On the second day of Rosh Hashanah (Sunday, September 17, 2023), a sermon was offered by Jewish educator Emily Rogal, who will be teaching our Meaning & Mishnah class later this fall. (Find her bio here alongside a description of that course.) Emily’s sermon has been reproduced below for those who were unable to join us for this service, as well as those who wish to “return” to the words they heard that morning.
I recently moved to Western Mass after over a decade of big city living, and while it’s been amazing, there have been… a few adjustments. Namely, I have had to re-encounter my complete and total bafflement when it comes to the outdoors. It’s not that I am one of those people who hates nature, it’s just that it’s far easier for me to navigate the labyrinthine New York City subway than the forest… as evidenced by the other day when some of my friends invited me to go swimming.
I had been spending time with some other friends and missed the text with the instructions of where we were meant to go. But that would be alright, because surely we were going somewhere that Google Maps had thorough and clear instructions to guide me for, like every other place on the planet? Right?
Not so much. The text read something like this: “Drive to this campsite, park on the dirt road, and walk into the woods for about fifteen minutes. You’ll find us. Also, we won’t have cellphone service.”
I almost chickened out. But, then I remembered my two and a half years of Girl Scouts and thought, “The woods. How big can that be?”
So, I drove, I found the dirt road, I parked my car, and I walked into the woods. I followed something sort of resembling a path until that ended, and I found myself stepping over logs, dodging trees, untangling my hair from tree branches like a fairy tale character on the run. I started to feel anxious, like my chest was compressing. For one of the first times in my life, I felt really and truly physically lost.
Clearly, I survived, and to spoil the end of the story (and cut out a lot of frantic circling), I finally emerged from the woods triumphantly and found my friends, to their very gracious cheering. After an afternoon in the sunshine, I began the drive home, my GPS safely leading me back into the world I was more familiar with, and I found myself wondering when — exactly — I had begun to feel so estranged from the world.
The thing is that when I walked through the woods that day, I didn’t feel like I was in a Mary Oliver poem, I felt disenchanted, afraid, and alone. I saw myself as a thing that was separate from the world, rather than of it. Maybe you feel this way, too, sometimes — like you, too, are a thing that doesn’t belong to this world.
And how could you not? Those of us who move through this world with any sort of marginalized identity are taught implicitly and explicitly that we have not earned the right to exist, and all of us live with a myriad of heartbreaks. It is so much, sometimes too much, to carry.
Where does this leave us on Rosh Hashana? Hayom harat olam, we read in our High Holiday liturgy, Today is the day of the world’s creation. We stand on the precipice of this new beginning, and yet it would be an impossible ask for us to completely forget all of the brokenness we have inherited. So instead, many of us find ourselves asking, which is it? Is this world broken beyond repair, or is it beautiful beyond comprehension? As the Sikh poet and activist Valerie Kaur finds us asking, “is this the darkness of the tomb or the womb?”
Like all rabbi-adjacent people, I don’t have an answer, but instead, I will share a story. In the book of Genesis, Abraham, our forefather, finds himself faced with a commandment from G-d, “Lech lecha,” the Divine tells him. “Go forth from your land, from all that you know, to the land that I will show you.” In Breishit Rabbah, one of the many volumes of midrashim, rabbinic fanfiction, the rabbis ask what this experience must have been like — how Abraham must have experienced the radical awakening of a previously unknown Divine voice instructing him to go, leave, to change, to — like us at the beginning of this year — to begin again.
Well, the rabbis teach, G-d telling Abraham to go forth is like a person wandering through the wilderness (likely without a GPS, hashtag relatable) who stumbles upon a bira doleket, a lit up castle. The person stands before the castle and asks, “Is it possible that this castle lacks no owner?” In response, the owner of the castle looked out and said, “I am the owner of the castle.”
Okay, cryptic. The story becomes even more complicated when we look at the Hebrew for the word doleket, which can either mean lit up, aglow, or on fire, and we — the reader — are unclear as to which this is. If the castle aglow, then we can imagine the person standing in a moment of awe, marveling at the seemingly random beauty of a castle in the middle of the woods. And… if the castle is on fire, then perhaps the person asks the question in fear, or perhaps frustration, something like, “Hello?!? This castle is literally on fire, who is responsible for this?”
I have spent a good deal of this year working as a domestic violence counselor, and like the person in the midrash, I have often found myself asking the same questions. Is this world dangerous or beautiful? It has often been mind boggling for me to attempt to integrate the differences, how the same world where I spend my time watching a dog I love run through the grass, sit around the fire with friends, learn Torah, waste away afternoons in the sunshine with my partner is also the world wherein people experience violence, trauma, hardship. Perhaps the only logical response in the face of so much dissonance is to feel disconnected, alone, map-less, standing before the vastness of the world and asking, “What is actually happening here?”
Rosh Hashanah does not offer any concrete answer to this question (Judaism, I think, rarely offers those), but instead, I believe, reconnects us with the question itself. It is a time when we, like our beloved people in the Christian tradition say, remind ourselves not only who we are, but whose we are. We are no strangers to the brokenness of the world — we belong to a tradition that teaches us that one of our fundamental responsibilities as part of our job description of “human being” is to identify and take part in repairing the hurt in the world.
But it’s so much easier to stay disconnected, sometimes, like our prophet Jonah who we will encounter on Yom Kippur, spending time in the belly of the whale — sure, it’s dark and you can’t see clearly, but at least the demands of the world cease. But what do we lack when we turn ourselves off to the complexities, the nuances, the beauty and the badness, of all of this?
Perhaps the answer lies in the nuances of this Hebrew word. Perhaps, like the castle in the woods, this world is truly both aglow and on fire — radiant and terrible — but the true danger lies in seeing ourselves as separate from all of this, to feel as though there is no place for us. Rosh Hashanah asks us to return to that place of wonder and fear, to do as the feminist eco-theorist Donna Harraway tells us and to “stay with the trouble.”
Similarly, the conversation on Rosh Hashanah in the Mishnah poses the question: what “counts” as hearing the blast of the shofar? If one blows a shofar in a pit/cistern/jug and they hear the blast, it counts as fulfilling the commandment, but if one only hears the echo, one has not fulfilled the requirement. Similarly, the Mishnah relates, if one passes by a synagogue and hears the shofar, they have not completed their spiritual requirement, unless they have “focused their heart.”
The Rabbis are setting out a challenge for us: It’s not enough just to hear the call of the shofar — you must let yourself be moved by it, too. If you are stuck in a pit — of depression, of fear, of ambivalence, as so many of us are, it’s not enough to just hear the echo of life. No matter where we are, we must tune into the mystery and beauty of Creation, while also reminding us of our responsibility to take care of the world, each other, and ourselves.
The blast of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is our call to wake up, to find ourselves from wherever we’ve been wandering, to love this delicious and painful world, and to recommit ourselves to focusing our hearts once more, and to remember that we are all deeply, divinely, interconnected. We are far from alone.
From wherever you are — lost or found, in the woods or in the pit — may this year bring you the sweetness of presence, of interdependence, of connectedness. May you be reminded that you are divinely and wondrously made, that this world was made for you, for us, and that we are interconnected by our need to steward it. May the blast of the shofar call you home, to us, to yourself.
Shanah tovah u’metukah, a good and sweet new year.