I Seek Your Face… In Everybody Else, Amen – a sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5776

One of my most consistent childhood memories is saying my prayers before I went to sleep. I can still remember the pattern of the wallpaper on the ceiling of my childhood bedroom, and the gentle dip of the bed from where my mom would sit next to me.

I would sing the one-line shema, and then say my litany of “God bless.” I began with “God bless Mom and Dad,” then named my grandparents, then named my siblings and in time their spouses and children. At the very end, I would ask God to bless “all my aunts and uncles and cousins and friends, and everybody else, Amen.”

I’m not sure what I thought it meant to ask God to bless someone. But clearly being blessed by God was a good thing, and I didn’t want anyone to accidentally get left out.

There’s a blessing called Oseh Shalom which appears throughout our liturgy. Here are the words as you may have learned them:

עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם בִּמְרוֹמָיו הוּא יַעֲשֶׂה שָּׁלוֹם עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן:

“May the One Who makes peace in the high heavens make peace for us and for all Israel, and let us say: Amen.”

In many communities around the Jewish world today, including this one, another phrase is now added. That phrase is וְעַל כָּל יוֹשבֵי תֵבֱל — “and all who dwell on Earth.” Adding that phrase to Oseh Shalom is a little bit like what I did in my childhood bedtime prayers: “and everybody else, amen.”

Why am I so invested in praying for “everybody else, amen”?

One of the things I admired most about Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, of blessed memory — the teacher of my teachers in Jewish Renewal — was his “post-triumphalism.” Post-triumphalism is (maybe this is obvious) what comes after triumphalism. And triumphalism is the assumption that there’s only one Truth, and it’s ours.

It used to be obvious to most people that there was only one path to God, and that if we were right about it, then it stood to reason that everybody else was wrong. And someday all those people who followed the wrong religious path — and who maybe persecuted us for choosing to follow our own instead of theirs — would get what was coming to them! What a satisfying fantasy. Someday we’ll all go to heaven and they’ll go to hell, and they’ll see that we were right all along. Nyah-nyah!

Reb Zalman taught that it was time to move beyond that. Triumphalism was part of an old paradigm in which truth was a zero-sum game. But as my friend and teacher Rabbi Brad Hirschfield notes in his book about moving beyond religious fundamentalism, “You don’t have to be wrong for me to be right.”

I don’t have to declare your beloved child ugly in order to know mine as beautiful. I don’t have to declare your beloved religious tradition ugly in order to know mine as beautiful, either.

Jewish tradition clearly teaches that our people is beloved of God. As the Friday night hymn “Lecha Dodi” reminds us, we are an עם סגולה, a treasured people. But surely we are not the only ones in this world whom God loves. Surely we are not the only people who have a connection to something greater than ourselves. And surely we are not the only people in the world who merit peace.

וְעַל כָּל יוֹשבֵי תֵבֱל. What can it really mean to pray for peace for everyone in the entire world? Is that too vague an idea to actually hold any meaning?

My teacher and friend Rabbi Arthur Waskow maintains a practice of adding still another phrase to Oseh Shalom. He asks God to provide peace עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְעַל כָּל יִשְמַעֵל, וְעַל כָּל יוֹשבֵי תֵבֱל — to us, to all the children of Israel, to all the children of Ishmael, and to all who dwell on this earth. In using those additional words, he pushes us to pray for those with whom we are in a historical relationship which is not always easy.

This morning we again heard the story of the casting-out of Hagar and Ishmael. Both of our traditions regard the casting-out of Hagar and Ishmael as the initial rupture in the Abrahamic family. And that rupture has led to some acrimony.

This is precisely why Reb Arthur inserts that extra phrase into his prayers: because it’s spiritually important to ask God to bring peace to those who have in some places and times been our enemies. What would it mean to pray specifically for those who are not like us — to affirm in our prayers that their lives matter too?

During the Days of Awe which are now beginning, we’re supposed to be doing the internal work of teshuvah (repentance, return, and repair), in our relationships. To help us in this work, our tradition gives us some beautiful tools, among them Psalm 27. For the last month, we’ve been singing the words

לָךְ אָמַר לִבִּי בַּקְשׁוּ פָנָי
אֶת פָּנָיִךְ, הו”יה, אֲבַקֵשׁ.

That melody comes from Nava Tehila, the Jewish Renewal community of Jerusalem. In Rabbi David Markus‘ singable English translation:

You Called to my heart:
Come seek My face,
Come seek My grace.
For Your love,
Source of all,
I will seek.

The Psalmist teaches us that God calls to our hearts, begging us, “Seek My Face!” And in return, our hearts call back: “we will seek You!” Seeking God’s Face – seeking God’s Presence, seeking a visceral awareness that this is a holy place and God is right here with me – is one of Judaism’s core spiritual practices. It’s an especially valuable practice at this season.

What does it mean to seek God’s face? Where should we turn to seek God’s face?

Imagine for a moment that the person you love most in the world is right in front of you. Imagine the way your heart leaps for joy when you see them. Imagine looking into their eyes, with all of the love that’s in your heart.

That person is enlivened by a spark of divinity. That person’s face is a face of God. When you look into the eyes of someone you love, you are seeing one of God’s faces.

That part’s easy. Here’s where it gets harder: the face of someone who’s difficult for you? Is also a face of God. The face of someone who is unlike you, someone who prays differently, someone who espouses politics you may abhor, someone with a different color skin…? Is also a face of God. When we commit ourselves to seeking God’s Face, we have to commit ourselves to seeking that Face also in those who are not like us, just as we pray for peace also for those who are not like us.

I mentioned this morning’s Torah reading, the casting-out of Hagar. On the surface of the text, this is a story about Abraham kicking out his foreign concubine. But I want to invite us to go deeper. The name Hagar comes from ha-ger, the stranger. This isn’t only a story about Hagar who was a stranger. This is a story about us when we feel like strangers in our own homes, in our own hearts. Every one of us knows what it’s like to feel alienated, to feel unwelcome.

Looking inward at the parts of us which have felt unwelcome, the parts of us which have felt unloved, the parts of us which have felt exiled — that’s another way of seeking God’s face. We seek God’s face with our willingness to face the part of ourselves which is estranged and alone.

The Jewish mystical tradition teaches that part of God’s own self is exiled here in creation. When we face the part of ourselves which feels like a stranger, we open ourselves to encountering that part of God’s face which is also a stranger.

And when we fragment our sense of ourselves, cutting off or seeking to ignore those parts of ourselves which make us anxious or afraid, God’s presence is fragmented. We separate ourselves from God’s face.

Long ago our spiritual ancestors built a mishkan, a portable dwelling-place for God’s presence. As we read in Torah: וְעַשוּ ליִ מִקדַש וְשכָנְתִי בְּתוֹֹכַם “let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” Or maybe it says: “let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell within them.” In our togetherness, we create a home for God.

And when we fragment our community, God’s presence too is fragmented. When we say “people who support X aren’t welcome here,” or “people who don’t support X aren’t welcome here,” God’s presence is fragmented. We separate ourselves from God’s face.

לָךְ אָמַר לִבִּי בַּקְשׁוּ פָנָי — “You called to my heart, come seek My Face”

We seek God’s face when we open ourselves to another person’s heart. Not just one heart. Not just a heart we can relate to. But everyone’s heart: Jew and Gentile, friend and foe. The spiritual practice of seeking God’s face demands that we seek God’s face everywhere, in everyone.

In recent months, those who have come up to the bimah to recite the blessings before and after a section of Torah may have noticed that the big laminated sheet we keep on this table has changed. There are now two variations on the blessing before we read from Torah. One of them praises God Who has chosen us from among all peoples to receive Torah, and the other praises God Who has chosen us along with all peoples to receive Torah. The Hebrew varies only by a single syllable.

One version privileges the idea of chosenness; the other privileges the idea that holiness is not ours alone. Both of these are Jewish ideas. Even in antiquity it was possible for Isaiah to say, on God’s behalf, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples!” That’s a universalistic vision. And even today it is possible to affirm that we have special obligations in the world. That’s a particularistic vision.

Jewish tradition has always contained a tension between the particular and the universal. We are called to hold that tension. To see ourselves not solely as separate and unique, but also as part of a whole. Not either/or, but both/and.

The great possibility of this interconnected age is that we can build bridges across boundaries and form bonds across differences. That we can become part of something greater than “just us,” without losing what makes us who we are.

In fact: we’re most able to enter into relationship with others when we embrace who we most truly are. We need to know who we are, deep down — we need to integrate even the parts of ourselves which we might be tempted to exile — in order to be whole. And from that place of self-knowledge, we can enter safely into relationship with others, including those who are unlike us. From that place of wholeness we can seek God’s face in everyone we meet.

That’s what we affirm when we bless God Who gives wisdom to others as well as to us. That’s what we affirm when we ask for peace not only for us but for everyone. That’s what we affirm when we commit ourselves to the spiritual practice of seeking God’s face in every face, and seeking God’s heart in every heart.

May we never stop seeking God’s face: in our own hearts, in the hearts of those whom we love, and in the hearts of those whom we struggle to love. And may that practice of seeking help us to create peace: for ourselves, and for our community, and for all who dwell with us on this precious earth.

 

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