Sign In Forgot Password

Rosh Hashana II 5783           September 27, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

You Came Back!!!  L’shana Tova – May we all have a Good New Year

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi – usually called Reb Zalman, died in 2014. I was aware of his work as a mystic and teacher. I knew he was trained as a Lubavitch Rabbi but left Chabad in the 1960’s to pursue his own spiritual/mystical/experimental path. There were Jews who followed him closely and were devoted to his teachings; I was not one of them. Most of his work had little interest for me. And yet, the second book he wrote, “The First Step: A Guide For The New Jewish Spirit” is on my bookshelf; it has been there since 1983, the year of my ordination from the seminary. And while the book has become dated over time, there is one story that has always stayed with me. 

When Reb Zalman was visiting Calgary, Canada, he participated in a symposium on mysticism with several mystics from other faiths. The hotel was set between the wide-open Canadian plains in the east and the Canadian Rockies in the west. On the first morning there, Reb Zalman gathered his tallit and tefillin, and, since it was Elul, took a shofar with him and found a spot on the roof of the hotel, facing the sunrise in the east. 

A few minutes into his prayer, he heard the door to the roof open again. Brother Rufus Goodstriker, a medicine man from the Blood First Nations Reservation also came out on the roof to greet the dawn. He took out a prayer blanket, lit a small charcoal fire, lit some incense, and made a burnt offering of a pinch of meal or flour. He then raised his arms into the air, rocked back and forth and started to pray in a language unfamiliar to Reb Zalman. At the end of his prayers, he blew a whistle.

Reb Zalman finished his prayers, blew the shofar, put away tefillin and tallit and noticed that Brother Rufus was also finished. Brother Rufus came over and in a gentle and direct way he asked, “May I please see your instruments? If I were home, I would have had a sweat lodge this morning to be ritually clean before I touch them but today all I could do was shower. Would that be all right?”

Zalman unwrapped his things and showed them to Brother Rufus. He looked at the tefillin, “Ah, rawhide” he said, and noticed that they were sewn together with gut, not thread. He noted the power of the animal gut rather than cotton or nylon. He examined the knots of the tefillin and said with respect, “noble knots.” He shook them and asked what was inside. I told him that inside was parchment with God’s name and assorted bible verses. Brother Rufus nodded, he understood my instruments and my prayers. 

He then looked at my colorful tallit. He loved the colors and they bore some resemblance to the colors of his prayer blanket. He looked at the knots of the fringes and asked, “What is the message of these?” He understood that they were not random but deliberate. He then looked at the Shofar. He commented, “Ram’s horn. We use a whistle made from an eagle’s bone. Can I blow it?” He blew a few notes, and simply said, “Of course, it is much better than cow.”

Reb Zalman thought, “Better for what?” but Brother Rufus was a medicine man. He knew that you blow animal bones to blow the demons away, to clear the air, to connect with God, to bring about change, to say to the sleeping soul, “Wake Up! Pay Attention!” At every step, Brother Rufus asked the right questions. He was in tune with religious artifacts. He, coming from a different world, saw my religious objects as not so different from his own and he affirmed each one. His response reminded Reb Zalman of the common elements in every religion as Nachman of Bratzlav once said, “The holy spirit shouts forth from the tales of the gentiles too.” Zalman added, “While there are differences between Jewish and non-Jewish approaches to mysticism in specific methods, observances, and ritual, there are no differences in the impact of the experiences themselves. When it comes to what I call the “heart stuff” all approaches overlap.

All of these special holidays at this time of year are about the “heart stuff.” Prayer, this Machzor, even our Torah study, all of this is designed to pierce our hearts and to help us see beyond the physical world that we live in at every other time of the year. All of us who are here on the second day of Rosh Hashana understand this very well. We are ready to drill down deep in our hearts to find that “Pintele Yid” that spark of what it means to be a Jew. The spark that connects all of us, the flame of God that burns in every Jewish heart. 

Why do we do this? Because it can really make a difference in the world. It gives our lives meaning and it makes all that we do worthwhile. These prayers, this music, this poetry are the tools we need to crack open our hearts. I can’t open your heart for you. We all need to do that work ourselves. But we can learn together how we can use the tools we have to make change happen in our lives and in the structure of the world. Since those of us who are here on a second day have a deeper commitment to this work, let us learn together how we can work together to awaken our sleeping souls. 

Chapter One: Mah Tovu: How lovely are your dwellings, people of Jacob; your sanctuaries people of Israel. As for me God, Your great love inspires me to enter your house, to worship in your holy sanctuary, filled with awe for you. God, I love Your house, the place where your glory dwells. Before my maker I humbly bow in worship. May this be an auspicious time, God, for my prayer. God, in your abundant mercy, answer me with your faithful deliverance.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, in his book, Invisible Lines of Connection writes, “Reverence before heaven, Amazing Grace. It is a way of understanding your place within Creation. It means that you see yourself as part of some greater organism, that the presence of something very holy (which some call God) permeates and unifies all being. It means that you play a sacred role in Creations’ unfolding. And that, when viewed from a point of high enough vantage, everything is revealed to be in the hands of God, as in the Yiddish saying, Alle ist Gott, “It’s all God.” … But hearing about it made me wonder: Where would you go to get reverence before heaven anyway? You can’t buy it by the pound, but how do you acquire it? And when you have it, how do you know? And once you know, what do you do?

From the minute we enter this room to pray, while standing in the doorway, we recite Mah Tovu. It is a very personal prayer and yet it is the very first prayer that binds us to each other. It is written in the first person, but when we sit down, we know that everyone has been touched by its words. 

First of all, it connects us to ourselves. Why are we here? What will we do here? How will we know if we are successful in our prayer? It is only God’s grace that may bring us an answer to our prayers. Mah Tovu is a meditation. The words are spoken but they are spoken by our heart. We want to mean these words. We want to open ourselves to these words. We want to be close to God, invited into God’s own home, so we can reveal to God, as one reveals to a close friend, the contents of our heart. This is the path of Teshuva, to open our hearts to God so God can direct us to the place we need to be.

And yet we sit in a room surrounded by other Jews who want the same thing, to be on intimate terms with God. We are not alone in God’s house; we are with our community. We are with friends. We are with people who share our love of God with each other. This is our prayer, this is our tefilla. We are together not to strengthen our egos but to melt them away as we raise our voices together. We are not pushing each other aside to get to the front; we stand shoulder to shoulder, with arms around each shoulder, each heart beating as one heart, looking for strength and life from God. 

Together we face the Divine. Awesome and Holy, maybe a bit frightening. What will happen when we make our audacious plea for a good year? Will there be a wall that will separate us from God? Will God demand some proof that we are serious in our quest? How can we show the Creator of the Universe that we are sincere?

There is a story of a couple who are given a choice. They can have wealth and riches now but have to give it all back in ten years or have the riches for the last ten years of their lives. Without a moment hesitation, they take the riches now. The first thing they buy is a ledger, a book for accounting. And they start to share what they have with others. Each contribution becomes a line in the ledger. They are known for their wealth but also known for their generosity. After ten years the angel comes to get all the money back. The woman hands the angel the ledger, or rather the ledgers, for their charity has filled many books. She says, “Tell God that if he can find a better caretaker for God’s money, God can have it all back.” The angel knows that there are no better keepers of God’s wealth, so they are blessed to continue sharing their wealth with others. 

Tzedaka, Hesed, Ohev HaBriyut: charity, kindness, and love of our fellow creatures, it is our actions that are the symbol of our sincerity. How can God not enter a heart that is so open and so generous with others? 

Teshuva, Tefilla and Tzedaka are the currency that breaks down the barriers between God and us human beings. As we stand in the doorway and recite Mah Tovu, we leave the secular world, the physical world behind and enter a space which requires a very different currency.

Chapter Two: Ki Mitzion Taystay Torah – From Zion will come forth the Torah, and the word of God from Jerusalem

My teacher, the late Rabbi Neil Gillman, in his book, Traces of God: Seeing God in Torah, History and Everyday Life, writes, “Wouldn’t we all want to have decisive, irrefutable proof that God exists?” He recalls the story of the prophet Elijah on Mt. Carmel where he challenges 400 prophets of Baal to prove the existence of their god. The real test is for the people of Israel who can’t seem to make up their mind if the God of Israel or Baal is the real God. The 400 prophets spend an entire day pleading with Baal to set on fire a sacrifice they have prepared. Nothing happens. Then at the end of the day, it is Elijah’s turn. He takes his sacrifice, soaks it in water and prays, “Answer me God, so these people will know you are God.” Then a fire descends from Heaven and consumes the sacrifice, the water, and the stones of the alter. And the people bow in awe and say, “The Lord alone is God” (That is what we will say seven times at the end of Yom Kippur).

Gillman then quotes the eminent Jewish theologian and philosopher Emil Fackenheim who asks, “What would Elijah have done if God had not answered his call, if the fire consumed the sacrifice to Baal?” Fackenheim insists that even if the test was a failure, Elijah would not have converted to the worship of Baal. Rabbi Gillman adds: “To use a contemporary label, Elijah was an existentialist. His faith was an act of absolute trust, a ‘leap’ into the unknown, not subject to proof or disproof. As for the people? They seem to have been convinced for the moment, but as we know they quickly forgot, or ignored, or denied what their eyes had seen and returned to idolatry. Was this Elijah’s ‘failure’? Probably not for I doubt whether a miracle of comparable magnitude would be any more effective today. God is simply not subject to ‘scientific’ proofs of this kind. We are inherently skeptical of the miraculous. We have been weaned on the scientific temper that demands a different quality of proof before we commit ourselves to a truth. … What does matter is where we choose to cast our lot. Our choice is not God or Baal, but God or one of the many idols such as fame, wealth, or our nation, or substitute gods that we use to lend coherence to our lives.”

I have a sign in my office that says, “I don’t believe in miracles, I only rely on them.” A few weeks ago, I noted in my sermon, that miracles come easy, the hard part is after the miracle. It is almost as if God is challenging us to see the miracle as proof of the existence of God. The reality is, though, when it comes to God and miracles, most people only say, “What has God done for me lately?” 

For most people, prayer is mostly transactional. If God wants me to do something, then what is God going to do for me? Or as they say, “There are no atheists in the foxholes” “please God, get me out of this trouble quick, I will do ANYTHING, just please help me now.” I think that this is one of the reasons religions gets a bad rap. Someone prays to God for help. God doesn’t answer and doesn’t help, therefore there is no God and there is no point in praying. Where was God during the Crusades? Where was God during the pogroms? Where was God during the Holocaust? It is all classic Jewish apostacy, “There is no justice and there is no Judge.”

So just why exactly are we here? We pray for life in the new year, but will God answer our prayer? Some of us know people who are today near death. Will God give them life in the new year? The early Hasidim put most of life down to fate. On this day it is decided how long we will live, if we will have enough money to live on, how we will die. We read the list in the prayer Untane Tokef, the list of the dreadful things that can happen to us and to the ones we love. It is a long and terrifying list. We ask God to spare us these calamities and when they strike us or those we care about, we ask, “God, why are you doing this to me?” 

Do you want to know why God does bad things to good people? 

I have no idea. 

Who are we to determine who are good people who deserve good and who are bad people who deserve bad? We can only make the same leap of faith that Elijah made. Whatever God sends our way, we will not give up our faith. We can hear God’s voice through the words of Torah. As Chancellor Louis Finkelstein said, “When I pray, I talk to God and when I study, God talks to me.”

Judaism is not just one season, like Star Trek or Game of Thrones. We don’t just have four episodes or ten episodes and then get a cliff hanger so we will look forward to the next season to see how everything works out. Today is just a part of a lifelong commitment. (Who does THAT anymore). I don’t want to die any more than anyone else. But I spend too much time in cemeteries to have any illusions about life and death. Every day is a blessing. Every moment is an opportunity to do some good or to study some Torah. Study and prayer, that is how we have a conversation with God. 

Chapter Three: At the end of Kol Nidre next week, we will read, “Vayomar H’ salachti Kidvarecha – God replies, ‘I have forgiven you as you have asked.’

Spoiler Alert: From the moment we begin Yom Kippur, we know how it will end. God WILL forgive us. Why spend a day in prayer if we already know from the beginning what happens in the end? So, is God answering our prayers or not?

The great Hasidic master, the Sefat Emet writes: “Moses our teacher [offers a] prayer to enter the land [of Israel] and it was not answered [in the affirmative]. It seems that this [unanswered prayer] was to elevate all the prayers of the children of Israel that cannot rise up [on their own]. All of these ineffective prayers have a tikkun (are repaired) and elevated through this prayer [of Moses]. This is characteristic of Moses, who gave his soul for the children of Israel. And his very request to go up to the Land of Israel was also for the good of [the children of] Israel, because he knew that if he did not go up with them, they would lose their way thereafter. Therefore, this prayer was helpful to the children of Israel, even though the [specific] request [to enter the land] was not heeded. The prayer was not for nothing, God forbid.”

We want God to answer our prayers and God will not even listen to Moses, God’s BFF?

This is a case of Matnat Chen -and undeserved gift. My teacher Rabbi Dr. Erin Leib Smokler describes it this way: “This grand anti-climax of Moses’ life–the public recapitulation of his greatest disappointment–was actually a parting gift to his people. He offered them his own failure. He modeled for them the truth that our greatest dreams are sometimes left unfulfilled; our deepest prayers are sometimes left unanswered. The best we can hope for is a little bit of grace (chen). Moses “elevated…the prayers that cannot rise [up on their own]” not by magically bringing them before God for response, but by elevating the very experience of unmet yearnings. That too is prayer, he teaches. Those pleas are “not for nothing.” They join together with a deep, long, and noble history of unrealized aspiration. Prayer, defined like this, is far from petition. It is an exercise in creating intimacy without expectations; finding a way to have a relationship with the holy that is full of trust, and yet is devoid of tit-for-tat manipulations or a sense of entitlement. Perhaps prayer is about letting go of the all-too-human wish to control the Divine through this or that action, this or that formulation, and instead is about opening up to a world of matanot chinam, unmerited gifts. And also, to the reality that sometimes, even for the most worthy among us, the gifts don’t come.”

When God does not answer a prayer, do we give up praying? No, it is an opportunity to experience a deeper intimacy. When someone we love refuses a request, do we turn around and start to hate him or her? No, the love and intimacy remain untouched. And sometimes, not often but sometimes, our beloved gives us a gift that fulfills our dream. Not because we asked, but only because of the love we share. It is a matnat chen, and unmerited gift. 

Moses is saying here, “I know I don’t deserve to enter the Holy Land. I know I have sinned. I know you have told me I will not enter the land. But if you are God, really God, can’t you just please … please? 

Rabbi Myrim Klotz from the Institute of Jewish Spirituality writes: “This week’s teaching is an invitation to practice a “sober spirituality” in which petitions unanswered in the ways we hoped for, transmute into a different relationship with the Infinite Holy One that is not about tit-for-tat, transactional gifts given and received. Part of a maturing prayer life is one in which “prayer…is far from petition. It is an exercise in creating intimacy without expectations... Perhaps prayer is about letting go of the all-too-human wish to control the Divine through this or that action, this or that formulation.”

With or without expectations of answers or proof, can we love God anyway?

Chapter Four: Hu Yaanenu- May the God who answered Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca Jacob, Leah, Rachel, Joseph, the Hebrew Midwives, Yocheved, The People of Israel, Moses, Miriam, Aaron, Pinchus, the Daughters of Zelefchod, and who answered all the righteous, decent, upright, and compassionate people, may God answer us. 

Noah ben Shea, in his classic book, Jacob the Baker, has the people of a town discover that an unassuming baker is, in fact, a philosopher, theologian and advisor. In between selling his breads and cakes, he dispenses advice to those who come and ask. In a chapter called, “Hear O Israel, he writes, “Throughout the day, long lines stretched into the bakery, hoping to make contact with Jacob. Jacob, for his part, didn’t seem sure what to make of this attention. In fact, he didn’t seem interested in making anything of it. … A man, whose facial muscles jumped as he spoke, pushed toward Jacob and in a nervous half-whisper said; “Jacob! I keep hearing a voice calling out my name.” … “But why does this make you uncomfortable?” asked Jacob. “Because it is my voice,” said the man. … Jacob took the man’s hands and pressed them between his own. “We should only be frightened when we cannot hear ourselves. Often, we create our own deafness and then grow so familiar with our deafness that the thought of hearing becomes frightening.”

Rabbi Bert Visotsky was a consultant on the animated movie, “Prince of Egypt” and he told us of a discussion about whose voice would be used for God at the burning bush. After much discussion, it was decided that the same actor who voiced the part of Moses would also give voice to God. Moses would hear his own voice at the burning bush. 

The artists and poets of our Machzor have written these prayers in our own voice. What makes them stir our souls so deeply is that we hear ourselves in these words.

“Dear God, I am afraid to die.” Dear God please heal my sickness. Dear God, I am so worried about my children. Dear God, what will happen to me and my family if we run out of money? Dear God, what will happen if I can’t walk anymore? Dear God, please don’t let them put me on life support. Dear God, please let me find some happiness. Dear God, please let my children find some happiness. Dear God please forgive my sin. Nobody knows what I have done, but I know, and I need your forgiveness. Dear God, what will happen if I break my promise? Dear God, don’t let me lose the love of those I care about. 

Dear God, I love you so much, please don’t forget me.

When we strip away all the ego, the false faces, the fake smile, the feigned bravado, we are all the same. Our education no longer matters, our wealth no longer matters, our possessions no longer matter. When we strip it all away, what is left is the very essence of who we are. We forget to hear this voice on most days. The Machzor will not let us forget it today. The shofar calls us. Avinu Malkenu, Our Father, our King, forgive our mistakes, heal us, even if we are unworthy. Zochraynu L’chiam, Remember us for life. 

Today we have drilled so deep into our hearts that we hear ourselves, we remember who we are. We see our failures, but we also see that one spot, that one small corner of our soul where the real good in us resides. The one little spot that saves us from total failure in life and makes all that we do meaningful and worthwhile. 

We find God. 

We find God, not out there on some throne in heaven, but sitting here, in the corner of our heart, talking to us in our own voice telling us that we are not bad, unworthy, or evil. We have and have always had a spark of good within us. We only have to listen, and we will know what we are required to do this day. Suddenly everything is different. We see the prayers in front of us in a new way. The cantor’s music becomes richer, and it sets our souls on fire. We are alive, really alive and the fear of death has no power over us anymore. 

We cry tears of joy. We hug those we love like we have never loved them before. The sky is blue-er, the rain becomes music. There is still pain in our world, but it no longer controls our life. All that we desire no longer is important. We are alive and we can hear our voice again, the voice of God calling us from the burning bush.

This is the real “heart stuff.” It is what makes today and every day worthwhile. We finally understand how rich we are because we are happy and grateful for all we already have. Can we improve in the new year? Of course, we can. We already have. We have broken the hard shell we created around our heart and now we are free to see, hear, smell, taste and touch the world in a new way. We are able to love our family and friends, we are able to love ourselves and we are able to love God, who never stopped forgiving us, who never stopped loving us over all these years. 

Thank you, God, for giving us life, sustaining us, and bringing us to this new year. As we say … Amen and L’shana Tova – Yes, it is going to be not just a good year, it’s going to be Great! 

Mon, December 11 2023 28 Kislev 5784