Hi all! Just sharing my Rosh Hashanah morning sermon because a few people have asked for it. Enjoy and feel free to share it. 🙂 – Diane
I have noticed that in our current social/political climate, people seem a little on edge.
When I was crossing the street on a green light recently, but had not pushed the button to turn on the walk symbol, a man in his truck chose to lean out the window and scream at me that I didn’t have the right of way. He’s correct I should have pushed the button, but his reaction was mildly extreme.
When my daughter and I were leaving a protest a month or so ago, no longer at the protest, just walking to our car, someone must have seen our cluster of people with our signs, and chose to lean out of, again a truck, and holler “America First!” Again, there is a right to disagree, and then there is the choice to lean out one’s window and yell at strangers.
One more person leaning out of a window… In my neighborhood an injured lady was crossing the street with her injured dog… very… slowly. They both had bandages around their legs. A driver leaned out the window to yell at her that she was taking too long.
And finally, when my daughter and I were at a recent book signing with Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotamayor, there was a near brawl about how long it was taking to get through the line to meet her and who was pushing in front of whom. Once again, lots of screaming, finger pointing, and hot tempers.
I’ll return to these experiences in a moment.
This morning, we will hear the first portion of the Torah, Breisheet, the creation of the world. We celebrate this New Year (some say the birthday of the world) with this mysterious, poetic story about how our ancient people imagined it all began. It’s about building, creating, newness, imagination, and taking the time to reflect on the work done to assess its beauty. The God of the Torah puts forth effort for 6 days, and then rests and beholds the results.
And yet, just one portion later, this same God is ready to destroy every living thing on the planet. God creates humankind along with all of the animals of the land, sea, and air, but once the world is full of people and birds and fish and cattle, God sends down rain to destroy everything except for one family.
There are flood stories in nearly every culture’s history from every part of the world. Many of us know of the Epic of Gilgamesh and how closely it parallels the story of Noah and his ark, but there are similar stories in the Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions along with Greek, Roman, Egyptian and many, many other mythologies. What is it about the flood that appeals to so many? Is it water’s potential for renewal and starting over? Is it, as some dream analysts say, that the rain represents tears, obstacles, or depression? Or is it simply that there have been horrific floods in history around the world, documented by each culture as a supernatural event because at the time, it was believed that surely only such a deluge could be at the hand of a destructive god.
I often ask my students when we learn about Noah and the flood, “What do you think could happen in the world to make all creatures, not just humans, but pigeons, camels, and even bunny-rabbits, be so evil that a god would want to wash it all away and start over?” The answer at which we often arrive, is some kind of ecological catastrophe… a drought, a famine… all animals with their ecosystems so out of whack, that everyone from the lion to the gnat are searching for a way to adapt and survive, willing to kill anything that might result in a meal for itself or its family or tribe. And even if there is no God, the way the story can be true, and not true, is that a real drought led to real famine which led to deviant animal behavior, and that was followed by heavy rains that the earth could not contain because the land was so dried out. And so, a great flood, or perhaps even a mudslide, having nothing to do with a god, destroyed the local suffering animals and plant life.
In synagogues around the world today, communities will either read the story of the binding of Isaac or the creation story of Breisheet which we will hear, but I think it would actually make a ton of sense if we read the story of Noah. For these holy days are all about returning to a place of knowing within oneself, restarting, redoing, washing away mistakes. And in just a moment, we will sing B’Rosh Hashanah – when we ask the Universe, Who, this year, will live and who will die? And of those who die, who by fire and who by water?… Like a flood. We will also add more modern tragedies to our list that were unthinkable when our machzor was composed, but some of those modern tragedies are wrapped up in this more traditional text and in the story of Noah. After all, with the state of our planet, with rising tides and rising temperatures, it is not unthinkable of a great drought and a great flood coming upon us again, not because of a god, but because we didn’t do what we had to do to turn our climate crisis around. The ancient questions of who by hunger, who by thirst, who by storm, are not as far reaching as they used to be.
Yet, this flood, be it a symbolic or literal flood, may come upon us not just because of the global warming climate, but because of our current political climate (and once again, I promise you this isn’t really a political sermon). Many of us are speaking out against the policies that go against our understanding of human rights and ecological sanity. We are marching, signing petitions, writing to officials, and soon, voting!… We are making a lot of noise to scream out to the world that we are not okay with how things are, and all of that is necessary and glorious. But are we also listening? Are we learning about others? Are we remembering to search, no matter how hard, for the spark of holiness in the “other?” When we recite the Shema, are we only asking to be heard but not willing to be the ones who listen?
If we can’t find some small shred of common ground, some place to start… like, can’t we all agree that it stinks when people don’t pick up their dogs’ poop?… Then we can’t talk about agreeing on the bigger things, like how nice it would be if our children and grandchildren had clean air to breathe and livable temperatures. When we point the finger at the “other” for being intolerant, impatient, selfish, angry, ignorant, it may be true, but we are doing the entire world and the next generation a disservice if we don’t at least ask ourselves, “Am I, also, even just a little bit, any of that?” Intolerant of another person’s opinion. Impatient when someone doesn’t understand what we think we understand. Selfish when we expect more or better for ourselves or our families than another’s. Angry at another side of an argument. Ignorant to the ways even our treasured figures may be weak or have been in error. We have to at least point that finger, for a moment, at ourselves. Or we may participate in our destruction.
At my kid’s elementary school, the head once asked a parent in an all-school meeting, “What does it mean to humbly correct yourself?” This parent said, in front of a hall full of young children, “Well, I don’t know what you mean by humbly correct myself, but I know what it means to humbly correct someone else.”
Well, there’s a foreshadow of our flood right there.
Our country, and our world is in a state where we can’t hear each other anymore. The ability to have any kind of civil discourse is disappearing and it’s disappearing quickly. Now, I don’t blame us. We are all suffering from some variety of political PTSD. We don’t know whom to trust. We are having flashbacks to events in our own lives when we have struggled with dominating figures, bullying, or even abuse. No wonder our minds are fried and our nerves are frayed. No wonder people are screaming from their trucks or pointing angry fingers at one another when standing in line at a book-signing. Many of us feel like ticking time bombs, ready to pounce at the first sign of any more injustice, even if it’s just the guy or gal who cut us off on the 10 freeway.
Yes, we are heading for a flood, because we only know how to humbly correct others and not ourselves. Because if we don’t find a way to start with some kind of common ground, we will not change this course of history. No, our behavior won’t lead, in my mind, to a god flooding us out, but if we can’t gather ourselves together and face uncomfortable and unsettling confrontation, we may not deserve this planet anymore. Our self-righteousness may lead to disaster. And we can’t only blame the other side. If we don’t find a way to communicate, even with those we despise most, as we attempted to do during our meditation a few moments ago, this planet may just shake us off. Call it global warming, call it God, but our lack of decent behavior with each other will be the reason for the next biblical flood.
Johnny Holmes, who happens to be African American, was the head of security in the 90’s at a high school in Blue Island Illinois. He knew a student named Christian Picciolini at the school who had ties to white nationalists. Christian once said to Holmes, while being hugged by him to calm him down during an altercation, “Get your filthy hands off me. I live to see the day when a n—— will be hanging from every light pole in Blue Island.” Years later, after Christian changed his views, and he and Johnny Holmes reunited, Christian said, “It was that compassion when I didn’t deserve it that eventually stuck.” Holmes found it in his heart to try to help turn that young man around, and to see the humanity in him. If he can, so can we.
And Matthew Stevenson, an Orthodox Jew at New College in Florida was the only Orthodox Jew at school, so he used to invite over a mixed group of Jewish and non-Jewish friends for Shabbat dinner every Friday night at his apartment. When his friend circle realized that there was a well-known white nationalist attending the same college, they discussed what to do. Rather than ostracize him, they invited him to Shabbat dinner. Not only did he come, but he became a regular member of the dinner group, and slowly changed. If Matthew can stare into the eyes of a perceived enemy, so can we.
So what do we do? We build an ark. Not with cubits of gopher wood, but with ahavah rabah, abundant love, rachamim, compassion, chesed, kindness, and shalom, peace. We build it, not to sound corny, by going high when others go low. We build it by never, ever, succumbing to taunts or teases or claims of false victories meant to provoke us and demonstrate our most basic, unrefined selves. We build it by finding the ruach, the spirit of God that Johnny Holmes and Matthew Stevenson found within themselves and in others. We build it by remembering the words of Rabbi Chaim Nachim of Breslav who said the words we will sing during Yom Kippur:
Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tsar m’od, v’haikar lo l’fached klal: The whole world is a narrow bridge, but the essence, is not to be afraid. Do not be afraid of this challenge. Do not be afraid of a lack of clear results. Do not be afraid of seeing goodness in someone who appears only evil at first, second, and even third glance. We owe it to the next generation to leave a world of civility and progress so they can get to work fixing the mess we have made. And this means humbly correcting others, but mostly humbly correcting ourselves.
As we read last night, “Now is the time for the world to know that every thought and action is sacred. This is the time for you to deeply compute the impossibility that there is anything but grace.”