The Truth of this Moment
Rosh Hashanah 2005 / 5766
offered at the Elijah Minyan, San Diego
Ayn havush motzi atzmo mi bet ha-asurin
– Babylonian Talmud, Masekhet Sanhedrin, Perek Helek
My dear friends, l’shanah tovah, it is such a blessing to be here together with you this Rosh Hashanah morning. I’ve struggled and struggled with what to share with you this day—partly because it has been such a difficult year, as we spoke of yesterday, with so much change and loss and pain for so many of us, near and far. And also there’s heaviness in my heart, knowing that this will be my last High Holy Days sharing with you in this way. As I move toward completing my rabbinic education and toward changes in both my work and my personal life, I am flooded with the feelings of all that I’ve shared with this community, and with all I yet wish to speak and teach and learn. And at the same time, words fail me.
I guess you could say, I’m struggling to let go. So of all the many learnings that have come to me in this past year, I’ve chosen one small story I would like to share with you. It’s a learning about yielding, about how accepting the truth of this moment, changes, elevates this moment. I have no answers to share with you today, really only the shape of my own struggle.
Yesterday Rabbi Dosick spoke to us about heyn v’hesed v’rachamim, grace and unconditional love and mercy. He told us of how these qualities of God and the possibility of our connecting with God through them are always there for us, even in times of deep pain, of seemingly insupportable loss and sorrow. And that our mandate as human beings is to emulate these Divine qualities, from which the very fabric of our cosmos is woven, and to spread them to all others, even while offering them to ourselves.
How to do this? Some folks seem more naturally at ease in touching the holy, in knowing and embodying the truth of God’s grace in a direct, constant way. But for many of us, for me, the small pains and disappointments of life cause tightenings, knottings in our very beings. When great difficulty, tzurus, challenges us, we may tighten further. Like Hagar, who in fear and despair in the wilderness, cast away her son—like the Israelites worn down by the harshness of enslavement in Egypt—we suffer mikotzer ru’ah, shortness of spirit—a shutting out of love, of life, of God.
And so, my story. A little more than a year ago my dear partner, Burt, gave me this beautiful ring as a symbol of our love and commitment. A band of white gold, it contains eight tiny, exquisite diamonds taken from a ring that had belonged to his mother. I had known that rings are powerful symbols, but I was not prepared for the effect of being gifted with this ring. The diamonds seemed to hold the energy of Burt’s mother, Gert Jacobson, a powerful and creative woman, a pianist and painter, who had suffered deep frustration and depression in her attempts to alert American Jews to the horrors taking place in Europe during World War II. She had died years before I met Burt. I felt the responsibility, the holiness, of placing my finger into the empty space at the ring’s center, a space like the one between the keruvim above the Ark in the Holy of Holies, designed to draw God down into this material world. I would take the ring off each night, place it carefully in its box. Each morning, with awareness and a silent blessing, I would fill its empty space with my finger.
Last New Year’s Eve, having returned from a visit with Burt up in Berkeley the day before, I went with a friend to a party. When I got home I washed up a bit and, when I sat down on the couch to read before going to bed, I glanced down at the ring on my finger and discovered with a shock a small but gaping black hole in the row of diamonds. One of them had fallen out. I tried to think where I had been when I had last seen the ring whole. Surely I would’ve noticed if the diamond had been missing at the party. No, the stone must’ve fallen out somewhere in my house. I retraced my steps to the bathroom, where I remembered having taken off the ring to wash my hands and dropped it on the floor. On my hands and knees, I went over every inch of tile with my bare hands. Nothing. I tried to see down the bathroom drain. Then I went to the kitchen sink where, wearing the ring, I’d rinsed out some cups. I dug through the dispose-all, peering inside to see if anything was gleaming, dislodging a number of rotting lemon seeds, but nothing else. My heart sank. The probability of ever finding a thing so tiny seemed so slim.
Two mornings later I sat down to meditate before leaving for school in LA. I was still anguished about the missing diamond, but as I sat and breathed, something knotted tight in me let go. The thought came to mind my, “Nothing’s perfect. Nothing’s ever going to be perfect.” No relationship, not my relationship with Burt, or with my family, not school, or my life choices—everything I struggle with and wish to be different. So simple. I decided to wear the ring to school with the hole in it as a reminder. I got up from my meditation cushion and went into the bathroom to brush my teeth before leaving and afterward, as I often do, ran a tissue over the floor to pick up stray hairs and dust. I turned the tissue over before throwing it into the trash, and there, in it, was the diamond.
Sometimes we are swept away by the immensity of life’s blows. Yet how we meet the small, day-to-day griefs and disappointments is also significant. The Ba’al Shem Tov, the great mystic-shaman who founded the Hasidic movement of which we renewed Jews are spiritual heirs, taught that we react with fear or aversion to these small losses and griefs, tightening our bodies, our thoughts, and our spirits so uncomfortably around them, because they conceal within them fears of larger losses—ultimately of the greatest loss that of our own lives. So when we can yield, soften around these little fears and day-to-day losses, they lead us to God, because they come from God. In fact, they are God in disguise.
I would offer that true joy is a state of “radical acceptance”—a total and complete “hineni”–– that leads us through the doorways of pain, fear and difficulty by means of “God’s love-in-suspension,” which is the fragile, aching and beautiful “shimmering” of this created world. Hineni! Opening to the truth of this moment, I step across the threshold to a churning, quaking, shatteringly ineffable experience of the awesome grandeur of The One. The Baal Shem Tov was said to have exclaimed, “O my body! I am amazed that you do not shatter out of yirah—fear/awe—of your Creator!”
This is the magnitude of experience of the Divine Presence that drew Abraham up Mt. Moriah to a moment of truth with his knife poised above his beloved son bound on the altar. It’s something I’ve been able to glimpse and know only in fleeting instants, brief sighs of my being. I feel that every loosening no matter how small, every breath of acceptance, creates more spaciousness of spirit. I dance around the empty center, where God is, dipping my toe into eternity, hoping that one day I will be ready. I will let go.
Ayn havush motzi atzmo mi bet ha-asurin
The words to the chant with which I began this talk come from the Talmud, from Perek Helek, Masekhet Sanhedrin, and are usually translated: “No captive releases himself from prison.” Another way of rendering them would be: “No person who is tied up can undo her own knots.”
In this world of this world of duality, of seeming separation—of men and women and plants and creatures and mountains and skyscrapers and hurricanes and wildfires—I believe our lessons of letting go – in fact, all of our lessons – come through relationship. All that we attempt to own and must lose, all those whom we love most dearly and who inevitably leave us, or are left by us, teach us about yielding. Our mishpachah, our intimates—parents, children, spouses—so clearly mirror for us those places where we hold on tight to our ideas of ourself, to all that we deem so important. Our power struggles with our partner, the ways we shut him or her out, teach us how we resist God, in what ways we are unavailable to receive God’s chen v’chesed v’rachamim. If we are very fortunate, we also find or create an eydah, a spirit community of shared witness, willing to serve as mentors, mirrors, and projection screens for each other, eager to play together toward awakening God-consciousness.
Such a community has this one become for me and we for each other, a container for many of to share our strengths and enthusiasms, to hold each other in times of sorrow and deep dismay, challenging and praising, laughing (or not) at each others’ jokes, helping each other to perceive and thus to loosen the knots. We have grown together. How can I ever express my gratitude for this precious container with all its beautiful holes? To Dr. Gary Hartman whose spirit infuses every gathering and who taught me through the infinite grace of his letting go; to Dr. Burt and Ellen who share the gift of meditation through your generous and wise spirits and always loving presence; to the members of Shir HaYam—Cindy and Mark, Judith and Jack, Mark and Mary, Jack and Janice, Rhonda and David, Erin and Ken, Albert and Ahouva, Rebecca, Marlene—who have helped me grow as a leader have celebrated my leadership, and have become dear friends and spirit buddies for life; and to all of you, who have trusted and witnessed and encouraged and supported, through loving contributions of all kinds, this rigorous rabbinic journey I’ve undertaken.
And most especially today I thank Rabbi Wayne Dosick, who has made me his colleague. He and Ellen, both, have opened their hearts and their home to me; taught and prodded me; fed me; praised, commiserated with, gifted, and loved me. They have helped release me from prisons I wasn’t even aware I had locked myself into.
Ayn havush motzi atzmo mi bet ha-asurin
There is a yet deeper meaning here, one that extends beyond the ways in which we need each other and the world as mirrors, guides, mentors, even beyond the ways in which we address and are addressed by the Divine—a meaning that defies the capacity of language to express. It goes something like this: the “me” that is tied in knots can never set my-self free. The “I,” the very illusion of my separateness, is the knots, is the prison cell. As our great rebbe Albert Einstein put it, we can’t solve a problem from the state of mind that created it.
Letting go, accepting the holes which are “holy,” softening with love into the fear of loss—for brief instants, separation dissolves. As my friend Marilyn Habermas-Scher, a Zen priest, puts it, God lets go. “Letting go” lets go!
The Jewish Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein, in her wonderful teaching tape titled “The Courage to be Happy,” says this:
"What I deeply trust is that it is possible to wake up and see all the pain and suffering in the world, in our own life, in other people’s lives, in the life of the whole world, and see at the same time the gorgeousness, the incredibleness of a lawful, just cosmos, to see the amazingness of life recreating itself in every single form of creation in every moment. I deeply trust that the awe of that radical amazement supports the awareness of suffering so that we can be grateful for our own lives and for life itself and serve with joy."
This is my deepest aspiration, as a rabbi-to-be and as human being: to be deeply present with what is, to trust the wonder, to be grateful for my life and for life itself, and to serve with joy. I thank you for witnessing me in it.
Ayn havush motzi atzmo mi bet ha-asurin
L’shanah tovah um’tukah, a good and sweet year to us all.
© Diane Elliot 2006
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