Being Change (A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah)

“Think of Rosh Hashanah as the stem cells of the year.” So says my teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, known to his friends and students as Reb Zalman. Stem cells can become anything as they mature and grow; they contain infinite potential. This day on the Jewish calendar is the same way.

The old year has become fixed in time. We know what happened; our memories, both bitter and sweet, are already formed. But we don’t know what the new year will contain. The shape of 5773 depends on what we decide to grow out of the stem cells of this day.

The Jewish mystics we know as kabbalists teach that today the door of wisdom and insight opens for us. Tomorrow, on the second day of this holiday, the door of discernment and understanding swings open, too. These are the origin points of our year, our springboard into whatever’s coming next.

And who decides what’s coming next?

We do.


We can choose to make the coming year a year of lovingkindness. If you went into the new year with the conscious intention of creating compassion, of being kind to yourself and to others, how might that change your 5773?

What if, instead of resenting your body for its limitations or for the five pounds you keep meaning to lose, you made teshuvah and chose to love your body just the way it is? What if, instead of saving your compassion for the people who are already near and dear to you, you set the intention of extending compassion to everyone you meet, every day, everywhere you go? To those who are like you, and those who are not like you; to people of every race, every nationality, every experience?

Caring for ourselves is an act of lovingkindness. So is caring for our families. Changing a diaper, washing a dish, taking out the trash: even these most mundane tasks can be acts of chesed, lovingkindness, if we do them mindfully. What would it take to stimulate your kindness and your compassion today so that they infuse the year to come?

 

We can choose to make the coming year a year of strength and justice. I could spend all day talking about places where the world needs that from us. Here’s one.

The New Israel Fund estimates that 61,000 African foreign nationals currently live in Israel. 70 percent are from Eritrea, 10 percent from Sudan, 10 percent from Darfur, and 10 percent from other African countries. In recent months there has been a wave of xenophobic violence against African immigrants in Israel: riots, beatings, molotov cocktails.

Some Africans came to Israel in search of economic opportunities and a better life. Others fled oppression, genocide, war, and violence.

Our people have been refugees in living memory. We have fled oppression and genocide. My own grandparents, like many of your ancestors, emigrated to someplace new in search of a better life. And yet a member of the Israeli Knesset compared African refugees this summer to cancer infecting the body of the state. How would we feel if a member of a foreign parliament spoke about Jews that way?

Anti-immigrant rhetoric happens here in the US, too. And so does anti-immigrant violence, from KKK factions, white supremacist groups, and even the creators of the free internet game “Border Patrol” in which players gun down Mexican immigrants at the US border.

The commandment most often repeated in Torah is “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Lord Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, offers the following:

The Torah asks why should you not hate the stranger? Because you once stood where he stands now. You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. If you are human, so is he. If he is less than human, so are you. You must fight the hatred in your heart as I once fought the greatest ruler and the strongest empire in the ancient world on your behalf. I made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers – for your own and those of others, wherever they are, whoever they are whatever they are, and whatever the colour of their skin or the nature of their culture, because though they are not in your image, says God, they are nonetheless in Mine.

In the year now beginning, we can choose to say: violence against immigrants, against the powerless, is wrong. Whether here or in Israel. And we will not let it stand.

 

We can choose to make the coming year a year of harmony and balance.

Lovingkindness is important, but if you take it too far, you can wind up pouring out all of your heart in ways which aren’t healthy. Boundaries and judgement are important, but if you take them too far, you can wind up rigid in ways which aren’t healthy. But if you keep those two qualities in balance, your compassion and your strength, your love and your sense of justice, that’s a beautiful kind of harmony. That’s balance.

What would your life look like if everything were in perfect balance? Imagine throwing yourself wholly into your work during the week, and then truly stepping away from it on Shabbat: not just avoiding the office, but giving yourself permission to stop doing and to simply be. Imagine being able to integrate all of the different parts of yourself. Imagine finding your perfect balance of social time and alone-time, sedentary time and active time, time for looking back and time for looking forward. What would that feel like this year?

 

We can choose to embody endurance this year, and to connect with things which are eternal.

Some of us will face loss in the year to come. Some of us will grieve. Some of us will struggle with infertility, with cancer, with depression. Today we can choose to strengthen the part of us which we know can endure, come what may. We strengthen our power to overcome obstacles — especially obstacles which stand in the way of ourdesire to bestow goodness on the world. What are the things that matter to you, and can you commit yourself to being persistent in the service of change?

During the years of the Civil Rights struggle, African-Americans and those who stood in solidarity with them sang We shall overcome someday. In Prague in 1989, during the Velvet Revolution, thousands sang this song in Wenceslas square. Its message of hope and liberation speaks now as loudly as it did then: both on a communal level, and on an individual one.

“The arc of the moral universe is long,” preached Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, “but it bends toward justice.” We can choose to shape this year so that it fits that long curve.

 

All of this makes it sounds as though we have a lot of power over the coming year! But we can also choose to make this a year of humility.

For all of our plans and hopes and dreams, our charts and to-do lists, we’re not in charge. Despite our incredible scientific advances, we don’t know everything there is to know. No matter how much we plan for the future, there are things we can’t control.

I began to come to terms with that during my year as a student chaplain at Albany Medical Center. That year I walked alongside parents whose child was dying of cancer. An adult whose parent was rushed to the hospital with a heart attack. The sister of the teen who had played “chicken” with an oncoming train. I couldn’t take away their pain. All I could do was be with them, and listen, and care.

We want to imagine that if we try hard enough, or perhaps if we are perfectly righteous, we can sidestep suffering. But we can’t. The only thing we can control is how we respond to the hand we’re dealt. How we treat one another, at the best of times and at the worst of times. Whether we respond to suffering with callousness and disdain, or with kindness and empathy and an open heart.

Can we accept, this year, that we’re not in control — and that that’s okay?

 

We can choose to make the coming year a year of roots and connections. What would the coming year look like if each of us set the intention of being a bridge between people, between different understandings of the world, between one community and another?

Reb Zalman offers the following teaching. Each religion, he says, is an organ in the body of humanity. We need each religion to be unique; Judaism is Judaism, Christianity is Christianity, Islam is Islam, and so on. But we also need each religion to connect with the others. If the heart stopped speaking to the liver, or the lungs stopped speaking to the brain, the body would be in trouble. Just so, he says, we need to connect between our different religious traditions.

When a Sikh temple is attacked in Wisconsin, ripples reverberate through the body of humanity. When a mosque is firebombed in Tennessee, ripples reverberate. When a New Jersey teen attempts to set fire both to a synagogue and to a university building, ripples reverberate.

And: when Jews join with Sikhs in mourning and in prayer, ripples reverberate. When we join with Muslims to stand against Islamophobia in this country, ripples reverberate. When we stand with our own communities against hatred and arson, ripples reverberate. We’re all connected. Me to you; us to them. We can live that out in the year to come.

 

And we can choose, in the coming year, to relate to God in a new way. Someone once asked the Kotzker Rebbe where God is in today’s world. His answer: wherever we let God in. In his understanding, God yearns to dwell with us and within us. Are we open to that connection?

Jewish tradition says that today we re-enthrone God as King. Here’s another way of understanding that: today we enliven our receptivity to God’s presence in creation.

Our sages teach that every year, on Rosh Hashanah, God begins to allocate the energy “budget” to sustain the cosmos for the coming year. Today, life-giving energy flows from the Source of All to revitalize and recharge the depleted “God-field” which by the end of the old year is exhausted and worn. And we can help with that. We can choose to spend the coming year intending to be God’s partners in the work of irrigating the world with blessing.

 

Lovingkindness; justice; balance; endurance; humility; connection; sovereignty. This is not a random list. Kabbalah teaches that these are the seven most accessible sefirot, aspects of divinity. It’s hard to connect with the infinity of the Divine, but we can relate to God through these qualities. And these seven qualities are part of who we are, too. Maybe that’s what it means to be made in God’s image.

Is there significance to the number seven? Seven are the colors of the rainbow. White light appears to be singular, but a prism — or raindrops! — can refract that singular light into a seven-color spectrum. That’s how I understand the sefirot. God is One, like a beam of white light, and yet we can experience God through these seven qualities, just as the colors of the rainbow are hidden in plain sunlight.

How do you want to reflect and refract light this year? What will come streaming through you into the world: kindness, or indifference? Wholeness, or breakage? Contentment, or frustration? Connection, or alienation? What kind of prism do you want to be this year?

The name Rosh Hashanah is usually translated as “Head of the Year” — colloquially, the New Year. But the word shanah comes from the same root as shinui, which means change. Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of change.

And that gets back to the stem cell metaphor I offered a few minutes ago. Our liturgy tells us hayom harat olam, “today is the birthday of the world!” Another way to translate that is, “this moment is pregnant with eternity.” In this moment, right now, all of eternity — our whole future — is waiting to be born. It’s up to us what kind of future we “birth” for the year to come. We can shape a year of stasis, or we can shape a year of change.

Change isn’t always easy. But one of the ways we understand God is as change itself. When Moshe asks the burning bush “Who are You, anyway?” God responds ehyeh asher ehyeh, “I will be what I will be.” God says: I am change and transformation. God says: I am always becoming, and if you follow me, you will be always-becoming, too.

In the new year, what do you want to become? What kind of change do you want to be?

Crossposted to my From the Rabbi blog.

Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.

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