking and praying for rain.
The local news station had a mediorlogist named Dr. Ron. Now Dr. Ron loved his weather instruments. He had a big fancy thermometer to tell the temperature, a barometer to trace the humidity and a sling psycrometer to trace humidity a different way. He had a rain gauge and a wind vane, an anemometer for wind speed, hygrometer for vapor content, weather maps to see it all at once and balloons to check everything all over again high in the sky.
In the same dry valley, there was another meteorologist. Her name was Grace Louise. My second daughter, Toni Louise, is named after her.
Grace Louise and her family had a small ranch near a dried out creek on the outskirts of town. When Grace needed to know the weather she came outside to the porch. There was nothing between her and the weather but her own sunburnt skin. She would get her forecast an then she would walk over to the hummingbird feeder and announce to her closest friend, ‘No rain today Walter! Guess we’ll just have to make do.’ That was Grace Louise’s morning weather report.
Now Dr. Ron was a very smart man and he certainly did know his instruments. But like the Dali Lama with his telescope, there was just too much between him and what he was looking at for him to ever really experience or know the weather.
Because she had so little, very few things could be between Grace Louise and the weather. To explain it a different way, we could say Dr. Ron knew about the weather. Grace knew the weather. Sarcity is like change, it strips you of all the things that come between, leaving you naked against the storm. There is nothing to do and nowhere to go but to fall into the hand of God.
I have to share with you that Grace Louise, my mother, may she rest in peace, would have been very amused to know that she was in the same sermon as the Dalai Lama. It just goes to show that spiritual profundity and nearness to God is not the sole property of those mountaintop few, the ones who get their stories of struggle and transformation in the media, make the big money, preach from glass domed churches and temples. Quiet, unknown folk with this kind of spiritual depth and strength are all around us. As much as there is suffering and change, there are people who survived and transformed. Even or especially as we sit in our seats this Rosh Hashanah, we can hardly turn from our right to our left without brushing the shoulder of someone who has faced tragedy or challenge, struggled, changed, and learned something about the universe in the process.
To wrap up I just want to share this: During times of change or on the path to a deepened spirituality, on the road to a closer relationship with God, it is often false to make beauty and pleasure—beauty of surroundings, beauty of body, pleasure in a sunset or the smell of a flower—it is false and misleading to make those pleasurable things a decisive factor in our change.
All these things are nice and certainly can give us a spiritual feeling. However, more often, transformation comes from facing the Ugly, internal or external. The most profound spiritual growth often occurs down at road level—in mud, and guck, in sweat and maybe blood. Frankly, mud, guck, sweat and maybe blood are more often found in the moving from here to there, the changing of sides, the cycling of life from one stage to the next. That is where we earn the real inner growth.
From the cracked dry earth of my family ranch we return now to the red dried mud of my Champlain campsite. There had been an exhausting night of high wind and heavy rain. The sky had suddenly broken open with an explosion of lightening and from inside the tent I thought ‘I really shouldn’t be here,’ but had to ride the night out just the same.
Exhausted, I climbed out of the sodden tent in semi darkness the next morning, and fired up the camp stove to make coffee. That was when I saw them: singly or in pairs, a smattering of people in the early dawn entering the bridge walkway and beginning the long climb to the top and then over. I couldn’t tell if they were locals or tourists or perhaps a mix, all setting out.
Why? I don’t really know, but I still decided to join them.
In all our crossings over into this New Year, let us not be afraid of the bridges and changes in front of us. May we understand change to be a holy part of life, filled with hope and potential, freedom and transformation.
May we all accept our paths, as it has been written in somebody’s scripture somewhere:
You ain’t gonna be filled up unless you have been emptied out.
You can’t get lifted up lessen you have fallen.
You can’t see dawn from the bridge, without weathering the night and climbing the bridge.
And on that morning after as you climb the bridge to see the sun rise out of the mud and the mist, remember this one rule: Don’t look down unless you are ready to see beneath your feet, the Loving Hand of God lifting you up and carrying you over.