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Rosh Hashanah: September 10, 2018

Rabbi Randall Konigsbur

L’Shana Tova U’metuka – May we all be blessed with a happy and sweet New Year.

In the last interview that the great American Jewish philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, gave before his death, he spoke to Carl Stern, a reporter from NBC News. At the end of the interview, the reporter asked the philosopher if he had a message he would like to convey to his younger viewers. Heschel said, “I would say to young people a number of things, and I have only one minute. I would say — let them remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity. Let them be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we do — everyone — our share to redeem the world, in spite of all absurdities, and all the frustrations, and all the disappointment.
And above all, remember that the meaning of life is to live life as if it were a work of art.”  My friend, Rabbi Edward Feinstein added, “We decide its (Life’s) colors, its textures, and its design. For it is up to every one of us to make life a masterpiece. Unfortunately, lots of people give up their chance to create their masterpiece, instead they put up mirrors. They reflect what others expect, what others value, and what others want. They miss the chance to earn the true rewards of life.”

That could be a sermon alone, in one paragraph. That interview, in 1972, was shortly after the great protests of the 1960’s, the Civil Rights protests, the Anti-War protests and the political upheaval that became the signature of the Johnson and Nixon era in this country. Today, we might describe our era, The Digital Age, the way author Charles Dickens described the beginning of the Industrial Age in England, “It was the best of times and it was the worst of times.”

It is sometimes easy to forget what makes this one of the best times in human history. If we look at the global situation, we find that there is much that is better today than in any previous age. Human beings are much healthier than ever before, with a huge arsenal of medical devices and medicines to keep us that way. We are living much longer lives than ever before. There is less disease in the world. Most people eat much better than in previous times. The people of this world are better educated. There is more equality around the globe than at any other time in history. The world is not perfect, not at all, but we can’t deny that humanity is still on her way up.

I think we also know what makes this the worst of times. There is the rise of hate and nationalism around the world and the racism that comes with it. People don’t speak to each other with civility. There is a seemingly endless stream of cyber bullying among children and among adults as well. Income inequality is dividing our planet between those that have great wealth and those mired in poverty. The “Me Too” movement has revealed the gender chasm in our society.  We have alternative facts and declarations that truth is not truth. We seem to be just a step or two away from full class warfare.

Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, the late, great preacher from Philadelphia would say that “we are traveling at twice the speed of sound and half the speed of sense.” If life is such a work of art, and these times are so good, why then, you may ask, do we feel so ill at ease when we look at our world, when we look at our lives? If there is so much light in the world, why is it that all we can see is the mud that is everywhere?

Three scholars from the Harvard Divinity School: Angie Thurston, Casper ter Kuil, and Sue Phillips call this time, in a recent report, “a threshold moment”. They write: “by most accounts it is bleak. We’ve become so isolated from one another that disconnection is killing us. The dramatic rise of opioids, gun violence, and suicide are yet more evidence that our relationships of meaning are coming apart. … It turns out that the things we’ve been taught to pursue, - money, status, power, fame, and sex appeal, are not only unworthy of us but driving us to hurt ourselves, oppress each other, and damage our world. In ever-larger numbers, we see the lie and its toxicity, as we reject insufficient and untrustworthy systems, and despair at a culture of isolation and injustice.  We’ve not ended up here for lack of trying. We’ve attempted to transform all our systems – financial, political, educational, medical, - from both inside and out … But our solutions aren’t working. It seems we’ve misunderstood the problem. Where do we turn?”

Nargajuna, a second century Buddhist philosopher, lists four ways we get so mired in the mud we can’t see the light that shines on us anymore.

We want to have money and possessions and we get upset and disappointed when we lose them or don’t get them.

We feel delight when people praise us and give us their approval and feel upset and dejected when they criticize or disapprove of us, even if they are telling the truth.

We are delighted to have a good reputation but get upset when we have a bad reputation

We feel happy when we feel sensual pleasure, fantastic sights, sounds and other sensations, and are unhappy when we feel unpleasant sensations.

What makes all of this a problem is our mistaken belief that acquiring what we desire and avoiding their opposites will bring us lasting happiness and well-being. We don’t often realize that these are all impermanent and can never be satisfactory. As long as we strive for transient, external objects to make us happy, we will continue to perpetuate our own worry, anxiety and misery.

And lest you think that all of this is just Christian and Buddhist philosophy, I come to the greatest Hasidic masters of the 18th century, The Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Rabbi Nachman talks about how we can block our vast inner life just by putting our pinkie finger in front of our eyes. We know that we need basic necessities of life; food, shelter, water, healthcare, friendship and community. Yet our minds tend to chase after much more than our basic needs, to become mired in an obsessive pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain.

The Baal Shem Tov reminds us that if we wish to see the vast inner light of our souls, we must do the inner work to remove the veil that blocks our vision. We have to stop looking to the material world for our stability and well-being. Instead we must look to that which transcends the world and allow the world to pass before our very eyes. The deep realization of impermanence that ensues, helps us to relinquish our tight grip on the worldly preoccupations that normally grab so much of our attention and energy. As we do so, we begin to perceive an inner light that, like the sun, shines continuously from within in all its brilliant intensity, it is the light of awareness.

Do we fully understand that the world is not permanent? The good and the bad both come and go in their cycles. Culture is always changing. When we clutch at these transient parts of our world we end up with only worry, anxiety and despair. It is only when we let go of these material desires, that we can discover the light of our own inner life under the veil.

Rabbi Aryeh ben David, the founder of Ayeka: The Center for Soulful Education, wrote earlier this year in Sh’ma Now magazine; “Experiences of pain, confusion and depression are inescapable. Just as God created a world with light and darkness and day and night, we have times when we are open to hearing and feeling gratitude for the voice of the soul. … At times, we experience darkness and pain. This pain is usually caused by our previous experiences — our history. … But, sometimes, the source of this pain stems from our future. We are each brought into this world to fulfill a unique purpose. In our daily lives and in the course of a whole lifetime, only our soul can provide a particular “tikkun,” or “repair,” that is needed in this world. … The voice of the soul guides us toward this tikkun. Sometimes, the inner voice guides us gently, through our intuition or through a feeling. Sometimes, many competing voices — the voices of our ego, our fears, our insecurity, our loved ones, and our community — challenge this process.+… According to Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, our inner voice is calling us to wake up, to listen, and to refocus. When we ignore the call of the soul, it intensifies its message and sends us “toxic stones.” These toxic stones are feelings of emptiness, or lethargy, or a lack of purpose, or hope. They gather “around one’s heart, [where] one feels because of them a malaise of spirit.” Rav Kook suggests that the optimal way to hear our inner voice calling us is through serious prayer.. . .  This form of prayer is extremely personal, unscripted, and expressed through intense reflection and yearning. It demands that we look inward to our own soul, and that we pause and listen. Every person has a different soul; every person hears a different voice. This voice gives us clarity about why we were created and what our purpose in life may be. At times, we hear this voice as a series of small, daily reminders, and at other times, the voice hits us like a “spiritual lightning bolt,” stunning us with an inner truth that can be life-changing.+… Our spiritual life functions in a similar way to our physical life. When a certain part of the body becomes unhealthy, the body sends a message, some form of pain, to help us to focus on a particular ailment; so, too, with our spiritual lives. As we begin to … attend to our inner life, our hope is that a clearer spirit will emerge. Then, we may discover that we have greater clarity, purpose, and motivation. … Listening to one’s inner voice does not require theological clarity or even a belief in a watchful God. We need only to enter into our own deeply mysterious life experience, which may be hidden from our simple comprehension. We are perpetually confronted with the humbling awareness that we may be strangers to our own souls. The painful experience of feeling distant from oneself can become a reminder and a catalyst for self-awareness, clarity, and meaningful action.”

Even the less than spiritual world of medicine understands this missing part of our being. Atul Gawande, a surgeon and author of the book, “Being Mortal” writes, “Being Mortal is about the struggle to cope with the constraints of our biology, with the limits set by genes and cells and flesh and bone. Medical science has given us remarkable power to push against these limits, and the potential value of this power was a central reason I became a doctor, but again and again, I have seen the damage we in medicine do when we fail to acknowledge that such power is finite and always will be. We think our job is to ensure health and survival, but really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And Well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. Those reasons matter not just at the end of life, or when debility comes, but all along the way. … the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?”  What matters, it seems, is not the disease that afflicts us but how we choose to live our life after the diagnosis.

The three scholars from Harvard Divinity School, Ms Thurston, Mr. ter Kuile and Rev. Phillips, penned a short paper called, “Care of Souls. In their paper they write: “As we become the people we are called to be, our inner orientation shifts. We can no longer drive toward gain at others’ expense because our life is dedicated to the care of their souls. In fact, we can no longer tolerate a society that is built on the backs of our kin. Increasingly, we discover that none of us are free until all of us are free. As more of us experience this transformation, more of us call for justice. So, the invitation is before us, to build a society that actually values souls more than money.”

If Heschel is right and all of life is a work of art, then how do we become master artists? In “Care of Souls” the authors describe how those who wish to care for souls can move from being a novice to be a master. Here is how they describe a novice: “You suspect there’s more to succeeding at life than what you’ve been taught so far, but you’re not sure what to do about that. The care of souls matters to you, though you may not have language to figure out what that means – and even the word ‘soul’ may rub you the wrong way. You feel drawn to one or more of the roles in this report and maybe you are already doing the work but you’re on your own with no community to support you. You’re seeking out wise people and wondering how to go about it. You wish there were a guild or apprenticeship, or school that would train you to become a Master in the work your soul is calling you to do.

And then they go on to tell us how we will know if we have become a Master: You are a master if “you have lived life wholeheartedly, learned hard lessons, and are intentionally turning around to raise up the ones coming behind. You find yourself talking less and listening more, and when you speak, it is often in questions that draw out those in your care. You are part of a lineage, having learned from Masters and blessed with the opportunity to teach – and learn from – a new generation of Novices. Your wealth of hard earned wisdom feels less like a possession and more like a gift, which you freely received and now freely pass on. A life spent in service of others has led to a feeling of deep nourishment and satisfaction that comes from within.”

From Novice to Master of the Soul, this should be the journey we set out on as we begin the new year. This is the time we should commit ourselves to learning the art of creating a masterpiece in our life. Even if we are uncomfortable with the use of the term “soul”, even if we are not sure of the divine element within us, we need to get focused on the source of the malaise that permeates our lives. But how? How do we learn to harness the light that is within us? Where do we go to learn to use the tools we need to set our lives and the direction of our culture on the right path?

The answer to these questions is right in front of us, and behind us, and all around us. In all of Jewish History, the synagogue has been the home of the care and feeding of the Jewish soul. I see the puzzled looks on many faces. How can the synagogue be the place where I can learn to care for my soul? There is so much that is soulless about the synagogue. The focus on raising money, prayer in a language I don’t understand, repetition of prayers over and over until they are just rote recitations. What can the synagogue teach me about the deep work I need to do for my soul?

Rabbi Sidney Schwartz, the author of “Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future” brings together some of the leading innovators of Judaism in our world to share their ideas and create the four guiding principles that synagogues should foster to drive this renaissance of Jewish Living. Rabbi Schwartz spoke in our community this past year, as part of the Hartford Jewish Federation and the Hartford Jewish Foundation Jewish Leadership Institute. He outlined in his presentation, the principles that should guide congregations as we move to meet the challenges to care for our souls.

Rabbi Schwartz notes that first we need to stress Hochmah/Wisdom – We can’t know our Judaism until we have a grasp of the sacred texts, ethics and philosophies so that we have the language, the history and the context of Judaism and the understanding of why Judaism is one of the worlds great religions. It is because we have important lessons to teach those who live in our contemporary culture.

Next, we need to practice Justice/Tzedek – in a world that seems so dysfunctional, we need to keep our focus on what is right and good. Not just in the legal world but in the world of social and environmental threats. We use this training to help us not only understand a problem but how to respond to the needs of others, to care for their souls even as we care for our own.

Third is the concept of Community/Kehilla – We can have vast networks of friends on social media and keep in touch with people instantly all around the world, but we need a physical space where we can find support in our own times of need, a place to celebrate our joys and to share our sorrows. We need our synagogues to be a place where we can find meaningful relationships that will make life fulfilling.

Finally, we need synagogues to be a place for Holiness/Kedusha – No matter our political leanings, we understand that the world is not perfect. We know the shortcomings of Capitalism and Consumerism. We know the limits of political and economic power. We know the limits of a world that goes faster every day and we understand the need to slow down and appreciate the many details of life we miss when we hurry on by. Our Synagogues must offer a place where we can get a glimpse of the holiness, the transcendence and the sanctity that can be a part of our everyday life.

This is the world we have started to build right here at our home, Beth Sholom B’nai Israel, the place where two communities came together to create this island in the swirling rapids of our modern world. Just as other communities in large cities have transformed their communities, the leadership of BSBI is also committed to transforming our community as we transform the lives of all of us who live here. What does this transformation look like in our community?  New music, some of which you have heard today, music not meant to be performed but meant to be sung and hummed and felt by the entire congregation. This new music has already changed the texture of our prayers. We also offer many different doors to access different approaches to the soul. We offer on different Shabbatot; a mediation service with chanting and mindful meditation. We offer spiritual reflection in our Shirat HaLev service as we open our hearts to new understandings of what prayer can be. We have created space to explore explanations of the way the prayers work and how they fit together for those who are unfamiliar with the siddur in our Beginners service. How Jewish concepts fit together with the laws that govern our physical world are discussed in our God and the Universe service. Each week we offer a different door to care for our souls.

We also offer new ways of learning Bible and Ethics in classes that take place by day or by night to meet the needs of those who work by day or at night, and to meet the needs of those whose ability to drive here are limited. We have important scholars come to share their wisdom here, so we can find the different ways in which we can feed our souls. We also offer many ways to extend our hands and hearts out into the world, in support of the poor, the hungry, the homeless and those that are ill. In just a month or two, the Knit and Kevech group, will stack our table high with blankets to be given to hospital patients, hats and gloves for those facing a cold winter, warm socks and scarves for those who are in need of shelter from the storms. We grow food in Jessie’s Garden for our food pantry. We collect food, not just on Yom Kippur but every day to help stock the shelves of food pantries in Manchester and Vernon.

And finally, we are an island of holiness, a place where all Jews can come, regardless of of their status in the community, to find peace and quiet in this crazy society in which we live. We have created here a place where we consider others, where we open our hearts to those who struggle and open our arms to those in pain. That is what our congregation is all about. We are not just about a few days of the year, we are about creating a better world, a better country, a better community and a better soul.

Heschel was right. There is meaning beyond the absurdity. Every little deed does count in helping to see beyond the absurd. We can live our lives as a work of art, and every day we can be working our masterpiece. Not a reflection of someone else’s journey, but a real work of art that we can proudly call our own.

May God bless us in the new year, to begin to care for our neglected souls, and may we move, in the months ahead, from novice artist to grand master of living as we say

Amen and L’shana Tova.


Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on September 10, 2018.

Fri, May 24 2019 19 Iyyar 5779