Rosh Hashana 5774: Rabbi Greg Wolfe
Finding Meaning at the Doorway of a New Year
I often get a smile and a raised eyebrow…or two, when I explain to people, Jews and non-Jews alike, that the Jewish New Year, now 5774, denotes the number of years since the creation of the world. It’s not that we Jews are bad at math or don’t believe in science! Our traditional accounting of the Jewish year, like most of the imagery of these Days of Awe, speaks in the metaphoric language of the imagination and points towards a deeper symbolic meaning rather than a literal reckoning of the age of our planet. How do we measure a year? In cycles of the moon? In cycles of the sun? How do we measure our years? Are they simply an accrual of time, sunrises and sunsets, recordable revolutions of the Earth around our sun, something very measurable? Or is there something more; something less tangible but more valuable that makes our years count, that fills our days with meaning?
In one of the most central prayer images of these High Holy days, captured in the U’netaneh Tokef prayer (chanted during musaf on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), we proclaim the great sanctity of this day, and the Book of Remembrance is laid open before the Holy Presence. In those ancient words, God is envisioned as the record-keeper par excellence, reviewing the year of every living being, counting and measuring, and remembering even what we have forgotten. The truth communicated by this Jewish metaphor is extremely powerful. It is not just that what we do is recorded by the Universe. Those are merely facts, the cold hard data. The message goes deeper: everything we do matters. There is meaning in our deeds. Every word, every action has an impact, and can make a difference. Measuring may come easy to God, especially at this time of year, but, for us human beings, measuring some things is a lot harder than others, as this tale by Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz illustrates:
The son looked at the tally of years gone by–pencil markings marching in an ascending procession, inching ever upward on the kitchen doorway–capturing a succession of moments in time as he grew up. Now a grown man, and his father gone, a tear came to his eye as he recalled one moment they had shared in that passageway; a sweet life-lesson imparted about what really matters.
“I was probably only 12 that summer,” the son remembered. “I had just returned from camp. On the doorway of our kitchen, we kept a record of my height. I had measured myself just before leaving for camp, and then made a mark above that, the amount I intended to grow in my time away. When I returned at the end of the summer, I measured myself against the kitchen door and found myself a half-inch below the mark I had set for myself. My father saw how disappointed I was. I told him that I had failed. I hadn’t grown enough. At first he didn’t say anything. He looked at the mark I had made. With his thumb he smudged it out, took a pencil, and marked my real growth. Then he spoke. ‘You’ve grown wonderfully well,’ he said. ‘Your only failure was that you didn’t put the mark in the right place. But that was easily fixed and, now, who can possibly tell how far you’ll grow next!’” (my adaptation, from the story “The Measure of Success” by Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz in The Curse of Blessings; p. 89)
Perhaps like the young boy, when we gathered for Rosh Hashanah last year, you drew the lines for your expected growth, you set your goals for yourself, and you marked out accomplishments you had hoped to achieve on the doorway of your heart.
And, now, we’ve returned. We’re gathered once again at the doorway of another year, to see how we have measured up, to calculate how we’ve grown.
While we know that there are plenty of things to be proud of in our personal inventories of this past year, perhaps, there are also places in our life where we fell short, where we feel we didn’t grow enough; where we failed to live up to our expectations. But, maybe, just maybe, we grew perfectly well. We didn’t miss the mark; we just didn’t put the mark in the right place.
After all, how do we measure a life like ours, so messy and mysterious, so filled with wonder and complexity, so fraught with struggle and success, as to vex any yardstick you could muster? As the popular song from the Broadway musical, Rent, asks us:
Five hundred twenty-five thousand Six hundred minutes,
Five hundred twenty-five thousand Moments so dear.
Five hundred twenty-five thousand Six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?
In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, In cups of coffee,
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife.
In five hundred twenty-five thousand Six hundred minutes
How do you measure a year in the life?
Measuring things certainly isn’t bad! It is necessary. Try building a house without it. But how would you measure the meaning of a home? We can count up how many true friends we have (and not just on Facebook!), but could we ever assign a value to the importance of those relationships? The number of hours we spend helping others are recordable, but how could we ever calculate the impact of those gifts of the heart, on us and others? The sweet times we have shared with family and loved ones are catalogued and treasured, but there are no numbers we could assign that would capture their worth. They are all priceless!
Each morning, the words of the siddur (our prayerbook) remind us that what truly matters is irreducible to a matter of mere feet or inches! Elu d’varim she’ein la’hem shi’ur; “these are the things that are without measure”: Making peace, deeds of loving kindness, visiting the sick, comforting those who are grieving a loss, celebrating with the bride and groom, honoring ones parents. All of these actions, interactions, really, and many more like them, bring us into profound connection with other human beings, and reflect the most precious moments–moments of love and compassion–that punctuate our lives and fill them with meaning. You see, the most meaningful experiences of our lives are often made out of immeasurable things, the mysteries of life: how about love? beauty? faith? devotion? the soul? What is invisible to the eye, often, is perfectly clear to our heart and spirit! The most important things in our life are not things at all. They are our web of relationships binding us together; shared experiences, moments of friendship, passions, joys and sorrow, hopes and dreams, love and support. What we cannot see or measure not only exists, but is, in fact, our reason for existing.
Dr. Brene Brown, sociologist, researcher and collector of people’s stories, believed at her core in the orderliness of life; that everything, no matter what, could be subdued and wrestled into a box, made sense of and measured. When her professor at graduate school informed his students that “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist!,” she thought, “Yes, this is the place for me!” However, to her complete dismay, her research about human connection, belonging and self-worth, which she shares in a moving Ted Talk (http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html), revealed hard, cold data that undermined everything she had always thought she knew to be true. The key to positive self-worth and deep human connections in life was not to be found in order, control, and a carefully measured life, but, actually, in their polar opposite–vulnerability! Vulnerability–opening up to those tender, protected places within us, letting go of the belief of being in charge all the time, not knowing, risking, taking a leap of faith when we can’t possibly know how things will turn out–Dr. Brown discovered, through her countless interviews with people, that that kind of human vulnerability is the birth place of joy, creativity, belonging and love.
The most open-hearted, loving, connected people, those who were filled with the greatest sense of worthiness, all shared a few key things in common: They all had courage, which Dr. Brown distinguishes from bravery. Courage, she notes, comes from the Old French word, coer=heart, meaning to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart. Open-hearted people had the courage to be imperfect, to be compassionate, to be kind to themselves and others. These folks also highly valued authenticity. They felt free to be who they were and to let go of any pretenses of who they, or others, thought they should be. The last quality these people had in common was that they fully embraced their vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable also made them beautiful. It was not easy, they felt, to open themselves to vulnerability, but it was absolutely necessary. They were committed to being with whatever was, even if it was uncomfortable, or even painful. This was fundamental. As a result of their open honesty and ease at just being present, these people were able to feel better about themselves and form deeper, more meaningful connections with others.
This revelation might make perfect sense to many of us, but this discovery shattered everything that Brene Brown had built her life upon, leading to a major life crisis, a “complete breakdown” –in her words–but what her therapist called a spiritual awakening. In the end, after some intense therapeutic work, she won her life back by accepting what the wholehearted knew all along: that the most important things in life cannot be measured, charted or plotted along some predictable path.
We live in a world of vulnerability. That is the nature of our human existence. U’netaneh Tokef, which comes to mind again with its calculated measuring of every aspect of our life, is often so troubling for us because it confronts us with our deepest fears about our own vulnerability: who will live and who will die? Who by fire and who by water? What is going to happen to me in this new year? And we realize that we have very little control over so many things that could happen to us and those we love! Can we ignore these fears? Can we hide from our vulnerability? Everything that Brene Brown has discovered tells us, emphatically, no!
What we learn at this moment, then, standing in the doorway, ready to make our mark on the new year, is that the best response to this inherent uncertainty is to become the loving open-hearted people we are meant to be. We are given paths by our tradition for living with each other amidst the joy and heartache, the blessings and vulnerability of being human. In U’Netaneh Tokef, these paths are traditionally identified as Tzedakah, Teshuvah and Tefillah, but we might translate them in a new way, through the insights gained from Brene Brown, as these blessings:
May we stay awake to joy and gratitude each and every day, helping us become kinder and gentler, so that we can discover that deep place of openness and giving within us. That is true Tzedakah!
May we recognize that it is not our job to be perfect, rather, that we are wired to struggle and grow, never forgetting that we, made in God’s image, are always worthy of love and belonging. That is true Teshuvah!
May we always know deep in our hearts that, in this moment, we are enough; that we all have grown perfectly well, so that the false measures of ourselves fall away, allowing us to celebrate our authentic being, rooted in the Divine. That is true Tefillah!
These holy paths of connection, joy and gratitude lead right up to the front doors of our Bet Haverim community. In this new year, our Board is embarking on a congregation-wide conversation about our Jewish relationships and connections with our community, under the professional guidance of grass-roots organizer, Judy Donovan. Together we hope to learn more about what it means to be a part of a relational community. In his most recent book, Relational Judaism, Ron Wolfson posits that what keeps people connected to their Jewish community, and ultimately engaged with their Judaism, are the relationships that are forged there. “People will come to synagogues…for programs, but they will stay for relationships…. Programs are wonderful opportunities for community members to gather, to celebrate, to learn…. But if the program designers have given no thought to how the experience will offer participants a deeper connection to each other, with the community and with Judaism itself, then it will likely be [just] another lovely… [event]…with little or no lasting impact.” (Wolfson, Relational Judaism, p. 2) This year we are dedicating ourselves to deepening our communal relationships and our dream is to engage each of you meaningfully in the life of our community in a variety of ways, along with your fellow CBH partners. You may want to read Wolfson’s book on Relational Judaism along with the Board as we take this journey together. (Just let me know and I can order a book for you!) I invite all of you to get involved as this process unfolds later this fall so we can hear from each of you about what moves you and what connects you to this place? What is challenging for you here and how we could become an even stronger community? I am very excited about the possibility of us meeting one another in new ways, telling our stories to each other, and opening up our hearts as we listen and grow together.
Five hundred twenty-five thousand Six hundred minutes! Life is not just for measuring. Life is for living–fully, deeply, with gratitude and joy. If you feel that urge to sidle up to the doorway this year to see how you’ve grown, put your pencils down. Lean into the threshold of new possibilities. Measure your days in love, in new relationships formed, new connections created in an ever-widening circle of holiness! Celebrate with courage your humanity and the ways it links you to others by sharing your stories! Live each moment authentically and honestly by being true to who you are meant to be! Rejoice in your vulnerability and take a risk by opening up to the unknowns of the new year! You’ve grown wonderfully well so far. Who could possibly measure how far you’ll grow by next year?
(Ari and Leah then sung: Seasons of Love on RH day)