Here’s the sermon which cantorial soloist David Curiel delivered today. Enjoy!
I’m just getting over a cold. It’s okay, I’m fine: it was a warning sign. Beyond the epidemiology of the thing, it was a way for my body to tell me, in no uncertain terms what I already knew, but was denying myself: Starting the school year at two separate Hebrew Schools, starting two new classes as a student AND preparing for my first ever High Holiday pulpit was a lot to take on in the last couple of weeks. OK, I got it!
We are all repositories of deep inner wisdom, sometimes manifested in really obvious ways, but more often much more subtly. In a short while, we’ll encounter the Unetanah Tokef—the centerpiece of Rosh Hashana liturgy—and sing about the “still small voice.” While we might argue with the prayer’s theological implications—is there REALLY a Shepherd On High writing “who by fire, who by water?”—the imagery and poetry, even in translation, are both powerful and beautiful, reaching their crescendo in that “still small voice.”
This still small voice, our deep inner wisdom, is nothing less than the part of God that is within us. This isn’t to say that we’re God, God forbid! But rather, that we are a channel for God to act through us. But that still small voice gets drowned out and the channel gets clogged. You only need to turn on the TV during primetime or try driving through Boston at about 5:30pm any weekday to experience that.
But even if we avoid the obvious pitfalls—limiting our media intake, turning off our mobile devices—it’s easy to get distracted by the vagaries of the mind—re-arguing old arguments or pre-arguing potential new ones, because maybe this time, it’ll come out right.
Herein lies one of the great paradoxes of being human: we have the faculties to act out God’s will in the world, but by that same token of free will and conscious thought we distract ourselves from the things that are truly important.
And yet, our tradition equips us with a roadmap: the cycle of the Jewish year. This map signals rhythmic inflection points for great joy, disconsolate sorrow, self-examination, contrition and renewal. It is rich with traditions, food, music and all the commentary you care to discuss. But it is only a map, and as we know, there’s a world of difference between the maps we use and the world they represent. More than most, the cycle of the Yamim Noraim—the Days of Awe—draws us into that place of contact between map and reality.
My Bubie, zichrona livracha, had a friend who, like clockwork, would call her up during this season, and ask her forgiveness for anything she might have said or done to hurt my Bubie in the past year. And I know this friend wasn’t and isn’t alone. Many people write their annual friend letters during this time of year, making amends for not having written sooner. I have taken on the practice over the last few years of writing my own personal Al Cheyt—the confession of missed marks which we will sing during Yom Kippur—though I balance it with a equivalent list of bulls-eyes because I’m often quick to linger in my failings and forget my successes.
My wife, Amberly, and I have been married seven years as of last week. When we were working with our rabbi during our engagement, we asked him what kind of spiritual practice we could take on during the process. He said, simply, “forgive each other every night.” Unsure what to do with that, the first few days, we attempted just that, and this is what it looked like: “Honey, I forgive you for not cleaning the kitchen tonight.” “Dear, I forgive you for not comforting me after a rough day at work.”
As you can imagine, that didn’t go too well. It had the opposite of the intended effect, creating resentment and ick where there was none before! So we stopped and instead, began asking each other what the other wanted forgiveness for. What a magical transformation! That night, we learned that forgiveness starts with the desire to be forgiven, and THAT is at the core of Teshuva.
Teshuva—returning to our highest selves—is the most important practice of the Yamim Noraim. Everything points to it, starting in Elul, the month we just ended, when tradition is to start this introspection, through the stirring liturgy of Selichot, which forms a teshuva runway up to Rosh Hashana, then Tashlich, which we had a lot of fun with yesterday, the Aseret Y’mei T’shuva, Ten days of Teshuva, between R”H and Y”K, ending with Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur itself, where we stand pleading at the metaphoric gates for one more chance in. The title for Rabbi Alan Lew’s, z”l, book on the subject, “This is Real, and You Are Completely Unprepared,” gets to the point nicely.
All the other stuff we do: all the coming to shul, all the praying, all the breast-beating, is what my dear mentor and rabbi called, “cheerleading for the spiritual process.” The teshuva is the point; reaching deep within ourselves to wipe off the shmutz and tarnish from our highest self, putting it in a prominent place and letting it shine light into the rest of our lives—THAT’S why we’re called here today. THAT’S where the roadmap meets the road.
But I want to humbly submit a challenge this year, in the midst of all this looking inward: Can we make the map meet the road in other places along the cycles of weeks and moons that describe the Jewish Year? Do we dare live a more Jewish life?
Perhaps you only step in shul twice a year, perhaps you come every week. But I know that each and every one of us could do one more thing to feel more connected to our communities and traditions. There are many different ways to deepen our practice. I’d like to tell you a personal story as one example.
It wasn’t too long ago that I was a twice-a-year Jew, and THAT out of a sense of mom guilt! Doing Jewish often felt overwhelming—and let’s be honest—infantilizing to come into a space where I felt so unskilled. I’d love to share my fuller story another time, but suffice it to say, a journey of a lifetime begins with one step. My way in was Shabbes.
First, it was Friday night services, which I seldom attended as a child. What sweet singing was to be had! Our rabbi’s motto—which I strongly recommend—was fake it ’til you make it. Or in the vernacular: just yai-la-lai along! Then, along with Amberly, I started staying after for the kiddush and more singing. Before long we got to make connections with the other people around the kiddush table.
Shabbes lunch is another favorite of mine. When you clear your calendar on Shabbes, one hour becomes three over food, discussion and, of course, more singing!
I had dinner with my high school girlfriend a few years back. She and her husband are Ba’al Teshuva, meaning that they’ve “gone Orthodox.” There are a lot of things we don’t see eye to eye on, but when she said to me, “David, Shabbes is the Jews’ best kept secret!” I knew we weren’t so different after all.
A word of caution: Shabbes is not something to take on by yourself. As Amberly & I found out when we were living in the rural bits of Catholic Granada for a year: this is a communal spiritual practice, like most of Judaism. But I can’t recommend it highly enough. On most Friday nights in our current community, we have our pick of dinners amongst people about whom we’ve come to care very deeply.
There is lots more to say on the subject, but if you’re interested, here’s what week one might look like: Make plans ahead of time with some friends for a Friday night dinner, say a couple blessings, sing a couple of songs you might remember from services or from your folk repetoire, or just yai-la-lai along to a half-remembered niggun.
Unplug from your technology for 25 hours: I promise it won’t kill you! Come to Saturday service, yai-la-lai some more, with abandon! Have a lazy lunch. Take a nap. Do something you don’t usually do. Don’t worry if it’s not strictly “shabbosdick,” as long as it deeply nurtures your soul. It WILL feel strange the first couple of times. But I promise, if you keep it up, you’ll wonder how you lived this long without it.
Or maybe you’ll build a sukkah, or become more engaged in CBI’s wonderful community service programs. Whichever way you choose, the road may be long, but the scenery is unbelievable, and it’s nothing like the map!
The קול דממה דקה, the still small voice which we first encounter in the book of Kings, when Elijah wanders in the wilderness of Beer-Sheva, looking for the voice of God, first in fire, then in earthquake, is always speaking to us, but are we listening?
The fuller verse in the Unetanah Tokef reads: The great shofar sounds! The still, small voice is heard. Rosh Hashana is known in the Torah only as Yom Teruah—the day of the sounding. The shofar, with its heart-rending cry, leaves behind it a silence in which we can hear the still small voice speaking within us.
On this Rosh Hashana, may you be blessed to listen to your still small voice, the deep inner wisdom we ALL possess, may it lead you to dusting off your highest self and return to it. And may you be blessed with a richer connection to Jewish life and the chutzpah to live from its ideals.