Rosh Hashanah 5782: Courage Rising

By Rabbi Shohama

L’ Shanah Tovah!

This morning’s theme is omeitz lev.  That means courage of the heart, courage to do what’s hard. My mother of blessed memory would say to me, “Have courage and be brave. It’s natural to be afraid, but have courage and you’ll have the strength to do what is right.” Mother embodied courage. She also embodied anxiety and fear, and passed on all those qualities to me at birth.

The night I was born was during the blackout of World War II. There were no street lights because the country was afraid the German planes would come and bomb our cities. My father was out of town giving a lecture because I came well before my due date, and the taxi driver who drove my mother to the hospital had to navigate in the dark. Mother had much to fear, but I was a much desired child and that gave her strength and hope for the future.

That was my entrance, but during my lifetime, and yours too, I imagine, there have been many fearful times. The polio scare. The Cuban missile crisis. 9/11. COVID. And now the drought and fires on the West coast, the violent hurricanes and unpredictable weather, and the increasing polarization and anger that rocks the globe. Think of the tenuous challenges and fears in our lives, communities and nation that seem never ending — and reading in our machzor “Who will live and who will die” may resonate particularly strongly.

Yet life has rarely been easy or secure. In today’s Torah reading, the founding father of the Jewish people, Abraham, demonstrates this. When he hears God’s command to bring his son Isaac to the altar of sacrifice he is able to access omeitz lev, courage of the heart, and follow God’s direction. Ever since Abraham felt God’s call to leave his birth place, he has faced one challenge after another, and with God’s help, found the courage to come through strong. So when Isaac asks “where is the lamb for the offering?” Abraham answers, “God will see to a lamb for an offering.”

Perhaps at the deepest level Abraham overcomes his fear because he trusts in God’s goodness. Indeed, when at the altar Abraham hears a messenger, an angel from God, saying “do not hurt the lad for now I know you are yirei Elohim.” That means, you have an awesome (or awe-some) connection to God. Abraham then looks up and sees a ram, and knows that God intends the ram, not his son, for a sacrifice.

Why do we read this every year? Perhaps because it reminds us of fears and struggles that we all experience: loss of relationships, loss of health, loss of worldly possessions, even loss of faith. It could be loss of faith in the Divine Presence, God, or in a world that is basically good, that is godly. Although my sense of courage comes from my faith in God’s guidance and love, it interests me that there is only one letter difference between God, and Good. I wonder if they are not in many ways the same.

One of my Alma Maters, Harvard, has hired Greg Epstein as Head Chaplain. Greg calls himself a Jewish Humanist, that is, a Jewish atheist. He believes in helping people discern how to live a meaningful and moral life.  I imagine that some of us here, like Greg, believe in the Good, but not in God. Whether we believe in God or we just believe in the Good, we can appreciate the many things in life that make us smile and give us resilience.

We have the opportunity to come together as a community to strengthen each other, to show that we care about each other, because as the theme of our High Holy Day prayer book states, we are Stronger Together.  Stronger together. Look around you, and look at the faces on our Zoom screen.  This is our community, and our extended community as we welcome friends who may not be members but are linked with some of us through friendship and love.

Together we have entered the Ten Days of Teshuvah, the days of discernment about the purpose and direction of our lives, the days of returning to our essence of Light, also referred to as our Highest Selves. It takes courage to look at ourselves clearly, and face up to our imperfections. Teshuvah, repentance and return, acknowledges that none of us are perfect and gives us an opportunity to change for the better. One of the core mitzvot of these Ten Days is to say to people in our lives, “If I have hurt you in any way, I am sorry. I would like to make amends. Please forgive me.” That takes courage. Some relationships are beyond repair, but we will never know unless we try—three times, our tradition says.

How can we build omeitz lev – courage of the heart? One way is to ask God and our angels to help us. Another way is to realize what is at the core of our fear. As Marianne Williamson, a contemporary spiritual teacher writes in her book, A Return to Love,

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us…
We are all meant to shine, as children do…
And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

I ask, “Are there fears of boundless power that arise for you?” Jewish tradition teaches that it is a moral imperative to help ourselves and others, as well as our country and our mother Earth, whether we do that with Divine help or the help of our spiritual support team–friends, family, and community.  And yet, sometimes it appears that there is no communal support, only God and the longing of one’s heart.

That is how it seems in yesterday’s Haftarah about Chanah, a wife who could not bear children, and dared enter the Holy Temple to pray for a child. She faced down the anger of the Priest, Eli, who accused her of being drunken, because he saw her lips move but didn’t hear her words. She faced the criticism of her husband, who didn’t understand why he wasn’t enough for her and why she so yearned for a child. Chanah had the courage to go for what her heart most wanted. In Jewish history, she is known as the Mother of Prayer, the example of what true prayer is—the expressed yearning of the heart. Yearning for what is deeply desired can give us the strength and courage to overcome our fear.

What is one thing that you deeply yearn for? Bring it into your mind and heart.  Bring it with all your power – all your gevurah.

Even if what we yearn for seems impossible, opening our hearts to that yearning can power our courage – if we want it enough.  Courage alone is no guarantee, even though passion can do a lot – and I fervently believe in the power of prayer and intention.  Once we summon the heart power of our yearning, we can use it and channel it both in the direction of our yearning and elsewhere in the world.  It is our heart power, our fuel, to make change in the world in every way we can.

To help you in this process I’d like to share with you a call and response song called “Spirit Rising” that came to me last winter and is now being used in a number of congregations and prayer groups. I’m going to invite Rabbi David to lead you in the Response part, and in addition, to suggest that you may wish to move your hands and body to feel how energy is rising. In between each verse let’s sit quietly and let the imagery percolate in our bodies.

Spirit Rising

Spirit is rising, rising, rising,
Spirit is rising now.

Spirit is rising in my body,
Spirit is rising in my soul.

Courage is rising, rising, rising,
Courage is rising now.

Courage is rising in my body,
Courage is rising in my soul.

Joy is rising, rising, rising,
Joy is rising now.

Joy is rising in my body,
Joy is rising in my soul.

May it be!

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