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This time of Truth, Brokenness, Teshuvah, & Apologies

09/27/2022 06:49:05 PM


Rabbi Minster

Rosh HaShanah Sermon, 5783.

Shanah Tovah

Welcome to 5783. It is my deepest honor to be with you today as we open our hearts to the Truth that pulses through our souls. I’d like to take you on a Rosh HaShanah journey.

First, I’ll give you a little insight into how I’ve prepared for today. I’ll provide an example about how I take the Book of Life seriously without taking it literally. Then, share some insights on Teshuvah, particularly how we are expected to apologize to people in the next 10 days to prepare us for Yom Kippur. Let’s get started.

Allow me to begin with a confession. These High Holy Days are the scariest and most momentous days of my life. 

As you might know, I became a rabbi this year. Being a 44 year-old mom whose last paid job in a Jewish institution ended when I was 18, I am swimming upcurrent. In my last job, I stared at a blank page trying to sort out how to describe in words the very visual process of turf-cutting. Now, I have to describe verbally the very internal process of heart circumcision. 

Circumcising the heart transformed me. It’s the first step on the journey towards our own depths. Cracking open our hearts, acknowledging our own brokenness. Circumcision of the heart is directly related to Leonard Cohen’s famous lyric, “there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light comes in.”

When I recognized the different layers of self and chose to circumcise my heart, my life changed. I began to take control of my thoughts and feelings. The heart is where all of our passions and drives live. The heart is where our feelings tumble and turn. In modern terms, you could say it is the ego self. 

Do we keep track of our emotional states? Some of us might have color-coded mood trackers, which form pretty pictures. I’m referring to a more complete personal accountability. Do we consider all the emotional states we went through in the preceding day – how our rage built as our kids refused to listen and instead of repeating our request calmly, we yelled. There’s plenty of yelling in my house. I’m definitely not a perfect parent.

What I have started to do is try to calm myself down as soon as I’ve raised my voice. And I’ll often apologize for making the wrong choice. If something beyond my children irritated me and led to me flying off the handle, I’ll name that in my apology. 

Here’s a recent example: “It’s not your fault you’re having trouble putting on your socks. I read an email and was upset about it, so I didn’t have enough patience with you. I apologize for yelling. Let’s work together to get your socks on.”  

On Rosh HaShanah, we feel the presence of Eternal Judgment. All of our actions in the past year are before us, ready for review. Perhaps God is part of the review committee. That image certainly helped our forefathers to return to the depths of Judaism. 

For me, I need to remember that I am writing the Book of My Life every day. Now is the time to review our books. We need to sort out what values we are trying to uphold with our lives. Are there patterns to our less than stellar behavior? That could help us understand the nature of our own brokenness. Returning to the righteous path, the path of Truth, that is the Teshuvah we are called to do in the coming ten days. 

Our liturgy declares God judges us on Rosh HaShanah. That judgment is a summation of our continuous judgment of ourselves and the world around us.

How do we judge ourselves? It starts with the story we tell about our lives. Do we consider ourselves responsible for the direction of our lives? Do we tend to focus on how other people have shaped our lives?

When I returned to the Jewish path as an adult, I had a huge chip on my shoulder. The world was failing. Everything wrong in my life was because of someone else. One piece of advice from my rabbi started me on a different path. He said: “Do you not like your job? Then quit. If you can’t quit, then do your duty. Stop complaining and accept responsibility for your life.”

Wrestling with those truths made me finally understand that it’s not what other people do that determines how I feel. It’s how I choose to respond. That set me on the path of career change until I finally accepted the advice my soul was giving me: return fully to Judaism. Attend rabbinical school. Help other people find themselves within Jewish community. 

So, here we are. On the first day of the year 5783. Do we have the energy to look through the book of our lives we wrote over the last year?

Did we live fully into each day? 

Have we budgeted for tzedakah as closely as we’ve budgeted for vacations?

When we see a homeless person, is that a reminder that we need to help our fellow humans or do we worry about the safety of our neighborhood?

Have we bought food for the Sea of Compassion food drive? Did we click on the link in the TI Times to give to the Alameda Food Bank as part of our communal effort?

If we are disconnected from our roots, did we do something in the past year to help find a connection?

If we are enveloped in the blessings of this community, did we volunteer as much as possible? 

What about our familial relationships? Did we speak with kindness and love? Did we allow anger, anxiety, or lack of sleep to pour forth from our mouths?

Did we do our duty at school, at our jobs, with our community? Did we take up the appropriate amount of space and make space for others? How much time did we steal for personal pursuits during work?

Are we fully present to each day? Or is the weight of all that is happening have us walking through life with our heads down, focused on our own passions and our own families?

These are the questions that form the judgment of our lives. Taking stock of ourselves, defining what really matters, that is the purpose of this Day of Judgment. 

And then, we move from judgment to remembrance. The Day of Remembrance connects us back to the truths our souls have always known. Humans are communal animals. We need each other. Temple Israel needs you. 

Do you have a lot of baggage from institutional Judaism? Me too!

Do you consider yourself a cultural not religious Jew? I wore that description proudly for a decade of my life. 

Let’s remember that as Temple Israel reawakens to its next chapter, we are all co-creators of its future. Just as we are in the process of dying and being reborn, so too is Temple Israel. 

לְשָׁנָה טוֹבָה תִכָּתֵבוּ וְתֵּחָתֵמוּ‎

May we be inscribed and sealed for a good year. 

May we write down what it means to us to live a good year. May we walk the path of return, and offer apologies in the coming 10 days to those whom we have hurt. 

What is the goodness you want to write for yourself today? How will you take the first steps towards living into that vision of yourself in the next Ten Days of Teshuvah

Teshuvah, apologizing to the humans whom we have hurt. 

Apologies are tricky things. Blanket apologies never work. Proclaiming that “you are sorry to anyone who was hurt by your actions in the past year” does not absolve you.

If we remember a specific incident, we must reach out directly to the person whom we have harmed. When apologizing, we need to specifically describe what we did wrong. The apology is for our actions: not the other person’s response to those actions. “I’m sorry you were hurt” dodges personal responsibility. It is our actions we must apologize for. Therefore, we must say “I am sorry for yelling at you.” Or “I am sorry for not inviting you to that gathering.” 

We must say exactly what we did wrong. It’s better if we don’t provide too much information on why we did it – because that starts to sound like we are excusing our own behavior. Instead, we have to pledge not to do it again and if possible, provide ways we are going to ensure we won’t do it again. And if we can make reparations for the wrong done, we should do that as well.

Now, if someone approaches us with a sincere apology and clearly takes responsibility for their actions, we should consider accepting their apology. The wound might be too raw. We might need some time to get to forgiveness. That’s okay. The person who did wrong is required to approach us three times. 

Being required to offer an apology three times is a recognition that sometimes, it takes time for us to be able to provide forgiveness. Judaism does not require forgiveness without repentance. If we can set aside bitterness, that’s wonderful. But we do not need to immediately forgive people of horrific crimes (or even mundane transgressions). Sincere repentance is the requirement. 

It’s important that the interpersonal nature of Teshuvah is not lost in the sea of self reflection. When we search for the Truth within, we must confront the ways in which we have not lived up to our vision for ourselves. Once we have cleared the air with the people around us, then we have the inner space to authentically transform. 

Teshuvah, Returning to who we’ve always been.

Teshuvah, Returning to the soul within.

Teshuvah, circumcising our hearts. Letting go of cynicism and embracing wonder.

Teshuvah, holding space for the possibility of something beyond ourselves being the most important thing in our lives. Saying what if I believed God is completely real?

What is the Eternal that I can believe in? How can the Eternal guide me on my life’s journey? What does it mean to acknowledge the Truth and speak the Truth in my heart?

We have the opportunity to be reborn on Yom Kippur. If we take the next ten days seriously and decide how we want to live into our lives, then our death on Kol Nidre can lead to rebirth at Neilah. That’s why many of us will wear white next week. Plain white shrouds are how Jewish maits, our honorable bodies, are placed into plain coffins at death. Not choir robes, but kittels. Odd robes rarely seen. 

This soul death and rebirth is our chance to start anew. I have a secret for you: every Jewish holiday is an extension of the spiritual tools available to us every day of the year. There’s an ancient belief that our souls leave when we sleep and return when we awaken. So every day, we are reborn and are encouraged to return to the path of life and depth. 

Similarly, every weekday, Jewish liturgy includes confessional prayers. Everyday, we have the opportunity for repentance and renewal. 

It’s just that the High Holy Days place those opportunities front and center. We spotlight these actions because we know that for most of us, daily growth can be hard to commit to. But allowing ourselves to see our lives as an annual cycle of growth and transformation can be easier to swallow.

And how do we grow into ourselves? By acknowledging that we are not the center of the universe. That there is something beyond material reality guiding us to be our best selves. The Source of Goodness, the Source of Truth, the Source of Love, the Eternal Source pulses through all that exists. God is King when we acknowledge the sovereignty of the Eternal Source. God is Queen when we recognize that we are held by an Unending Love. God is Sovereign when we act from love, when we speak with kindness, and when we think with our whole hearts. God created the Yetzer HaRa, the inclination towards passion that can lead to destruction. God also created this spiritual path to Osher, to eudaimonia, to good spirit. Join us as we continue to be reborn into our truest selves. 

לְשָׁנָה טוֹבָה תִכָּתֵבוּ וְתֵּחָתֵמוּ‎

May we define for ourselves a good year. And may we seal ourselves into that vision of the future. 

Mon, May 20 2024 12 Iyar 5784