By Rabbi Shohama
It’s good to see you here tonight. Shanah Tovah, may this be a good year.
What do we mean by good? For many Jews, good is another name for God – same spelling, but with an extra “o.” Seeing God as Goodness acknowledges thousands of years of Jewish history that bequeathed us a grand moral vision. But there’s so much more.
Our theme for this year’s cycle of High Holy Days is “Seeking.” As we begin our journey through these 10 days of reflection and transformation, I want to offer a kaleidoscopic of God images – images of a multi-faceted power unseen with the eyes, calling us to seek that which is sacred. The liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur offers us a palette of verbal faces – images of God – that can help us relate to the Divine from deep within ourselves. While the Ten Commandments forbid making of God a graven image, a statue or a picture, there’s no prohibition on making a verbal or even mental image of God that will help us seek the sacred.
Let’s look at examples from our High Holy Day prayer book. The image of God most people most call to mind is Avinu Malkeinu – “our parent, our sovereign.” This face of God is the loving parent, the one who brought us into being, and who makes rules. All life must be born, and all life must die. The natural world has a fixed order: birth and death, sunrise and sunset, gravity and biology. Moral law also has its place. We have an intuitive sense of right and wrong – a built-in conscience to tell us when we miss the mark, or when we live in ways that aren’t healthy and whole. The Jewish mitzvot – literally commandments but also directions that connect us – ask us to live in ways that are most healthy and whole. Those laws seek to connect us with the sacred.
However strong our built-in sense of right and wrong, however much we intuit the call to seek the sacred, we need a supportive community to be at our best. Belonging to the worldwide Jewish people offers us a powerful support system. As humans we’re imperfect; we need a Power greater than ourselves to call us toward seeking our fullest potential. One of the reasons we gather on Holy Days is to support each other in this seeking and personal growth – as individuals, as a Jewish community, and in the family of humanity.
Secondly, our liturgy portrays God as a biographer, who chronicles the days of our lives. We say that on this night the Sefer Chayim (Book of Life) is opened for writing, and at the end of Yom Kippur it is sealed. This is why the blessing we offer each other after Rosh Hashanah is Gmar Chatimah Tovah – may you be sealed for a good year. In the olden days, letters weren’t put in envelopes and licked closed: they were folded and sealed with wax. The Book of Life evokes the image of God writing the kind of year we will have and sealing the book with wax. We pray that the seal that is put on it will bring blessing. Sefer Chayim also suggests a book in which is written everything we ever thought and experienced. Our ancestors knew about books but not film. Today we might imagine a reality TV show of our entire life: God is a videographer and it’s all on tape. Any of us who have had healing body work done know that indeed the story of our lives is written in our bodies.
Our task between now and Yom Kippur is to read highlights of that book of our life – or watch the DVD of our life – and see where we want to make changes. How can what we do these next ten days change the next chapter? What new intentions do we need to set for ourselves? To whom do we need to offer forgiveness? To whom do we need to apologize to give ourselves a fresh start? To God? A relative? A friend? Ourselves? Since we are only human, the most likely answer is all of the above.
Another image of God is the shepherd. Remember the 23rd Psalm that begins, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want”? Adonai ro’i lo echsar. That image of God is a loving and caring protector who sees us for who we truly are and loves us totally. Ro’i means shepherd but the word roi in Hebrew also means “one who sees me.” The shepherd sees the flock for all their gifts and failings, but loves them deeply nonetheless. As much as we say that we seek God, the shepherd seeks the flock – in our imagery, God seeks us.
Even with God’s love, accidents may happen and illnesses may develop. Tomorrow we will hear the signature liturgy of our New Year, the Unetanah Tokef, acknowledging God as judge of the truth of our lives as well as our shepherd. It is said that God watches, counts our deeds, and loves us just as a shepherd watches, counts and loves all the sheep as they pass under the shepherd’s staff. We will acknowledge that the year ahead brings risk as well as opportunities. We will say that teshuvah (repentance), tefilah (prayer) and tzedakah (righteous deeds), can transform the quality of our lives – because they can. We evoke the image of God as shepherd, and God as judge, to rouse us to seeking repentance, prayer and righteous deeds in our lives.
The power of these 10 Days of Awe – from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur – depends on how willing we are to engage with these images – with the music, the words, the emotional sense of things, this community, the whole experience – and use this palette of Divine images to speak to our hearts and souls. That much is up to each of us here tonight, and it takes all of us.
When I was growing up, I gave the synagogue I grew up in a nickname – the “Synagogue of the Potted Plants.” Why potted plants? Because we were expected to sit still for hours, at most moving only our lips. In that congregation only the rabbi and cantor seemed involved.
Not here. Here we invite you to be fully yourself – to bring all your feelings and all your questions, all your seeking and everything else. Here, we hold the core truth that God seeks all that we are. Even as God asks us to seek the holy, the Holy One also seeks us. Seeking is an activity in the active sense: it requires motivation and effort from each person who would be a seeker. I’m reminded of the Hasidic tale that asks, “Where may God be found?” The answer: “Wherever you let God in.”
These ten days, these services, this synagogue, your emotional and spiritual life – all will give back to you what you put into them. From my days as a younger adult, the sermon I remember most clearly was called “No Deposit, No Return.” Rabbi Maurice Davis, of blessed memory, spoke those words decades ago, and they imprinted on my heart. Back then, he was referring to the way we pay a five-cent deposit on bottles we buy, and then we can get our money back when we return the bottles for recycling. Similarly, we need to do something to get something out of synagogue services and all spiritual life.
No deposit, no return: we need to take personal responsibility for seeking in the pages of our prayer book the images that most call us toward seeking … toward being the person we want to become … toward releasing habits, hurts and grudges that no longer serve us or the people we care about … toward becoming free and ready to apologize, heal and change. Rabbis and books alone can’t do that work for us. That’s why this year’s theme is Seeking. Between now and Yom Kippur we are called to seek – to seek God, the places inside that we would change, the ways our relationships and lives can be better.
For our theme, we also chose a theme song to help us deepen into the journey of these days of meaning. This year’s song is about seeking — seeking God’s presence, seeking our Highest Self, seeking forgiveness. The words are from Psalm 27, which King David wrote during a moment of distress. He wrote, “Lach, amar libi, bakshu fanai. Et panayich Havayah avakeish” – or in our English translation, “You, called to my heart, come seek My face; come seek My grace. For Your love, Source of all, I will seek.”
If we all can seek with a questing heart, open to new love and new ways, then truly it will be a Shanah Tovah, a good year, for us all. Please join us.