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Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Four Noble Truths of Rosh Hashanah

This is a reworking of a Rosh Hashanah sermon I wrote a few years ago. I hope you find it meaningful.

May you have a Shanah Tovah u'metukah-a good and sweet year!


Rabbi Steve Nathan

As this first day of the New Year begins and you sit in synagogue you may well ask yourself, "why on earth are we here?" You may think I’m joking, or perhaps just trying to wake you up from your slumber. Well, in part perhaps I am. But seriously I am asking you the question: “Why on earth are we here?” Are we here because it’s what we’ve always done? Are we here because it’s expected of us? Are we here because our parents, our spouse or children forced us to be? Are we here so we can be seen? Are we here so we can see? Or are we here because we feel like our life and soul are on the line and we need to pray with everything we’ve got?

I would guess that most of us are here for a number of these reasons – if not all of them. But my hunch is that most of us – myself included – would not say that we are here each year because of the existential crisis we are facing in our lives and because we feel like we need to make peace with God and do Teshuvah because our souls are on the line.

And yet, on some deep level I believe that we all think exactly this. We may not realize it. We may never realize it, but there is a reason beyond the social and communal aspects of today that draws us here each year. There is something that calls us to community and to prayer. The call of the shofar echoes within our collective unconscious nevertheless. But what are we called to do?

Simple. We have ten whole days to acknowledge all the wrongs that we have done during this past year. Ten days to seek forgiveness from others. Ten days to pray to God for atonement. Ten days to hopefully find it within us to forgive ourselves – which is usually the hardest part. Ten days. A piece of cake!

It took us each an entire year to build up and write out the rap sheet of our crimes and misdemeanors. Now in ten days we are meant to get rid of that rap sheet – no matter how long it might be – and start with a clean slate? Of course, we could always throw it in the shredder and act like it doesn’t exist. But we all know that if we do that we will be like Mickey Mouse chopping up the bewitched broom into a hundred pieces in Fantasia, each piece coming to life and creating a new broom. A new entity all its own. An entity with its own power and direction – yet also following in the same direction as its parent and siblings. And so we heap regret upon regret, sorrow up sorrow, guilt upon guilt, until we are so overwhelmed that we either drown or simply ignore what’s going on within and around us completely.

No, we can’t throw our list of transgressions into the shredder. We must erase them all – or at least try to. Yet it seems as if they are written with indelible ink. But nothing is truly indelible. There is always something you can find to erase the mark, remove the stain and make it appear almost as if it had never been there. This we are expected to do in a mere ten days. No easy feat! And perhaps it is the daunting nature of this task that keeps us from truly engaging in it the way the tradition asks us to. It’s not that we have missed the mark so many times this past year (although each of us probably has), but it’s the fact that we’re supposed to deal with all of this in a mere ten days in spite of the fact that most weeks we don’t get half the things done that we had planned because of a perceived lack of time.

Though we hear the shofar’s call to Teshuvah. Though we know deep within our soul that it’s not merely what we’re supposed to do – but what we need to do – we give it perfunctory lip service and instead focus on reconnecting with family, friends and community to celebrate a new year. Though this is important work in it’s own right, it is not a reason to spend a total of 2 or 3 days praying in shul! So this begs the question: “how do we make the process of Teshuvah more meaningful for us in such a short amount of time?” I believe that the answer to this question first requires us to acknowledge that this task is impossible. We can’t do it all in 10 days. Teshuvah needs to be a yearlong process. We need to look at ourselves every day if possible and see what we need to change or ask forgiveness for. But beyond that it would also help if we were to view the 10 Days of Teshuvah – the most intense time for this process – within the larger scheme.

In his moving book “This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared” Rabbi Alan Lew, may his memory be a blessing, does just that. In short he tells the reader we must each begin to look at this process not today, but exactly seven weeks ago on Tisha B’Av. Now, if you didn’t go to Jewish summer camp, or have a more in-depth exposure to Jewish tradition you may very well not even know what Tisha B’Av is. Tisha B’av is the 9th day of the month of Av. It the day on which, tradition teaches, the first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians and the 2nd Temple was destroyed by the Romans. This second destruction in the year 70 CE left the Jewish people without a homeland until the founding of Israel in 1948. But why start on Tisha B’Av, the only complete fast day on the calendar other than Yom Kippur – and one of the most neglected holy days on our calendar?

In order to answer this question we have to look at what Tisha B’Av represents. It was not just about the destruction of a building or a city, but it was about the utter decimation of our homeland and our home. One of the traditional names for the Temple in Jerusalem was simply “bayit” or “bayit ha’gadol” – “house” or the “great house.” The Temple was our people’s spiritual home. It was the center of our ancestor’s existence. When the walls of the Temple crumbled around them it was truly as if their home had been destroyed before their very eyes. The people were left alone, without a sense of belonging or grounding, without a sense of safety. The world was suddenly a frightening and dangerous place in which to live. This, says Alan Lew, is where the spiritual journey of Teshuvah begins. We must begin by allowing the walls of our own spiritual houses to be torn down – and we must be a witness to it – if not a collaborator!

The rabbis of the Talmud taught that the 2nd Temple was destroyed by the Romans because there was so much infighting among the Jewish people that they could not work together in order to defend themselves. This may have been true, says Lew, but the reality is also that the Roman army was so powerful that no one would have been able to stop them. The Jewish sin of sinat hinam – senseless hatred may have hastened the destruction, but the destruction was still inevitable.

And so for us the warring factions within our psyche and our spirit may hasten the destruction of our spiritual home (or in some cases delay it) but it is inevitable if we are to begin the work of Teshuvah. We must feel the sense of loss, the sense of being ungrounded, the sense that we are utterly alone and indefensible in order to then begin rebuilding our lives. And so we have seven weeks of feeling homeless and ungrounded to begin the work of Teshuvah.

Of course, the reality is that we can also find ourselves frozen with fear once we realize that there is nothing protecting us any more. We can simply focus on the loss and never move ahead into the future. That is the danger of remembering. Zachor – remember - is a central commandment of Judaism. However, if we remember only for remembering’s sake and never allow ourselves to beyond the world of memory then we are doomed either to a life of stagnation or of unending repetitions.

And so we move ahead over a period of seven weeks. Seven – the number of creation. In seven weeks we must traverse the world of our psyche and our spirit, as well as the world of flesh and blood – friends, families, co-workers, acquaintances – and begin to recreate our world and recreate ourselves. We must remember what we did that contributed to the destruction of our house and begin by forgiving ourselves. We must remember that at any given moment the choices that we make are in fact just that, the choices that we made at that moment. It may be difficult to accept that – most of us are so good at second-guessing and criticizing our “bad” decisions after the fact. But the reality is that given what was happening in our minds and our hearts – as well as around us – at that given moment we made the only choice that we could at that particular moment. We must accept this while also accepting the consequences of our choices and then forgive ourselves for being human. Only once we have allowed ourselves to do this can we then do the important work of seeking forgiveness from others. And once we have forgiven ourselves and sought forgiveness from those whom we have harmed then we can say that God, the power that makes forgiveness possible, has forgiven us.

This is true even if the other person does not forgiven us. For our obligation and our duty is to seek forgiveness sincerely. If the other person chooses not to forgive us then the mark that was on our slate of transgressions is wiped clean and, according to tradition, it now moves over to his/her slate as something that s/he needs to focus on when doing Teshuvah.

Now this may all seem a bit overwhelming, but I do believe that there is wisdom that exists that can help us in this process and I would like to share it with you. Since I first started thinking about this sermon the closing line of the Avinu Malkeinu prayer kept playing in my mind. I knew that it needed to be in some ways the lynchpin of the sermon, but I was not sure how. This prayer, with its haunting melodic refrain, is one of the hallmarks of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. And yet we do not chant it today because we are taught that prayers that are direct petitions to God for help are not to be recited on Shabbat, a day that is to be dedicated to simply appreciating God and God’s world. But even though we will not be singing it today, its sentiment is an essential part of the process of Teshuvah.

After chanting a litany of requests for God’s assistance and forgiveness we end with the verse “Avinu Malkeinu, honeinu v’aneinu, ki ein banu ma’asim. Aseh imanu tzedakah v’hesed v’hoshiyanu.” This is translated in our Mahzor as “Our Creator, Our Sovereign (traditionally rendered as “our father, our king”) be gracious with us and respond to us, for we have no deeds to justify us; deal with us in righteousness and love, and save us now.” Of course, all translation is commentary, but this modern, egalitarian, politically correct translation is similar to most of the traditional translations. The Silverman Mahzor with which many of us from Conservative backgrounds grew up translates this as “Our Father, Our King, be Thou gracious unto us and answer us; for lo! We are unworthy; deal Thou with us in charity and loving-kindness and save us.”

It is this particluar translation that has troubled me almost from the moment when I first really read it and understood what I believed it was saying. My interpretation of it was, in short, “God, please be good to us and answer our prayers even though we are worthless and undeserving. But please treat us with charity and kindness regardless of that fact.” This was not a sentiment that I wanted to associate with my Judaism. I didn’t want to believe the fact that Judaism views human beings as basically worthless. First of all, that contradicts the teaching that we are each created in God’s image. Secondly, if we are basically worthless then why bother doing Teshuvah since inevitably we’re just going to mess up again?

While struggling to find a new translation that could help me understand and accept the underlying meaning of this prayer I came across Alan Lew’s discussion of this verse in his book. Basically, what Lew (who was a long time practitioner of Zen Buddhism as well as being a rabbi) said is that the verse simply means that no matter what deeds we have done, no matter how much preparation we have done for Teshuvah, when the moment arrives to face God, ourselves and those whom we have harmed we are utterly unprepared. It is as if we are totally empty. We have nothing in us. As the title of his book says “this is real, and you are completely unprepared.”

The act of Teshuvah is about as real as it gets, and no pre-planning can help in the end. It all goes out the window. The only thing that matters at that moment is – that moment, itself and what we do with it. Our house has been destroyed. The constructs and facades on which we all build and rebuild our lives each and every day are gone. The ground beneath us has either disappeared or is constantly shifting. We only have ourselves and this moment and now we must do what we must do. Again, this can be terrifying as it creates a sense of emptiness and aloneness within us. But remember, the prayer is stated in the plural and must be chanted in community. So even though it is frightening and even though Teshuvah is ultimately an individual act, the fact that we are doing it in a communal context can give us strength to face ourselves and the moment.

So now that we’ve acknowledge our sense of emptiness and groundlessness how do we go about doing the difficult work of Teshuvah? I would like to offer four pieces of advice that I hope will be helpful. I will call these the four essential truths of Teshuvah:

§ 1 – Life is difficult. Stop trying to deny this. Life can never be totally satisfying because everything is temporary and impermanent. Even our great ancestral home, the Temple, could not last forever. Nothing in life is eternal (a mixed blessing). If we try to act like things are permanent then we are only going to make it more difficult for us to do Teshuvah – and to live. The guilt and pain we feel will pass, as all thing do – whether good or bad. Being mindful of this and acting from this place of understanding will enable us to seek forgiveness from ourselves, others and God

§ 2 – Pain is an inevitable part of life because of the reality of life's impermanence. Don’t be afraid that confronting our mistakes will cause others or ourselves pain. Pain is not something that we can ever avoid as human being. However, we can add to the pain and create suffering because of our inability to let go of habits, beliefs, patterns, thoughts, and feelings that keep us stuck in the past. Suffering is what keeps us frozen in the past or obsessed with the future and prevents us from truly being in the present and doing Teshuvah. If we never let go of the feelings that we felt as we watched our walls tumbling down around us we will never be able to move on our to even think of rebuilding a new home for ourselves.

§ 3 - Inner peace and contentment is an achievable goal – regardless of what our internal voices and stories might tell us. But inner peace is not ultimately dependent upon external forces or circumstances. Just as we cause our own suffering through our habits and actions we are also the source of our own “cure”. By using the power that is within each of our souls – that which we call God - to bring about our personal sense of forgiveness and redemption we can achieve peace – at least in this moment. Everlasting peace may be a fairy tale, but peace and contentment right now is within our selves.

§ 4 - Finally, we must set down a path of action that will bring us back home to God, our souls and ourselves. This path is multi-faceted, but is the essence of Teshuvah. Returning to the One. Returning to the community. Returning to ourselves. The ability to do this is within us. Each of us may find a different way to walk the path, but walk it we must. We must walk it alone, but knowing that others are walking beside us, in front of us and behind us, with the Divine Presence embracing and comforting us as well.

Now some of you may be saying to yourselves “hmm, these seem similar to the four noble truths of the Buddha.” And you are right. For this is my Jewish understanding of the wisdom that Buddhism has to offer regarding how we live our lives. For I believe these truths not to always be so self-evident, but I do believe that they are universally applicable (with slight variations from traditions to tradition). You will find many similar concepts within Judaism – especially within Kabbalah and Hasidism. But assuming we accept these four truths, or some variation of them, how do find this strength to walk the path. How do we connect with the Divine within us and use it to help us find forgiveness and peace? The key is to be found in the second part of the final verse of Avinu Malkeinu. Aseh imanu tzedakah v’hesed v’hoshiyeinu. I translate this verse (and I believe that the Hebrew supports this) as “Create with us tzedakah v’hesed – righteousness and abundant kindness – and bring us salvation.” What we are imploring, actually commanding, God to do in this verse is to work with us to create righteousness and justice, balanced by kindness and compassion, so that we can have the strength to walk the path towards salvation.

Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, believed that salvation referred to those things for which people ultimately search: holiness, meaning, peace and the betterment of our world. In order to achieve individual, communal and worldly salvation we being with the Divine-human relationship. We begin by creating together with God tzedakah and hesed, righteousness and justice, with which to rule ourselves and the world. We work to create kindness and compassion with which to comfort ourselves and our world. If we can create these and constantly strive to keep them in balance then we can follow the multi-faceted path of Teshuvah. We can then begin the work of rebuilding our personal and communal houses, while accepting the fact that – just as with the Sukkah that we will build in a little over a week – the houses are not permanent. They will eventually come down one way or another, and so we will begin the task again, head down the path again, and seek our Source again – day after day, week after week, month after month, new year after new year.

And so, let me conclude with my final reconstruction of the last verse of Avinu Malkeinu as a blessing for all of us as we walk this path alone together:

Our Beloved Parent – comforting us, guiding us, teaching us

Our Revered Sovereign – instructing us, directing us, supporting us

Be gentle and gracious to us, help us to find the answer within us, even though we realize that at this very moment we are empty. There is nothing in us. We are each a blank slate ready to be written up by our own hand – guided by you.

Create for us and instill within us the divine qualities of tzedakah and hesed

Righteousness and overflowing love.

May we act rightly towards ourselves; may we be loving and compassionate towards ourselves so that we may find forgiveness within us for ourselves. May we use those divine qualities of tzedakah and hesed to turn outward and seek forgiveness from others and to grant forgiveness to others so that we can work together to create a world filled with peace, joy, overflowing love and compassion.

This is our prayer. Amen

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