Rosh Hashanah 5775/2014: Longing to Belong – Our Soul, Our Self

By Rabbi Shohama

Shanah tovah—it is so good to be with all of you on this evening that is so momentous. This evening is the beginning of our Jewish New Year, the holiday we hear the sounding of the shofar that calls us to do teshuvah, to return to our connection to our highest self, and with the Divine.

This year our theme for the Holy Days is “Belonging.” So let me begin with a story about belongings.

Once there was a guy named Joseph who, like many of us, with a little bit of age was becoming more forgetful. He was tired of spending so much time looking for his things. So he decided to lay out everything he needed for the coming day the night before, and to put everything in one place. He decided on his bedroom chair. On this chair he put his undergarments, his slacks, his shirt, his jacket, his wallet and his keys.

When he awoke the next morning, he went to the chair where he had laid out all his belongings he needed for the day. First he put on his undergarments. Then he put on his slacks. Next he put on his shirt. After that he put on his jacket. Lastly he took his wallet and keys and put them in his pockets.

“Ah, I have done well,” said Joseph. “My memory isn’t so bad. I have found all my belongings.” Then he paused. “But where am I?”

“Where am I?” is an essential question we ask ourselves on Rosh Hashanah. You see, the “I” is not found in any visible belonging—any article of clothing, or in any “thing.” The core self, including the soul, is hidden from sight.

We might locate it by asking a basic question. I’ll pause briefly after I ask it to allow you to see what arises first. The question is this. How can I imagine living my life in a more vibrant way? In other words, what’s missing?

This is the path of teshuvah – to find the parts of our selves that belong together and return them to make ourselves more whole. That is what these High Holy Days are about—turning inward and returning to become more whole.

During these days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we’ll look at ourselves from different aspects of spiritual belonging – belonging within, belonging as a group, and belonging to the experience of holiness which many call God.  Tonight we begin with our selves.

Most of us are aware of our bodies, our forms. We feel them every day, creaks and all. We notice our feelings, what our heart is telling us. Our thoughts are almost always with us; we notice what runs through our minds. But what about our spirits, our souls?

A number of years ago I was asked to write an article for a book on spiritual counseling, most often called spiritual direction. The topic I was given was to write about Spiritual Types. I called it “One size doesn’t fit all.”

Jewish mystics going back thousands of years realized that there were four basic ways of connecting to spirit, and people have different strengths in the way or ways they connect. They parallel the realms of form, of feeling, and of thinking. In each and every realm – body, emotion, mind – there is an opportunity to connect to Spirit.

For example, we can connect spiritually with our bodily actions, with lighting candles to enlighten our moment, attending a wedding to bring blessing to our family or friends, or participating in a cleanup event for the earth—these are things we can do.

We can connect spiritually through our hearts and feelings – smiling at one another, or singing or playing music to arouse the heart to love, and to become one with the vibrations of our activity.

We can connect spiritually through our thoughts – studying sacred texts, pondering the nature of existence, or how we could be a kinder person. The landscape of our mind is only as beautiful as the thoughts we dwell on. Let us choose to bring ourselves back to a beautiful dwelling place again and again.

Lastly we can connect spiritually by connecting to the Divine world beyond thought or action, as when we experience a peak moment or even a lasting experience of awe or transcendence. Then we are in the realm of Being. Then we are directly in touch with our soul.

Each of us likely has a core spiritual strength in one or two of those realms. We can grow by delving into our areas of enthusiasm and we can stretch ourselves by experiencing that which is most challenging. Both are important, as a full spiritual life is supported by experience in all four arenas.

Many of us have struggled with Jewish beliefs and traditions because we haven’t been taught how to experience them in all four realms. This is particularly true when it comes to “belief” in God. My great teacher of blessed memory, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, often said that the best way to know God is not through belief but through experience. So with my mind, I can doubt that there is a God who listens to prayer. But with my heart, when I talk to God, I feel a great sense of love. With my body, I can feel the force – and the Source – of life.

None of us is in perfect balance. Rosh Hashanah is a time to focus on where we need to recalibrate. Let us encourage each other to find the missing pieces of our lives that will make us feel whole. When we feel whole, it is natural to act in ways that are holy. 

To help us focus on wholeness, holiness, and belonging, our theme song this year is Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s musical version of the prayer Barcheinu Avinu – Barcheinu Avinu kulanu k’echad, kulanu k’echad, b’or panecha.  Literally, these words mean “bless us our Father, all of us as one, with the light of your face.” However, a more poetic and contemporary interpretation would be this:

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

 There are different ways of interpreting these words. The most obvious one, of course, is to see this as asking for blessing as a people. All of us, together, as one people. But tonight we looked at the self and the different ways our souls manifest.

As we sing this song, let us focus on asking for blessing for all the pieces of our selves, that all our parts will fit together, belong together, in a unified whole.

If we can do that, this year will truly feel like a Shanah Tovah. May it be so!

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