Rabbi Susan Nanus Rosh Hashanah 5777
Rabbi Susan Nanus Rosh Hashanah 5777
ROSH HASHANAH SERMON 2016
The first time I applied to rabbinical school, I was 25 years old. It was just a few years after women had started being admitted, and some people were not very happy about it. The admission process was grueling, but most important was the Big Interview— where 15 male rabbis sat at three long tables and grilled me while I perched on a single little folding chair in the center. I thought I was doing pretty well, until one rabbi glared at me and said, “Why do you want to be a rabbi? Do you think God’s a woman?”
I had no idea how to answer that. I didn’t know what I thought about God. So, in my best, defiant young feminist voice, I replied, “What’s the matter, rabbi, don’t you like women?”
Needless to say, I did not get in.
But the question has stayed with me. Because even though we are sitting in this beautiful sanctuary on Rosh Hashanah, where we are called to open our hearts to God, and examine our lives before God, and ask forgiveness from God—in my experience, it turns out that a lot of modern Jews are not sure who or what God is.
In a first grade class at a Temple Religious School, the students were asked to draw pictures from the Torah. The rabbi was invited to come and look at their artwork, and so she walked from desk to desk, complementing the children on their drawings of Noah’s ark and the Ten Commandments and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. Suddenly, she stopped and stared at one drawing, looking puzzled. It was a picture of a man in a top hat smoking a cigar in the front seat of a limo, with two figures—a man and a woman seated behind him.
“Jared, is this is a picture from the Torah?” asked the rabbi. “Oh, Yes, rabbi!” he answered.
“Are you sure?” “Definitely.”
“Would you mind explaining it to me?”
“It’s God driving Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden.”
According to research, children form a mental image of God by the age of six whether anyone talks to them about it or not. And it seems that many people never go very far beyond that. We learn something in Sunday School; we don’t totally get it, but we accept it because intuitively we know that there’s something greater, something deeper, more profound about life than we can explain. Not just human life, but all life. Plants, animals, the constellations… We’ve had these flashes of insight that we can’t even articulate, that go beyond the edges of our minds and hearts that tell us that the world is full of miracles and mystery and what Rav Avraham Kook, one of the great sages of the twentieth century called “the supernal light of God’s presence in everything.”
Many of us want to believe in God, but we’re not sure what that means. We yearn to connect with God, but we don’t know how.
I think that the very word, “God” itself can be a problem. It’s so small. Just three letters. It’s so short. Just one syllable to suggest such a vast, overwhelming powerful concept.
Perhaps that is why in in Judaism, there are seventy names for God. Because one little word can’t do it justice. Names like:
Ayn Sof - The Infinite
Shechina – The Feminine Divine Presence
Adon HaNishamot – Sovereign of All Souls
Ribono shel Olam - Master of the Universe
Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu - The Holy One, Blessed be He
And the one that we read as Adonai which means “ My Lord,” because the actual word is considered too holy to pronounce – even though some people try by saying “Yaweh.” In fact, this four letter word contains the Hebrew verb “to be”” in the past, present and future all at once. Was. Is. Will be. In other words, Eternal. And if we really tried to pronounce this word, it would sound like this — (Breathe the word), which is our breath. The Source of life.
So every time we say Baruch Ata Adonai, we are actually saying Blessed are You, Eternal Source of Life.” Source of the Divine Spark that our tradition teaches we all contain. Source of the wonders of creation. Source of the Still Small Voice that can guide us if we know how to listen.
But how do we listen? How can we sense the Eternal Source of Life?
I believe that some people have a talent for knowing God. Just like some have a talent for music or math or painting. Some people intuitively know how to connect with the Holy One, but most of us struggle. Just like we’re not Mozart or Einstein or Rembrandt, we are not spiritual prodigies.
If we want to play music, we have to practice. If we want to solve complex mathematical equations, we have to practice. If we want to paint a masterpiece, we have to practice.
And if we want to connect with the Infinite and feel a part of the mystery and the beauty of life, we need to have a spiritual practice.
As a rabbi who has had her own struggles with God, I have been delving into the teachings of some of our Jewish spiritual masters in order to find such a practice that would work for me. After studying and experimenting, this is what I have developed to help me feel closer to the Divine Presence.
First, I try to live my life with a sense of wonder – to get up every morning and look at the world in way that takes nothing for granted. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls this “radical amazement,” where we realize that everything is phenomenal and we should never treat life casually. Ask any new parent who has just had a baby, or any Holocaust survivor who will tell you unequivocally that every day of life is a gift. Plant a seed and watch a flower appear. Stand on a mountain top. Look at the night sky. Eat a piece of freshly baked bread. Look at the veins on your own hand.
I choose to walk around my life and say Wow. And then I say thank You.
Thank You for allowing me to be here and experience this moment. And even when I’m not sure who or what I am thanking, I am nevertheless filled with gratitude and wonder and sometimes, a profound feeling of joy.
In Hebrew, it might sound like this:
Baruch ata Adonai, Elohenu Melech HaOlam, Shechechiyanu, v’kimanu, v’higianu lazman hazeh.
That’s right. The Shechiyanu is the Wow prayer. But it’s not the only one. We have blessings for when we see a rainbow or lightning or the ocean, when we smell a flower, even when see a person or animal that is unusually beautiful.
Because in Judaism, saying, “Wow, will you look at that!” is actually a mitzvah. As Jews, we are actually required to behold the splendor and the wonder of the world.
There is a famous story about Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great
19th century leader of German Jewry, who was very ill and on his death bed, when suddenly, he sat up and insisted on traveling to Switzerland, a place he had never been before. His students tried to talk him out of this dangerous risk to his health, but Rabbi Hirsch would not rest until he was bundled up and transported to Switzerland. Finally, one of his students gathered up the courage to ask, “Rabbi, why was it so important for you to come to Switzerland?”
To which Hirsch replied, "When I die and come before God in the next world, I will to have to answer for many things. But what would I tell Him when He asked me, “Nu, Samson, what did you think of my Alps?'"
Wonder is first. Prayer is next.
Every morning I read one prayer that truly touches me, that speaks to what I call “my holy potential.” To the best part of me that I know is there even if I don’t always use it. Sometimes, I take a walk first. Or listen to a piece of music. Or simply lie on my yoga mat and listen to my breath. But then I turn to words. I read them out loud, slowly and with intention, so that they really sink in.
As I awaken, let this be my thought:
May my day be filled with acts of lovingkindness, Let me be drawn to learning and discernment, And may my actions be filled with mitzvot.
Holy One of Blessing, teach me the art of sacred living.
According to Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Mussar movement, when we speak words of encouragement to ourselves with great emotion and
sincerity, they become imprinted upon our souls and after a time, elevate our actions. This only takes a few minutes, but it changes me. It redirects my thinking and fills me with a gentle sense of peace.
Finally, as often as I can, I try to practice chesed – acts of lovingkindness.
Because that is how we bring holiness into everyday life. That is how we manifest God in the world. According to the Kabbalah, chesed is one of the ten emanations of God. According to the Talmud, chesed is one of the foundations of the universe.
When we remember the stranger and love our neighbors as ourselves; when we visit the sick and comfort the mourner; when we treat our loved ones with honor and respect; when we offer our hands in friendship to those who are different than we are; or if someone offers those same kindnesses to us -- the Holy One enters our midst – and we are transformed.
We can feel it if we’re paying attention. Sometimes we are filled with happiness, other times, moved to tears. Sometimes there is a distinct shift in consciousness where we suddenly see life through different eyes and really understand what is important.
Last November, my daughter was ill and in the hospital. And even after she got out, she had to come and live with me and go back several times a week, for outpatient treatments. Rabbi Leder asked me, ‘what can we do for you?” And of course, like everybody else, I said, “Nothing, I’m fine.” But Rabbi Leder wouldn’t give up. “Come on, there must be something. What about food?”
So, I said, “Okay, well, we do come home late from the hospital a lot, I guess a dinner would be nice.” Thinking in my mind, one dinner. One night.
Well, Rabbi Leder sent out an email, and for the next 30 days, a hot dinner was delivered to my doorstep, every night by a different congregant—some of who
are in this room. Every night, people delivered a shopping bag filled with a delicious meal— sometimes two meals, because my daughter is a vegetarian and I’m not. And I cannot tell you how moved, how loved, how cared for we felt.
That love was God. That care was God.
That food and the people who delivered it brought blessings and goodness into my home every night.
Wonder. Prayer. Good deeds.
These are the spiritual practices I offer to you as we begin the New Year. Imagine if we all followed these practices. How would this next year differ from the last?
The Hasidic rebbe, Menachem Mendl of Kotsk was once asked. “Where is God? He answered simply, “Wherever we let God in.”
The Divine Presence is always here, waiting to be let into our lives. It is up to us to open the door.