Rabbi Elana Rosen-Brown's Rosh Hashanah sermon - 2016/5777

If you drive west for long enough along Sir Francis Drake you’ll eventually find yourself at the farthest tip of the Pt. Reyes Peninsula, right out by the Lighthouse. I’m sure many of you have been there and enjoy, like me, bringing visitors to the lookout point which is regularly blanketed with fog even while the rest of Marin enjoys a clear day. 

                But, for most of us there’s a lesser-known destination just a mile before the lighthouse. You pass Dairy Farm A, take a left, and wind your way along a narrow dirt road called Chimney Rock. Eventually you’ll end up at a small white house that is generally closed for visitors and has been since 1968.

                This house is the Old Lifeboat Station. And from 1927-1968 its existence single handedly saved hundreds of lives. Before this station was established ships and sailors regularly met their death along the rugged Marin coastline.

The lives of the men stationed at the Lifeboat station were difficult and full of danger. They patrolled the beaches day and night, no matter the weather, looking for shipwrecks. They participated in daily and nightly drills that forced them into strong surf and surging waves, risking their own lives to hone their lifesaving skills. Through the four decades of its operation the chilling motto of the Life Boat Station crew was: You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back in.”

And then, suddenly, in 1968 after decades of service, the lifeboat station was no longer needed. New technologies such as advanced sonar and higher-powered motors replaced the need for a lifeboat station. This changed everything.

***

So, you might be wondering why I’m starting this sermon with a nod to our local maritime history.

***

Well, for eight days this summer I had the privilege of living in the Old Lifeboat Station myself, while taking a course in the Natural History of Pt. Reyes.

For eight days I slept in the same bunks the surfmen had slept in.

Shivering each night and staring out at the sea I marveled at their stamina and bravery.

Getting up in the middle of the night I would stop amongst the shadows of moonlight to look at the black and white framed photos on the wall: who were these men?

What did it take for them to live here, isolated, year-round?

And…sleeping in this relic of history…I wondered…

What did it mean to the men when their services were no longer needed?

The end of an era.

How did they respond to the change?

***

                The greeting Shanah Tovah doesn’t just mean Happy New Year, it also means “Good Change.”

                We spend the month of Elul, the month prior to Rosh Hashanah, in self-reflection around our own capacity for growth and change. And, of course, change and growth are central themes of the High Holy Days. But this year, particularly following my time in Pt. Reyes, I’m asking myself a slightly different version of this question, and I invite you to join me in this inquiry.  

                My question is this: 

How are we RESPONDING to the external changes that impact us?

Are we responding well and healthfully to the changes that happen in our personal lives, our Jewish community, and the world?

                This question is on my mind this year because week after week at Shabbat services I saw your tears as you added a loved ones name to the Mishebeirach list or stood for Kaddish. I heard your laughter as you celebrated newborn babies, or reunited with friends and siblings for a B’nai Mitzvah. I glimpsed lingering questions as you grappled with the transition of children leaving for college or moving back home, as you approached a new stage of life after retirement or a move, as you adjusted to the end of a marriage. And this year, more so than years past, Shabbat after Shabbat I witnessed your fatigue at juggling busy schedules amidst texts, e-mails, social media and a 24-hour news cycle that never turns off.  I recognized the pain and confusion you held as our community responded to yet another tragic shooting or image of war and violence in the news. And I want to say again—I felt this strongly from you more so than in years past.

                And you asked me, one of your rabbis, what is happening to our world?

                So, this morning, I wanted to address some of that anxiety about change that we’ve felt and shared this year.

I plan to talk about the ways in which change impacts us in three main areas:  our personal lives, our world, and our Jewish community.

And throughout this sermon I’ll ask you a series of questions about each of these areas of life, and all I ask is for you to reflect, not to solve, not ruminate, but simply to notice what comes up for you over the course of this sermon, and the course of these next ten days, about how you’re responding to change.

Finally I want to say, up front, that

I believe we have some choice in how we respond to change

I believe that, as difficult as change can be, we can work with it as a dynamic force that animates our lives

and

I believe that incredible beauty, creativity, and love can come even from the most difficult and seemingly darkest of life’s changes.

In our prayer book is a poem by the Israeli poet Leah Goldberg.[1] The poem acknowledges the anger and fear we may feel about change while also reminding us to notice the interest and curiosity change brings. This process of honoring change is learning that does not come easily to us human beings, but rather one that we have to revisit again and again throughout our lives.

Lamdeini Elohai, Goldberg writes, l’shir haleil b’hitchadeish zmancha im boker v’im leil

Teach us to sing praises to the always-changing nature of each day

To celebrate that every moment is new.

This is the message of Rosh Hashanah.

***

It is undeniable that this year we have witnessed destabilizing global shifts that may feel like an overturning of the world as we know it.

Sometimes these shifts are catastrophic:

The Brexit vote, surprising EU citizens and sending shockwaves through financial markets—representative of a profound return to isolationism.

The image of 3-year old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi washed up on shore—pointing to a Global Refugee Crisis unparalleled since World War II. 

The Shootings in Orlando and San Bernardino--ratcheting up our fear of global terrorism’s ability to infiltrate our shores.

But sometimes these shifts are wondrous:

For the first time in the History of the United States a woman won the nomination for president of a major political party

The Emmy Awards were the most diverse ever signaling a shift in how we see difference in the media[2]

The thawing of relations between the United States and Cuba after decades gave us hope that perhaps conflict can become cooperation

Each of these events moved us in different ways.

They are the great shofar that sounded

Waking us up to change whether or not we are ready for it

Destabilizing the universe as we currently know it

They create a sense of disequilibrium that sometimes doesn’t feel good

But may create an opportunity for us to be moved.

U’vshofar Gadol Yitakah…

And when the great Shofar is sounded

It creates an opening for us to hear our still small voice

If we just slow down. Listen. Notice.

Our Kol D’mama Dakah

That voice inside us signaling a response.

***

In Mishnah Rosh Hashanah we read:  

If someone sounds a shofar in a well or in a cellar and we hear the sound of the shofar—we have fulfilled our obligation. But if we hear only the sound of the echo, we have not done our duty. And if we pass a synagogue and hear the sound of the shofar only if we truly concentrate our minds on it do we fulfill our obligation.[3]

We may be tempted to hide from change. To mute it or pretend it will go away. But that’s not quite how change works.

Dial-Up Internet doesn’t become popular again.

The wrinkles don’t disappear.

Brad Pitt never did get back together with Jennifer Aniston, no matter how much some of us on Team Jennifer prayed, and he probably won’t with Angelina either.

We can’t turn away forever. At some point we must hear the immediate sound of change and not just its echoes. Change, perhaps, is the one constant companion in our lives. And each blast of the shofar calls us to look closely. Tekiah: at our personal lives.  T’Ruah: at the world. Sh’varim: at our Jewish community.

T’kiah:

                On this Rosh Hashanah I invite you to bravely face the changes that have impacted your lives this past year. With eyes open.

How have you responded?

How do you feel about your response?

***

Changes in our personal lives:

                When I was a kid my sister and I used to sing at the top of our lungs on road trips. Our parents didn’t mind as long as we sang the music they loved. Of all the songs I remember one moment especially when we were singing along to Bonnie Raitt. Her album Nick of Time had just come out. And there we were…my sister—age five and me age nine shouting the lyrics…

                I see my folks are getting on…

                And I watch their bodies change

                I know they see the same in me and it makes us both feel strange

                No matter how you tell yourself, it’s what we all go through

                Those lines are pretty hard to take when they’re staring back at you…

Scared to run out of time…[4]

                I laugh when I picture that little girl...

                I said—mom—these lyrics are so funny. What do they mean?

                She said—oh, you’ll understand one day honey. It’s for

me today, for you tomorrow.

And now, here I am, it’s my today.

I worry all the time about my parents’ mortality and what it will mean to live in a world without them. While I am only in my mid-thirties there are changes that happen to us at every age and stage of life and I have felt them acutely this year even as I hold them with curiosity.

Today, I know what Bonnie Raitt’s lyrics mean all too well.

And I’m sure you do too.

T’kiah:

On this Rosh Hashanah I invite you to sit with your changing body.

To feel and be curious about the changes.

I invite you to think about your relationships.

How have they changed in the past year?

How have you responded?

Lamdeini Elohai...l’shir haleil b’hitchadeish zmancha im boker v’im leil

***

Changes in our Global World:

There’s a famous story about Moses in the Talmud where God transports Moses generations into the future and plops him down in a classroom of students studying Torah. And poor Moses doesn’t understand a word people are saying. He’s so sad and confused until he hears Rabbi Akiva say: these are the words that Moses received from God on Mt. Sinai![5] This story always makes me chuckle at Moses’s humanity. In his sadness apparently Moses had forgotten that in his own lifetime he too had lived through some drastic changes. Moses led an entire generation from slavery to freedom—and if you remember the adjustment was far from immediate. Moses met God face-to-face at a time when his generation still believed in multiple Gods. It was Moses’s task to lead the people Israel through one of the most revolutionary changes in the history of the world—the adoption of ethical monotheism. Moses knew a thing or two about change during his lifetime. He was just surprised when it surpassed what even he could have dreamed up.

***

We are living through one such moment now.

In the introduction to her book Becoming Wise journalist Krista Tippett writes:

“This daunting and wondrous century is throwing open basic questions the twentieth century thought it had answered. Our questions are intimate and civilizational all at one—definitions of when life begins and when death happens; of the meaning of marriage and family and identity; of our relationship to the natural world; of our relationship to technology and our relationships through technology. The interesting and challenging thing about this moment is that we know the old forms aren’t working. But we can’t yet see what the new forms will be. We are making them up in “real time.”[6]

Making it up in real time just like Moses before us.

That might be scary at times…but it’s also pretty cool.

And, spoiler-alert, Tippett believes that we each have the wisdom inside of us to come up with some great responses to this paradigm shift.

***

Easy for her to say, right? It’s easy to forget that we have the wisdom to respond to monumental change just as each generation before us has. We forget because the responses of the past have already become our accepted wisdom. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Sixth Extinction Elizabeth Kolbert reminds us of how the concept of extinction was discovered. The concept that animals or plants can become extinct is a relatively new one. Even though it is now universally accepted—it was only at the turn of the 20th century, after decades of argument that the theory was written into our canon of knowledge. Just a century later and most of us don’t remember that this debate ever took place.

                But I find it very reassuring to remember.

                Because it puts changes we are currently overwhelmed by into perspective.

In the twentieth century alone many of us in this room lived through scientific discoveries that we now take for granted: antibiotics, nuclear power, plate techtonics, television, the hole in the ozone layer. And many of us in this room not only lived through but discovered ways to respond with resilience to the Great Depression, the devastation of the Holocaust, the uncertainty of the Cold War and Vietnam, and the horror of the AIDs epidemic--to name just a few of the changes we’ve been through together.  

When we clear away the noise of anxiety we realize it is not always grounded in more hopeful realities:

The reality is that

each generation is presented with challenges brought by profound change and it is the work of our lives to respond.

The reality is that

although the media may give a different impression our world today is actually less violent than at any other time in history.[7]

That in this past year the world poverty rate fell below 10% for the first time.[8] 

That Michelle Obama hugging George W. Bush at the opening of the National Museum of African-American History proves there’s still hope for Congress!

The reality is that each and every day human beings are using their ingenuity to creatively respond to the problems presented by climate change, homelessness, and discrimination.

And the reality is that for every story of violence that we hear there are even more stories of love that go unreported. We know this. But we don’t always remember.

While we as individuals may not be able to personally control the global shifts that scare us

Every one of us has the wisdom to respond to the changes that overwhelm us with resilience.

It is our choice in this era of endless newscycle how to filter and curate what we choose to read and how to interpret the information.

We can unplug when the stimulation gets to be too much.

We can create lives of face-to-face connection where we work consciously and regularly on our relationships.

We can connect and engage with local community institutions that share our values and concerns.

We can celebrate Shabbat with family and friends.

We can approach the local and global changes that concern us with engagement, vigor, and hope.

Our Rodef Sholom community did just that this year when we joined with the Muslim community of Mill Valley the week after the Orlando massacre to celebrate Ramadan. Together we condemned violence and hatred of all kinds while affirming our commitment to support one another and work for peace in our world. It was an amazing reminder. We entered the evening feeling despair, we left with renewed friendship and hope.

T’ruah:

On this Rosh Hashanah

I invite you to reflect on how you’re engaging with the world.

How would you like to shape your response in the coming year?

Lamdeini Elohai...l’shir haleil b’hitchadeish im boker v’im leil

***

And finally, I want to talk about changes in our Jewish community.

In his book Paradigm Shift the great founder of Jewish Renewal Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi wrote that the Jewish community too is experiencing the birth pangs of paradigm shift.[9] The progressive Jewish world of the last few decades is one that has been met by trends in secularization, interfaith marriage, feminism, queer thought, and antizionism to name just a few. These are Paradigm shifts in Jewish communal life that frighten some and truly enliven others. But Reb Zalman, the product of a pre-World War II Orthodox community in Eastern Europe relished the changes. As he liked to say: Shift happens! And that’s a mantra I take to heart. Shift happens.

Just as with our global concerns, I experience a widespread anxiety in the Jewish community about the future of Judaism. This anxiety might feel new, but it isn’t. Great scholars of Jewish history Jonathan Sarna and Shaul Magid remind us that there have always been periods of both participation and disengagement in Jewish life.[10] It is part and parcel of Jewish community. And looking to Jewish history it’s obvious that we are masters in navigating these “shifts”. The destruction of the first and second temple. The expulsion from Spain. The Enlightenment. The Jewish American Experiment. The Holocaust. The creation of the state of Israel. Each of these moments represented both crisis and opportunity. And each time, we chose the only choice--opportunity.

One of the haftarah portions for Rosh Hashanah, Nehemiah 8, is helpful here. Nehemiah and Ezra, two leaders of the Israelites, return with their people from the Babylonian exile. In the face of uncertainty Nehemiah and Ezra encourage the people to begin again by rebuilding the temple. And then, on Rosh Hashanah, Ezra gathers the people to read from the Torah out loud for the first time. This ritual was entirely new! And it brought the community together.  Ezra proclaimed: on this Rosh Hashanah we remember the suffering of exile. But it is also a day to “eat and drink things that are sweet and delicious, and invite friends and strangers to our tables”. When they returned from Babylon the people felt lost. Now, they had a new temple, a new ritual, and leaders reminding them to focus on the regenerative potential of joy.[11]

This past year we lost two pillars of the Jewish world Eli Wiesel and Shimon Peres. Wiesel and Peres both stepped in at times in our history that demanded response to sweeping change. Wiesel guided the Jewish community and the world in understanding and making sense of the Holocaust. And Peres, a founding statesmen of Israel, worked tirelessly to ensure that its vision become one of peace. I cried when I found out they died. I cried for what they represented. I cried for their families. I cried for the passage of time. I cried for us and I cried for myself. With the passing of these two remarkable men there is a noticeable void. But in this void we find creative opportunity. And that’s what they would want for us. Now it is our turn to pick up the mantle where they left off.

                And, of course, we already have. I stand here today enthusiastic about the future of our Jewish community and Judaism. Brilliant minds and hearts across the country are exploring new ways for us to connect to Judaism in the 21st century. We are all, individuals and community centers and synagogues, adapting Judaism to the global paradigm shift of the digital age. There has never before been so many Jewish texts translated into English and readily available for us to read online. There has never before been so many Jewish courses of study available at our fingertips. Never before have there been so many nonprofit Jewish organizations committed to the causes of justice that animate the 21st century or so many diverse voices in Jewish leadership contributing perspective. And yes, never before have we had to respond to the ever-more upsetting situation in Israel-Palestine. But I believe that this is a central moral challenge of our Jewish epoch for us to engage and frankly…doesn’t it keep Jewish life interesting?    

                And believe me, there are times that, like Moses, I long for the familiar classroom. All I need is a stack of books and a dusty Jewish library to be happy. No fancy changes. No updates. But then I think about the fact that I am only here, a woman rabbi, because of change. And those reminders thaw my resistance.

So, in all this shifting, don’t for a second imagine that any one of us, myself included, is being left behind, even though it can feel that way.  More than anything, what gives me confidence to navigate our current paradigm shift in Jewish life is our collective wisdom.

Our community, both here at Rodef Sholom and in the broader Jewish world, needs every single one of us—our knowledge, our stories, our voices, and our love of Judaism to guide our path forward.

Sh’varim:

How will you continue to contribute your unique wisdom to the Jewish community you want to see?

Lamdeinu Elohai…

Teach us to sing praises to the always changing nature of each day

To celebrate that every moment is new.

***

In Pt. Reyes I spent a lot of time wondering about how change felt for the surfmen when they retired after decades of keeping watch at the lifeboat station.

But perhaps that question was missing the point.

Those men had already learned to manage the uncertainty of change—

The violent weather patterns of the coast

The fear of the unknown

You have to go out, they said, but you don’t have to come back in.

Each day they ventured forth with a calling

Determined to save lives.

But ultimately, they were preparing each day for just that one shipwreck per year.

The day to day was just taking their lives in their hands and saving themselves.

And isn’t that just what we do?

The Book of Life is not only open during these next ten days, it is open for us every single day of our lives. And we venture forth boldly, determined to shape and save the only life we hold in our hands. Our own.[12]

The message of Rosh HaShanah, the anniversary of the creation of the world, is that everything is made new again, in each and every moment. This is the story of our world, the story of humanity, and the story of Judaism, the story of our families and our lives. Change is our constant companion and we have the capacity to embrace it as our friend and teacher.

May you be blessed this year with a Shanah Tovah—

A good, sweet year of health and happiness

And also, a year of dynamic response to change

Shanah Tovah

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Leah Goldberg Lamdeini Elohai excerpted.

[2] Cynthia Littleton, “Emmy Awards’ 2016 Diversity Boom Reflects America,” Variety, August 23, 2016, accessed September 24, 2016, http://variety.com/2016/tv/awards/emmy-awards-diversity-viola-davis-blac...

[3] Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:7

[4] Bonnie Raitt, Nick of Time. Capitol Records, CD, 1989.   

[5] BT Menakhot 29b

[6] Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2014).  

[7] Stephen Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (London: Penguin Books, 2012).

[8] Ivana Kottasova, “Word Poverty Rate to Fall Below 10% For First Time,” CNN Money, October 5, 2015, accessed September 24, 2016, http://money.cnn.com/2015/10/05/news/economy/poverty-world-bank/

[9] Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Paradigm Shift: From the Jewish Renewal Teachings of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (United States: Jason Aronson, Inc., 2000).

[10] Shaul Magid, American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2013).

 Jonathan Sarna, American Judaism: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).

[11] Nehemiah 8

[12] Line inspired by Mary Oliver’s poem The Journey.