Good yontif, shana tova, Anyada Buena, Dulse i Alegre
Happy new year.
There is no question that 5780 was a jolt, as unsettling as an earthquake, an insult to our equilibrium. We have been twirled and spun by the pandemic, roiled by convulsions of violence in our nation and throughout the world; we have been confronted by the inescapable truth that racism is unleashed, pervasive, and systemic; we continue to stare in shock as our judicial system reveals its uneven and frayed fabric. We are in deep trouble my friends, and not good trouble. We have been pivoting, pivoting, pivoting since March.
Masks are ineffective. Masks are mandatory Wear gloves. Wash your hands.
Shelter in place. Domestic violence.
Work from home. Homelessness.
Essential workers. Record unemployment. Disinfect your groceries. Social distance.
No toilet paper, no flour, no yeast!! Atatiana Jefferson, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain. No Justice. No Peace.
Overflowing ICUs. Makeshift morgues.
Beach parties. COVID parties.
It’s just a flu. Bleach injections?
Flatten the curve. Fatten your curves.
Recovery. Surge. Soaring stock market.
Crashing stock market. Soaring stock market.
DIY masks. “Don’t tread on me” masks? Vote masks. No evictions. No jobs. No-interest loans.
Heat wave. Dry lightning.
Pivot. Pivot. Pivot.
And we are dizzy.
Lucky for us, it’s Rosh Hashana— Judaism’s ancient and sacred, annual, and communal soul, spirit, heart, and mind, pivoting ritual. In Hebrew: tshuvah. Tonight we deepen our desire to turn, shift, return, and yes, pivot, back to our truest selves.
While the Torah simply instructs us to mark the new year with “a day of noise”, Yom T’ruah. The rabbis teach us that noise is the keening, wailing, and sighing that comes from cheshbon ha-nefesh, our making a spiritual inventory. What do I regret, what went wrong, where did I fall short? Who did I hurt, what damage did I do? How do I apologize, can it be repaired? What do I do with my wounds, who can I forgive? The rabbis admonish us to pivot, to take corrective steps. This is Tshuvah, spiritual return, and it is demanding.
And this year, more than ever, as our individual missteps have amassed, it seems that the whole of humanity has veered off the road into a muddy, ashy, bloody ditch. I get cold and clammy when I think about this. Take steps? The time to take steps was 50, 100, 401 years ago. Steps aren’t gonna cut it. We have to run. We have to break a sweat! We have to leap with all our might. And right now, we are in a chaotic whirlwind, and it isn’t even clear which way is forward. And I feel torn between paralysis and flailing.
The pandemic has illuminated just how off balance we are not only spiritually, but environmentally, politically, and economically. It amazes me when the pundits say, “We have to get back to ‘business as usual’”. As if that was a viable option! We need to go forward, friends, not backward. We need to change this game. We need to stop sacrificing the most vulnerable members of society, while the lives of the most powerful are protected. It should be clear by now, that’s an old playbook, and it has never worked very well. Every day I hear, “The economy this, the economy that.” Well, we invented the economy, and it has evolved ever and right now we are at a point when we need to re-invent it. Cuz when we care more about “the economy” than humanity, the tail is wagging the dog. We open the economy, and the virus spreads, and people die. Surely, we are more clever, more creative, and smarter than that being our only choice. Money at this point is like an inappropriate and cruel joke, that we need to stop telling. I wonder though, are we ready to create new systems of financial, social, and racial justice if it requires us to relinquish our gender, class, or racial privilege? Scary as it may be, we need to make tshuvah, and it won’t be easy, change never is, but we have done it before, and it’s time again.
Check it out—there is evidence that the earliest tool-using humans were around about 2.5 million years ago. Our species, homo sapiens, appeared on the scene about 200,000 years ago. And we invented money about 5,000 years ago.
By 501 years ago, in 1519 CE, Hernan Cortez and his minions invaded Mexico. The indigenous Aztecs were like, “Dude, all you talk about is gold. You can’t it, and it’s too soft for making weapons or tools. So, what’s up with the gold obsession?” Cortez famously answered, “It’s because we suffer from a disease of the heart that can only be cured with gold.”
This makes me think of the adage, “Anything powerful enough to cure you is powerful enough to kill you.”
What cures a damaged heart, according to Jewish wisdom is tshuvah, pivoting back to center. Whatever threw us off balance must be confronted and corrected. The liturgical medicine we are offered is the ritual of the Al Cheyt on Yom Kippur. The word cheyt is translated as “sin” or “missing the mark”. It refers to having committed an error, mistake, or wrong of some sort, either by accident or intentionally, out of necessity or opportunity. I was studying a piece of Talmud recently that included the word cheyt. I was so excited!! This was a word I actually recognized and understood without needing to consult the dictionary!! But I looked it up anyway. And there, in my Jastrow Dictionary of Talmudic Literature, on page 449, was the definition: to miss, to fail, err, or sin. However, I noticed that this heading had a Roman numeral II, making it the second entry for this word. So, I backtracked to page 448, and there I found the first definition: To stroll idly, to saunter. And when permutated by the kaleidoscope of Hebrew Grammar becomes:
To live in luxury
to be like a nobleman to be well-dressed
to be clean
to be generous
to be gratified
to show that you are a nobleman to be arrogant and domineering to lord it over
to be childish, sulky, bad tempered to miss
Unlike the 16th C. Spaniards, our Hebraic forebears understood that our unwell hearts are certainly not cured by gold, but rather can become sick because of it.
So how do we stop a pandemic in a world that is also infected by greed and economic injustice? On a planet that is writhing in pain from domestic and sexual violence, hunger, oppression and climate change are we just being selfish to focus on our personal wounds or missteps? Can we even find the energy to make tshuvah now, when we’ve already spent the last 6 months adapting, worrying, and grieving? How do we keep pivoting, pivoting, pivoting?
Well my friends, we can start by pivoting towards celebration. Let’s unabashedly welcome this new year with love, vision, and compassion. We mark this 5,781st spiritual birthday of the world with song and dancing, feasting and sweetness. We turn our attention to apples—fresh, crisp, juicy, fecund, apples—and honey--enduring, sticky, drippy, messy, golden honey. We start by doing this work together in reinvented, undeterred, everyone welcome, fearless, and participatory community. We accept that we will make mistakes, again and again, and we promise to learn from those mistakes until we are noble once more. We commit to find the balance between our humiliating errors and the luxury of forgiveness. We embrace a generous recreation of our culture to value precious human life over precious metals. We trust that when we use our privilege and resources to heal each other and the earth, everyone prospers. But nothing changes until we admit that things the way they are, well, it ain’t working. Cuz, at the moment, we have huge problems.
But, that is actually exciting!! Here’s the cool thing about human beings, when we have problems, we get busy. Something kicks in and we find purpose. Somehow, we know that each of us holds a piece of the puzzle, and that only together, can we solve it. Each of us has something to contribute, to learn, to share, to teach. Because no matter how dire the situation, when we pull together, and pivot we will find every possible solution. And that is why we are here tonight--To embrace this amazing whole even with its prickly parts; to make ourselves whole, even with our jagged edges. We are here to get out of this mess, together.
Rabbi Chayim of Zans taught: A traveler once got lost in the woods, wandering for days, with no food, no water, no idea where he was going or where he had been. Tired, hopeless, and scared he sat down defeated. Just then, another hiker tumbled out of a thicket. “Merciful God!! Please friend, I am lost, show me the way out of this forest!” The newcomer said, “Sorry buddy, I’m lost too! I have been wandering for days, and I haven’t found my way out. But I can tell you this much: I’ve been marking my path, so at least I won’t go the way I came. Would you like to look for a way out together?”
I know we are all worn out, depleted, and anxious. Maybe a little grouchy, or mean, or just a wee bit defended; It is not only natural to complain and criticize, but maybe even essential— when faced with utter chaos, kvetching can keep us from imploding or exploding—but it also anchors us to a broken pier. My friend, colleague and teacher, Rabbi Batshir Torchio told me that her mother, of blessed memory, used to say, “Come with your gripe, but come with plan.” So, here’s a plan: Let’s mark our path. Let’s at least make new mistakes and quit repeating old ones. Let’s dance, sing, and forgive; let’s protest, educate, and vote; Let’s get creative and brave, and let’s get out of this mess, together.
As the Torah teaches, “Surely this is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond your reach. It is not in the heavens and it is not across the sea that you should say, ‘Who can go there and get it and teach it to us, so we can do it?’ No, it is very close, it is in your mouth, and in your heart, and you can do it.
Choose life with its messes and heartbreaks, its trials and troubles. Choose life because there are mysteries in it waiting to be revealed...by you! All we have to do is show up—dazed and spinning, tired and aggravated—just as we have tonight, with hopeful and humble hearts, creative and clever minds, and irrepressible if a tad weary, spirits.
We’ve got this, friends.
“Right here, right now, let’s make this noise: We choose life.”