Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781 | Temple Beth-El of City Island
Shanah tovah. Welcome to Jewish spiritual year 5781 – may it bring sweet goodness and health for all of us and our loved ones.
Every Rosh Hashanah, Jews worldwide say that the new year is a year like no other, a creation unique in history, a seed of potential ready to grow. Every year we say it, every year we mean it, because it’s true.
So here we are again – a new year like no other, a creation unique in history, a seed of potential ready to grow – and this year is different. History’s first digital Days of Awe link us across states and time zones – together, but a bit off, like so much feels off now. History is happening: this moment feels like the 1918 flu pandemic, 1930s Great Depression and 1960s civil rights movement all together – six weeks before a pivotal election, in a nation whose forests and cities have been burning, in a world changing so fast that we lurch for any normalcy we can get, or we self-protect by tuning out a nearly unbearable barrage of breaking news.
We feel in our bones how different this Rosh Hashanah really is. And we should feel it: after all, the High Holy Days are all about being real. That’s the core of teshuvah – returning to what’s most real. We return to ourselves, and to each other. We return to our best selves, and to our worst choices within our power to repent and repair. We return to our core, and we dare to discover how far we strayed from our core – or whether we even know what our core is anymore.
This journey is our sacred purpose during our Days of Awe starting tonight. Our circumstances are different, but our purpose is not. Our purpose is as timeless as spiritual life, and more vital than ever because our world so urgently must be repaired. We must see the hurts of this hour – medical, economic, racial, ecological, political and spiritual – as birth pangs of a world being reborn, and we must act to make them so.
This calling may sound like idealistic, over-confident audacity when swirling forces feel beyond our capacity to adapt much less control. Yet it’s so Jewish to seek the seemingly impossible. Chutzpah propelled our ancestors out of bondage, turmoil and poverty. Chutzpah lifted families to new shores. Chutzpah made Israel’s barren deserts bloom, overcame daunting odds, and earned more patents and Nobel Prizes per capita than other peoples might imagine possible. Our spiritual birthright is this very chutzpah to seek betterment and rebirth almost no matter what the circumstance. Our calling is to catalyze this chutzpah into action.
Tonight as our High Holy Day journey begins, we ask: What is this catalyst? What power is strong enough to harness the forces swirling around us and within us? That catalyst is our creed, and our theme for these High Holy Days of 5781. In a word, it is love.
Love is a many-splendored thing. Our lives show how love can be a burning fire or a soothing whisper. Love can be generous or self-righteous, forgiving or infuriating, friendly or jealous, nourishing or smothering. Love can flow with ease, or tie us in knots. Love can heal, or hurt. Love can be impossible, and love can achieve the impossible.
During these Days of Awe, we will uplift aspects of love that can catalyze our transformation. Tomorrow on Rosh Hashanah Day 1, we’ll invoke a love that arouses courage. Rosh Hashanah Day 2 will focus us on a love that inspires healthy vulnerability. Kol Nidre will arouse a love that seeks, gives and accepts forgiveness. Yom Kippur will evoke a remembering love that is timelessly eternal.
Tonight, we begin our journey of 5781 with love’s optimistic expansiveness – its essential nature to reach and flow beyond itself.
This love can inspire us to do more, be more and extend ourselves more than we imagined possible. Whether platonic, romantic, spiritual or sexual, love’s impulse is to flow and grow, to seek connection beyond self. Love is the power of connection. It’s why our V’ahavta – “love … with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might” – is Judaism’s heart.
Rosh Hashanah ritually reboots this sacred process: We even say hayom harat olam – today is the birth of the world. Chutzpah, right? Yet we make it true as we channel love in our lives and into the world. Love reaching beyond self, connecting two as one, is among the most potent forces to create or renew anything. It’s true physically (if you’re unsure what this means, maybe ask later), and also spiritually. The chutzpah to re-create our world channels love’s optimism and connectivity, because love’s essential impulse is to reach beyond what seems possible now.
If we think about it, this quality of love is a bit nutty. It’s a bit nutty to see the impossible as possible, to see others as better than they are or into becoming their best selves – to yearn for better so passionately that we’ll dream impossible dreams and then strive to make them real despite the odds. There’s a reason that the word “romantic” can have a judgmental, quixotic edge to it. Yet this kind of love is what changes the world. In truth, it’s the core of anything good that ever has and ever will.
Consider Rebeka Langus, matriarch of the Jewish community of Cienfuegos, Cuba, from our shul‘s service mission last year. Cuba had suppressed Judaism until 1994, when Rebeka began teaching herself. She told us why: “So I could teach my children, their children, and all the families who forgot who they really are.” Rebeka makes her home into a shul – much as our homes now are our shuls – and endures hardship to sustain a community that elsewhere might not exist. ¿Pero qué opción tenía? (“But what choice did I have?”), she asked. Then she shined as she answered her own question: Todo que hago, yo hago por amor, de amor (“All that I do, I do for love, from love”).
And not just Rebeka. For the bat mitzvah we helped celebrate at La Sinagoga Tikkun Olam in Santa Clara, what folks endured just to show up! Amidst crippling fuel shortages, people walked miles, some for days, for love of community. At La Sinagoga Tiferet Israel in Camagüey, the medical student son of community matriarch Sará Bedoya-Pulín told us that he could earn more as a doctor most anywhere else but, he said, “I’d lose connection with my community. And for us Cuban Jews, connection is everything: who would I be without it?”
Our Cuban cousins showed how love can connect us and compel us. Love can ease distance, inspire endurance and shape identity.
If love is so potent, why is our world so broken? It’s easy to sing “Love is the answer,” or “What the world needs now is love sweet love,” but can we love our way to an effective covid-19 vaccine, a detoxified politics, civil rights for all, an economy for all, and a planet safe for all?
In a real sense, the answer is yes. Every successful movement for social change proves it. Love’s impulse to connect beyond self naturally re-shapes the self and re-shapes how we perceive our self-interest, and that can renew the world. It’s how love can help move us through challenge – not around it, but through it. It’s how love makes teshuvah possible. In truth, it’s the only thing that ever can.
So we ask again: if love is such a potent catalyst and balm to heal the world, then why is our world still so broken? Even more, if the One we call God, Creator, Source and Spirit of Life is so loving, then why is our world such a mess? How many of us asked this kind of question amidst the turbulence of these six months, or began to ask but stopped because the question felt too loaded, too heavy, too dangerous?
But we can’t look away, not if we’re real. Nor need we look away, if we let love teach us. Jewish mysticism (Zohar 3:69b) offers this:
Before the creation of the world, Torah spoke to God saying:
“Holy One! Humans, whom You are about to create, are going to sin – and if You do to them as they will deserve, they will not survive.” God answered Torah: “Is it for nothing that you call Me Adonai, El rachum v’chanun erech apayim v’rav chesed v’emet / God, compassionate and graceful, patient, greatly loving and truthful”? (Exodus 34:6).
In this mystical view, the Creator knew how imperfect we and our world would be, but created us anyway. Why? Because the purpose of creation is relationship, and only by imperfection could we ever relate to the sacred by a connective love that models how to forgive – a love whose nature is compassionate and graceful, patient and truthful, the genesis of second chances. Only such a world was worth creating at all.
It’s not that the world’s brokenness is acceptable: structural racism, public health failures, corruption and global warming must be intolerable. It’s not that love alone should comfort these afflictions: it’s precisely the pinch that prods us to act, grow, change and heal. It’s not that our sins and foibles are okay: we strayed much too far from our best selves, and we must return. None of it can be acceptable – especially not now.
But if we let our eyes brighten with a love that flows and connects beyond self, we might see that the strife and rupture of this world – and much of the strife and rupture of our own worlds – bear within them the seeds of their own repair. Seen deeply as they truly are, nearly all strife and rupture focus us on pre-existing conditions that brought them about; and how we feel about them galvanizes or inhibits us in changing them. It’s how we can harness our social distancing to focus us on what real connection is – how we need it, how we take it for granted, and what we must do to sustain it. It’s how high-profile cases of structural racism and toxic politics focus us on social structure issues that were hiding in plain sight. It’s how burning forests focus us on climate change. It’s how the truths of our lives focus on doing teshuvah now.
This sacred night calls us to that kind of vision, to a love that flows and connects beyond self, that transforms how we understand self and what our self-interest truly is. And because this love can catalyze transformation, it offers hope for a path out of darkness and a catapult out of much that might feel stuck in our lives. These qualities also can soften the sharp edges of introspection and overcome impulses to look away. This love can inspire our courage and resilience to seek forgiveness and give forgiveness with grace, and walk the sometimes difficult path of repair and relationship. This love is the kind we need to heal and renew the world. In truth, it’s the only thing that ever can.
If this vision of love sounds super-human, maybe it is. Maybe it is divine, or maybe it’s divine in ways that also can be human. Consider civil rights icon John Lewis, who saw enough in his life to lose all love and all hope. Even so, precisely so, Congressman Lewis said this:
“You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone – any person or any force – dampen, dim or diminish your light… It is the source of hope. [So] release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge. Release all bitterness. Hold only love, only peace in your heart, knowing that the battle of good to overcome evil is already won.”
Powerful words, but how real are they? Would we say them about abusive or toxic situations? Toxicity can cloak itself in the guise of love, but abuse isn’t love and abuse is never okay. Loving connection may not be possible in those situations; teshuvah still might be possible, if people behaving toxically do hard work to make real amends and truly change. That’s not our focus tonight, but if you are experiencing that kind of situation, I am here to support you and I urge you to reach out.
Thankfully, most situations are not abusive in that toxic way: they are imperfect, and even broken – as many things are. In those many situations in our lives, what if we feel that flowing, connective, optimistic love isn’t deserved? What do we make of John Lewis’ words then?
My friend Rabbi Shai Held, truly a gadol ba-dor (a great one of this generation), reminds of something pivotal about Jewish life that we tend to forget. The core mitzvah of Jewish life is to love: it’s not to be loved. The mitzvah to love another as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18), which we will leyn on Yom Kippur, is the literal middle and beating heart of Torah – and its terms are not reciprocal. The mitzvah of a flowing connective love, honoring each person’s humanity, seeing them into their best selves and re-defining our self-interest as inter-being with them, does not depend on their behavior. It depends only on their humanity, and Torah is clear on why: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” says God, because “God is God.” As we’re to love God “with all our hearts, all our souls and all our might,” we’re to love the divinity in each person as our own selves – not to be doormats, not to ignore bad behavior, not to accept the unacceptable, but to see through generous and compassionate eyes, to assume best intentions (dan l’chaf zachut), and to respond kindly.
It’s this vision that erev Rosh Hashanah calls us to reclaim – and especially this year when we and our world face emergency conditions. The right kind of love can harness emergency for our emergence into a better world within, between us and around us. On this holy night, may we all feel that stirring of connection – to ourselves, each other and our Source. May this love move us to see the repairs that we and our world need, and begin making them. In that merit, may we and our loved ones receive the blessings of what then will be a shanah tovah um’tukah – a good and sweet year.