Rosh Hashanah 2013–5774

At one edge of the world there is a mountain

And on that mountain a rock
And from that rock issues the freshest purest water in the universe

Now on the other edge of the world
Beats the great heart of the world
It longs for the water, it yearns for the water,
It sings a song of longing, but it can’t have it

And every night, the great heart of the world
Along with all the other hearts of the world
Sings its song of longing, its song of yearning.

Now there is a true person of compassion
Who walks the earth every evening
And gathers up all these fragments of song
And pulls them together into time
And its just enough time for another day

And in this way, out of music
Out of beauty, out of longing, out of yearning
In this way, Out of an impossible dream,
The world continues to exist

These are the words of Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav

Every year we gather together at this time, hoping and yearning for such a renewal of life, for a way to weave together our parts that have become frayed or even broken. We sing, pray, and chant; we learn together and we long for healing for ourselves, our families, our communities and our world.

The experience in shul feeds our souls and renews, but for our longings to be realized, we need to carry forth, through attitude and action the change we want to see.

Our tradition gives a name for this – It demands that we live a life of Tzedek—righteousness—This is certainly not a word we normally use in our  modern lives. I can’t say I have ever told my children that they needed to behave more righteously, And yet, that is exactly what our sacred texts demand of us, again and again.

The word for righteousness in Hebrew comes from the root Tzedek, related to Tzedakah and Tzaddik.

It includes within it the concepts of Justice, fairness, honesty, charity and righteousness.
In Genesis, God describes Abraham as one who  will instruct his children and his childrens’ children in the path of God by doing tzedek u’mishpat- doing  what is just and right in the world.

The Torah teaches in Deuteronomy:
Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof- Justice Justice You shall pursue!
Living a righteous life means to actively – pursue Justice for All
to be an active participant in creating a balanced world.

A person who lives a righteous life—a life in which one actively engages in healing the injustices of the world- this person is called a Tzaddik—a righteous person.

To my deep delight, I recently learned about the 9 Nana’s of Western Tennessee. This group of women gathers together every day at 4AM to engage in a ritual that no one, not even their husbands knew about for 30 years. Lori Weiss for the Huffington Post writes: Over the next three hours, The 9 Nanas will whip up hundreds of pound cakes, as part of a grand scheme to help those in need. And then, before anyone gets as much as a glimpse of them, they’ll disappear back into their daily lives. Their plan began 35 years ago -- when the women got together for their weekly card game . At that time the women, many of whom are sisters,  were reminiscing about their grandmother who, whenever she read in the paper about a death in the community, would send off one of her special pound cakes to the family, to put a smile on their faces. The women began to think about how they might contribute more happiness to their community. And then the women started listening. They’d eavesdrop at the local beauty shop or in the supermarket. When they heard about a widow or a single mom who needed a little help, they’d step in and anonymously pay a utility bill or buy some new clothes for the children.

The Nanas would find out where the person lived and send a package with a note that simply said, “Somebody loves you”—and they’d be sure to include a pound cake.

One of the women explained, “We’d drive through low-income neighborhoods and look for homes that had fans in the window. That told us that the people who lived there didn’t have air-conditioning. Or we’d see that there were no lights on at night, which meant there was a good chance their utilities had been turned off. Then we’d return before the sun came up, like cat burglars, and drop off a little care package.”

For three decades, the ladies’ good deeds went undetected until five years ago, when Mary Ellen’s husband, started noticing extra mileage on the car and large amounts of cash being withdrawn from their savings account. So 30 years into their secret mission, the women gathered together with their husbands and told them everything- about the baking, the eavesdropping, the drive-by deliveries. And to their delight, their husbands offered to help.

Since then, the women began selling their pound cakes through the internet to raise more funds needed to help even more people. In the last 35 years, the 9 Nanas have contributed just under a million dollars worth of happiness to their local community and all anonymously.

This beautiful and inspiring family tradition resonates strongly with our Jewish tradition. We are taught in the Talmud that anonymous righteous acts are the power that sustain our world.

The Talmud states that the world’s existence depends upon the presence of a minimum of 36/ lamed vav Tzadikim,/righteous people, in every generation, who receive the face of the Shechinah, that is, the immanent presence of God . These 36 have affectionately been coined the lamedvavnik’s

How is it that these 36—the lamed vavniks are able to maintain the world’s existence?  The Talmud seems to say that these 36  are able to apprehend the face of the Shekhinah as if through a clear speculum- that is to say- they apprehend the presence of the Divine in all of their mundane encounters on this earth.

They see what others don’t see- as they drive through a neighborhood and they hear what others don’t hear in the aisles of the supermarket— Their hearts are open with compassion as they perceive the Godliness of all creation and the suffering within it. And then—they take the next step—they do something about it. They take action, responding, often in a rather quiet way.

The folklore around this teaching goes on to say- that the 36 themselves are unseen- they are hidden throughout the world- no one knows their identities and even they themselves do not know that they are one of the 36. These apparently ordinary  people act in uncommonly righteous ways outside of the public eye. They are unseen, And yet, it is they who have the ability to truly see.

Being unseen describes a kind of contraction of the self, expressing the quality of humility. This ability to contract oneself, living in humble anonymity, is directly related to one’s ability to fully take in the other person. It is the contraction of Self that allows these people to perceive the Divine in others and in all situations—For, when we are able to get out of own way, to open ourselves to the full presence of another, which must include also, their suffering, Then we do the work of healing and sustaining the world.

When  Antoinette Tuff—the heroine who saved the lives of countless elementary school children 2 weeks ago—when she talked down a gunman in the office of her school she describes herself as being an anchor for God. She opened her heart to this would be assassin; she listened to his story; she felt compassion for him- and she connected to his heart in a way that resulted miraculously in a complete turn about, saving his life, her own, and that of hundreds of children.

She explains that she saw the face of her own handicapped son in the face of this man! She saw his wounds; she felt his pain; she connected her heart to his and a miracle occurred. His heart opened to her and he put down his weapons.

To see the face of God in any encounter, is to change the face of the world.
To be righteous is to be like Antoinette Tuff—an anchor for Godliness in the world.
To be righteous is to see the face of God in every encounter.

Antoinette Tuff’s story is not only one of righteousness but one of heroism. She was uncommonly courageous and uncommonly connected to the Source of Life from which she drew her strength. We can aspire to such connection but in our daily lives we usually find ourselves distracted and uninterested in the deep truth of each person we encounter. We are filled with the tasks of daily living, our own stories, our own frustrations and to do lists.

Still —Torah cries out to us: Look at the big picture- beyond your own story- Step outside of your self and help to repair the brokenness of this world.

At times this demand for righteousness can feel like an awesomely difficult and even impossible task.  The prophet Isaiah speaks to just that sense of daun—ting responsibility that can leave us paralyzed and hopeless about making change in the world. He states: 

Listen to me, you who pursue justice
You who seek the Lord
Look to the rock you were hewn from,
To the quarry you were dug from
Look back to Abraham your father
And to Sarah who brought you forth.
For he was only one when I called him
But I blessed him and made him many.

Isaiah says—look to the quarry from where you were formed- remember your ancestors- remember your lineage—your yerusha/your  inheritance—you carry this very same seed.

To pursue justice, to live a righteous life—this  is  your birthright.

Remember- says Isaiah,  Abraham was only one person- one person just as you are, and yet, he became many. Take heart- says Isaiah,  we may feel small and ineffective, but change truly does start with one person and God’s blessing. We are all heir to that blessing.

The legend of the 36 tzadikim, teaches that any small act of kindness, especially anonymous acts can have epic repercussions, repairing and maintaining the very world itself. Righteous acts may at times be heroic like those of Antoinette Huff, but they are also the small quiet acts of kindness like those of the Nine Nanas or even more simply, a word of kindness to one who is struggling.

Now I ask of all of us—What might it look like to perform a righteous act every day? What if all of us committed to performing just one righteous act every day? Can you imagine living as this kind of holy instrument? As this kind of anchor for Godliness in the world? To join our hearts to the great heart of the world?

Can you imagine the music that would arise from our world?

May we all be blessed with a renewed consciousness this year, to claim our inheritance, to open ourselves just a bit more to the presence of the Divine in our encounters, to pursue justice and relieve suffering—to live a Righteous Year.