September 2022 - Tishrei 5783 'Drash offered at the Aquarian Minyan's Erev Rosh Hashanah service
This 'drash, offered at the Aquarian Minyan's Erev Rosh Hashanah service on the evening of Sunday, September 25, responds to the community's chosen theme for this year's High Holy Days, "Awaken and Cry Out for Justice."
Have you ever been awakened from a nightmare by a voice crying out in the night, only to discover, as you claw your way to the surface from the depths of the sea of sleep, gasping for air, heart pounding, that the screaming voice that woke you, was your own? That a voice, issuing unbidden from your inner depths, had pulled you back from the edge of whatever fearful tale your sleeping mind was spinning?
So does the commanding voice of the prophet Isaiah call out to us across the millennia, breaking through apathy and despair with words of relief and release: “Nachamu, nachamu ami, comfort, comfort, my people!”[i]—the very first words of the first of seven special haftarah readings marking what are called the Seven Shabbatot of Comfort.
Back in August, some seven weeks ago, these words launched the journey of teshuvah, of return, that has led us to this Rosh HaShanah eve. We begin our trek amidst the ruins of the Holy Temple on Tisha B’Av, that day of harsh remembrance, when we acknowledge and grieve utter destruction beyond comprehension—repeated losses of security and safety, of love and life and home—the flavors of loss that we as Jews know so well and that are now rampant in our world as war and political violence, hunger and climate disasters displace people from Pakistan to Ukraine, from Somalia to Guatemala.
There on Tisha b’Av, sitting year after year in the very ashes of our lives, we begin the journey home, the journey toward Rosh HaShanah, and the possibility of a new beginning. The prophet’s words, traditionally chanted on that first Shabbat after Tisha B’Av, soak like a healing balm into our shattered souls [sing]: “Naḥamu, naḥamu naḥamu ami….”
Isaiah’s next words cut through the numb silence of desolation and disconnection: “Kol koreh ba-midbar”––a voice cries out in the wilderness, a saving voice, an urgent voice, waking us from a seemingly endless nightmare of pain and loss––a voice that sparks in our souls the dream of teshuvah, the possibility of return to innocence, to sanity, to connection: “p’anui derekh HaShem, clear a way, a path for God! ki mal’ah tz’va’ah, for your time of exile is over.”[ii]
Here we are, my friends––another Rosh Hashanah, we’ve made it! Thank God, we are here together to buoy one another up and to celebrate the turning of the year, the possibility of transforming pain, of lifting up joy, of expanding love, of reconnecting with Essence and making a fresh start. The theme that weaves through our prayers and songs, the yearnings of our hearts this year— “Awaken and Cry Out for Justice!”—calls us to a wider, more expansive kind of teshuvah, a generous teshuvah that extends beyond the repair of our inner selves and personal relationships and demands of us a commitment to people outside our circles of family and friends, to generations yet unborn, and to the larger unfolding of our world.
This is a time to wake up, the Sages tell us, to the truth of our lives, to strip the blinders from our inner eyes, so that we can see ourselves and the world more clearly, more truly, so that our voices can ring out strong and pure, calling out injustice and evil where we see it. “Uri, uri, shir daberi, wake up, wake up, utter a song! Kavod YHVH alayikh niglah, The Divine Presence is revealed over you!”[iii]
So often, I find that it’s the very crying out—the voice of my own deepest self emerging, or the anguished voices of others—that triggers my awakening and knocks me out of complacency. Voices banging on the doors of my heart, “kol dodi dofek, pitchi li, open, open to Me!”[iv]—the muffled moans of those who’ve been suffering quietly around me for generations, unnoticed; the voices of courageous truth tellers calling out lies and corruption; the cries of longing, grief, or joy issuing unbidden from my own throat; and sometimes, the conspicuous absence of voices—an empty schoolroom, once alive with the sounds of children learning and laughing, a silent garden, once filled with birdsong and the hum of bees. These sounds, even more than words, break through the constant noise and natter of business as usual. They jolt me awake, and point me in a different direction. Teshuvah.
Our Torah tradition is filled with such sounds, such voices that arouse and awaken, inspire and engender: “Kol damei ahiv,” the voice of the blood of Cain’s murdered brother, Abel, cries out to God from the very earth.[v] “Abraham, Abraham!”––an angelic call awakens our primal father, his knife raised to slaughter his son Isaac on the altar, from the trance of human sacrifice.[vi] And the cries of the rejected Hagar and Ishmael, Abraham’s other son, cast out into the desert, dying of thirst, draw forth mercy from heaven and the gift of life-giving water.[vii]
It is the groaning cries of the Israelite slaves, mired in degradation in a life-denying land, trapped in a nightmare of oppression, that set in motion our people’s epic saga of return, the Exodus, which leads directly to our being gathered here, together, this evening. For, our tradition teaches, the Israelite dream that became the Jewish people collapses time and space into “no before or after,” so we were all there too. God hears their moaning—our moaning—and remembers the covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob, with Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, “Va-yar elohim et b’nei Yisrael, va-yeda Elohim, God saw the Children of Israel, and God knew.”[viii] Even God has to be woken up.
What gives voice such power to awaken, to draw us toward compassionate action or, if misused and abused, to stir people to acts of violence and hatred? Perhaps it is that the voice, this shaping and vibrating and sharing of breath, makes our very soul, our neshama, audible. Is not voice itself, in our mythic and mystical canon, the very instrument of Creation? “And God spoke….” the world into being.
When we hear and feel the voice of truth, does it not also awaken the deepest truth in us, call us to action on behalf of the other, on behalf of our planet, in ways both mysterious and simple, deep calling to deep? And when I am paralyzed by fear, numbed by trauma, is it not the release of my voice, starting as a trickle and building to a raucous scream, that must crack the ice of dissociation to reopen the channels of connection?
I think of the voices, the distinctive timbres and rhythms, that have energized me, galvanized me, encouraged and called me to action: my 11-year-old self, thrilling to the ringing summons of a new young president, rousing a somnolent nation on his inauguration day, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country!” My teenage self, vibrating to the thundering conviction of a great black American preacher and civil rights catalyzer, declaring “I have a dream” and vowing to persist in truth-telling and nonviolent resistance until, in the words of the prophet Amos, “justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”[ix]
More recently I’ve been moved by the tender, impassioned urging of a young Sikh—s-i-k-h—American civil rights activist, Valarie Kaur, exhorting us to breathe and push, to birth a new kind of love—love as sweet fierce labor, bloody, imperfect, life-giving—love that enables us to tend to our own wounds, so that we have the wherewithal to tend the wounds of our enemies, to see and hear them as human beings with stories of their own, to approach the other with curiosity instead of hatred, to see no stranger. This, teaches Valarie Kaur, is revolutionary love, the kind of love that, applied with sustained communal effort, can topple oppressive systems and, with time and persistence, bend the arc toward justice.[x]
And I hear the voices of the next generation: the powerful witness of Emma Gonzales who, as a 17-year-old survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting in Florida, spoke out just days after a disgruntled former classmate gunned down 17 students and staff and injured 17 more at her high school, decrying the inaction of politicians bought off by the National Rifle Association, shouting out over and over, “We call B.S.! We call B.S.”[xi] And the choked, angry voice of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, addressing the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit in New York City: “How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words!”[xii]
Empty words. How will we fill our words in the year ahead? Join our voices with those of our inspired leaders and our outraged neighbors, translate words into actions, small acts that, when taken together, will roll down like a mighty stream, cutting through the accreted layers of duplicity and cynicism, greed and racism baked into our society’s institutions?
How will we allow the voices of the suffering, the dispossessed, the murdered, the dying species, the Earth herself, to awaken us, energize us, and move us to become the eyes, ears, hands, and hearts of God that we were always meant to be? How shall we breathe through the fires of pain and refuse to let them harden into hate? How will we, in the ringing words of Isaiah, clear the path of God, make a straight road through the desert for our Godliness? What will you do differently this year? What can we do together? I close with this excerpt of an invocation by James O’Dea, Irish-born activist and mystic, award-winning author of The Conscious Activist and numerous other works, a peacemaker who has conducted societal healing dialogues in war zones around the world and taught peacebuilding to a thousand people in 30 countries. He calls this piece “This Consecrated Hour”:
Do you not see them the ashen ones the gray ones the starving orphans the seduced innocents the decimated specters of conflagration all the beings trampled in degradation crowding our collective shadow field?
Go find them in this, this consecrated hour of human becoming find your estranged, your lost and abandoned family and embrace them into the vital marrow of your life. Kiss them until the ashes of their betrayal turn from gray to red and the blush of love blows through the One Soul, the One Life of All….[xiii]
What voice is calling out within you tonight? How will you answer? Let’s sit silently for a moment and breathe together.
[i] Isaiah 40:1 [ii] Isaiah 40:3 [iii] from L’kha dodi, piyyut sung during Kabbalat Shabbat service, quoting The Song of Deborah (Judges 5:12) and Isaiah 60:1 [iv] Song of Songs 5:2 [v] Genesis 4:10 [vi] Genesis 22:11 [vii] Genesis 21:16-17 [viii] Exodus 2:24-25 [ix] Amos 5:24 [x] see Valarie Kaur, See No Stranger, A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, One World, NewYork, 2020. [xi] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jmO89T3G1w [xii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KAJsdgTPJpU [xiii] hear the full interview with James O’Dea at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aunsQChqWWY