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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775: Let Us Create a Human Being.......Now What Do We Do? ( Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Evening)

This sermon being delivered tonight at my congregation, The Jewish Fellowship of Hemlock Farms (www.jfhf.org) in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.
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This evening is the start of Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of a new Jewish Year. However, the day is not called Rosh Hashanah in the Torah, it was the rabbis who later assigned that name. In the Torah the day is referred to as Yom ha'Zikaron, the Day of Remembrance. But what is it that we are remembering on this day? According to the rabbinic tradition, Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of the world. To be more exact, it celebrates the creation of the Adam, the first human being.

In the Biblical and Rabbinic tradition, the human being was seen as the pinnacle of creation. Yet, knowing what we do about human beings and human nature today, do we believe we are the pinnacle of creation? Do we believe that the world was created for our sake? Does the universe exist merely to be at our beck and call? And, if so, have we done a good job not only beckoning and calling, but tilling, tending and caring for our earth, and for all of its creatures, as the Torah commands?

This is something over which philosophers and theologians, pundits and politicians, men and women, boys and girls have long debated: are we indeed the masters of our world? Should we be proud of the way we have treated the world, as well as all the creatures living in it? If God knew then what God knows now, would God have created human beings? Or, since Judaism teaches that God is omniscient, and would therefore have known what we were to become, why did God create us anyway?

Even the rabbis two millenia ago asked similar questions. In Midrash Bereshit Rabbah , a collection of rabbinical stories meant to help people understand the Torah, believed that the same argument took place between God and the ministering angels on the eve of the creation of the first human. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, which according to tradition took place 5755 years ago on this very night the following transpired:

God said to the ministering angels: Let us make Adam, the human being, in our likeness, and let there be a creature not only the product of earth, but also gifted with heavenly, spiritual elements, which will bestow on him reason, intellect, and understanding."

Truth then appeared, falling before God's throne, and in all humility exclaimed: "Do not create this human. For the human will only lie. They will tread truth under their feet and trample me into the ground."

Then the angel of Peace spoke in support of the pleas of Truth: God, why would you desire a creature such as this to exist. For the human being will be so full of strife and contention, filled with a desire to bring war and destruction, so as to disturb the peace and harmony which is the essence of your creation in his endless quest for gain and conquest?”

As Truth and Peace pleaded with God not to create Adam, the human, a soft, small voice spoke above the arguing. It was the voice of the angel Tzedek, Righteousness and Charity. Recognizing that in her humility Tzedek was attempting to speak, God quieted the other angels so as to listen carefully, as she deserved the same attention as the other two angels so loudly and passionately arguing their case.

Tzedek spoke, exclaiming in its mild, but no less passionate voice: "Sovereign of the universe." it is your responsibility to your world to create a being in your likeness. A being unlike any of the other animals of the earth, the fish of the seas or the birds of the sky. For this creation, Adam, will be a noble creature striving to imitate your attributes by its actions. Knowing that your Spirit, your breath is within its soul, the human being will do its best to to perform great deeds, to act in your image and to make your world a better place. Infused with your spirit, he will be humble as he seeks to allow your spirit to animate his actions.

This noble creature will seek to comfort all those who are distressed, just as you would do, they will dry the tears of the afflicted and downtrodden, as they will learn from you, they will raise up those whose spirit is bent over and bowed down and they will reach out a helping hand to those who in need of help, they will speak peace to the heart of the widow and give comfort and shelter to the orphan. They will do all this, for they be emulating you. How could such a magnificent creature not be a glory to its Maker?"

The Creator was moved and determined to create the human being, as planned. And so, as the angels pleaded and argued with the Creator, God cast Truth to the ground, startling all of the angels. In that moment, God created Adam, the first human being. God then declared: "Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven.”(Psalm 85:11)

This midrash was written to address the question, “with whom is God speaking in Genesis 1:26 when God says naaseh Adam b'tzalmeinu ki'dmuteinu... let US make Adam/the human being in OUR image according to OUR likeness.”

As many times as I have heard this midrash in its various forms it never ceases to amaze me. For in it the rabbis were not only acknowledging the complexity of human nature, but questioning whether or not we should even exist! After all were any of the claims made by angels erroneous? Let us look: Do human beings lie? Yes. And No. Do we make wars and act violently, trying to conquer the world? Yes. And No. But do we also t bring charity, justice, compassion and mercy into the world? Do we attempt to care for others and to make the world a better place? Yes. And No.

The message of this midrash is timeless. For the rabbis knew, just as do we, that all of these dichotomies exist within humanity. And it's not simply that some people are truthful and others tell lies, or that same do acts of righteousness and others do not. Each individual contains within them each dichotomy. We each have within us, as the rabbis taught, a yetzer ha'ra, inclination to evil, and a yetzer ha'tov, inclination to do good. We each try to make peace at times and create strife, struggle at other times, some taking this to the extreme of creating violence and war. We all have the capacity to act at either extreme of the spectrum or somewhere in the middle. That is what it means to be human. It is an essential, universal part of human nature, though it is manifest in a unique and particular way for each of us.

Yes, there are those who are primarily evil and those who are primarily good. This is reflected in another midrash on the creation of the world out of tohu v'vohu, formless void chaotic matter. The rabbis taught that this represents the evil-doers in the world. However, they also taught that God's command, “let there be light” refers to the creation of those who are good and righteous, shining the light of God on the world.

  1. This midrash fascinates me because the rabbis did not contrast light and dark, white and black, as representing good and evil, as we are prone to do. Rather, it was the undifferentiated chaos, the formless, primordial mess which represents evil and the light which represents goodness. Perhaps the message of this text is that those who are so unformed, without moral grounding, without a sense of being connected to anyone or anything, who are filled with hatred and anger, trying to control the world and others which represent evil. For when one lives in the world of tohu va'vohu, the chaos prevents us from seeing and acknowledging God's light. And it is God's light which allows us to see the universe and all within it is connected and which compels us to make the world a better place. But those living in the world of tohu va'vohu, those who promote evil and hatred in our world, need not stay there for their entire life. For the perpetual optimist in me believes that it is possible to to slow down the chaos, to bring stillness to the maelstrom and silence to the cacophony. This can allow almost anyone engaging in evil (I am not so naïve as to say everyone) the opportunity to see the light of goodness in the world and to begin to embrace it. That is a central role of religion, at it's best, of spiritual practice, such as prayer and meditation, and can be found within loving and caring families and communities everywhere. For when we join together with others to see that light, we not only help each other connect to the light and abandon the other path. That is one of our primary tasks as human beings. That is one of the main reasons we exist.

And so, the rabbis made the case that prior to the creation of Adam, God knew that there would be good people and evil people, and that in reality everyone will have both qualities within them. But why did the climactic moment of the first midrash consist of God throwing Truth to the ground in order to create human beings? Were the rabbis trying to teach that truth was inconsequential or unnecessary when it comes to human beings? But how can that be the case? How can we make our lives, our world and everything better if there is not truth? The Kotzker Rebbe, a 19th century Hassidic Torah scholar asked a question which helps bring some clarity to this, at least for me.

The Kotzker Rebbe asks why God cast Truth to the ground instead of Peace. After all, banishing Peace would also allowed for a vote in God's favor. And if, as the Talmud teaches, Emet/Truth is the “Seal of God.” If Truth is God's calling card, as it were, why cast it to the ground? The Kotzker answered that God needed to do this because Truth is such a powerful force it would be override Tzedek (Righteousness and Charity) and perhaps prevent Adam's creation.

But how can humanity exist without truth, one might ask. For without it then human existence, if not all of creation. would be built on lies. But we must remember, God did not destroy or banish truth from the universe. God simply cast Truth to the ground, temporarily incapacitating it, just long enough for the first human being to be created. For after all, as it says in the psalm (attributed to God in the midrash) truth is now planted firmly in the ground and will continue to grow. Truth is not in heaven. Truth is here with us, as Righteousness/Tzedek smiles down on us as we do our best to make peace, speak truth and bring righteousness into the world.

In their comments on this interpretation, contemporary Reform scholars Kerry Olitsky and Rabbi Lawrence Kushner remind us the midrash and the Kotzker Rebbe's interpretation are meant to remind us of the danger of truth with a capital T. For it is the belief that any individual or group possesses the only Truth which is at the root of wars, hatred and evil. As Kushner and Olitsky write, “Without the lightning rod of “the Truth”, there can be peace and much more.”

But I would add that that there is one. God, whose seal is Truth. God, the force in the universe which connects and unites everyone and everything (or however one chooses to understand it), and which makes us truly Ehad – One is the only Truth. I would propose that even the agnostics or atheists among us can believe the essence of this to be true. For there is something in the universe which tries to draw us near to each other and reminds us that we are One. And so this Truth exists, but it is the claim that any of us knows it's essence, that we posses the ONLY perspective, which is the root of hatred, war, violence and evil; for this is what separates us rather than bringing us together. Assuming that we possess knowledge of the Truth prevents us from truly seeking Peace, justice, mercy, righteousness and compassion. At least for anyone other than those who believe as we do.

As human beings created in God's image and possessing the essence of God in our soul we must do whatever we can to bring God's light into the world and to make the world a better place for all.

Tonight is eve of the creation of humanity. As the old year was coming to a close we found ourselves living in a world where lies and war, violence and hatred, power struggles and barbarism seemed to be the seals of humanity. We see the war between Israel and Gaza, we watch the extremists of ISIS try to take over the Middle East. In our own country there are daily reports of violence, hate crimes and intolerance. And even here in the safe and serene Pocono mountains fear, uncertainty, violence, and yes, evil has been creeping into our towns, our schools our neighborhoods and our homes as we continued to wait for an end to the insanity of these past few weeks.

But, as the new year begins, let us remember that this is only part of the story. This is the chaos, the tohu va'vohu which is still part of the universe. But the light of goodness is still here as well. It is within each and every one of us. And it is so much stronger the chaos if we work together. We can show this to those who try to bring chaos into our lives by dedicating each moment to living our lives in the light of goodness, caring for and showing compassion for each another, performing acts of righteousness and charity, working to bring peace into our homes, our communities and our world, all of which reminds us that we are indeed One.

By doing all this, even if we can't do it perfectly, we see to it that the Truth of that oneness continues to flourish, even in the face of uncertainty and tragedy, and we insure that each Rosh Hashanah we will indeed have something to celebrate and rejoice together as one. Amen.


Psalm 27: A Spiritual Guide for the High Holy Days


 I first wrote and posted this poetic commentary on Psalm 27 a few years ago.  Each time I return to it I make some changes, as my experience of the psalm, and of life, has changed.  I wanted to share this psalm once again with all those who are preparing their hearts and souls for the Yamim Noraim, or Days of Awe, which begin tomorrow night with Rosh Hashanah and end 10 days later at the close of Yom Kippur.

Below is the poem and introduction as I posted it two years ago as, to be honest, I am still caught up in finishing my sermons for this year, which I will also post online.  I hope you find these words meaningful and I wish you a happy, sweet, blessed and fulfilling New Year of 5755.
L'shanah tovah tikateivu - may you be inscribed for a good new year,
SPN
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From the beginning of the month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish year, through all of the fall holiday season, it is customary to read Psalm 27 every day. Known as the Psalm for the Season of Repentance, it is a psalm filled with faith and hope.
The following is a line-by-line poetic commentary on the poem. Each line of the psalm is written in bold italics, and the poetic interpretation of that line follows. As we enter this new year of 5772, I hope and pray for all of us and our world, that we shall see an end to suffering and the beginning of a new time of peace and tranquility for us all. But it all begins with forgiveness and acceptance.
L’shanah tovah u’metukah – a Happy and Sweet New Year - to you, my online community. Thanks so much for reading my words and for allowing me to share them with you,
SPN


Psalm 27: Seeking Strength , Seeking God

The Eternal is my light and my life.
Whom shall I fear?

I am filled with fear
fear of self others the world life
fear of change of remaining the same
of moving of lingering

alone I am in darkness with God I see light
alone I fear death with God I find life

yet I still fear
I do not know who or what
at one with God
I can face the fear
I am not alone

The Eternal is the foundation of my life.
Whom shall I dread?

for so many years
I see me as
the center core foundation
the all of being

but that is not me
that is ego
cunning baffling tempting me
to forget it is not me
not self not I
at the center the core the root
but the divine
my champion my strength

I must remember this
when facing fear dread
creeping up within me
each moment each day

When evil-doers come upon me to devour me
Even my adversaries and foes stumble and fall.

forces of evil gather within
sent by ego
they bore into my soul
seeking to destroy undermine
convincing me I am not
worthy of God

but in truth god is within me
when I turn to you
the dark forces within turn on themselves
they stumble and fall

even then they are there
lying in wait for the moment when I forget you

If an army should encamp against me,
My heart will not fear.
Though war should wage up against me
Even then will I be confident.

I still fear
I still do not trust you are there
within me within others
filling the world my soul all creation
protecting each of us from enemies

I must remember
to keep my heart strong yet compassionate
towards self others humanity the world


One thing I ask of the Eternal, Only this do I seek:
To live in the house of Adonai all the days of my life,
To gaze upon Adonai's beauty; to frequent God's temple.

how do I remain
strong yet compassionate
resolute yet merciful
I ask you beloved
help me maintain balance
help me remember
I am forever dwelling within you
you are forever dwelling within me
your home is my home
your shelter my shelter
your heart my heart
your world my world
filled with beauty
divine and human together
same yet different
all is your temple your dwelling place
beautiful serene loving strong glorious comforting
help me remember this is all you
the true reality of the existence

For You conceal me in Your shelter
on the day of evil.
You hide me in the secret place
in Your tent.
You lift me up on a rock.


yet days hours minutes seconds moments arise
when it seems I can only feel evil
burrowing from within
attacking from without
causing pain suffering
my mind perceives only enemies
my heart feels only fear
under attack from others
under attack from me
my heart hardens to protect its self
to keep out others and God

in these moments protecting one
I seek your shelter
I find you within my heart my soul
in the heart and soul of others
breaking down the walls
I have built around my heart
hiding me from the forces that seek to destroy
hiding me from my ego the self that is not real
within your tent you hide me from these forces

you lift me up to realize
if I am with you and you with me
I need not hide I can stand tall
in full view of my enemies my self
filled with the strength of your glory
the inheritance of all humanity

And now my head will be lifted up above my enemies all around me; And I will offer sacrifices in Your tent
with the sound of trumpets I will sing, yes, I will sing praises
to Adonai.

in that moment I realize
I must let go of my self my desires my needs my will
I realize none of these are real
I have no strength no power no will

I surrender to the reality
all is you
I am powerless as are we all
in that moment
I sacrifice my self my ego my desires my passions
I feel power surging within coming from you
the call of the shofar arises from deep within
the place I had forgotten that the ego had obscured
shouts of praise arise songs of joy emanate from my lips
coming from my soul the divine breath within
praising the divine throughout the world
salvation has arrived
for this moment

Listen adonai when I call aloud.
Be gracious to me; answer me!

uncertainty and fear arise
as it always does
God will you hear me
beloved will you whisper back
compassionate one will I feel your compassion
merciful one will your mercy comfort me
gracious one will I receive your grace
your love overflowing unending unconditional
or will the conditions place on my self
that my ego slips into my mind and heart
cause me to disregard your answer to my call
to miss the experience of your love
always there waiting for each of us
help me to ask to find the strength to call to you
help me receive that which you are
always there to give freely to your children
help me hear the questions and the answers
within me coming from you

To you my heart cries out, to you
my face is turned;
Your Presence, Eternal One, I seek.


feeling the need within I cry to you
from my heart I look for you
often in the wrong places
the storm the thunder the whirlwind
clouding my mind with emotions and thoughts
as I seek certainty control once again
I must turn my face and heart inward
to the soul the source
the breath of life
to find you in each breath
the still small voice whispering
I am here
you are loved
we are one


Hide not your face from me.
Do not put your servant off in anger.
You are my help.

do not allow
my ego self-doubts self-loathing fear
to hide you from me
to hid me from you

do not allow
my anger my emotions my irrationality my ego
to convince me that you have abandoned me
left me alone disconnected
without help or support


Forsake me not, nor abandon me, O God, the One who delivers me. For though my father and my mother have abandoned me
The Eternal shall gather me in.


all upon which I have built
my life my self the foundation of my existence
what I believed sustained me
what I believed was me
is gone
I am alone abandoned
I have no roots no certainty
I have no stability no grounding
I am a blank slate
that is as it should be
moment to moment we start anew
what we thought sustained us is fantasy
what we thought was eternal is ephemeral
permanence abandoned begets the transient
from the ashes of confidence in self now destroyed
arises the phoenix of uncertainty ungrounding
disconnection from the counterfeit power of the self
I can now fly free
knowing that I am guided by god not the self
present not the past
awareness not vagueness
compassion not aggression
joy not fear love not hatred

Show me Your ways, O God,
And lead me on a just path
Because of my ever-watchful foes.


eternal one source of strength and compassion
guide me help me find balance
keep me on your path
for I know the forces that brought me down are still there
the ego my passions desires frustrations
lie in wait ready to pounce
waiting for the moment when I abandon you


Deliver me not over unto the will of my adversaries
For false witnesses have risen up against me
And they fume in violence.


help me to remain with you
remind me that with you is joy peace hope
keep me from the lies snares traps of the ego
the voices within calling truth a lie
and falsehood reality
seeking to do violence against my soul
to create chaos where there is peace
to draw me back into the world of
fantasy desire obsession
where I am at the center not you
where I believe the power is mine not yours
where the master of my fate the captain of my ship
are not mere cliché but perceived realities
that can beget only pain suffering disaster


If I had not believed to look upon the goodness of God,
in the land of Life...


had I not experienced the reality of your presence
your love compassion mercy guiding me
I would never have known what it means
to be truly alive
had I not discovered you within me and others
had I not heard your voice in my heart
in the words of others
had I not known that in each moment
I can experience your goodness
I do not know how I would survive
moment to moment each day of life


Hope, then, for the Eternal; strengthen your heart with courage,
And have hope in the Eternal.


hope
not for an imagined future
a fantasy mind and ego create
hope only in you
the eternal my beloved my source my strength

hope in you
not certainty in the world the self human beings
give me the strength the courage
to face the uncertain ever-changing
reality of life

eternal one grant me courage
keep my heart and soul open
to each moment
compassionate towards self and others
seeking peace for all humanity
in each moment
finding joy where it seems most elusive
experiencing divine love in each place each moment
so that I may embark on the path of teshuvah return

in each moment with every breath
bring me back to you
bring us all back to our source
today every day each moment
so we may do your will
now and always
amen

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

I wanted to share this once again with you in preparation for this joyous and introspective season.

The joyous, introspective time of soul searching begins at sundown tonight with the start of Rosh Hashanah, the New Year.  As we light the candles to welcome the holy day, it is good to remember that bringing light where there is darkness first requires darkness.  And seeking forgiveness means there are things for which we need to be forgiven.  May we all do our best to bring in the light, forgive ourselves, forgive others and seek forgiveness from those whom we have harmed and from God.
L'shanah tovah,
A good year to you all
SPN

Rekindling the flame:  a poem for the evening of Rosh Hashanah

we come together tonight  

as one community

extended family in celebration


apples and honey
wine and challah
fill our bellies
gladden our spirits


candles glow
flickering beacons
illuminating the room and our souls


then suddenly
candles are extinguished
some unknown force seems to
plunge us
the world around us
into darkness
I am terrified
feeling alone in the dark
yet I know I am not


standing still silent
unsure
uncertain
unprepared


I hear
the breath of others
of my self
of the divine spirit
surrounding me
comforting me


I hear a voice coming from within and around
do not be afraid
you are not alone
you are never alone


waiting for the light to return
I remember I hear
my mother’s voice my father’s voice
the voice of all who came before
my voice
the voice of all yet to come
echoing God's voice
do not be afraid
you are not alone you are never alone


yet I still am alone
even as I am not
in this deepest darkness
the absence of light
but so much more
a darkness you can feel you can touch


immersed in the darkness
you begin
to feel
your light
your soul
being
extinguished
sucked
into the void
darkness
black hole
nothingness
eternity


afraid of what lies ahead
you scream
where is the light
who has a match
who can help
there is no response
just breath darkness fear


just breathe


sitting there
afraid alone silent


breathe
and feel all of this
and more


then with each breath
something shifts slightly within
you hear a voice saying
breathe out fear
breathe in peace
breathe out rejection
breathe in acceptance
breathe out separation
breathe in unity


nothing about
peace hope tranquility perfection
self help books
cannot prepare you
for this for this is felt not merely written
this is experience not simply theory
this is for real
yet it is something new and yet ancient
hidden deep within the soul


what is it
don't ask don’t think don't question
just be listen experience know


breathe out fear
breathe in sadness


no
wrong answer
perverse alchemy
turning fear into sadness
shouldn't it become
something else
comfort certainty joy
the essence of the holiday
the goal of living
or so you have been taught so you have thought


in the stillness the silence the darkness
continue to pay attention
notice what is in the moment
still with each breath
as fear dissipates
sadness increases

but this is wrong this is not what is meant to happen
it is not what I was taught not what I was prepared for


but then you realize as you breathe in the darkness
this is simple what is the truth


in the darkness you have dug down
to the roots of sadness
the realization of
what is still undone
what is finished
what will never be
what was
who you are
who you are not
what you have accomplished
what you have neglected
the realities of existence
this is a holy moment
holy day holy time
as is every moment every day every time
if we simply allow it to happen


for just a moment
your breathing stops
instead of air you let out a cry
a scream a wail
replaces the breath
it surrounds and envelopes
all that is
reaching outward
to the ends of the universe
calling out to the divine
the still small voice within


tears flow without ceasing
you are afraid that this flood of tears
will obliterate you your world everything
God said never again the rainbow in the sky reminds us
of God's unbreakable covenant to humanity
yet you fear this flood of human tears
could destroy all as God did once before


inside the soul
where once there was breath
there is nothing
where moments ago
you thought there was joy


all you can feel is this overwhelming
frightening threatening sadness


in that moment when you finally allow yourself
to feel the sadness the hurt the fear the loneliness
suddenly your heart your core your soul
shatters completely
your heart is broken
and God is the only one who can
heal those who are truly broken hearted


experiencing all this suddenly
the candles reignite
their flames now reaching to heaven
their glow filling your soul
you realize now that you are home
you have returned to the one
to yourself to the world
to family to community


you know that the sadness all too real
can be healed
in the meantime it is what helps you grow


realizing this
now you are ready
to change to be to do
to connect with the world
with others known and unknown


now you are ready to bless
the flame the holiness of the day
now you can approach the divine
and celebrate the truth
as you recognize feel acknowledge
the joy awe wonder
of living in this moment
or it is all we ever have


let us rejoice
let us accept
let us be
what who we are right now
regardless of whether it I who we thought we would be




let us gather to celebrate a beginning
an ending
a beginning
the moment
whatever it may be


and so we bless the flames and the moment


blessed are you Eternal One
who has given us life and the ability to live
who has sustained us enabling us to see the reality of existence even when it may seem too much to bear
and has brought us to this moment whatever it may be
however we may feel we acknowledge that it is simply
a gift from you
and for this we celebrate
amen


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