September 2020 | Tishrei 5781
Offered at the Aquarian Minyan's
Virtual Erev Rosh Hashanah service
Dear friends, I’m honored and humbled to have been invited to speak this evening, on this new moon of a new year, this Rosh Hashanah. What a blessing—what an urgent necessity—for us to be together, now, at the turning of the year, and thanks to this amazing technology, to meet in the zoomisphere—to hold big questions together, to face the uncertainty of the times ahead with the encouragement of our shared hearts, our Aquarian Minyan family, uplifted by the resonant High Holy Day prayers and soul-stirring music.
This year…. what a year. A year like no other. “Challenging,” “chaotic,” “unprecedented,” “apocalyptic”…. we’ve heard all the descriptors, reaching for a reality beyond imagining, repeated to the point of numbness.
There have been many times before in the story of humankind, certainly in the story of the Jewish people, when the veils have been thin, very thin. But never before in my lifetime have I experienced with such immediate visceral potency the thinness of the divide between living and dying.
I’d like to ask us to pause for a moment, as we enter this portal of the Holy Days together, to remember the hundreds of thousands who’ve died in the pandemic, of Covid and other causes, those who cannot get medical care or food, those struggling to survive the collapse of our social support systems, those who have no work, those risking their lives daily at essential jobs to keep our communities functioning, and those whose lives have always been under threat because of the color of their skin or their gender or simply being who they are. [pause]
Here we are, together, in this extraordinary time of living and deathing, opening to the possibility, the hope, the urgent necessity of transforming. Years ago, in a class preparing for the High Holy Days, one of my students, a psychotherapist, asked a simple, potent question: “Can people really change?”
On the one hand, that everything changes constantly is a given. We and everything around us are always changing states, moving, evolving and devolving, birthing, dying. Even after death, changes continue, though in ways that are mysterious to us. This is the nature of things. Scientists tell us that, of the approximately 37.2 trillion cells in the human body, some one million die every second, and that over the course of seven to ten years almost all of the body’s cells are replaced. If change is always happening, if the cells in our body are constantly being renewed why does it seem like the same old (and older) body each day? Why do we come back around again and again to the same stuck places in our psyches, the same arguments in our relationships, the same road-blocks in our communal lives?
Teshuvah—the essential gesture of this High Holy Day season—is a call to change, to change our lives, to revision our world, to empty ourselves and start anew. Rabbi DovBer Pinson, in his book Reclaiming the Self, The Path of Teshuvah, makes a distinction between change and transformation. “When Teshuvah is merely about change,” he writes, “it comes into direct conflict with any existing system that stands in resistance to that change. Yet real Teshuvah is of a higher order, not just about change, but about genuine transformation. It is a major spiritual shift, through which the by-product of change occurs organically.”
So what is the nature of this major shift that allows change to happen, that sets the stage for newness?
If to form is to shape or mold something that’s been perhaps dis-organized into something recognizable, nameable; and to re-form is to form again, to return a thing or person to its original form or to give it a new and better form; then we might say that to trans-form is to go beyond that which has been known or imagined, to transcend the imagined limitations of form.
What happens when you hold the intention, the deep prayer, that your work of teshuvah be not only formative or re-formative, but trans-formative? What happens in our physical world when we transcend form, transform matter? When we open our awareness to the realm of pure consciousness and pure energy, where all is movement, so constant as to seem still?
You know this space. I’m sure you’ve visited it, even if only for an instant, a breath. We’ve all experienced moments outside of time, when we say that “time stands still,” or that “the moment was endless,” because the cognitive mind, which creates time through its ability to transect with perception the flow of Universal Consciousness, has released its grip on reality and allowed pure awareness to arise, allowed you to float momentarily in the quiescent Sea of Being that just is. The kabbalists call this sea Ayin—No-thing. Nothing.
One of my great movement teachers, Nancy Stark Smith, of blessed memory, a world-renowned teacher and performer of contact improvisation, put it this way: “Where you are when you don't know where you are, is one of the most precious spots offered by improvisation. It is the place from which more directions are possible than anywhere else. I call this place The Gap.”
I dropped into “The Gap” during the first birth I attended, the birth of my goddess daughter, Anika. It was a sweltering July day in the family bedroom, and all who were present entered this extra-ordinary realm together. The mom-to-be, my dear friend Marilyn, a dancer and singer, was toning and breathing through each wave of contraction, and we, her birthing team, were chanting and groaning with her; sweating with her; applying pressure to her back, hands, feet; breathing with her. Afloat in The Gap, a realm outside of time-space, the Ayin zone of limitless creative possibility, we didn’t notice that our friend had entered transition, the final stage before giving birth. Only the dad-to-be, Don, who had kept one foot in the material world, abruptly alerted us to pack up and get to the hospital.
We arrived just in time to support Marilyn as she squatted on the floor of the birthing room and, in a whoosh, the head crowned and with barely a push our girl emerged. At that moment, a huge force filled the room, a living-deathing-breathing force, just for a few moments, before gradually shrinking down to baby body size. “Welcome, Anika,” we cooed. I rubbed her tiny blueish feet, until breath slipped in, gently, her feet turned pink, the cord was cut, and her lips found her mother’s breast. After many hours, my friend Elizabeth and I, both on the birthing team, emerged from the hospital room, dazed, elated, and drove to a nearby lake, where we sat on the shore, swirled our fingers in the cool water and marveled. Where had we just been? Had we been in that room for hours, weeks, or years? It was as if all of us had been born that day, and none of our lives would be the same. Ever. Transformation.
This “timeless time and placeless place,” which we sometimes call Shabbat, is the ocean of soul we need to dip into again and again, bringing back into our everyday awareness drops or thimblefuls or cupfuls of peace, wholeness, is-ness. Even—and maybe especially—in a time of crisis—a time like now.
What gives us the courage to stop doing, put down the phone, turn off the computer, and enter that formless state, rife with possibility and uncertainty, much less abide there? Emunah, faith—the same Hebrew root as aman, amen, truth. Faith connects us with the Divine, with the invisible Presence, the Ayn Sof, the Infinite that abides in the Ayin and witnesses the truth of who we are. Faith gives us the courage to reach beyond everything we think we know, beyond anything our everyday senses would lead us to trust, to allow ourselves to dissolve like the caterpillar in the chrysalis, to abide, even momentarily, in the Void.
And what gives us the courage to come back? Love, always and only love. Not sentimental love, not love as a feeling, but the kind of love that Valarie Kaur, the Sikh lawyer, filmmaker, activist, and spiritual organizer, speaks of in her new book, See No Stranger, A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love. If you’re going to read only one book this year, let it be this one! Kaur calls us to a love that is fierce, bloody, life-giving, awe-filled, trembling—the kind of love that gets you through a difficult birth, a love that enfolds the weak and the vulnerable, that honors differences, that fuels one’s resolve to stand up a bully, to speak truth to power; a love willing to listen to the stories of people not like ourselves; a love that tends even to an enemy’s wound—the only kind of love that could see us through the birthing of a new order. The kind of love that poet Maya Angelou, zikhronah liv’rakhah, describes as “a condition so strong that it may be that which holds the stars in their heavenly positions and that which causes the blood to flow orderly in our veins.”
This love begins with self-love, self-acceptance, self-forgiveness. It begins with knowing your beingness is enough, your work is good enough, that no matter what, no matter that ayn banu ma’asim, that we have done nothing to deserve it, we are loved by God. Rabbi Alan Lew z”l writes, “Self-forgiveness is the essential act of the High Holiday season. That’s why we need heaven. That’s why we need God. We can forgive others on our own. But we turn to God…because we cannot forgive ourselves.”
What blocks self-love for you? Is it a story someone told you a long time ago about yourself that you’re clasping to your heart like a dear friend or holding in your belly like it would be your last meal? Now, this very Rosh Hashanah, is the time to tend this wound and ask for heaven’s help to let it go. Now, when we’re here together, holding this charged and holy space together. Because this is not solitary work. We can’t do it alone. We need one another more than ever at this critical juncture. Covid 19 has taught us so well that, whether great or small, wealthy or struggling to survive, we are indissolubly bound together on our ever-shrinking, ever-warming planet.
This is the “together” part of “transforming together.” Physically separated though we may be, this Rosh Hashanah, more than ever, we need to join the energies of our prayers to generate a great collective wave, a tsunami of tefilah to fuel a hurricane of tzedakah, of right action, to bring healing, in whatever ways we are able, if humankind is to generate the systemic impact that the survival of our very species on this precious and beautiful planet, this Gaia/Shekhinah we call home, this magical blue-green orb that has hosted Life through the eons, now requires.
Until we together commit to accept and to love what and who we are, each and all, until I am deeply rooted in myself, loving and accepting myself, my body, my strengths and my suffering and the suffering and strengths of my lineages, until I can become curious and accepting and loving and willing enough to cross the great divide to connect with “you,” whoever you are––until our hearts melt in tenderness and we aspire to see no stranger, either within our own beings or in one another’s beings, until I do my best to honor your story and recognize your story also, in some way, as mine, until in the words of the great Sufi poet Hafiz, we consistently insist that
the sword drop from people’s hands
even at the height of
their arc of
because we have finally realized
there is just one flesh
we can wound,
until a significant number of us, all ages, genders, political affiliations, commit to these things, nothing will truly transform here.
And clearly, we need to do it now. No more postponements, no extensions. The book is due, the bill must be paid, the eviction notice has been tacked to the door. If we cannot find a way to do it together, to each do our small part to make a home for everyone, that welcomes everyone, then we will all be evicted.
And we can do it. We can! “This is our moment,” Valarie Kaur writes, “to declare what is obsolete, what can be reformed, and what must be imagined…. When we create spaces to imagine together,…then we can begin to feel the world we want in our bodies. It feels safe and brave and free. It becomes like a memory we carry.”
Tomorrow we will hear the sound of the shofar, for Rosh Hashanah is also called, in the Torah, Shabbaton Zikron Teru’ah, a Shabbat of Remembering the Great Shouting—breath shaped into a ragged, primal cry by the ram’s horn, wailing, plaintive, strengthening, then stuttering and broken, then steady and sure, stretching into a blast of infinite faith. It is the collective voice of our own hearts, reaching beyond ourselves, touching our own truth, stretching to touch the Infinite, the Unbroken, the Source. Hear these words of activist-poet Dane Kuttler from her Social Justice Warrior’s Guide to the High Holy Days:
And G!d says: Hear the sounds of the shofar! And if you cannot hear the shofar, if you cannot step foot in the synagogue for whatever reason, then hear what is meant to wake you. Hear: I Can’t Breathe, Hear: Black Lives Matter, Hear the cries of refugees, Hear: the names of the restless dead. Wake. Stay woke. It is all a shofar.
I leave you with this question: what would you be willing to do to set aside your own preferences and give yourself to the task of transforming together with members of this community during the coming year? Please take a few minutes to reflect in silence.
[Ana b’Kho’ah niggun]
I invite you now to rise in body or soul or both to offer the first Amidah of these Holy Days. You’ll find the traditional prayers in Hebrew and English on pages 38-42 of your mahzor, and the prayers of your own body and mind and soul moving within you. May this holy moment unseal the lips of your being, so that your whole self vibrates with Divine Presence:
Adonai s’fati tiftakh ufi yagid t’hilatekha
© Rabbi Diane Elliot 2020