Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780/2019 – The Soul of Action: The Risks We Must Take

By Rabbi David

Shanah tovah!  Welcome, all you beautiful souls, to our year 5780 – may it be sweet and full of goodness.

Tonight we come together to reaffirm Jewish life – for community, continuity and comfort.  We come together to make common cause in our world of awesome beauty and, yes, also some tragic brokenness.

In 1776, patriot Thomas Paine wrote his first in a series of essays called The American Crisis that became a clarion call of history.  His words began: “These are the times that try [our] souls.”  Now nearly 250 years later, Thomas Paine’s words seem eerily prescient.

Our planet is warming.  Flames of intolerance and hate are igniting all around.  Anti-Semitism is burning hotter than at any time since the Holocaust.  Scorched-earth politics are overheating nations worldwide.  These are times that try our souls.

Ours is a reality-based synagogue.  We don’t shut out realities of the world any more than we shut out people.  “Come, come, whoever you are.”  We’re not here to escape or lament reality but to transform it.  “Ours isn’t a caravan of despair.”

Because ours is a reality-based synagogue, it’s incumbent on us to say that this Rosh Hashanah marks not only great potential to renew the soul, but also great peril for every soul on Earth.  These are not ordinary times.  These are times that try our souls.  We must say it, and we must act with urgency.  Thoughts and prayers aren’t enough.

Action means seizing the opportunity for redemption that these hot times offer.  Yes, redemption.  The heat now scorching our society, our politics and our planet also can purify our souls and rouse us to act.  In Jewish terms, that’s the path of redemption.  Spiritual author Isabel Allende put it this way: “We all have an unsuspected reserve of strength inside that emerges when life puts us to the test.”

That’s why this moment calls us into a journey of the soul.  And that’s why this journey of the soul is our theme for these High Holy Days.

From this Erev Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, together we’ll refine and rouse the power of soul to redeem our soul-trying times.  And along the way, we’ll ask some questions.  What is the journey of the soul?  How can this journey harness the heat of these days into a light that can transform the darkness of the world?  How can we tap our “unsuspected reserve of strength inside” to act as these times demand?

And what will we risk for it – as people, consumers, Jews, citizens and spirits traversing the wheel of life?  What will we risk to change our ways, improve our lives and redeem the world?

These are our questions, and people worldwide are asking them with new fervor.  There’s hope in that.  These questions also touch the core of who we are as people, who we are as a people, and what life on Earth will be for people who follow after us.  There’s hope in that, too.

We start our soul journey by getting real about “soul.”  Ask yourself what that word means to you.  Maybe “soul” means spiritual.  Maybe “soul” is our essential core, the best part of us, the most real part of us, a part of us always pure no matter what, a light forever shining, that never dies, our link to God – or maybe something else entirely.  For some of us, maybe the word “soul” evokes a yearning for a “more” we can’t quite describe.  Maybe the word “soul” evokes resistance: maybe it doesn’t quite fit our beliefs or experience.  Maybe it means nothing at all.

All these ideas for just one English word!  But in Hebrew, “soul” isn’t just one word.  Like Arctic peoples having many words for snow, Judaism has many words for soul, each with its own sphere and quality.

Jewish mysticism envisions five spheres of soul.  Our journey of this season of soul will traverse all of them.  We’ll explore them, refine them, and tap them to lift us into living lives of ever greater meaning and holiness – like climbing a ladder that can lift us higher and higher.

Tradition calls these five soul spheres nefesh, ruach, neshamah, chayah and yechida.  They roughly correlate to action, emotion, thought, essence and transcendence.  They inter-are: we live by all five together in body, heart, mind, lifespark and beyond.  We need all five to fully live.

In that spirit, our five main High Holy Day services will lift through these five soul spheres – harnessing, purifying and dedicating each one to the call of this season and the world’s urgent needs of this hour.

We begin now, this Erev Rosh Hashanah, where we are in this world.  Just as a ladder must stand firmly on the ground, we begin with the soul of our world we live in, the sphere of embodied action.  Yes, this world of action has a soul: the Hebrew name for action-soul is nefesh.

The word nefesh is familiar to many but – like the soul itself – often hides in plain sight.  We invoke nefesh each time we offer V’ahavta, from Deuteronomy 6: ואהבת את יהו”ה אלהיך (“Love YHVH your God”) בכל לבבך (“with all your heart”) ובכל נפשך (“and with all your nefesh“) ובכל מאדך (“and with all your might”).  In English we usually translate בכל נפשך as “with all your soul,” but more meaningfully as “with all your action-soul.”

“With all your action-soul.”  Take that in.  We are to love God with all our actions – and “with all our heart and all our might.”  We are to love God by our every action in the world.  We learn upfront that the Jewish journey of the soul ultimately is – and must be – a path of action.

We also learn that the world exists precisely for this path of action.  In Torah’s account of Creation, whose anniversary we celebrate on this Erev Rosh Hashanah, Genesis 2 proclaims: כי בו שבת מכל מלאכתו (“For at [its completion, God] ceased from [God’s] work”) אשר ברא אלהים (“by which God created”) – לעשות (“doing”).  The sphere of action was the culmination of Creation.  Action is the whole point.

That’s why we exist.  Just four verses later, Torah proclaims of Creation that humanity would exist for the sake of action in the world. Again, from Genesis 2:

וַיִיצֶר יהו”ה אֱלֹהִים
אֶת הָאָדָם

“God imagined humanity into being”

עָפָר מִן הָאֲדָמָה

“[From] dust of the ground”

וַיִפַּח בְּאַפָּיו
נִשְׁמַת חַיִים

“God breathed into [us] ruach, neshamah and chayah
– other soul spheres we’ll get to later

וַיְהִי הָאָדָם לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָה

“Humanity became living nefesh“: action-soul.

Then, Torah says, we were placed in the Garden for a reason – a particular kind of action: לעבדה ולשמרה (“to tend it and to keep it”).  The point of Creation, the spiritual reason we exist, is nefesh – holy action in the world.

That’s why our first soul sphere is action.  Erev Rosh Hashanah calls us into our soul journey of nefesh, holy action in our world that once was a garden and still can be again.

One implication is that we exist to be tenders and keepers of this world.  Our High Holy Day paths of teshuvahforgiving and repairing – come with action verbs: we do teshuvah; we make teshuvahIt’s not enough to think and feel.  We activate teshuvah by concrete action.

If so, then all our holy words and sacred intentions – and all that we say and experience in shul – they don’t mean a thing if we don’t do our thing.  The call of the soul is a call to action.  Teshuvah requires us to act – to extend ourselves actively, not theoretically but rather boldly, in contexts and relationships that need healing.  Will we actually do what it takes?  Will we go to people we wronged if it’s possible?  Will we make actual changes in our lives?  Will we answer this urgent call to action?

A second implication is that anyone who de-links spirituality from “real world” action is peddling a fallacy, and a dangerous fallacy at that.  Our world is broken exactly because too many humans de-linked our inside spirituality from outside action.  Nefesh unifies them: there is no separation, no outside or inside.  The tendency to disconnect inside from outside is why our world that once was a garden now is in peril.

Earlier this month, Greta Thunberg arrived in New York from Sweden, by boat – a weeks-long journey rather than the six airplane hours that would have burned oil into greenhouse gasses.  Greta is a 16-year-old climate prophet chiding the world that these are not ordinary times.  These are times that try our souls.  Our planet Earth faces a climate emergency: there is no Planet B.  Our house is burning.

Before she left for New York, Greta told European leaders: “It’s difficult to pull the emergency brake” on modern routines, but a global awakening is urgently needed now so that we can act before it’s too late.

On September 20, Greta joined a quarter million New Yorkers, many of them children, on this country’s first-ever climate strike.  Millions worldwide joined them.  What they meant was this: Act!  Act now!  The world demands action!  The action-soul of nefesh demands action!

So why don’t we act?  We say we’re environmentally aware, so why don’t our words yield the full measure of the action that these times require?  And while we’re at it, why do we keep falling back into old habits?  Why do we sit here on this Erev Rosh Hashanah with many of the same habits, hurts, grudges and yearnings we sat with last year?

One key answer is risk.  Action entails risk.  Change requires risk.  We humans tend to avoid risk.  We tend to play it safe because we are sane: most of us don’t jump out of airplanes or run into burning buildings.  The human brain evolved a background program always calculating and minimizing risk.  That’s how our Cro-Magnon ancestors didn’t all become a predator’s lunch.  To this day, we naturally seek to avoid pain and loss, so we shape our lives and behaviors to minimize those risks.

Risk is why we don’t act.  If we transform our carbon economy, we risk having less stuff at higher prices.  If we call the climate crisis what it is, we risk having to radically change or be hypocrites.  If we approach people we’ve hurt, we risk being rebuffed.  If we release our grudges, we risk losing our righteous indignation.  If we let people touch us, we risk being disappointed.  If we open to our souls, we risk feeling at all.

Why don’t we act?  Because we’re afraid to take the risk.

But our true journey of the soul demands risk.  The first concern of spiritual life isn’t avoiding risk.  Rather, the first concern of spiritual life is that some things are worth the risk.  That’s the spiritual audacity, the spiritual chutzpah, for which the best of Judaism and best of the modern State of Israel stand.  The soul sphere of nefesh rouses us to act by prodding us when the status quo is too intolerable not to act.

It should be intolerable that our planet is overheating.  It should be intolerable that our politics are overheating.  It should be intolerable that hate is spreading.  It should be intolerable that repairable relationships remain broken.  It should be intolerable when we feel distant from lives of meaning, integrity and impact.  It should be intolerable that risk would keep us from making urgently needed repairs in our lives and in the world.

Why do we tolerate the intolerable?  We tell ourselves it can wait, it’s not urgent, it’s not so bad, we’re too small to change it.  Maybe we tell ourselves that we deserve it.  We shy away from action because we learned to hold ourselves too tight and too small.  And paradoxically, at the same time, we tend to hold ourselves as if we ourselves are the center of the world – and partly we are.  Self-care is healthy and necessary.  Some situations, and even some people, really are to be avoided for the sake of safety and sanity.

But we alone are not the center of the world.  The Enlightenment era of individual liberty that Thomas Payne tapped back in 1776, taught us this lesson too well.  We learned that each of us has “certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.”  Western society evolved to teach that self actualization – my need, my want, my joy – is a pinnacle of human aspiration and a fount of liberal spirituality, religion that comforts and invites but does not demand.

But while Western individualism drives many social advances and keeps urging inclusion, equality and justice for all, it also casts a shadow that is very dark today.  Unbalanced individualism is breaking the world.  Unbalanced individualism imperils the garden for us and all who follow us.  Unbalanced individualism is a straitjacket binding us to fear of risk.

That’s why the fundamental calling of our time is that we – each of us, and all of us together – must evolve past the ethic of “my life belongs to me” to a more balanced “my life does not belong only to me.”  After all, ultimately we share only one climate, one justice system and one economy – even if we delude ourselves into believing otherwise.

Nefesh tells us that we are more than just for ourselves.  “If I am only for myself,” Rabbi Hillel famously said, “what am I?”  What are we?  We are the world’s tenders and keepers.  We exist to act in the world.  We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.  Yes, sometimes we must run into burning buildings – as so many 9/11 responders showed the world literally in view of this building.  Our world is burning now.  Our lives do not belong only to us.  Our cherished individuality does not free us to turn away.

This is the key teaching of our nefesh action-soul: our lives are more than just ours alone.  When we deeply get that our lives belong only partly to us, our risk calculus will change instantly.  Life-repairing actions that seemed risky or impossible will flow through us.  Societal changes that seemed risky or impossible will flow through us.

This is the turn, the teshuvah we must make this Rosh Hashanah.  If we fully inhabit our action-souls, the rest can follow.  From the depths of our souls, we must commit to action as if the whole future depends on it, because it does.  Commit now.  What actions will you take to repair a relationship – for real?  What actions will you take to heal the planet – for real?  What actions will you take to cool what burns in your life?

Nice words, you say, but what about risk?  Yes, action is risky.  We might get burned.  It might hurt.  But nefesh says inaction is intolerable.

And that is why a spiritual life that risks nothing is nothing.  I say it again: a spiritual life that risks nothing is nothing.  Ours is a reality-based synagogue, so while we all come here seeking love and care, comfort and connection, nourishment and nurturing, we also must be real – and real spirituality acts.  Real spirituality is not theoretical.  Real spirituality does not avoid the risks of acting our values into fruition in the world.

That is why we begin tonight with the soul sphere of action.  Our nefesh calls us to risk, to dare and to act.  It will take spiritual daring to breach our inner wall.  It will take spiritual daring to do teshuvah in those parts of our lives that need it.  It will take spiritual daring to heal our world.  But if we let our souls rouse us, we can claim the life-transforming meaning and pride that Jewish spiritual tradition offers us.  From this firm ground of action, we can lift into our other soul spheres of emotion, thought, lifespark and transcendence.  Then next year might be different.

May this year be the turning point, the teshuvah.  May this moment be when the nefesh of our action-soul rouses us out of our straitjackets of fear, when we leap to renew our lives action by action.  May our soul journey together be for hope to sweeten all despair.  And may our holy actions in the world ring in a new year of sweet goodness: shanah tovah.

Come, come, whoever you are:
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.

בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה,
נָע וָנָד, מִתְּפַּלֵל, אוֹהֵב לָצֵאת.

Come, come, whoever you are:
Ours isn’t a caravan of despair.

בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:
אִין זוּ שַׁיָירַת יֵיאוּשָׁה.

Turn, turn, wherever you are:
Awaken, enlighten, renew your spirit.

שׁוֻב, שׁוֻב, הֵיכָן שֶׁאַתָּה,
מִתְּעוֹרֵר מִתְּעֲלֶה, חַדֵּשׁ אֶת נָפְשְׁךָ.

Turn, turn, wherever you are:
Ours isn’t a universe past repair.

שׁוֻב, שׁוֻב, הֵיכָן שֶׁאַתָּה:
עוֹד יָכוֹלִים לְתָּקֵן הָעוֹלָם.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve broken your vows
a thousand times before –

מַה נִשְׁתַּנָה שֶׁנִשְׁבְּרוּ נְדָרִים
אֶלֶף פַּעֲמַיִם לִפְנֵי כֵן,

And yet again, come again, come,
And yet again: come.

עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב, בּוֹא שׁוֻב, בּוֹא.
עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב: בּוֹא.

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