On Beauty and Grief: Rabbi Adina’s Rosh Hashanah Day 1 Drash

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 
Berkeley Community High Holy Days with Jewish Studio Project
JCC East Bay 5780 / 2019
Rabbi Adina Allen


I don’t know about you, but I’ve been sitting with a lot of questions recently: about our world, about our future, about what’s mine to do and how best to do it. Late at night when I can’t sleep or in the morning when for some reason I’m up before the kids awaken, my mind will start to swirl, often leading me to some dark places. I search the internet with questions about what our future holds - as if there’s someone out there who knows how things will unfold, as if, it would be helpful even if there were. We are living through a time of rapid change and upheaval in all facets of life: political, cultural, ecological. It feels frightening to be in the messiness of the unknown, so I find myself trying, unsuccessfully, to cement together some semblance of an idea of a future that’s actually unknowable. 

The more our minds are focused on the unknown future, the less able we are to be in the real and immediate present: our life, our family, our work, pressing problems and great joys that are right in front of us. On Rosh Hashanah we recite the piyut “Hayom.” In this liturgical poem we say over and again “Hayom, hayom, hayom - today, today, today.” So, today, rather than focusing on the “what ifs” and “what could bes” of the future, let’s reground in the here and now with a question that doesn’t require a keyboard or experts or predictions to help us answer it, but rather asks us to just be; to be present in this very moment; and to open up our hearts to the wonder of existence that is constantly calling to us, waiting for us to return home to it. Instead of asking “How is this all going to end?” let’s ask “Why is the world so beautiful?” 

Plato wrote: “Beauty is certainly a soft, smooth, slippery thing, and therefore of a nature which easily slips in and permeates our souls” (Plato, Lysis i. 56). These days, I find the beauty of this world so quickly penetrates my heart, causing a deep love and gratitude to well up within me: a hug from my child, the sight of a flock of birds soaring overhead, the way two notes sound together in harmony. This is the beauty that is freely given by the world. But then, almost as quickly, these feelings get subsumed by others - feelings of loss and grief for the immense devastation that is happening all around us. As my child hugs me, my mind jumps to children being separated from their parents at the border. As I look in awe at the flock of birds, I recall the devastating statistic I recently read that more than a quarter of our bird population in North America is now gone. In these moments I am nearly bowled over, overwhelmed by the feeling and the knowing - the beauty and the grief - and the way all of these exist side by side. 

Botanist and Citizen member of the Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, writes, “We can’t have an awareness of the beauty of the world without also a tremendous awareness of the wounds.” We cannot open ourselves to one and wall ourselves off to the other, the beauty and the wounds exist side by side, intertwined. In order to be truly alive in this world, she says, we must “learn about the transformation of love to grief to even stronger love...and how to harness the power of those related impulses.” Grief, knotted around, tangled together with the almost-unbearable beauty of this world. And so we ask: Why is the world so beautiful? And, What is our obligation to this beauty amidst all this grief?

Our High Holiday journey speaks to this. While we are starting this particular journey today, we are actually midway through the arc of our greater holiday season - the arc that moves us from grief to beauty. In his well-loved book This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew (z’l) teaches that the start of our season of reflection and renewal is in fact not Rosh Hashanah, it is not even Elul - the Hebrew month preceding the high holidays where we engage in spiritual acts of preparation. Rather, he teaches, the season begins with a mournful holiday that brings us to our knees: Tisha b’Av - the 9th of Av. Observed a few months ago in mid-July, on this day we sit and weep. Our tears are, in part, in remembrance of the destruction of the Temple which once stood - for the beauty of that sacred site, its rituals and practices - and they are, in part, tears for every communal loss we have experienced since. It is from sitting with the loss and the brokenness, Rabbi Lew teaches, that the beauty and possibility of transformation during the High Holidays is born. 

We begin our holiday season with grief, and we end with beauty. Less than two weeks from now we will celebrate Sukkot - Chag ha Asif, the Festival of Ingathering. Far from the ornate beauty of the Temple, on Sukkot we assemble a small, makeshift hut strung with paper chains and fairy lights, decorated with children’s painted signs and tapestries. The sukkah is ephemeral, penetrable, with openings to the sky enough that we can see the glitter of the stars. It is filled with guests - friends and family and the spirits of our ancestors. Together we gather to eat, drink and sing songs in gratitude for the chance to get closer to the truth of our lives that we so often run away from the rest of the year: our existence is this beautiful and this fragile. Our High Holiday journey takes us from Tisha b’ Av to Sukkot, moving us from grief at the loss of one kind of beauty, to a very different kind of beauty, born from that grief. 

There is a religious injunction to beautify the sacred work we do in the world, known in Hebrew as Hiddur Mitzvah. Literally translated, this means “beautification of the commandments.” The concept derives from a rabbinic commentary on a line from the Song of the Sea, sung by the Israelites as they crossed out of Egypt and onto the shores of freedom. In the Torah we read that they sang out, ”Zeh eli v’anvehu!” “This is my God whom I will glorify!” (Exodus 15:2). Commenting on this line, the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yishmael draws a connection between the Hebrew word used for “glorify” —anvehu— and a Hebrew word for “beauty” — naveh, reading this line instead as “This is my God, whom I will beautify!” In R. Yishmael’s read, among the first words on our lips as we shake off the sea water and unfurl into freedom are those expressing a desire to beautify God. 

What could it mean for humans to “beautify God,” Rabbi Yishmael wonders. We beautify God, he determines, by performing the mitzvot (commanded acts) beautifully (Mechilta, Shirata, chapter 3, ed. Lauterbach, p. 25). It is no surprise that in his description of Hiddur Mitzvah, Rabbi Yishmael draws a direct connection to the holiday of Sukkot. The first acts in his list of mitzvot to be beautified are lulav and sukkah (Mechilta, Shirata, chapter 3, ed. Lauterbach, p. 25). 

Hiddur mitzvah compels us to perform all of our spiritual duties in the world not just in a way that checks them off our list of to-dos, but rather in the most beautiful way possible. One understanding of what this means is that we should make things like the Temple once was - grand, impressive, using the finest materials that we can afford. This is how tradition presents hiddur mitzvah - buy the fanciest sukkah, the most perfect etrog. Yet this interpretation seems at odds with the values of the holiday itself. 

Rather, we might consider hiddur mitzvah another way. On Sukkot we access beauty on the other end of the spectrum. Hiddur mitzvah, then, may mean accepting the gifts of nature as they’re given. We appreciate the beauty of what is, as it is, for all of nature is beautiful. Rather than seeking a perfect object, hiddur mitzvah asks us to perfect our gaze. When we gaze through eyes of beauty, we see beauty. Performing hiddur mitzvah in this way is to call forth from God a reciprocal response, “Please God, even in all our imperfections, see beauty in us. We too are natural, we too are of the earth, we too are your creation.”

So here we are. Rosh Hashanah day, on this beautiful morning in late September. As we sit here, the blue sky stretches out above us, above that swirling layers of indigo and black, beyond that - glittering stars, eternity. The early fall breeze is warm on our skin, though each night it begins to cool as the sun sinks into the ocean, melting the embers of her glow across the horizon. The earth turns on its axis. Squirrels and deer scuffle about in the woods, while others, racoons and bats - nestle down for their sleep until nightfall calls them forth. Summer’s harvest is full, but soon will wane, gardens and sporadic sidewalk growth simultaneously offer a mix of browning stalks and radiant expressions of purple, orange and magenta. Pollinators move about, attracted by fragrances and fierce displays of floral beauty. Further out, humpback whales migrate, mussels in their deep purple and blue cling to rocky outcroppings, sea otters play in kelp beds as ocean waves rise and fall around them. And us. We sit here, together, in community - with people, some of whom we know and some of whom we don’t know - all of us siblings and strangers, hearts beating, chests rising and falling, as we pulse with the rhythm of each other and the planet. We are, in this moment, Hayom, connected, held, beautiful, shimmering with life. 

A friend recently shared with me a gorgeous book called Wonderments. Written by author and longtime hiker Malcolm Margolin and nature writer Sylvia Linsteadt, it’s a collection of lyrical essays about the flora and fauna of the East Bay Regional Parks. Margolin writes of hiking in Tilden Park every spring, where each year he remarks to his wife that he has “never seen a spring as beautiful as this.” Though, he concedes, he’s been saying the same exact thing every year for fifty years. “Is the world evolving toward greater beauty?” He asks. “It’s possible.” “But, what is more likely,” he continues, “Is that as I grow older, my capacity to appreciate and celebrate beauty has been expanding.” 

Slow down, breathe deep, look around - and deep within - where do you find beauty? It is from this place that we begin our journey into the depths. A journey in which we allow ourselves to recognize and sit with those places of grief - the wounds that exist both without and within. To discover the places where the soil feels like hard-packed dirt, the places we avoid because they feel painful, impenetrable, or impossible that they could yield anything of substance. Through our prayers we begin to tend the ground, slowly, lovingly. We make space for tears, allowing them to water the places in which we think no possibility can grow. And we invite an unfolding to take place. It does not have to - nor should it be - some grand gesture. Rather we begin gently, slowly, simply by offering our attention. As we look ahead to the future of what may be, may we remember the call of Rosh Hashanah back to Hayom - today, this moment, and the beauty that is waiting for us right here, right now. 

Shanah Tovah