Shanah tovah! Welcome to the High Holy Days 5782. May they bring sweet goodness and health for us, our loved ones and our world.
All of us here tonight lived through 5781, a year like no other. We all lived it — pandemic, climate change, racial reckoning, economic and political spasms, technological shifts and more. We saw courage and cowardice, awesome beauty and ugly hate. We felt isolation and unity, danger and relief. We felt despair and hope, sorrow and joy – often mixed together. Truly 5781 was a rollercoaster year.
Now here we are again, another Rosh Hashanah, another reboot, we say, for us and for the world. We say it every year, but tonight’s is different because we are different. All of us alive are different after 5781, after last year shook the foundations of society and the world. Tonight some feel relieved, grateful we’re here, resilient and adapting, joy for this reboot, optimistic for the future after how far we’ve come. Some grieve losses. They worry and fear, they’re apprehensive and unsure about the future. Some have felt all of these emotions – even all at the same time.
So this Rosh Hashanah is different. The promise of renewal is as real as ever, and the sacred seed that will bloom into this new year will grow in emotionally charged ground, while the ground shifts underfoot.
Therefore this Rosh Hashanah asks us new questions. What will we do with the charged energy around us? How will we stand on ground fast shifting underfoot? How will we do it together? And what will together mean when our very definitions of togetherness, our ways of being together, whether we even want to be together, are up for grabs?
That’s why this year’s High Holy Day theme is Stronger Together.
Last year showed over and over again that we’re in it together. It’s core Jewish wisdom that ultimately we’re better together. Our fates are intertwined: medically, economically, environmentally and politically, we affect each other. For both self interest and shared interest, Pirkei Avot says: כל ישראל ערבין זה בזה (we’re all mixed together) – one planet, one health, one heart. So we’re responsible for each other, again from Pirkei Avot: אל תפרוש מן הציבור (do not separate from community). It’s why we confess together in the plural, especially now when our Jewish future, our national future and our planetary future are in our hands.
So together we’ll join onsite and online, history’s first-ever hybrid holidays, zoomies and roomies together. Technology brings us together as never before – from across New York State and British Columbia, California, Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Quebec, and the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. Together we’ll pray, dance, sing, laugh, cry, wrestle, mourn, confess, forgive, take stock and then take action to repair our world.
But last year also showed that “together” isn’t easy. “Together” can frustrate us, frighten us, infuriate us, even incite us. “Together” can force us to face our shared humanity, each other, and impulses we may prefer to avoid – in ourselves, each other, our democracy and the world.
So “together” is necessary but not enough. Even love – chesed, our last High Holy Day theme – isn’t enough. We also need structure, resilience, discipline, courage and daring if we’re to be together in right ways, shape love into right forms, and keep out what’s not right for us.
What we need, in a word, is strength.
We need strength to be together when together is hard. We need strength to forgive and love again after hurt. We need strength to face hurts we caused or allowed – then try to heal them. We need strength to bounce back after setbacks and losses. We need strength to open tight spots, to find hope after despair, to speak and act when our voices and powers seem too small to matter.
We dedicate these High Holy Days to cultivating those forms of strength together, for the sake of teshuvah – returning to our best selves, each other and the holy. Rosh Hashanah’s first day will invoke resilience for tight spots in our souls and our nation. Rosh Hashanah’s second day will be for courage to do what’s hard, even scary. Kol Nidre will invoke daring for inner leaps. Yom Kippur will channel strength from beyond.
Tonight we start with the strength to see beyond what is to create new realities. It’s the strength (in Hebrew, gevurah) of Creation itself:
“When God began to create, והארץ היתה תוהו ובוהו (Earth was chaos), וחושך על פני תהום (with darkness on the face of the deep), ורוח אלהים מרחפת על פני המים (and holy spirit fluttered on the face of the water). God said יהי אור (let there be light), and there was! The Eternal saw that light was good, and divided light from dark.”
The rest is history.
We say light came first, but not so. Light didn’t come first, nor did the structure of light versus dark, good versus not-good. What came first was chaos. Chaos existed, and it pre-existed creation! Gevurah is the power to see chaos into becoming order, to shine light into darkness.
That’s why Jewish mystics taught that the Creator began in chesed (love) yearning to pour forth, but needed structure to manifest. That structure is gevurah, anti-chaos. Gevurah is form, direction, redirection. Gevurah is like a garden hose carrying water, channeling its flow. If the hose kinks, water won’t flow. But without a hose – without a channel – water will just gush and flood. And as Hurricane Ida showed last week, too much water without good channels will wreak havoc.
So we need gevurah, but it’s not easy. By definition, structure asks boundaries, even when difficult. Gevurah tells right from wrong, and lives accordingly, even when doing right is hard. Too much gevurah and we risk becoming hard, inflexible, judgmental and brittle. Too little and we risk becoming doormats, directionless and spineless.
So let’s take time to feel into gevurah. Do we need more discipline to keep commitments to ourselves or others? Did we set and keep wise boundaries, or stop misbehaviors in ourselves or others? Did we act on our values even if it was difficult? Or maybe we had too much gevurah. Were we too judgmental or rigid? Did we protect ourselves too much against feeling. Did we run over other people’s healthy boundaries?
Tune in now. Whatever came to you may point toward your path of teshuvah – realigning your gevurah, your holy strength.
How? It’s hard to calibrate strength, structure and boundaries when life is easy – not that life often is easy. But now, when hard seems all around? When every right boundary seems up for grabs, when guard rails of societal institutions are banged up and breached? When anger swirls and truth itself is under attack? When we seem to need so much strength just to stay healthy and upright?
Now is when we need the spiritual strength of someone who ran toward these kinds of fires all her life – someone it’s especially fitting to honor tonight because it’s the one-year anniversary of her death. Ruth Bader Ginsburg died moments before last Rosh Hashanah. On this, her first yahrzeit, we best honor Justice Ginsburg by taking onto ourselves her ways of calibrating strength amidst chaos and injustice.
Reflecting on her life in 2018, Justice Ginsburg said: “So often in life, things you regard as impediments turn out to be great good fortune.” Ginsburg’s life showed how so many barriers contained within them the transformational power of a springboard.
Ginsburg spoke these words at a less fraught time, but only barely. She spent her life taking on the over-strong gevurah of structural gender inequality. She called out societal gevurah too weak to act with strength on human rights, global warming and political toxicity. And meanwhile Ginsburg befriended her conservative arch-opponent, Justice Antonin Scalia – a friendship that softened some hard Washington hearts.
Gevurah was Ginsburg’s superpower. Gevurah helped her see how many walls – society’s problems and chaos – aren’t impenetrable barriers but rather potential springboards flipped on their sides. Turn some walls in the right directions and they can catapult us high.
Ginsburg’s way of lawyering, and her way of judging, showed that most sex discrimination comes from over-rigid gender roles enforced by fear of losing power. By empathizing with both that fear and the core human drive to better our lives, she brought women into the protections of the Constitution. Her touch helped a wall become a springboard, and now millions of women are flying higher.
Ginsburg’s decisions about human rights and global warming did much the same thing. She spotlighted human suffering with a nuanced balance of empathy and gevurah – empathy for the unseen, and power to fight doggedly for a better tomorrow.
Along the way, Justice Ginsburg showed that often the status quo is either too strong or too weak not for its own sake but to protect tender or tight spots in society – fears of changing power dynamics, worries for costs, anxiety about an uncertain future. Ginsburg’s life showed that society’s gevurah, holding in place a wrong status quo, usually is an off-kilter response to those other things – fear, worry, anxiety. Ginsburg was able to change the status quo by methodically naming and targeting those things underneath it, the off-kilter gevurah holding society in place.
What Ginsburg did with law, we can do with life. If our gevurah is too strong or too weak, if we’re too hard or lack healthy boundaries, then perhaps it’s because of what our status quo tries to protect inside us. In deep honesty, we each can know what that is and how it can evolve.
And her special friendship with Scalia? Again it was superpower gevurah taking the form of integrity. Ginsburg didn’t befriend Scalia by becoming like him, nor he like her. They didn’t pretend away differences or avoid conflict. Rather, they both stood in their gevurah, the strength of their fully authentic selves. By being all they were, they could reach across differences without risking or sacrificing their true selves.
GInsburg didn’t win every battle, but gevurah doesn’t always need to. Sometimes we dissent, intending to shape not today but tomorrow. Gevurah sometimes takes the long view: Gevurah knows that even from today’s darkest dark can emerge shimmering light tomorrow.
Same with us. Gevurah is our soul-power to stand in the integrity of who we really are, and who we can become. Real gevurah can power our best efforts to connect with people who most challenge us, without sacrificing our authenticity. Gevurah is our patient power to play the long game – to balance wise softness and wise toughness for the strength to transform darkness, even if it takes longer than our own lives.
It’s not easy, all this introspection and recalibration, but since when did we shrink from hard? Our spiritual ancestors wrestled with God. We’re children of prophets, descendants of immigrants strong enough to start over. We’re the Fiddler on the Roof who could dance on the edge of the abyss. We’re the miracle workers who made deserts bloom and built a homeland against all odds. That legacy flows through our veins.
May we channel that flow now, cultivating sacred gevurah to face the chaos and hurts of this time. May we transform walls into springboards that lift us toward new light shining from darkness, the light of goodness itself – the world Justice Ginsburg knew was possible with authenticity, empathy and strength for today and for every tomorrow.
We can do it! We really can.
May Justice Ginsburg rest in power, and in the merit of her legacy and our strongest efforts, may we and our loved ones be blessed with a shanah tovah of sweet goodness.
Sermon given at Temple Beth El of City Island, 2021.