Thursday, October 11, 2012

Awesome Days


(Remarks as delivered, Hill Havurah community, Rosh Hashanah 5773 - September 17, 2012, with notes added)

Shanah Tovah!

I am so excited and so honored to be here with you; and I am so aware that you have been sitting for a very long time!! So, as I begin, I invite those of you are able and desire to stand or sit and stretch, shake your hands and body. As you continue to work out a few kinks in your body, I’m going to sing a song and those of you who know I invite you to sing along and those of you who don’t know might recognize the melody so you can hum along until you get the words and then join.

Yah, prepare me to be a sanctuary,
Pure and holy, tried and true.
With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living 
Sanctuary for You. 

I so love this time of year:
  • The unrelenting heat of late summer gives way to meteorological fall; crisp mornings and warm days – perfect sleeping weather.
  • The month of Elul with the daily sounding of the shofar, a cry to awaken to what is so; to shake off the haze of long summer days and pay attention. 
It is so appropriate that these Awesome Days are tied to late summer and early fall, the time of harvesting and releasing; shedding really. I love the communal rituals of these Awesome Days; an opportunity to speak to our subconscious to affirm our desire to move forward, to ask: 
  • How can we been our best self this year? 
  • What are the gifts from 5772 that we collectively and individually want to bring into 5773? 
  • What are the hurts, the pains we want to leave behind?
  • What sweet memories will we carefully pocket or smooth into a scrapbook? 
  • For which disappointments will we stand and say Kaddish?   
This is the time of year to ask: 
  • How am I numbering my days? 
  • Am I on the path to obtaining a heart of wisdom (and that path is not age restricted)? 
  • Have I become so mired in the muck of pain and the grind of daily life that I am misdirecting my longings? 
Rav (Abraham Isaac) Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem (Palestine), wrote that we can get so tied up in the day to day that we can mistake our soul’s longing for closeness with the Holy One, Blessed Be G!d, with the longing for things. So we buy more things or do more things and the longing doesn't go away; it intensifies and we do more and buy more and continue to be less satisfied until we pause and in the pause examine what we are doing? What are we missing? 

I pray every morning; sometimes in minyan often alone; many times the full liturgy often something much simpler. At minimum, I awake with (chanted): 


Modah Ani lifanecha, ruach chai v’chayam shechehazarta bi nimashti bechemlah rabba emunatecha. 
Thank you, Breath of Life for compassionately restoring my soul to me; great is Your faithfulness. 

I also do the daily blessings, though sometimes I’ll adlib one or two or three.
Blessed are You Eternal One, Sovereign of the Universe, who created such a glorious day!
… who grants us much needed rain!
… who surprises us with unexpected beauty!

Under my tallit, in addition to the traditional blessing, my mediation is Sanctuary. 
(Spoken) Yah, prepare me to be a sanctuary,
Pure and holy, tried and true.
With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living 
Sanctuary for You.

As I move through the day, I ask: how can I be a Sanctuary for the Eternal One? Most obvious is that I can be kind, courteous and/or helpful to all I encounter, whether I know them or not, whether I like them or not. I can listen patiently to friends who continue to complain about the same things over and over and over, without comment on their monologue and being – remaining – an active listener. When I am asked to comment, I can or not comment. I can offer them what I hear differently; and if I offer my opinion, I don’t argue about it – after all, it’s just my opinion. I offer solace, comfort where I can, and when I can’t I can be an active, fully present witness. I celebrate all joys and triumphs for there is no such thing as a small victory. I stay present, mindful and actively use proscribed and created blessings to honor moments.

Do you know why we have so many blessings? Who can tell me that? Who knows why we have so many blessings? There are two simple reasons: One is conveyance. The other is mindfulness.

1) Conveyance  –  Everything belongs to the Eternal. What makes it powerfully useful to us is when we say a blessing, honoring the Source of All.

2) Also, mindfulness  –  that we take a moment and pause and recognize everything that happened to make the moment possible for us, whether it’s a rainbow, a meal; whether it’s seeing friends for the first time in a long time; whether it’s meeting new people, wearing a new outfit... Honoring the moment  –  that’s the purpose of blessing as well as saying thanks to all who were involved in creating that moment. 

How can you be a sanctuary for the Eternal One, Sovereign of all that is known and unknown? How can you live into the promises and possibilities you want for yourself, your family, your community and the world for 5773? First and foremost, by recognizing your own humanity; where are you on your list of those you need to forgive? What are the things you say to yourself about yourself that are unkind, demeaning, and not true? Are you ready to show yourself compassion and, by doing so, increase your ability to be more compassionate with others and, by doing so, being more compassionate and creating more compassion in the world?

Are you ready to consider that possibility? It’s only three steps.

First, is to actually notice when you are berating yourself. Most of time, it’s a mindless tirade that we launch into when we do the least thing wrong or silly; and sometimes it’s absolutely, positively not intentional. So the first thing to do is to notice when we do that tirade and to stop; and to listen to it. 

The second step is an exercise I take from Sylvia Boorstein. It’s an exercise in which you say,  “Oh, honey! You’re having a moment! Slow down. Take a deep breath. I promise you it, will be okay. Take another deep breath. Have a cup of tea; go for a walk around the block or the building… Yes, you really do have time to take that moment to walk away from that state of being as well as that physical state of being so that when you come back you are more present to what you really want to accomplish." The idea is to interrupt the tirade with self compassion.

The third step is to develop a sense of humor, because sometimes we launch into the tirade out loud with other people around; sometimes perfect strangers – so, develop a sense of humor. “Oops, I seemed to have lost my mind. If you give me a moment, it will come back.” 

I believe that everything we do matters. Every step we take has a consequence. Every word we speak a reverberation. We choose to smile or not to smile at a stranger. We choose to take offense or shrug off another’s actions or inactions. We choose to be reactive or responsive every moment of everyday, and some days we do better in our choices than others. 

Our intentions matter; and, when our actions do not land as intended, we are responsible for their impact. When we take responsibility, we can mitigate some to all of the unintended harm we caused. When we don’t take responsibility, the negative energy adds to all the other negative energy in the world and another set of our actions – or those of another – can mitigate them. What we do and what we say matters. 

This last week of 5772 was a tough week and a wonderful week. Like many of you, I awoke Tuesday morning to the cool crisp air of pre-fall and I remembered that the morning was exactly the same way 11 years ago. The sunrise was beautiful; some distant fog and wispy clouds exactly as I remembered it being 11 years ago. And, so was the rhythm of my day: staying present to the occurrences and demands of Tuesday, September 11, 2012 and walking with the echoes of Tuesday, September 11, 2001

Like many of you, as I listened to the news, I stressed over the reports of violence in Egypt and Libya. I feared that it wouldn't be long before there was more violence in other places. As I heard and read more details about the impetus for the violence, I was horrified by the thought that anyone would deliberately provoke another group of people to violence – a thought I could not articulate in 2001; and it is important that I can still be horrified because being jaded is an energy state that fails to mitigate evil.

There was also sweetness in the week: Planning services with Laurie and Michael, time spent in person and on the phone with friends and family; studying and praying and walks; sunrises and moonrises and the sound of the shofar; my mother calling me for the first time to wish me a happy Jewish New Year; and my youngest sister giggly as she shared with me the new love in her life that she wants to bring to Washington so that I can meet him. What is significant is not that my baby sister is in love; it is that she is giggling and in love; it is that she wants me to meet him – two shifts in her life that I welcome because they represent transformation and healing and hope. 

Transformation and hope and healing: that is the promise of the New Year and that is why we read the story of Sarah and Hagar on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Sarah is transformed from a barren woman to one who gives birth to laughter – joy she previously had not known. 

In the desert, Hagar’s despair is turned to hope when the Eternal opens her eyes to see what she had previously missed. Each woman experiences healing and so does Abraham. Abraham follows G!d’s counsel, creating peace within his home. Though he is wronged by the actions of the house of Abimelech, Abraham presents Abimelech with the opportunity to make a correction. 

Giving birth to the possibility of joy and laughter, opening our eyes to see what we may be missing, and taking the time to make peace requires mindfulness. The cultivation of mindfulness is one of the essential elements of Jewish practices and that’s why we are all here today: to mindfully step through the practices and rituals of these Awesome Days to create motion and momentum toward more good in our lives and, as a consequence, in the world. 

Like Sarah, we seek possibility. Like Hagar, we seek to have our eyes opened to what has eluded us. And like Abraham, we are willing to pay at least the price of our ego to make peace.  

In just a few moments the shofar will blast several times. What, if anything, do we want to be awakened within us? What, if anything, do we seek to release? Is there an ache that needs to be soothed or broken open? A cry we cannot make that needs to be heard? Whether you can articulate it or not, each of us will be different after the blasts, and much of the next few days will be spent discerning that difference. 

My invitation to you is to spend the Awesome Days ahead in gratitude for all there is, including whatever may be unpleasant and or painful, and with growing compassion for your own humanness. While the Gate of the Wounded Heart is always open, these Awesome Days are an opportunity to purge those things which no longer serve us: old jealousies, useless fears; rage, anger, and resentment that are the poison we drink in hopes that another will die; haughtiness that hides our vulnerability; greed, self-righteousness and cynicism to name a few of the ways in which we can miss the mark, be blinded – unable to see what is right in front of us, and add to the negative energy in the world. Practice and generate gratitude, generosity, compassion, hospitality, appreciation, wisdom, love, and strength – to name a few of the passions that can mitigate evil. And, remember to put yourself on the forgiveness list. Be the compassion you want to see in the world. Be a living sanctuary for the Holy One, blessed be G!d.

Shanah Tovah

For more about Rav Kook

(c) Copyright Sabrina Sojourner 2012

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