Summary: On our yearning to re-balance our lives, and the paradox that the world was made for us and we’re dust and ashes.
By Rabbi David
Shanah tovah, friends. Our world needs better balance. We all do, after rollercoaster years kicked us, our politics and our planet so far off kilter.
These High Holy Days on the Jewish spiritual calendar call us to renew balance in our lives. It’s our for these High Holy Days: Tiferet, a heart-centering capacity to seek healthy balance amidst hope and hurt, beauty and tragedy. Our world is on fire, and blessings abound. We caused pain, and we can repair and renew our lives.
Last night we saw how balance implies awareness. Much as the seesaw pivots on the right balance of its full length and weight, our balance depends on sensing how we stray from our center. Often it’s what we don’t see, or don’t let ourselves see, that keeps us off kilter.
We also saw how balance shifts under the influence of things unseen. We can’t see love, values, ethics, peoplehood, the psyche or the soul, but they pivotally move us. Tiferet, heart-centering balance, starts by honing our sensitivity to what’s truly most important.
Today we lift from perception to perspective – how balance shifts with the meaning we make in life, and the truth inside appearances.
A commuter boards a bus and sees a young person wearing one shoe. Maybe this person lost a shoe running from danger? Maybe a dangerous person? In concern, the commuter asks, “I see that you lost a shoe.” The young person answers, “Nope. I found one!”
Perspective. Maybe this kid was poor, but they were grateful for a shoe and shining with joy. What must the commuter have thought?
Back in shtetl days, a peasant complained to a rabbi, “My house is so cramped: I’m tripping over stuff. What should I do?” The rabbi paused for a bit, then said, “Bring goats and chickens into the house.”
Days later, the peasant returned – and was he pissed: “I came to you for help! I trusted you! Now goats and chickens are camped out in my bedroom and I can’t sleep! Some help you were!”
The rabbi went deep into thought. After a long while, he said, “Put the goats and chicken outside.” The peasant left in a huff.
Weeks later, the rabbi saw the peasant: “Nu? How are things?”
“Great! Without goats and chickens, my home is so spacious!”
Perspective. Experience reset the baseline. How often it takes goats and chickens – or risk, loss or suffering – to reset expectations.
These years have shown how vital, and fleeting, perspective can be. We came to expect the next shoe to drop. We learned to fear the future, to see the glass half empty; to repress emotion just to get through. Lots of goats and chickens.
But remember summer 2020, with nightly applause for health care workers? Remember our shared purpose? Remember how awesome it felt to venture out after lockdown? Remember gratitude for toilet paper? When’s the last time any of us looked at toilet paper and joyfully said, like our kid on the bus, “I found one!”
It’s normal for gratitude to ebb. It’s normal that our perspective, life lessons we learn from good times and strife, can fade over time. It’s why Rosh Hashanah is so important – to reboot us, remind us, and attune us again to things unseen. That’s Tiferet, holy rebalancing.
Of course, reminders can come any day. A certain rabbi loved golf so much that before Yom Kippur services, the rabbi quietly left the house for a quick nine holes so nobody would see. An angel saw and was appalled by what the rabbi did on such a sacred day. The angel told God, who assured the angel that just desserts would come.
Then the rabbi hit a hole in one. The same thing happens at the second hole, the third hole – all nine holes. Nine holes in one, a feat never achieved in the history of golf! The angel was horrified. “Ribono shel olam / Power of the World! Shouldn’t the true judge of the world be just? This is just desserts – nine holes in one on Yom Kippur?”
God answers, “Absolutely it’s justice. Whom can the rabbi tell?”
Our secret golfer learned that in truth there are no secrets. Even more, the secrecy he wanted became his prison. Our lives often will tell us if what we do, or what we think we want, doesn’t serve – if we’re brave enough to tune in. That’s perspective: Tiferet.
A spiritual master had 20 disciples who wanted to succeed them as leader. One day the master gave them each a live bird in a small cage, and told them to go somewhere no one could see, kill their bird, and return when their task was done. The first 19 dutifully returned with dead birds. Sufi #20 came back with a live bird still in the cage.
The master asked, “Why didn’t you kill your bird?”
“I tried to do as you asked,” answered #20. “But wherever I went, I couldn’t find anywhere that no One – capital O – would see.”
All of these stories – a kid with one shoe, goats and chickens, a golf champ, a caged bird – tease us into a broader perspective. And they’re all Jewish stories, playfully ironic to rebalance us by using our blind spots to show us more. They hint at truth lurking within, wanting to show up if we let it, if only we’d look and not turn away. Israel’s first Chief Rabbi, Rav Kook, put it this way in his book Lights of Teshuvah:
|התשובה העליונה באה מהברקה של הטוב הכללי של הטוב האלהי השורה בעולמות כולם, אור חי העולמים, נשמת כל האצילית מצטיירת לפנינו בהודה ובקדושתה, כמה שהלב יכול לספוג והלא באמת הכל הוא טוב וישר כל כך והיושר והטוב שבנו הלא הוא בא מהתאמתנו אל הכל.||Supernal teshuvah comes from a lightning flash, a total divine goodness flowing in all worlds. This light, life of all worlds, soul of ultimate unity, takes form before us with as much splendor and holiness as the heart can absorb. For in truth, all things align on high as good and upright, which flows through our being by our harmonization with the All.|
Rav Kook is depicting wow moments when suddenly we get it. Inspiration strikes, veils over our vision fall away. In Biblical terms, we see a Burning Bush. Sinai rumbles. A “still small voice” booms within. We’re riveted and rebalanced. These moments of grace (חן / hein, the root of Hannah’s name in our Haftarah) come in every life, if we tune in. They shift us in ways hard to explain.
Spirituality makes us prone to synchronicities. Prayer, learning, meditation, community, ethics, social justice, the ner tamid (eternal flame), the Book of Life reading from itself, spiritual stories, Yizkor memorials – all of Judaism calls us to align, see more and be more.
We yearn for it. We yearn for inner ease, better balance, Something More. It’s why most of us are here today. Yes, we yearn for comfort – and I pray that we all receive it – but we also know that words and music aren’t magic. Deep inside, what we truly seek on days like today is inner harmony – meaning, purpose and balance.
Rav Kook hints at this path. The root of his Hebrew verb “to harmonize” (התאמת / hit’amet) is אמת / emet – truth. Inner harmony roots in alignment with truths we know deep in our core – if we tune in. And another Hebrew word for harmony? You guessed it: Tiferet.
Rosh Hashanah tugs us back toward a harmony of realignment. We feel the choices we regret, hurts we caused, grudges we kept. We feel the agitation of conscience. So the balance we seek can’t be history’s normal. Balance rarely means going back. Rather, our inner tug – our inner gyroscope steering us toward Tiferet – prods us toward a renewed balance from today forward. That’s Tiferet.
In these years especially, of course we succumbed to temper, anger, fear, snarkiness, overwhelm, hopelessness and numbness. It’s been hard enough just to be a person. So this year, maybe we’re inclined to tune in less, engage less, go easy on our self-reflection.
Judaism urges the exact opposite. It’s when the going gets tough, when the stakes are high, that we can make a big difference. It’s when metal is hot that we can shape it. It’s now when our planet is warming, when politics runs hot. Our time to act is now.
Of all people to teach this, it was the Warsaw Ghetto’s rabbi, Kalonymus Kalman Shapira. When the world was on fire, when Jews were about to be liquidated and there seemed little to do but wait to die, he taught that exactly then was the moment of truth, when actions aligning with inner truth mattered most to history – and to the soul.
Some of us will resist, or retreat to the apparent safety of ease, believing that we needn’t turn, maybe too proud to see truths lurking within and act on them. For them, for that part of each of us, Simcha Bunim of Przysucha, from Poland 200 years ago, taught this:
Every person should have two pockets. In one pocket should be a piece of paper saying: “I am dust and ashes” (from Abraham bargaining with God in Genesis 18). If one feels too proud, reach into this pocket, take out this paper and read it.
If we find ourselves believing we’re all that, or it’s not about us, or it can wait, or we can get away with it because nobody will know – if we forget that truth is chasing us – what reminder will jolt you back?
Or maybe we’re the opposite. We feel that it’s too big, like we’re helpless, like what we do won’t matter. Maybe we already feel like dust and ashes, unimportant. For that part of each of us –
Our other pocket should have a piece of paper saying: “For my sake was the world created” (from Talmud: the Creation that began on Rosh Hashanah would fashion us all b’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine Image). If one feels disheartened or lowly, reach into this pocket, take this paper out and read it.
Each of us joins two worlds. We are fashioned from clay, and our spirit is the breath of God.
The choice is ours. To me what’s most amazing about this story is its optimism – that we can choose, that tools exist to rebalance us, and that these tools are placed in our own hands.
Today I want to place in your hands not two slips of paper, but a wood coin.
One side reads בשבילי נברא העולם / For me the world was created. We are so much more capable than we think. Each of us is infinitely valuable, made in the Divine Image – so what we do matters vitally. The other side reads אני עפר ואפר / I am dust and ashes. We’re not above it. We’re each part of a Whole whose truth is chasing us.
We all need both reminders. Both are completely true. Exactly how to balance them is left to you. It’s in your hands – along with your soul, the true meaning of these Days of Awe, and how they will rouse you to turn inward, see, feel, admit, repair and renew. The balance of your world is in your hands, maybe the balance of the whole world.
The search for renewed balance is in your hands.
In Julia Roberts’ closing words from the movie Eat Pray Love:
In the end, I’ve come to believe in something I call “The Physics of the Quest” – a force in nature governed by laws as real as the laws of gravity. The rule of Quest Physics goes something like this: If you’re brave enough to leave behind everything familiar and comforting, which can be anything from your house to bitter, old resentments, and set out on a truth-seeking journey, either externally or internally, and if you are truly willing to regard everything that happens to you on that journey as a clue, and if you accept everyone you meet along the way as a teacher, and if you are prepared, most of all, to face and forgive some very difficult realities about yourself, then the truth will not be withheld from you.
May we be inscribed for a year of good hints, sweetness, healthy balance, prayers answered and, at last, a better world. Shanah tovah.