She Is On Her Way: Rabbi Adina's Erev Rosh Hashanah Drash
Erev Rosh Hashanah
Berkeley Community High Holy Days with Jewish Studio Project
JCC East Bay 5780 / 2019
Rabbi Adina Allen
“Another world is not only possible, on a quiet day I can hear her breathing,” writes Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy.
On a good day, I can not only feel this world coming, I can see her all around me - in the way our conversations have shifted and opened to issues that we’ve avoided for decades: gender inequity, climate change, the legacy of slavery; in the diversity of faces representing our country in the halls of congress; in the voices of young people, taking to the streets and speaking the future they desire into being; in the ways in which things are becoming legible that weren’t visible before - both the damage that we have done to each other across the generations and the incredibly hard work that has gone into making change. On a good day, I see her coming. Other days, I look out the window, tense and agitated - I am too scared to get quiet, too afraid to stop, terrified that when I try to listen for her breathing I will hear only silence.
Loosen, loosen baby, you don’t have to carry, the weight of this world in your muscles and bones, let go let go let go.
This song was written by Aly Halpert, who writes that these words are for “in service of exhales and letting go of what is ours and not ours, of compassion, lightness, & becoming who we are after and through it all.” At times of change and upheaval, such as we are living through right now, the last thing we want to do is loosen and let go. Everything is uncertain, danger, it seems, awaits us around each corner, to let down our guard spells catastrophe. And yet, it is precisely at times like these that we most need to loosen, to open and to let go - of what we’ve been, of who we think we are, of what we believe is possible - in order to survive. A tree that doesn’t bend and sway with the movement of the breeze will snap when the storm winds get too strong. So too must we learn to dance and play as, in the words of Bob Dylan, the “winds of changes shift” - to become supple enough to not break under the weight of it all.
Tonight, we are just beginning, starting out on our journey through Rosh Hashanah. After a year of so much tragedy and loss - in the streets, in courtrooms, in the Arctic and the forests - tonight I want only softness. I want ease. I want a deep embrace from God that lets me know that I am held, that we haven’t been abandoned, that there is, indeed, another world coming, and that these are the birth pangs of her arrival.
Rosh Hashanah is many things, and is known by many names. Each name calls forth a particular and powerful element of the holiday: judgment, remembrance, speaking in a language beyond words, and Hayom Harat Olam - the Day the World is Conceived. In each facet of the holiday, where can we soften? What can loosen? Of what can we let go?
The Mishnah, our earliest compendium of rabbinic commentary, calls Rosh Hashanah Yom ha Din - The Day of Judgment (Rosh Hashanah 16b). Not exactly how we tend to think of a new year: “Happy New Year, take out your party hats, toast your champagne and...be judged?” Traditionally this name for Rosh Hashanah references God on high, deciding our fate based on our deeds of this past year, inscribing us - or not - in the Book of Life.
After a year like the one we’ve had, this image feels untenable. We’ve watched city after city offer flowers on sidewalk altars, tears soaking shirts of strangers as we cry in one another’s arms after yet another mass shooting - at stores, at schools, on city streets, at mosques, in synagogues much like this one. We know that death is not punishment, life is not earned by good deeds, our actions are far reaching and tangled up in a web of so many other factors beyond whether or not we strive to be a “good person.” Imagining ourselves being tried in front of God not only furthers the notion that there is some external power to whom we can outsource the work of accounting for our actions, but also paints God as harsh and unfeeling...or utterly absent.
This year I want to release God from the role of punitive judge. I want to release myself from this role, too. If we want the ways in which God judges us to soften, then we must soften the way in which we judge. We live in a world of ongoing, jaw-dropping, blood boiling outrage. Media culture has developed in such a way that we are baited into clicking headlines to become enraged at the most recent injustice. While we reject the idea of a God that sits on a throne meting out punishment, we are all too quick to take God’s place, elevating ourselves to the role of arbiter, looking upon one another harshly, judging loudly, sentencing with impunity.
In a recent NYtimes OpEd entitled “The Industrial Revolution of Shame,” the novelist Salvatore Scibona writes, “Because looking away from an injustice has so often amounted to perpetuating injustice, we may feel we have a duty to click through, read the article and get mad. Even the private person who doesn’t tweet or otherwise share his thoughts in public gets sucked in, his conscience demanding the solidarity of judging in his heart, if not aloud. In this boom time for recrimination, we need a way to save our judgment for the cases that merit the toll it takes on others and ourselves. Both for the sake of those unjustly shamed and for our own mental health, we could use an alternative to judgment.” We could use an alternative to judgment. We need an alternative to judgment. God, on this Day of Judgment, help us to soften the ways in which we judge each other. Please God, soften the ways in which we are judged.
Rosh Hashanah is also known as Yom ha Zikaron, the Day of Remembrance. What is being remembered and by whom? On one level, this name for the holiday speaks to our desire to be remembered by God. Multiple times throughout the Torah the word “zachar” “remember” is used to describe God taking note of human beings after a long and painful lapse in our relationship. God “remembers” Noah and the animals with him on the ark and causes the waters to subside (Genesis 8:1). After hearing the cries of the Israelites under bondage in Egypt, God “remembers” the covenant with us and the liberation process begins (Exodus 2:24). In this light, Yom HaZikaron is about our calling out from the narrow places we find ourselves - individually and collectively - and asking God to come back into relationship with us. Oh how I wish God’s memory was more supple, more penetrable. Why, in each case, did it take catastrophe - or nearly that - for us to be remembered?
And as for us, how might our memory be softened? Can our consciousness open before disaster looms? Memory is not fixed, as the poet David Whyte writes in his book Consolations, “We actually inhabit memory as a place of choice and volition and imagination, a crossroads where our future diverges according to how we interpret, or perhaps more accurately, how we live the story we’ve inherited.” This applies not only to our individual stories, but to the collective stories we tell. There are so many histories that need retelling, so many memories that need to be remembered. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans arriving on the shores of this land. How do we retell the story of slavery and how our country was founded? How we remember this story challenges us to repair the damage caused by our forefathers that continues to shape our present world in so many ways. Did it have to take catastrophe of untold numbers of innocent black people being shot at traffic stops, convenience stores, walking down the street, with no one being held accountable, for us to remember that Black Lives Matter? For us to remember the history of how we got here? Rosh Hashanah, Yom HaZikaron, is a time for allowing our stories, once tightly held, to soften and change, to expand to hold more truth, just as we do.
It takes a wake up call to jolt us into action. In the Torah, Rosh Hashanah is called Yom T’ruah - the Day the Shofar Sounds (Numbers 29:1). The sound of the shofar is a call beyond words, beyond intellect or cognitive understanding. It is created by human breath passing through the horn of a ram. The noise vibrates in the air, resonating deep within our body. It reminds us that each of us have struggles, losses, aches, and longings. This is the universal language in which the shofar speaks. Through the shofar’s sounds we call out to one another, to the planet, to God, to our deepest selves saying sometimes we don’t have words, sometimes words aren’t what’s needed. The call of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a cry from the depths. Some years it sounds like gunshots, like the siren of an ambulance waking us up to the emergency of our lives. This year has been punctuated by too many gunshots, too many sirens. This year I need the sound of the shofar to be like a sound bath washing over us. Like a mikvah renewing us and bringing us back into resonance with the Divine.
The shofar calls not only to us, but to the future. In the Torah, it is the sound of the shofar that ushers in the Jubilee Year, the time every fifty years in which debts were forgiven and indentured servants were let free (Leviticus 25:8-10). The shofar calls for freedom and for forgiveness and calls us back to our shared humanity. And, erupting in loud bleats at the foot of Mount Sinai, the Shofar blasts also announce the start of revelation when we receive Torah from God (Exodus 19:16-19). The shofar announces the influx of new insight, wisdom and understanding into the world. In the shofar’s call on Rosh Hashanah, we hear, in the distance, the call heralding the world that we desire, the world that we still believe is possible. Wake up, the shofar seems to say, come to greet her, she is on her way.
It’s been a year. I know that each of is holding in our hearts some of the most pressing issues we face as human beings today. Over this past year each of us - in our own ways - have struggled to understand and to figure out how to respond to the immense challenges we face as a people. And for each of us, the issues facing us as a collective are woven together with all that we’ve faced this year in our individual lives - the struggles, losses, the joy and the grief. Rosh Hashanah gives each of us time to dwell in the midst of all that is, and to find where can loosen, soften and let go. All of us are needed in this work. Tradition teaches, adam olam katan, olam adam gadol - the human being is a microcosm of the world, the world is a macrocosm of the human being (Otzar haMidrashim, Olam Katan 406). We are the world and the world is us. We come together to soften our hard edges. We come together because none of us can do this work alone.
I pray that this Rosh Hashanah be one of softening. A softening of din - the way we imagine God judging us, the way we judge one another; of zikaron - the way in which we hold memories and tell stories of our individual and collective past; of t’ruah - shofar sounds - may they wash over us and move through us, reminding us that the world we imagine is not so far off in the distance. In this way, may Rosh Hashanah live into its final name: Hayom Harat Olam - the Day the World is Conceived, or the Day that is Pregnant with Eternity.
In many ways this name for the holiday is contingent on the previous three. “Hayom Harat Olam” is the liturgical refrain we recite in response to hearing the sounds of the shofar, which we will sound 100 times in tomorrow’s service. It is taught that the sounds of the shofar echo the cries of a woman in labor - 99 cries of death, the midrash teaches, and one of life ( Vayikra Rabbah 27:7). The process of giving birth, our culture would have us believe, requires force and striving, the main action being to push. In fact, the passageway of new life into this world requires - both physically and psychologically - openness, loosening and softness. A softness that carries with it strength, courage and total presence to the act at hand.
Another world is not only possible. May Rosh Hashanah allow us to soften our gaze so that when we look upon each other, we see that, in us and through us, she is on her way.