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Rosh Hashana 5765 sermon by Rabbi Tirzah Firestone
sermon by Rabbi Tirzah Firestone
Reb Zalman tells that once when he was a child he saw his father with tears in his eyes.
"Why are you crying, Tati?" he asked. "Who hit you?"
"Nobody hit me," his father replied, "I just talked to God."
"Oh," he said, "Does it hurt when you talk to God?"
"No, it doesn't hurt," he said, I'm just sad because I've waited so long."
We wait so long. We forget we are not alone.
It's so easy to forget. All year long we are full of purpose and importance, bustling about, creating our lives. And then we get reminded, if we are lucky, we are reminded of the other truth: That we are such fleeting figures on this earth. We get reminded that despite appearances, any one of us could be gone in a blink of an eye, that we are simply not here on our own power. Tomorrow we will chant the words of the Ntaneh Tokef: Who will live and who will die? The words sting us because we get it: That we are so temporary, that each year of life is an enormous gift, not to be taken lightly.
There is a story of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Reb Yosef Yitzchok, who stood on RH eve for 3 hours praying the Amidah, shaking and weeping under his talit. The year was 1942, and he was pleading for his life and for the life of his family and his community. We have so many stories of this kind, because no matter what era we live in, RH evokes this immense awe and humility.
But you know I am always one for paradox. Hand in glove with this beautiful humility, there is another kind of knowing that lives and beats within us. That is the knowing that life is shaped by us, by what we hold in our minds and what we do with our actions. As much as any supernatural Godly power, it is our own beliefs actions, which dictate, the quality and shape of our lives. God is about possibility. We are about definitions.
I am speaking here about the power of our minds and its pictures, our beliefs and intentions. From this angle, WE are the creators of our world. And this is not sheer arrogance, but the understanding that since we are created in God's image, we have been sown with God's power to shape our lives and the reality around us.
Albert Einstein, who I respect as one of the great Rebbes of our era, said this:
The most fundamental decision we have to make in life is:
Do we live in a friendly universe?
Or do we live in a hostile universe?
Because based upon your answer to this question, your world assumes a certain shape. Einstein's implication is that our beliefs about the world and about our selves, ultimately dictate the nature of the world. He was not alone. Heissinger and scores of quantum physicists who followed him, understood that the nature of the way we look at our lives, dictates the nature of what we will see.
The Ba'al Shem Tov taught us the same lesson 300 years earlier when he twisted the famous maxim: Da ma l'ma'ala mimcha (Know who stands above you!) to read: Know that what is above you, comes mimcha, from you, In other words: how you hold the world, will dictate how the world holds you.
The Buddha said it this way:
We are what we think.
All that we are, arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with a pure mind and happiness will follow you.
Speak or act with an impure mind and trouble will follow you.
So stay with me and let's hold together these two sides of the coin. They are both quintessentially RH themes. On one side, we come here in such deep humility asking for another year of life. We connect with the tears of our ancestors who prayed for their lives, for we too, know that our fates, as were theirs, are utterly dependent upon Melech HaMlachim, the Power behind all powers. On this holiday, we literally fall to our faces, in the act of nefilat apayim, declaring our powerlessness before the One who called us into being.
On the other side of the coin, we are part and parcel of that One who called us into being! We are chips off the block, with the same creative power, and on RH we must account for how we have used or have failed to use our creative powers:
We are so powerless! We are So powerful.
So much at the mercy of God,
so much at the mercy of our selves!
How does Judaism hold these 2 truths together?
You remember the rabbi with 2 pockets, and 2 scribbled notes from Torah in each pocket? The words of Abraham: I am but dust and ashes. And the words of the Talmud: For me the entire world was created! On days when he felt his life was meaningless, that he himself was worthless, when he questioned if any body cared at all, his hand felt for the note that read: For me the world was created!
And on the other days, when he was full of himself, and it was difficult for him to remember his own impermanence, he reached in to the other pocket: I am but dust and ashes.
Both pockets hold Torah! Both are true.
In the first century BCE, there were 2 great rabbis named Hillel and Shamai, who held differing views about the world and how to relate to it, essentially playing out Einstein's fundamental question. For Hillel the world was a friendly place, and love and grace were its currency. His approach to Jewish law was filled with an expansive optimism.
For Shamai, the sober realist, the world was full of sharp edges, raw truth, vexing people. Shamai met the world with edges and vexation. His legal decisions were, therefore, more harsh.
One time, 3 years went by in which Hillel and Shamai were in deadlock about a certain legal/halachic decision. Finally, the Bat Kol, the definitive voice of Wisdom, came out of the Heavens and said:
Elu v'elu divrei Elohim Chayim
Your words, Hillel, AND your words, Shamai, are equally words of the Living God. You are both right. But because the world is such a harsh place, we shall lean toward Hillel in all matters, because the world is in need of more kindness.
Judaism has always held opposing views together as "both true," while urging us to err on the side of kindness.
Judaism also teaches us, as does quantum science, that it is our weltenschaung, the way we view the world that creates the world that we live in.
Did you know, by the way, what Einstein had to say about being Jewish? He said his only regret about being Jewish was that he was born that way. He would have preferred to choose it of his own volition, so that he could've demonstrated to the world his deep love for the faith.
Let's talk about being Jewish.
Tonight we are celebrating a new year and the birth of new possibilities, with our people all around the world. But things have not been good for world Jewry. Except for most of us in North America, Jews around the world are suffering the biggest wave of anti-semitism since WWII.
It is critical that we come to terms with this and not keep ourselves sealed off from this news. How do we relate to this fact? How do we deal with the fact that our people are, in many places, hated, hounded, stereotyped in the worst ways?
Some say this is the Jewish fate, we are the scapegoats of the world, that we are powerless to anti semitism and that the reports from Indonesia, France, and the Arab World are simply part of a well known cycle; that if you study world history, every 50-60 years, there is an upsurge of hatred against our people.
Others say that we are creating these attitudes ourselves, that it is our actions and inactions in the world, that we are responsible for our fate.
I don't know the answer, but I wonder what Dr. Einstein would have said. And in light of his love and our love for our faith, I want to share with you more personally now, the great complexity I felt in visiting Israel this summer.
Some of you may remember, Last RH, in front of God, the Torah and many of you, I pledged to do something new, to take some action, in the new year, relating to Israel.
Quite frankly, I was sick of my own judgments and criticisms of the situation there. It was getting too easy to sit back and take shots from the comfort of my American life. And so David and I went.
By our second day there, I was amazed to find, I had lost my ability to judge. The situation is SO complex, the history so multi-dimensional; and my love for the people so immense, that I simply couldn't do what it takes to judge any longer.
How do you judge when you love all sides and you see the truth on both sides and feel the pain from every quarter? How do you judge when you know that put in the same position, you yourself would probably fare no differently, or worse? How do you judge when you hear story after story of suffering from people on both sides of a Wall, both sides fearing for their children's lives and their ability to feed their families?
I couldn't stand to listen to the political theorists (of which there are many in Israel.) Only the Bat Kol, the Heavenly voice, echoing in answer to all the stories of suffering: "Elu v'elu divrei Elohim ChayimÉboth sides are equally the words of the Living God. Now hold them together, but weigh in on the side of kindness."
You cant go on a trip without bringing back some pictures. Don't worry its not a slide show, there are just a few, and if you follow me, I guarantee you will see the images clearly enough.
1. Starved to live a normal life and forget how difficult their situation is, Israelis take refuge in the "relative calm" these days. Film festivals, parties, concerts and shopping. The streets are full at night. One evening in Yaffo I was shocked and alarmed to hear explosions, and then to look up and see the most spectacular fire works exploding in the skyÉI was astonished that Tel Avivi residents could bear such soundsÉbut life has gone on; they were simply celebrating a kids' soccer victory.
2. Here is a picture of Israeli women waking up before dawn to get to the checkpoints. They are part of a women's group, most are mothers of soldiers, who stand vigil at the checkpoints, watching over the soldiers as they interrogate the thousands of Palestinians who move through these checkpoints every day in and out of the country. The women post themselves there to make sure the young soldiers treat the Arabs humanely, that dignity is shown.
3. Dignity is not always possible. In this third picture you see and feel the fatigue, frustration, and indignity of being in line for hours just to get to your field or to your job if you are lucky enough to have one. Here is a frail 72 year old Arab man being frisked roughly and yelled at by a 19 year old soldier checking for weapons at a checkpoint.
Here is the 19 year old soldier, angry and exhausted from being on his feet for a 10 hour shift, afraid that the next car he checks, something or someone will explode in his face. Not without reason. His best friend died three weeks ago, trying to detonate a bomb.
4. Now this 19 year old boy has older cousins. They are part of a controversial group called Chayalim Shovrim Shtikah: Soldiers breaking the silence. Soldiers who have come out with the stories and photographs of the indignities that an occupation-any occupation-creates. This group is bravely trying to confess their own sins and in so doing, to remind those Israelis, who would prefer to forget, that the price of occupation on Israeli society is too high.
5. Here is a picture of the settlers. My brother is one of these. He has 6 kids and drives them to the doctor with an Uzi on his lap. The suffering here has turned to hatred. I was shocked to hear from an Israeli friend that at her settlement this summer, at an Orthodox wedding, before the ritual of breaking the glass was enacted, a passage from psalms was pronounced: Oh God, Crush the skulls of their babies on the rock. Then the groom's foot came down on the glass and all yelled mazel tov!
6. Here is a picture of the security fence, which cuts across the land like a scar. It is either impenetrable barbed wire or concrete. One Arab cab driver told me: "This wall makes us very sad. They have given up on us; and turned their backs on us; they want to pretend we don't exist." Yet, the wall has, for now, lowered the incidents of terrorist attacks in Israel.
7. Finally, a group of women friendsÉSeven Jews, seven Palestinians. They are dressed in veils and mini skirts; one wears a burka. Some have served in the Israeli army, two have seen the murder of their own family members before their eyes; Among them, doctors, artists, crisis workers, Arab women who have outlandishly defied the rule of marriage. Israeli women who have outlandishly defied the rule not to befriend Arabs. These Palestinians and Jews are forming a network of women around the country that defy the standard of fear and numbness that has befallen their land. They are coming here in October.
Far from complete, these are my beautiful and painful, often tear-stained photos.
Our paradox will not go away:
We are stuck with divine powerlessness in the face of our history, just as we are prodded by our divine mandate to change history, to shape and reshape our world through our acts of courage, to stand up against the voice of mainstream consensus...Jews have always and everywhere exercised this divine privilege and will not cease to do so.
Tomorrow Eve will chant the age old questions: Who will live and who will die? But we must not go passive to sentiments of this prayer; we must continue the prayer by confronting ourselves: If I am granted another year of life, what will I do with the power, the privilege, the freedom that I have been given?
No, it is true, we are nothing but a passing show of dust and ashes, mere molecules that form and reform endlessly throughout time. We are nothing in the face of history, less in the face of eternity. But for one ingredient that has been breathed into that dust: the possibility for kindness, for morality, for the intelligence that declares that as long as I am alive, I will fight to stay awake and exercise my godgiven power to change this world.
This RH, as we bow down and as we pray, as we listen to the raw, urgent sounds of the ram's horn, may none of us here ask for another year of life for ourselves and our families alone. May none of us ask to merely subsist, with our own needs met and our own security assured.
Let us ask, rather, for a life that makes room for more than our truth alone,
Let us ask for the strength of our ancestors who lived and died for a faith that refused to leave others behind,
Let us ask for the courage to stand against the fear that is paralysing our world, and say:
I (like the Israeli mothers) am waking up early to keep a vigil on humanity, I (like their sons) am willing to confess the dark truths that comes with power. I (like the daughters of ancient enemies) am willing to break down walls, even though everyone has voted for them, in order to save the human spirit of the world I love, and the people who live in it.
Friends, we are utterly powerless in the face of eternity, and yet, we are so, so powerful.
Two pockets, Two truths. Which will guide our lives this new year?
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