Monday, October 03, 2005

Your souls are Holy: Rosh Hashanah 5766

Can someone please tell me what a chasiddic rebbe looks like?

(Pause. Take answers)

Okay, so let's see, a chassidic rebbe looks like this:
long gray beard, payyot - sidelocks- black clothes, black hat.Oldish. Well, I do have a black hat, but.... I just look really awful with a beard.

When I began rabbinical school, our then assistant-dean Rabbi Eddie Horowitz told me
that he knew that deep down I was a chasid. I thought this was -let's just say, very unlikely, given my background in philosophy of science, I was about as rationalist as rabbis come. It turns out however, that in the end, it was he who was right. The transformation -or perhaps I should say, revelation- of this inner chasid was a long time coming, but since arriving here, it has become clear to me just how right Rabbi Eddie was.

What finally convinced me of the truth of the mystics is my yearly struggle to understand why so many people - people who never otherwise come to shul- come to
High holiday services. If someone is going to come, come on shabbat morning, which is beautiful, and comfortable, and comradely, and may get you an invitation to lunch. Or come on Purim, which is fun, even raucous, or Simchat Torah, which is joyful. Or if you're into the intellectual pursuits, come for a tikkun leil shavuot, when you can pack your brain full and eat cheesecake to boot.
To a rationalist, this high holiday phenomenon is inexplicable. Oh, I know that lots of rational explanations have been floated: guilt, habit - all kinds of things, but the truth is that none of them make sense. They could just as easily apply to all kinds of other things in Jewish life, and yet they don't. Let's face it, there's no obvious reason to come on the high holidays. They're not especially fun. At least on Rosh Hashanah you get to eat, but it's the day on which nations are judged - awesome, even scary - and certainly not raucous. And Yom Kippur is a fast day. And it's long.
That's what a rationalist says. I used to dream about giving a sermon in which I said: okay, all of you who come just for the high holidays, just go home, and come back on another holiday. But I finally realized why I've never given that sermon. It's because Rabbi Eddie was right, I'm a secret chasid, and a chasid understands something that no rationalist can. You're here, not because of guilt, and not because of habit. You're not here because your mother belonged to this shul, or because you want your kids to marry Jews. You're not here for the food, and you're not here to see the folks you haven't seen in a year.You're not here to get your money's worth from your dues. You're here because your souls are holy. They are precious.
Some of you may think that you've come for one of the reasons I've just
mentioned. Some of you may be wondering what the heck drags you out here year after
year. But it's not really a mystery to the chassidic heart. Our midrash suggests that sometimes our motivations are hidden even from us.That what seems to be one thing is really something quite different, and that what seems to be ordinary, may really be something quite sublime.

Midrash Songs of Songs 6:18 says:
18. THY TEMPLES ARE LIKE A POMEGRANATE SPLIT OPEN. ...Moses began to praise [Israel] them, saying, ‘Even the emptiest among you is as full of religious observances and good deeds as a pomegranate of seeds.’...

Rabbi Dov Baer commented, "...the fear of Heaven, in Torah, Mitzvot (obligations),
charity, prayer and repentance of the heart etc, may be found in each and every Jew
according to his capabilities, as stated, “Your nation are all righteous etc”. "

That's a pretty broad statement. "Your nation all are righteous." After all we know that there are lots of Jews who aren't such good Jews. They cheat, lie or steal, they murder or take drugs or beat their wives, they eat non-kosher food or worship money as if it were a god. So how could Moses say, ‘Even the emptiest among you is as full of religious observances and good deeds as a pomegranate of seeds?"

Yet, our midrash is suggesting something very important.

Pick up rimon from a Torah....

See this? It's called a rimon; it's shaped like a pomegranate ( which is what a rimon is called in English) Although the Menorah and star of david are ofte thought of as THE symbols of Judaism, really, the symbol of Israel is this: (hold up rimon)Punica granatum, stylized, you see it everywhere in Judaism. In Arabic, the pomegranate is called rumman, the fruit of Paradise. Muslims say," People who eat pomegranates will have their hearts filled with light for every pomegranate contains one seed from heaven" This Muslim saying is an interesting one, for it is not dissimilar from an idea of the Jewish mystics.

The kabbalist Chaim Vitale holds that pomegranates contain 613 seeds - one for each
commandment, mitzvah, to which we are obligated - perhaps it's true. Certainly that
would explain why it is the decoration of choice for a Torah, which also contains 613 mitzvot - commandments. It is royal in color: a purply red; shaped like a heart, it is sweet and full of juice and it wears a crown: these things are representative of Israel as well, and it is particularly fitting today on Rosh Hashanah to ask how the pomegranate also tells us something about Rosh Hashanah.

The new year, the day of judgement of nations, also has these qualities: royalty - as we stand before God, hopes for sweetness and juice, and of course as the head of the year, it wears a crown. But most of all, the pomegranate is shaped like a heart. It is this which makes it so rich a symbol. Inside this heart-shaped fruit lies hundreds of seeds, all those seeds which are good deeds and mitzvot, commandments. But these seeds, like the thoughts of the heart, the motivations of a soul, cannot be seen from the outside. In fact, even once the fruit is cracked open, you can only see part of what is there. Like the soul, the pomegranate hides its sweetness. The seeds are surrounded by veils - you know, all that bitter ivory skin to which the seeds cling - but it's not completely opaque - you can see the ruby glow behind it, and know what's on the other side. There is only one way to see the seeds, to tear away the bitter veils that hide them.

The Mei Hashiloach, comments on a verse we read the second day of Rosh Hashana,
"In the seventh month on the first of the month..." Bamidbar/Numbers 29:1
he explains, ... (Bamidbar 2) "[ The Zohar's discussion of Genesis refers to the two creation stories in the Torah. In the first one it says that Chava - Eve- was taken from the side of Adam. Adam is understood by the rabbis to be not a man, but a creature of earth -which is what adam means- a creature of two sexes, one on each side. At that time,] when humanity was of the "two faces," male and female were connected as one." This means that there was no veil separating the creation and the light of the blessed God (i.e. gender in torah is allegorical...) And all of creation had an explicit understanding that all who separated from the Torah were as much as separating from life itself. So from this kind of understanding there is no room for human service. Yet the blessed God wants to improve His creation and he desires that humans will have a way to serve Him. For this reason there was nesia, the separation of "female" from "male", on Rosh Hashanah. And this separation is as it is written (Beresheit 2:21) "And God cast a deep slumber on the "man" (earth creature) and he slept."

This means that that he created a veil separating the creation and the light of the blessed God. Thus, humans must tear away the veil and understand as it was before separation... much the human works in Divine service to tear away the veil, that is how much that person will see the connection that they have with the light of the blessed God as it was before the separation.

The human heart is impenetrable to the eyes of other humans, but God also hides behind a veil. Like the pomegranate, the beauty that is there is hidden, glowing and sweet behind a bitter skin that must be deliberately removed to find what it is we seek. In this, humans are the divine image: we are mysteries that seek to be discovered. But it is also important to note that there is a reason for the veil - it isn't just a difficulty to be overcome for no reason. The veil is there in order that we learn to serve God. The veil is a doorway to doing mitzvot, commandments.

The rabbi continues, "As we read in the Torah- 'Blow the shofar in the month, in the covering of the new moon on the day of our festival,' all the other festivals occur on the full moon, meaning that blessed God turns to His creation, that His creation should have an understanding of His light. But on this festival it is "in the covering" as it says in the holy Zohar (Shoftim 275b), "That the moon covers itself," meaning that the creation does not recognize the light of the blessed God. And by performing the mitzvah of blowing the shofar, a human may connect his apprehension of this world with God's primordial will.

So, on other holidays, God allows us a glimpse of the divine joy of the universe, but not on Rosh Hashanah. On RH, the veil remains intact. On RH, we have an additional veil between us and God -until the shofar blows, and if we have prepared ourselves, the glory of God is revealed to us.

We see that within the pomegranate, this holy fruit, we still can't see all that there is. Things remain hidden from us. And this is one reason that the souls of Israel are attracted to RH. Today, the sound of the shofar tears away the veil and we can see for a moment the true light of God. In the moment of holiness, in the sound of the shofar, our souls blaze with light. So we can understand how it is that mystics say that the pomegranate is a fruit filled with light, that there is within it a seed of heaven. Within each soul, there is also a seed of heaven. No matter how far we have fallen away from tradition, there is a seed of heaven within us.
This is why Jews come to shul in droves during the days of Awe. The rabbi's
statement is a remarkable statement: no matter how far away we are from God at that
moment, no matter how far we have drifted, if we truly are willing to open ourselves up, if we truly are willing, the spark in our souls will jump forth when we hear the shofar, and God's light will evoke light within us. Because, no matter what we tell ourselves our reasons are, in truth, it is our souls longing to be discovered, to have the veils ripped away, to blaze forth with light. To have the seed of heaven within us discovered by God. And also to experience the moment in which God's veil, too is ripped away in a moment of mutual intimacy.
And we also know, deep down, that that can't happen by accident. We know, in
our hearts, that the places in this world where we can be stripped away are few. That the world is not a safe place for intimacy, that connecting to God requires such a deep intimacy that baring ourselves takes an act of courage, that to ready ourselves for that act of courage may take a lifetime. And so we come to the synagogue hoping that this year will be the time. That the shofar will blow, and tear away our veils, at the moment when God is revealed in the world, and we will be ready.
But many of us are disappointed. year after year we return, and we find ourselves leaving as we came, bored, struggling, returning to our every day lives untouched by the malchut, glory, that is supposed to suffuse us on these days. We have been scoured by the world, and rather than leaving us ready to shine with light, we are simply abraded and raw.

So how can it be that the holiness of our souls can be revealed this year? How can we fulfill the desires of our hearts, the desires that perhaps we don't even know? To answer this question, I want to pose to you another. Why be Jewish?

Not so long ago, we didn't have a choice. The outside world made us stay with our own kind, whatever that might mean. We were persecuted. We lived segregated. But that's no longer true. We have risen to the heights of freedom, and we can do whatever we want. For a while, it was enough to say we had a culture, but that proves to not really be true: at best we have many cultures, but without mitzvot, we have seen, culture fades and is replaced by a bland sort of liberalism, so that can't be it. Judaism is not a simple political postion. In fact, it's not even a complicated political position. It is, rather, a deep truth about the universe.
Our souls, my friends are holy, but holiness is not something that is, it is
something that does. If we want to find that kernel of heaven within us, it requires work.
A Jewish soul is not had for the asking - it is a gift. .Why be Jewish? Because God wants us to be Jews. The veil is there for the purpose of being torn away. The kernel of heaven is within your heart, waiting to be discovered because that light is a gift to the world. You are a candle waiting to be lit.
God saw that the human ability to have a relationship with God was weak and so created a system to help us. God offered the Torah to many nations, but only Israel accepted it - and for good reason, look, we've survived thousands of years of hard work, and persecution on top of that.- the rabbis of the talmud recognized how difficult it is to be Jewish. Spiritual work isn't easy. Of course, you don't have to be Jewish to connect to God, but it's stupendously difficult to truly do - it's like wanting to be an Olympic gold medalist - it takes a lot of training, and a lot of practise. The big difference of course, is that there's no limitation on the number of medals handed out. We may not all get the gold, but potentially we all could, if we were willing to work hard enough for it. That's why the world needs Judaism: we're here to offer an example and a tutorial. You are essential Without you, Judaism's message cannot be carried out.
But there's more. That revelation is not for us alone. Today we balk at the idea of being chosen. Chosenness sounds elitist and creepy. But our holy souls recognize something else, a deep truth about Judaism: The world needs Jews. Judaism has a mission, and that mission is essential for the world. God created the covenant to care for the spiritual needs of all the world and all its people. The Jews didn't accept Torah just for ourselves, but on behalf of the entire world. Even the land of Israel was given on the condition that we give the highest commmitment to God and Torah, and to the moral and spiritual guidance that God provided for us through halacha, the law.
The Mei Hashiloach also says, regarding one of the verses that we read about Abraham on RH, ...that " Elohim tested Avraham" (Ber. 22) He comments, the whole matter of a miracle is because man forgets. For on the day that Adam was created, he saw the ocean raging and swelling, and his reaction was as if he
was witnessing the miracle of the splitting of the sea of reeds (at the exodus) Yet since man is a forgetful creature, and has become accustomed to the nature of this world and the motion of the sea, when finally the sea of reeds split it was seen as a miracle. A miracle is only when man is woken from the forgetting, which causes him not to see that everything is coming from the blessed God. yet when one witnesses a miracle, he wakes up and sees this.
Ps. 36: 10. says, " For with You is the fountain of life; in Your light shall we see light." Rosh Hashanah reminds us where to look for the kernel of heaven within us: In God's light, we will see our own light. But in order to see God's light, we have to reach out to God in intimacy and love. For God has implanted the seed of heaven within us, but it is up to us to light it up.
In the rush of the everyday, we have forgotten that our souls are holy. So we need Rosh HaShanah to remind us who we are. The blast of the shofar is here to remind us that every moment is a miracle, every soul is holy. The blast of the shofar tears away the veils of the universe to remind us that when we leave here, we have the opportunity to ignite the world with light, if only we are willing to do the work it requires.That work is the work of bringing God into the world through mitzvot. The work is not easy. But without mitzvot, your souls remain dormant, forever longing, and never leaping into flame. Your souls are holy, but to shine, they have to be polished every day. Remember who you are:
You are the Fruit of Paradise.

Chag sameach. L'shanah tovah. May you be inscribed in the book of life, the eternal book, The Torah of the universe.

No comments: