Rosh Hashanah 5775/2014: The Light of Belonging

By Reb David Markus

Barcheinu Avinu kulanu k’echad;
Kulanu k’echad b’or panecha.

Bless us all together, Creator, Protector;
Bless us all forever with radiance and grace.

Barcheinu Avinu (bless us, our Creator and Protector) kulanu (all of us together) k’echad (as one).

Shanah tovah. To this new year, each of us brings our own hopes, hurts to heal, and things for which we seek release and forgiveness. These are our own individual gateways into Rosh Hashanah. At the same time, the words we just sang evoke more the collective than the individual. We’re each unique, but together we share one Creator. We each sit in our own seats, but we seek blessing together. And the blessing we seek is kulanu k’echad, that all of us together should be as One.

Oneness is the Jewish heartbeat, a call of all spiritual life.  It’s the core of our Shema, Judaism’s heart text: Shema Yisrael (listen, you Godwrestlers), Adonai Eloheinu (our God beyond any name), Adonai Echad (God is One). So when we sing Barcheinu avinu kulanu k’echad, we pray that God whom we call Echad (the One) will bless us k’echad (as One). We’re praying that the One will make Oneness among and within us.

Sometimes awareness of the One infuses us completely. Seeing a sunset or holding a newborn, we may sense how we all belong to the flow of spirit. We may sense what my teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, of blessed memory, said that we’re all naturally inclined to grow toward God. Like a plant growing toward the sun, which we call heliotropic, all of us are theotropic – each inclined to grow toward God in our own ways.

We also are naturally inclined to grow toward each other. That’s what Rosh Hashanah is about: growing toward God and each other. We belong to a community of spirit, and to a time when our choices will shape humanity for generations to come.

From this we learn that the Oneness we call God has two corollaries: belonging and responsibility. We belong to a whole so much greater than ourselves that we can’t opt out if we try, so we’re all responsible to the Oneness and each other. That’s our creed: it’s the Shema, Barcheinu Avinu and the High Holy Days together. It’s why Abraham Joshua Heschel, Judaism’s great 20th century prophet, said that prayer not verified by conduct is blasphemy. After prayer, we must act in the world to verify the holy Oneness among us.

But sometimes we don’t sense holy Oneness: sometimes God seems distant or even absent. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk taught, “Where is God?  Wherever we let God in!” But sometimes it’s hard to let God in: sometimes daily life and hurts we hold inside insidiously prompt us to hold God at bay. We forget the Oneness inside us and among us as a human family. Unmet needs warp our spiritual sixth sense, and suddenly the One we call God can seem very far away.

Shloime climbs Mount Sinai to get close enough to talk to God. Peering into the vast expanse of sky, Shloime calls out, “God, what does a million years mean to You?”

Incredibly, Shloime hears a voice answering him. The Voice says, “To Me, a million years is like a minute.”

Shloime is amazed. He asks another question, “And what does a million dollars mean to You?”

The Voice says, “A million? In your world, maybe a penny.”

Shloime asks, “Can I have a penny?”

The Voice answers, “In a minute.”

Poor Shloime. Heschel taught us to live in a way that verifies our prayer, that verifies the One we call God. But Shloime learned that God intersects our earthly wants and needs sometimes beyond our usual sense of time and space. That’s why talk of Oneness is easier in shul than after a fender bender. It’s why illness and loss can blunt our lived sense of Oneness. And it’s why Oneness becomes the subject of jokes. Ever hear about how the Dalai Lama walked into a pizza shop and said, “Can you make me One with everything?”

But as the Dalai Lama himself said of this joke, it conveys a kernel of truth. The Dalai Lama said just what Reb Zalman said: we are all in it together, and we can’t opt out. Climate change, public health and New York traffic all tell us so. But Oneness sometimes can be so challenging to live that, in emotional and psychological self-defense, we tell jokes of it.

That’s exactly the dilemma our matriarch Sarah faced in today’s Torah reading. After Sarah gave birth to Isaac, Torah records:

וַתֵ֨רֶא שָׂרָ֜ה אֶת־בֶּן־הָגָ֧ר הַמִּצְרִ֛ית אֲשֶׁר־יָלְדָ֥ה לְאַבְרָהָ֖ם מְצַחֵק:

Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian,
whom she had born to Avraham, joking around.

וַתֹ֨אמֶר֙ לְאַבְרָהָ֔ם גָּרֵ֛שׁ הָאָמָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את וְאֶת־בְּנָ֑הּ
כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יִירַשׁ֙ בֶּן־הָאָמָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את עִם־בְּנִ֖י עִם־יִצְחָק:

She said to Abraham: Cast out this maid and her son,
for no way will this maid’s son inherit with my son, with Isaac.

Being in it together with Hagar and her son Yishmael was exactly Sarah’s dilemma.  Isaac’s birth was the birth of the Jewish people, which we celebrate with joy on Rosh Hashanah, a day for spiritual rebirth. Rabbis teach that Sarah reacted to Yishmael taunting Isaac, a mother’s instinct that makes a great deal of sense. In casting away Hagar and Yishmael, Sarah not only sheltered her son against jealousy and hurt, but also ensured the birth of the Jewish people. It made so much sense: with Yishmael out of the picture, Issac could become sole heir, and to Sarah all seemed well.

But fast forward 4,000 years: today the Children of Isaac are Jews, the Children of Yishmael are Muslims, and together they struggle over the same tiny slice of Mideast land. Casting out Hagar and Yishmael made sense in its time, but it was only a temporary fix. Today we are coming to realize how connected we no matter what: we have one common ancestor, one planet and one collective soul. No matter where we go, there we are.

Separation absolutely can be a wise response to trauma, abuse and war – but those are exceptions. In our routine daily lives, when we separate from differences we perceive, if we treat people as Others, then Otherness can ferment into conflict. The story of Hagar and Sarah is a metaphor for not only different peoples but also our own hearts and souls: if we try to cast away parts of ourselves, ultimately it will not work.

What psychologists call fragmentation is Rosh Hashanah in reverse. Today calls us to teshuvah – to return to ourselves and each other. In the words of Ecclesiastes, “Cast your bread on the waters, for you’ll find it after many days” – or, because in Hebrew “bread” and “conflict” share a same root word, we can say, “If you cast your conflict on the waters, you’ll find it after many days.” Casting away is tashlich, our Rosh Hashanah ritual of casting bread on water to symbolize release – but tashlich is most healing when combined with teshuvah, inner return.

Today’s Torah reading hints at that learning, too. After Sarah had Hagar cast to the desert, Torah continues:

 וַיִּכְל֥וּ הַמַּ֖יִם מִן־הַחֵ֑מֶת וַתַשְׁלֵ֣ךְ אֶת־הַיֶּ֔לֶד תַ֖חַת אַחַ֥ד הַשִּׂיחִם:

When the water from the flask was finished,
Hagar tashleich (cast away) the child under one of the bushes. 

Hagar’s form of tashlich sent part of herself away. But God’s angel told Hagar, “Get up!  Lift up the child and take his hand, for I’ll make of him a great nation.”  We can throw bread on the water, but we can’t throw away parts of ourselves. Often what we send away prematurely comes back: even Isaac and Yishmael reunited decades later. Tashlich isn’t magic: what heals is teshuvah, the work of inner return, and tashlich is only a ritual to serve teshuvah.  When we answer that call, the call of inner return, we make our spirits worthy of a great nation.

In April, I attended a convention of 600 spiritual directors, who joined in a practice about how connected we are, how we all belong to the Oneness, how it tugs at us if we forget. I’d like to share that practice now. Being distributed now are lengths of blue thread, one for every two people. It’s blue for the techelet of the tallit (Jewish prayer shawl) so we see and remember the mitzvot (commands that connect us), like a string we tie around a finger. As you receive the blue thread, wind one end securely around your thumb, then find someone without a thread. Stand face to face with your partner, and wind the other end around your partner’s thumb. Shortly I’ll offer six brief statements. For each one that feels true for you, turn slightly to the right; for each one that does not feel true to you, turn slightly to your left.

1. I express all my love and gratitude to others.

2. I quickly make amends if I act wrongly.

3. I heal strained relationships, even if strain isn’t my fault.

4. I actively support my community.

5. I feed the hungry.

6. I limit my carbon footprint to protect the environment.

Many of us now feel threads tugging at us. The threads symbolize our connections: each of us is a strand in the web of life, and what pulls on one strand tugs at the whole. The tug is because we’re connected: if we stray, the Oneness of the web tugs us toward realignment. The blue is a Jewish reminder of our duty to recall our connections and commit to live that way.

We all forget how much we belong to each other, but Rosh Hashanah is our time to remember and return, to re-commit to belonging and living in a way worthy of our creed. So let’s do exactly that: let’s re-commit. I’ll offer a second set of statements, and for each one you agree to make your own this year, turn slightly to your right:

1. This year, I’ll do more to show love and gratitude.

2. This year, I’ll do more to make amends if I act wrongly.

3. This year, I’ll do more to heal strained relationships, even if the strain is not my fault.

4. This year, I’ll do more to support my community.

5. This year, I’ll do more to feed the hungry.

6. This year, I’ll do more to limit my carbon footprint to protect the environment.

Most of us are now facing our partners. Allow yourself to notice the face you’re facing, how its light shines in the eye, how its light attracts your own. This light is or panecha (light of God’s face), the last words of our song. When we’re all kulanu k’echad, together as One, we awaken to the spiritual light we call b’or panecha (in the light of God).

On Rosh Hashanah we say Teshuvah, u’tefilah u’tzedakah ma’avirin: “Returning, prayer and living justly can transform.” That’s the commitment we re-affirm today – to return to the belonging that naturally inclines us to grow toward God and each other, to grow toward living in alignment with Oneness.

On this Rosh Hashanah day, may each of us feel the One gently tugging us back to awareness – to return, heal and live justly. May each of us feel how much we belong, how much we are loved, and how love and just living can transform us.  May the God beyond all names, whom we call the One, bless all of us together as One for a good and sweet new year, whose light shines on our faces b’or panecha, for that is the light of God.

Barcheinu Avinu kulanu k’echad;
Kulanu k’echad b’or panecha.

Bless us all, Creator, Protector, together;
Bless us all forever with radiance and grace.

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