“What’s in your album?” – Rosh Hashanah morning, 1st day, 5775
When my wife, Tracy Moore, went to visit her sister a couple of weeks ago to celebrate their birthdays, they spent a lot of time going through old family albums. As entertaining as that can be it can also put you in a, what should I say, “sentimental mood.” Looking at family albums with others in your family – who are also in the pictures – is so different from “sharing” your albums with new friends and new generations.
The Days of Awe, our annual time of gathering both family and new friends, old generations and new, can be like a time of sharing family albums. Jewish tradition is one of the albums, so is BCC – the House of new Life – the congregation we have all chosen to attend this Rosh Hashanah; and then too there are the albums of our individual lives — many of us will share the most recent volume of that album today by showing friends photos on our smart phones (not right now, okay?), and there’s another volume/album that makes an appearance at every Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — so far it just has your name on the cover, but the inside is blank — no pictures yet, or words, but lots of empty pages. One of our purposes in being here today and throughout the holy days is to help determine what goes in that as yet empty album — what’s the next set of “photos” for you? with whom will you share it?
Beginning last night, with the appearance of the sliver of the Tishrei moon and lasting for the next ten days all the way through sundown at the end of Yom Kippur, we can be the recipients of one of Judaism’s most precious gifts — time dedicated to reflect on our lives.
Oh come on, you can too do this — even though I know time to reflect goes against everything we’ve been training for by all the many distractions we put in our way — from smart phones to tablets to e-book readers to spin classes to pilates to work to old fashioned crossword puzzles to (I admit it) NPR.
Did you hear about that study at the Univ. of Virginia? I think I did hear it on NPR originally. Participants were asked to put away any distractions and entertain themselves with their own thoughts for 15 minutes.
Subjects were wired up and given the chance to shock themselves during the thinking period if they desired. They’d all had a chance to try out the device to see how painful it was. And yet, even among those who said they would pay money not to feel the shock again, a quarter of the women and two thirds of the men gave themselves a zap when left with their own thoughts. (One outlier pressed the button 190 times in the 15 minutes.)1
Of course sometimes it takes a shock to wake us up.
And our world and some of our individual lives have had no shortage of shocks this past year. Wars and terrorism continue, countries in upheaval produce scores of refugees, including women and girls and LGBT people, in untenable situations. Ukraine, Uganda, Nigeria, Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Gaza & our beloved Israel — where hasn’t there been a war or threat of one, or governments in disarray, or toppling, in this past year? And now ISIS and the U.S. and allies are once again responding with bombs.
Then there’s Ebola, to frighten us in a different way, and rising tides of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere. And on this side of the globe…from Ferguson, MO to our own city’s troubles to the crisis on our borders — in the past year (since October 2013) more than 66,000 children and teenagers traveling without their parents have been apprehended at our borders, mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
And the other ailments continue: global warming, the effects of climate change including California’s ongoing and dangerous drought. And on a less global front all the trials and tribulations of our individual lives — the worries, the hurts, the uncertainties and anxieties, the decisions and choices, broken relationships, work issues, all the challenges posed just because we’re human beings trying to make a life for ourselves.
And that’s only a partial list of the world woes and our private concerns — hmm, I think I am starting to understand why people prefer to shock themselves than sit quietly and think about “things.”
Maybe Judaism understood long ago the challenge of sitting alone with one’s own thoughts. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons our tradition brings us together for self-reflection, as these Days of Awe invite us to do. It seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? If we want to self-reflect why come into a space like this one, filled with people talking and praying out loud? Why put distractions in our hands [like this prayerbook] and before our eyes, or fill our ears with words and music and the blast of the shofar?
In fact, maybe Judaism knew all along that people have trouble sitting alone with their own thoughts — after all, sitting alone can be…lonely. So instead, we deliberately set ourselves up to encourage one another. That’s one of the main things community is for, after all, to give each other courage to do the next right thing — whatever the next right thing happens to be.
I know that some of you question why I even bring up these lists of unsettling things — you come here to escape the world, and I shine a light on the monsters in the corner. But it’s not because I want the dark corners to interrupt our prayer or our comfort at being here together. I bring it in because I want us to figure out how to live in a world that is so troubled, and how to help solve those troubles, and also — all at the same time — how to appreciate life as we know it. It’s that dissonance that Rabbi Heather alluded to last night — the dissonance between how you are feeling and what the universe provides. How can we learn to live with the incongruity — how can we learn to embrace and relish life even with the parts that bring us down? How can we live, if not in harmony with the horrible, at least without trying to escape from all that rudely intrudes on our lives, or all that threatens the world as we know it?
Because integrating it all — learning to live with it all – really live – is what our tradition asks of us. Not coming into a sanctuary in order to hide from the world, but coming here to talk with God and with each other and to ourselves, coming here to make plans on Rosh Hashanah for what comes next. In our tradition this day is said to be the day God thought up the idea of the world — hayom harat olam – “today is the world conceived,” says our prayerbook. Olam means “world” and also “eternity” – hayom harat olam “the beginning of forever” – in other words, it’s a day filled with possibilities for the future.
We come to Rosh Hashanah, this day, the beginning of a new year, not as babies newly born, but as people simply trying to become better people. Jewish tradition invites us every year not to start over, but to keep building, keep growing, keep improving. If we decide to take seriously the invitation of the 10 Days of Awe, we have a lovely week ahead of us.
We can spend Rosh Hashanah (today and tomorrow) reflecting and looking forward, beginning to put photos and remembrances into our new album. And we can spend the week until Yom Kippur — seven full days — trying to become the best self we can become: repairing wounds, forgiving others and asking forgiveness for the ways we have missed the mark; coming to understand how we went wrong, and resolving not to go that way again –
and then, repairs made with the people in our lives, we’ll gather here again on Yom Kippur, the 10th of the 10 Days of Awe, to right things with God and with our self.
The stories we read and the prayers we chant on Rosh Hashanah hint at what can happen if we do all this. For the stories and liturgy and customs of this HOLY DAY come to teach us that the world has always been like the world we experience now…uncertain, frightening, difficult to understand, filled with anxious moments, and people who don’t always “behave well,” to put it mildly, as well as a place filled with endless marvelous possibilities for more, for better.
The stories we read in Torah today and tomorrow tell of people in challenged relationships to those closest to them, including God – and they all speak to what can happen when people encourage one another and draw closer to each other and to God instead of pulling away or running away.
What happens is that God hears; what happens is that people reach out to each other and in so doing reach a new understanding of themselves; what happens is that lives change – their lives don’t get perfect, but they “get better.” Each of the challenging stories and prayers of Rosh Hashanah points to better, each has a hopeful ending — children are born, no one dies after all, rude people get nicer, the oppressed go free, God hears them and responds.
In a little while we’ll hear that quintessential sound of Rosh Hashanah — the sound of the shofar. A primitive instrument, and one capable of producing a wide variety of sounds – some of those sounds are like an alarm – wake up! it cries.
And some of the calls of the shofar sound intentionally like the sound of wailing and of sobbing, as if to say, all lives have these moments – your does, mine does, and our tradition calls us to take note of those moments, to feel and remember those sorrows that ebb and flow through our bodies and our souls and our lives.
And some of the calls sound like fun – there’s that in every life too. And the last blast? Some say it is a triumphant call – the birth cry of a new baby entering the world, a eureka moment – the celebration of a revelation or the call of someone ready, eager, to take the next step, do the next right thing.
The world of our Rosh Hashanah liturgy describes the world we live in.
Even the scary prayer – the Unetaneh Tokef – with its long list of dismal ways to die, turns suddenly redemptive: “But repentance, prayer, righteousness ease the severe decree…for You, God, are difficult to anger and easy to appease. You do not desire the death of the condemned, but that we turn from our [wrong] path and live!”
Same world, it’s always been this way. God tried once to destroy it with a flood and start over, but then gave up, saying, never mind, even though people will do wrong, “I will never again strike down all living-things, as I have done.”
Footnote to that lovely promise — God won’t destroy, but that doesn’t mean humans won’t cause the destruction of the world as we know it.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
So why are we here on Rosh Hashanah building anxiety and relieving it? For this we take a day off?
Well, yes, for that and for some incredible music, and also to see our friends. It’s so nice to see you all — been a while.
Well, yes, for all that and to figure out what we’re going to do next —
How are we going to help prevent the destruction of the world?
How are we going to repair the broken friendship whose loss is eating away at us?
What are we going to do in the next week and the new year to know we are contributing in some way to bettering…ourselves, our community, our city, our country, our beloved Israel, our precious world?
Good news, our tradition is very clear on this one — you don’t have to do all of it. But just because you can’t complete the task doesn’t mean you are free to do nothing. Our tradition is clear about that too.
For starters, we can spend the next 10 days, including this one, reflecting on what we want to do. When you hear the struggles and tragedies of the world today, what tugs at your heart? What keeps you up at night?
What in this coming year, and perhaps beyond, is going to be your legacy? You can start small, try a few things, you’ll find your way, especially if you make an effort to do so.
Some volunteer work perhaps or some money shared with deserving places? BCC would welcome that, so would Project Chicken Soup — where volunteers make and deliver nourishing meals for people who can’t make their own (talk to Mark Miller); maybe you’re ready to train for the AIDS Lifecycle (Richard Lesse and Allison Diamant can tell you more); help preserve queer history by volunteering at an archive or bringing your family albums there (Tracy Moore can help); or become a mediator in a high school or juvenile facility (Larry Nathenson can tell you more); there’s an organization called KIND – Kids in Need of Defense – that’s helping some of those 66,000 young people who headed toward our border; work against domestic abuse; or help care for an aging person, or an infant; become a Jewish big brother/big sister (there are flyers in the lobby); or train for JQ’s new WarmLine to help queer youth or their families find needed resources (we’ve got refrigerator magnets for that one!); Israel has been through a lot this year and more to come — go to Israel – there’s a Wider Bridge trip with Juval as clergy leader leaving next month; or just learn more about Israel, or help support it — there’s New Israel Fund, Israel Bonds, countless other organizations doing good works there; or help elsewhere – check out American Jewish World Service and its “We Believe” campaign to help women, girls, and LGBT people in the developing world; become a social justice champion at Bend the Arc – a Jewish Partnership for Justice; or look into Beit Tshuvah – an amazing Jewish place of Recovery from substance abuse; or Beit Tzedek the non-profit organization that provides legal advocacy to those in need in LA (Elissa Barrett is your go-to there);
BIG SUNDAY’s mitzvah machine now has great offerings all year round for how to help others in useful, often fun ways;
or simply offer food to people who need food — fill your SOVA bag and make Karen Schwartz happy (she’s the one who will be handing you a bag on your way out today — fill it and bring back on Yom Kippur with nourishing food);
or make Robin Baltic happy and take a new BCC tzedakah box home and bring it back full of change on Yom Kippur;
there’s MAZON – the Jewish Response to Hunger which also relies on our donations each Yom Kippur – give the amount of money you would spend on food if you weren’t fasting — envelopes are available here.
Join other BCCers and Rabbi Heather to restore BCC’s Social Justice Committee or Bikkur Cholim Committee (visiting the sick); join the choir; foster a child; adopt a rescued animal, volunteer at an animal shelter; say yes when someone asks you to help with something;
study some Torah; lead a service at BCC;
help write a Purim shpiel, learn to read Hebrew; help somebody who needs a little help:
smile at a teary kid in the grocery store or smile sympathetically at that kid’s weary father or mother or grandmother or nanny;
talk to a homeless person, and put a few $1 bills in your glove box for the off ramp askers;
write down your end of life desires so your loved ones don’t have to guess;
put BCC or some other treasured organization into your will — you could make a huge difference to all of our futures by doing that; donate your used car to BCC;
tell us your story so we can learn from you;
do something once or make a habit of it, try out a few things. . .
help someone learn to read;
read to someone who can no longer read;
want to see some appreciative people? — babysit for a friend’s kids and don’t accept pay for it;
visit people in a home for elders;
— bring music into the world by making it yourself (take piano lessons) or by helping fund or produce Juval’s amazing music;
help Richard Lesse with the tech support at BCC;
fast on Yom Kippur if it’s safe for you do so;
help us build a Sukkah at BCC the day after Yom Kippur, and then come sit in it during Sukkot — that’s a mitzvah, you know — and Sukkot lasts a whole week! then come dance with us on Simchat Torah and feel the joy of Torah;
take Shabbat more seriously and joyously – Shabbat happens every week of the year, year in and year out so you have plenty of opportunities to try it out – you can start tomorrow by coming to the beach with us at 5pm for Tashlich and Shabbat and a lot of singing;
clean up a beach — take some friends and then go boogey boarding together;
become a Jew if you’ve been considering that long enough; become a member of BCC;
come out to someone you’ve been afraid to come out to (about whatever keeps you in the closet);
take some good used clothes from your closet over to the LA LGBT youth center so those young people can have clothes for job interviews;
take the Mussar course at BCC and learn more about Jewish values and how to live by them (ask Adam Barron);
go! to a 12-step program already; and/or therapy!
don’t dismiss people’s art or work with a quick or snide remark;
apologize to someone and mean it; forgive someone who asks your forgiveness; give up a grudge;
stop! texting while driving! Please.
sing more, dance more, enjoy yourself, your friends, your life more…FILL THAT ALBUM — the one with your name on it — to overflowing because you can, because you mean to every year and this is the year, because you never know what’s around the corner or in the corner…shine a light, shine your light on this world that God wants us to partner in to preserve and protect and fill with lives well lived.
This is far from a comprehensive list. I’m confident you’ll think of more on your own, but any of these, any of these – small gestures or large ones — can be antidotes to anxiety and boredom and that sinking feeling that there’s nothing you can do to change what’s wrong, or that you’re not living up to your own expectations – and I hope you’ll agree with me that all of them, any of them, are preferable to a random electric shock as a means to fighting boredom and increasing your endorphin level, and while you’re at it giving yourself and the world a little boost.
What is Rosh Hashanah for? You needn’t get too ambitious. No need to be overwhelmed by what there is to do.
Think of Rosh Hashanah as time — one day or two days in the year – today and tomorrow — dedicated to changing our lives just enough to set us on the right path for the year to come.
Who knows but that it won’t set you on the right path for life.
May this new year be a pathbreaker, a changemaker, for you, for us, for the world.
Shanah tovah u’metukah — a good year, a sweet year for us all.