CBE Rosh Hashanah Morning 5776
“On the Day You Were Born… While you waited in darkness, tiny knees curled to chin, the earth and her creatures with the sun and the moon all moved in their places each ready to greet you the very first moment of the very first day you arrived. On the Day you were born, the round planet earth turned toward your morning sky, whirling past darkness spinning the night into light… “On the day you were born, the moon pulled on the ocean below a rising tide washed the beaches clean for your footprints. “On the day you were born, the earth turned, the moon pulled, the sun flared, and then with a push you slipped out of the dark quiet where suddenly you could hear a circle of people singing. Welcome to the spinning world, the people sang, as they washed your new tiny hands, welcome to the green earth, the people sang, as they wrapped your wet slippery body. And as they held you close, they whispered into your open curving ear, we are so glad you’ve come.”1 1 From “On the Day You Were Born” by Debra Frasier I am so glad that you’ve come here to welcome this new year. On the first day of the year 5776 It is a miracle that you are here. It is a miracle that I am here. It is a miracle that we are alive on this day, this morning, in this sanctuary, together. Beginning something entirely new. Something that’s never been seen before. A new year. A new relationship. A new era in the life of this congregation.
Being human is a miracle. It is a miracle that we have the consciousness to know that we are here and the language with which to communicate it to one another. When I say miracle, I mean that which evokes wonderment. Reverence. Awe. It is a miracle that there is life on this planet at all. It is a miracle that there is a third planet from this small star we call sun. Stars themselves are miraculous. Galaxies, matter and energy… miraculous. Albert Einstein taught that we can either look at the world as if nothing is a miracle or as if everything is a miracle. One does not need to believe in any particular image of God to see miracles. This morning urges us to see everything as a miracle.
Hayom Harat Olam. Today, our tradition teaches, the universe was conceived. Rosh Hashanah is the date of conception of the world. Today we remember our beginnings. When we consider beginnings, we consider the state of things before the beginning. And that makes us aware of the improbability of everything we take for granted. Why, how, did there come to be a universe With the human species, And our people among our species, With you, with me? How, why have we come together, among seven billion others, In the same generation, to the same neighborhood, to the same congregation, to find one another here today?
On this morning of Rosh Hashanah, I invite you to come with me to the beginning to glimpse the miracle of our existence. First, the beginning of time. This is the story of modern cosmology: it all began in a vacuum. Nothingness, or as we’d say in Judaism, Ayin. The theory is that there was a fluctuation, a vibration that caused a singularity, a Oneness, at the beginning of time. Eventually this Oneness contracted and then exploded, shattered, into what we call the Big Bang, or what the Kabbalists call the broken vessels forming our expanding universe. As long as the universe continues to grow, time and space are linked; the word olam means both infinite time and infinite space, from beginning to forever, and from a tiny singularity to all that is. We call God Ayin, Nothingness, We call God Echad, Oneness, and We call God Ein Sof, Limitlessness.
Hayom Harat Olam. Today space/time was conceived. As our earth whirls around the sun, we Jews mark on the calendar this day to notice and remember the beginning. Torah intuited what the Hubbell telescope discovered: a cosmos that has a beginning… and an essential oneness. Bereishit bara In the beginning it was created. Shma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Pay attention Israel: Everything that exists comes from that first point in time and space. Everything that we see and know is one, profoundly interconnected.
Torah also intuited the evolving nature of life. Genesis does not describe the world emerging complete. But an evolving earth, beginning with the conditions for life: water, light, land; and then life itself, which becomes more complex with each passing day, or epoch. The Genesis story can be an origin myth and it can be pointing at something true.
Hayom Harat Olam. Today, humanity was conceived. Out of homo erectus, out of homo habilis, came homo sapiens Torah describes the first human, the adam, made out of earth, adamah. Every element found in the earth’s crust is also in us: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, oxygen, phosphorous. Forming cells, organs, arteries, neural pathways, ligaments, limbs. But Judaism insists we are not only made of earth. To become alive, the adam received the nishmat chayim, the breath of life, and became a living being. Neshima is breath. Neshama is soul. We are alive because we breathe. We are alive because we have a neshama. That links us forever to the Source of life. We sang this morning: Elohai neshama she natata bi tehora hi. My God, the soul you have given me, is pure. On this Rosh Hashanah, as I contemplate the ways I’ve sullied myself, the harm I’ve done through deed and word, how I have allowed the mundane to take over my life, I remember that this shining, pure wisp of eternity dwells within me and every member of my species. What a miracle we are. Hayom Harat Olam could be read “today my world was conceived.” Let us consider now our own particular beginnings, each one of us. Consider the conditions that made possible your own conception. Return now to the world before your own parents were conceived. What were the migrations and conditions that brought their parents to find one another, to bring forth life together?
My beginnings trace back to this place. All four grandparents came here, to this city. My mother was born in the Bronx, my father here, in Brooklyn. His favorite memories as a boy took place in Prospect Park where he rode horses and sailed toy boats on the lake. He remembers his grandmother’s cherry jam from the tree that grew in her yard. She’d put a dollop in the bottom of his hot tea. He remembers stickball on the streets and memorizing math lessons. The ingenuity and pluck he picked up on these Brooklyn streets led him forty years later to start an airline from scratch – the first American Jew to do so. I grew up in Miami on legends of Brooklyn and the Bronx, the rivalry between the Dodgers and the Giants, stories of the streets, and the belief that you could be anything. This is my old country, my place of beginning. And now back to you. Your grandparents met and your parents were born, grew, and met one another. Consider this: A woman is born with two million eggs. A man produces 525 billion sperm cells over a lifetime. Combined, that makes a number of permutations with eighteen zeros. Out of that astonishing number of possibilities, it was you who came into the world. With a particular neshama.
Then there was the miracle of your gestation and birth. You could not have made it, but you did. You emerged fresh, new, open. From moment one, light breath sound sensation, relation. What might this new being become? What will happen with this one life?
For two months I have been listening to stories of your beginnings. This summer, I sat in your homes, where you told me, more than 300 of you, about where you were born, how you grew up… some of you have told me about your parents, your grandparents, sisters and brothers, your childhood rabbi, you’ve told me about how you grew to know who you are. You’ve told me about discovering passions and gifts. You’ve told me about friendships and loves, choices made, lives that took turns you never expected. You’ve told me about watching your children be born and grow, about imagining what their lives might become. You’ve told me about finding your way here, to Brooklyn, to Park Slope, to CBE.
Hayom Harat Olam. Today at CBE, a new world, a new era, a new life is born. But everything new is also not new. Ein chadash tachat hashemesh. As Solomon taught, there is nothing new under the sun. Just as at our births we are made of the generations who came before us, so too does this moment emerge out of all that Garfield Temple and Beth Elohim has ever been, ever since our beginning in 1861 through our move to Park Slope in 1909. I am honored to take my place in the line of Rabbi Lyons, Rabbi Landman, Rabbi Sack, Rabbi Weider, and Rabbi Bachman, each of whom gave years of their lives to this place along with exceptional gifts of genius, passion, dedication, and heart to this synagogue community. And I am profoundly grateful to work with two outstanding colleagues, deep, thoughtful and extraordinarily talented: Cantor Joshua Breitzer and Rabbi Marc Katz. What a privilege to be on this team.
You’re no ordinary synagogue community, CBE. Here’s what I fell in love with about you: You have chosen a creative, vibrant, experimental approach to synagogue life. You are willing to try new things, to expand, grow and change. That’s not easy. But that’s what you’ve done. You have broken out of your walls to embrace the surrounding community, through an after-school program and an early childhood center, food programs, interfaith partnerships, 20s and 30s engagement, and neighborhood holiday celebrations. You’ve chosen to make Shabbat the day when the entire community gathers, first with Kabbalat Shabbat and then with an intergenerational morning of learning and song, celebration and prayer. You have opened your doors to Jewish pluralism, keeping your roots solidly planted in the Reform movement, but making room in your tree of life for different branches of Jewish expression. You’ve allowed yourself to dream about what Jewish life can look like. What a synagogue can be. What community can mean.
You’re no ordinary community and I’m not your typical rabbi. I wasn’t always someone who spoke about human beings as miracles. I used to be much more in touch with all that is wrong with humanity and our world. I remember the first time I saw homeless people. It was 1982 in Miami, and I was riding in the backward facing seats of the family station wagon when I saw people making bedding out of cardboard boxes under a highway overpass. “Who are they?” I asked my parents. “What are they doing?” I could not believe the answer. I could not believe that our President was making choices that left people to sleep on the streets. I did not know that such a thing could happen. From then on, one such revelation followed another about the callousness and injustice of our world. We are accustomed to it now as adults, but when we stop and look, what human beings do to one another is obscene. I thought I’d go into politics, run for office someday, and fight for the people on the streets, the people who don’t have. I was a political science major in college. I was the president of the Yale Political Union. I interned on Capitol Hill. I learned community organizing. I spent fourteen years working for social justice at the grassroots, at the state level, at the federal level. I worked with LGBT youth and with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, I worked for the rights of the poorest people in California, I raised the funds to rebuild a community center called the San Francisco Women’s Building that served immigrant women and battered women among others. This work was hard. Looking deeply at injustice is devastating. I remember thinking that there was no place for joy in a world with so much suffering. The world felt so broken and the brokenness felt so entrenched. I watched friends become bitter and burn out, lose hope, give up. We were angry at the world. Sometimes we turned that anger on ourselves and each other. Gratefully, just a few years into this work, I found within myself a deep yearning for a spiritual life, and I learned in time that joy is not optional. Joy is essential. Joy is what we have to balance despair. Cultivating joy enables us to bring energy and hope to a world that needs it. I also learned about gratitude. Gratitude is a discipline to balance compassion. It is a learned skill to bring our attention to the blessings of the world. To see what is good in every day. The simple, unearned gifts. We are just as likely to skip over the good stuff, to take it for granted, as we are to look away from the bad. And I learned that wonder is what sustains us in the difficult work of living; and awe at the grandeur and glory of this existence is what enables us to take on the long, difficult work for justice.
This is why I’m a rabbi and why, davka, I am a congregational rabbi: After all I’ve seen, I still believe in human beings, and I believe that humans have the best chance of reaching our potential when we root ourselves in our particular people and tradition, when we know who we are and where we come from. So, as a Jew, that places me here, with the Jewish people and our beauty of a tradition. I believe, as Torah and kabbalah teach, that we have the power within us to heal our broken world. I believe that amidst all of the noise, pressure, and distractions of contemporary life we have a deep yearning to find our way and live lives of meaning. I believe that synagogue is one of the few places left for a Jew to find his way. For a Jew to find out how to live her purpose. In conversation with the wisdom of our elders and our sages. And in the company of the minyan, the community. I believe that we are all striving to do good. We want our lives to have been a blessing. And I believe that we are capable of so much more good than we know. I am certain that we can change. With attention and focus, we identify our behaviors and habits that are less than holy, and we transform them. These ten days are about accelerating our evolution. And I believe that at its best the synagogue is the vessel, the home, in which we can grow to be the human beings we aspire to be. The rabbis articulate in Pirkei Avot that we are modeling for each other, in word and in deed, for good and for bad. Here we are to model and practice menschlikheit. In so doing we build here, in these walls, a mikdash me’at, a miniature world of holiness, a model of how the world should be. We do this by building real relationships of trust, learning about one another and showing up for one another so that every life -- in its joy and in its sorrow -- matters. No one is alone. Every life has purpose and context; meaning and love. And every one of us is stretched to give and care, and to do the mitzvot of accompanying one another through the trials and jubilations of life. And then, and then, through those deep relationships of caring and trust, we build the power to turn outward, beyond our walls, to our city, to our state, to our country, to our world, to make real, concrete, substantial change. To make the world more like what it should be. The first step is to use this sanctuary as a place to wake us up. To use the act of prayer to spark awe and wonder, joy and playfulness, gratitude and delight at the experience of being alive. To remind us that this life is fleeting and it is amazing. And it must be relished and lived.
So yes, now I am someone who speaks about miracles. Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ....to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual (to be Jewish) is to be amazed.”
Hayom Harat Olam. Today we hear the piercing cry of the shofar. When it sounds It is an urgent call to your soul. Wake up! You are a miracle. Your life is a miracle. Do not let these days, weeks, months, years, pass you by. You will fall asleep, You’ll go numb, You’ll feel only the weight of your life and not the wonder. But then, wake up again. Wake up again. Wake up to the miracle of your existence. Shofar, shin feh resh shares a root with Shifra, the midwife who helped the children of Israel be born in Egypt. Midrash Tanhuma2 describes the blast of the shofar as the cries of pain and joy in childbirth. In the Talmud (Yerushalmi) God says, “Since you entered into judgment before me on the holy day of the New Year, … I attribute it to you as if you were made a new creature.” Re-born. As a new creature, everything becomes possible for you starting now, Any change you want to make. Anything can come from you, be born through you. The poet John O’Donohue said, “ There are huge gestations and fermentations going on in us that we’re not even aware of.” The poet Mary Oliver asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with this one, wild and precious life?”
Today the round planet earth is turning toward your morning sky, Today the moon is pulling on the ocean below washing the beaches clean for your footprints. Today you slip out of the dark quiet where suddenly you hear a circle of people singing. Welcome to the spinning world, the people sing, we are so glad you’ve come.”
2 Emor 11 and Tazria 4