High Holiday D'vrei Torah
EREV ROSH HASHANAH D'VAR TORAH - RABBA KAYA STERN-KAUFMAN
At this hour we come together to acknowledge the passage of time, the birth of a new year and in doing so, we recall the Birth of the World.
Tomorrow, just after the Shofar is blown we will recite the words- Hayom Harat Olam - Today The World Was Created. But is this really the anniversary of Creation that we are coming together to celebrate? Or is there perhaps a deeper meaning behind our celebration of the Birth of the World?
Our tradition teaches us again and again through the liturgy and practices of the High Holy Days, that in fact, “Today the world IS created . “ Today we stand together in the awareness of the potential of this moment- the potential to form and create a New World- a New Self- and New Relationships. We are the shapers of this world we inhabit. The High Holy days come to us as a gift , causing us to pause in the passage of time, to take stock of ourselves, of our relationships and to re-commit to our ideals.
Our holidays fall in the month of Tishrei. In ancient days each month was given a symbol to express its essence. The symbol for this month of Tishrei was the scales. These scales remind us again, of the question we must ask ourselves at the turning of the year- How are we out of balance and how will we make balance in this new year?
Tomorrow I will chant the famous unetaneh tokef prayer that presents images of Man as destined by God for certain outcomes this year- It attempts to address our experience that so many of life’s events seem to occur at random and beyond our own control - It recounts the image of a God who stands in judgment and who decides at this time of year, the destiny of people and even of the angels, for the coming year- It states:
Who will live, and Who will die? How many will be born and How will many will pass away. Who will be at peace and who will be tormented? Who will become rich and who impoverished? And yet, after these many statements of destiny have been uttered, We will counter this by declaring together the words: But Teshuvah, Tefilah and Tzedaka can change one’s destiny.
Repentance, Prayer and Acts of Charity can change the outcome.
As we acknowledge the uncertainty and unpredictability of life, which we all know only too well, we nevertheless affirm that there are some things we do have control over- our minds, our attitudes and our actions toward ourselves and others.
The great Sage and Jewish spiritual leader in the twentieth century - the Chafetz Chaim was once asked how he managed to have such an impact in the world. He responded, “I set out to try to change the world but I failed. So I decided to scale back my efforts and only try to influence the Jewish community of Poland but I failed there too. So I targeted the community in my hometown of Radin, but achieved no greater success. Then I gave all my effort to changing my own family, and failed at that as well. Finally, I decided to change myself, and that is how I had such an impact on the Jewish world.”
Rosh Hashanah is The Moment - the moment when we give ourselves another chance - and when we give each other another chance. Another chance for healing, for making whole that which is broken.
It has been a holy custom among our people, at this time of year to actively seek to make amends with others. To approach all those in our lives and to humble ourselves, by asking forgiveness from each person, for having caused any hur - whether knowingly or even unknowingly. This is a beautiful custom which trains the heart to accept responsibility for having hurt others, to admit having made mistakes - which can often be so difficult to do.
And this custom also trains the heart to develop the capacity for forgiveness - to let go of resentments and grudges. For we are also instructed by our Sages to respond to the one who sincerely apologizes, with openness and a willingness to forgive. We are urged to stretch our hearts past the hurt we have experienced, past our own egos and restore value to the relationship before us, and to recognize the divine soul within each and every person.
I therefore urge each and every one of you and myself included to take up this practice over the next ten days as we approach Yom Kippur. Seek out your family, friends and acquaintances, a simple sentence is often all that is needed to create a new world.
As we leave here tonight, many of us will greet one another with the traditional holiday greeting - Shana Tovah. Shana means ‘year’ and tovah means ‘good.’ Together these words literally mean “may you have a good year.”
However there is another way to understand these words. Shana which means ‘year’ comes from the root shoneh or l’shanot which means ‘to change.’ So The word shana reflects the idea that a year marks the change in time . So when we say Shana Tovah or Shoneh Tovah, we are also saying “May you change well. May your changes be for the good.”
May we all change well this year, may we take up the holy traditions of our people and create healing for ourselves, in our relationships and in our world. May we all contribute to creating a new and better world.
Hayom Harat Olam - Today the World is Created.
Shana Tova! May we change it and ourselves for the best.
ROSH HASHANAH DAY ONE HAFTARAH - HANNAH’S STORY
This piece was offered at Rimon’s 5776 Rosh Hashanah Day One service by Caroline White assisted by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman.
Kaya: There was a man from Ramah. Zuph, in the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph. He had two wives, one named Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah was childless.
Caroline: This man used to go up from his town every year to worship and to offer sacrifice to Adonai Tzevaot at Shiloh. Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of Adonai there.
One such day, Elkanah offered a sacrifice. He gave portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. However, he gave only one portion to Hannah—even though she was his favorite— because Adonai had made her barren. Her rival, Peninnah, to make her miserable, would taunt Hannah, saying that Adonai had made her barren. This happened year after year. Every time Hannah went up to the Temple, Peninnah would taunt her, to the point that she wept and would not eat.
Her husband, Elkanah, said to her, “Hannah, why are you crying and why aren’t you eating? Why are you so sad? Am I not better than ten sons?”
“Sadly, so many of us know what it is like to feel barren. Or as the Hebrew describes it: Akorah-uprooted. What it is like to feel as though you have something to offer, something you want to give the world...but be unable to realize it. What it is like to be utterly unseen and bullied by others.
Experiences like this can lead one to a sense of profound desperation. I have known this desperation. I have felt it in the sweating of my hands as the locked doors of psychiatric units and jail cells closed upon me. I recall the deep barrenness I felt growing up in a mental health system that told me my brain was “broken” and invalidated the grief I was experiencing. I remember the uprootedness and disconnection I felt as young person constantly bullied, because the side effects of heavy medications made me overweight, my hands shake, and my hair fall out. I had experienced trauma and abuse but like so many, was told to get over it, to stop crying, to be satisfied with a limited life just as Hannah was told to do by Elkanah. My prayers today are with the Hannahs in our midst. Those who carry an invisible wound or emptiness or yearning. People who have been told their pain is not valid. Who have learned to hide their tears, not because the pain is gone, but because their suffering has been mocked by others.
KAYA: After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose. The priest Eli was sitting on the seat next to the entrance to the Temple.
Caroline: In her misery, she prayed to Adonai, weeping all the while. She made this vow: “Adonai Tzevaot, if You will look upon the suffering of Your servant and will remember me and not forget me, and if You will grant me a baby boy, I will dedicate him to You for all the days of his life, and no razor shall ever touch his head.”
As she prayed before Adonai, Eli watched her mouth. Now Hannah was praying silently. Only her lips moved, but her voice could not be heard. So Eli thought that she was drunk. Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Sober up!”
Hannah replied, “Oh no, my lord! I am a very unhappy woman. I have drunk no wine or other strong drink, but I have been pouring out my heart to Adonai. Do not take me for a worthless woman. All this time I only have been praying out of my great anguish and distress.”
How often have we, like Hannah, cried out in anguish and our yearning is misinterpreted? So, often what are really pleas for love and validation for our pain are judged by others as wrong. My stumbling attempts to find healing from the trauma in my life often manifested as anger, confused speech, as red cuts on my skin. Often, like Hannah’s encounter with Eli, my cries to find meaning and purpose were mis-labeled by others…. I have been called “psychotic”, “disabled” and “bad”. I remember a night spent in seclusion locked in a padded room, terrified I would never get out. I remember my hand bruised purple from pounding at the door. I begged the officers to let me go but they ignored me. At that time, I had no other option but to turn to God in my barrenness. I felt that I could offer more if given a chance. I begged God to be seen as a good person, to be heard and to be given a purpose, a reason to go on living. My words were not eloquent or beautiful, or sometimes even words at all. But I know they were understood by God. Although, not all of us have had the experience of being literally locked up, many of us may be feeling trapped or silenced or misunderstood. My hope for you today is that you will not give up. That you will keep trying to find the words or gestures to speak your truth, even if they are imperfect. That, although you may have experienced judgment before, you will unlock yourselves and ask for what you need.
KAYA: “Then go in peace,” said Eli, “and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked.”
She answered, “You are most kind.” So the woman left, and she ate, and was no longer downcast.
Caroline: Early next morning they worshipped before Adonai, and they went back home to Ramah.
Elkanah slept with his wife Hannah, and Adonai remembered her. Hannah conceived, and at the turn of the year, she bore a son. She named him Samuel, meaning, “I asked Adonai for him.”
The next year, when Elkanah and his family went to offer the annual sacrifices to Adonai, Hannah did not go. She said to her husband, “When the child is weaned, I will bring him. For when he has appeared before Adonai, he must remain there for good.”
Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Do as you think best. Stay home until you have weaned him. May Adonai’s word be fulfilled.” So Hannah stayed home and nursed her son until she weaned him.
When she had weaned him, she took him to the Temple, along with three bulls, a measure of flour, and a jar of wine. And though the boy was still very young, she brought him to the Temple of Adonai at Shiloh. After slaughtering the bull, they brought the boy to Eli. She said, “Please, my lord! As you live, I am the woman who stood here beside you and prayed to Adonai. It was this boy whom I prayed for, and now Adonai has granted me what I asked. I, in turn, hereby lend him to Adonai. For as long as he lives he is lent to Adonai.” And they bowed low there before Adonai.
Like, Hannah, my prayers to find a life with meaning and acknowledgment were heard. Adonai’s answer came in many forms…the social worker who gave me a volunteer position at the J.C.C. working with the elderly although I lived in a group home. The roller derby team who saw strength and potential where others had seen an angry and awkward “mental patient.” The Jewish community in the Berkshires that has showed me new ways to open my heart and find meaning in our mitzvoth. Over the years, my life has been enriched, healed and rooted in purpose. But as Hannah teaches, it is not enough to take the gifts we have been given and hold them tight to our own hearts. Hannah knew that Samuel belonged to the world. Her story is not complete until she has given back to the world the great gift she received. PAUSE Though God has delivered me from that narrow place, I still return to the locked forensic unit every week in my work as peer advocate. I help hold spaces in psychiatric hospitals and in my community (like Hearing Voices groups and Alternatives to Suicide groups) where people can speak their experience, in their own words, without being labeled as ill. Those that have been told they were barren and broken can explore their purpose and their strength. Often we cry together, but there is no judgment placed on these tears. Each person is looked at as having wisdom and gifts to offer, no matter how down-trodden they might be. Today, we begin a whole new year. We renew our commitment to heal the world. We have so many gifts to give. Do not rule out, that like Hannah, your greatest gift to offer the world may also be linked to some of your greatest struggles. Your gift may be speaking your deepest truth, so that others might feel liberation to do the same. To listen deeply, with the transformative empathy of a human being who has also known suffering.