sermon: Erev Rosh HaShanah 5778

The Great Becoming

Rosh HaShanah is the holiday of recognizing our becoming.

There have only been a few times in my life when a work of art or a form of art has taken my breath away. Some in this room may be lucky or savvy enough for this to happen on a regular basis but for me it is more elusive. This past year I encountered a form of religious art, a sand mandala, that stems from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Standing around a table, Tibetan monks sketch and proceed to fill in intricate designs of deities using tiny funnels filled with colorful sand. Sometimes taking weeks to finish, the artists practice patience and stamina with the intention that the viewer will reach a state of purification and awe. Once completed, the sand mandalas are methodically deconstructed with brushes and the sand collected in a jar and taken to a body of water so that the materials can return to their place of origin. We can almost say dayenu, it would have been enough, that precious hours were spent making beautiful works of art but then they are swept away never to be seen in that form again, reminding us that nothing in life is permanent.

On Rosh HaShanah it might seem a bit strange to begin by talking about another religion’s rite. While distinctly Buddhist, the philosophy of the sand mandala correlates to what we are doing here tonight.

Rosh HaShanah, the head of the new year. The Hebrew word for year, שָׁנָה shana, is not just year, it relates to the word שִׁנוּי shinui, change. From one year to the next, we highlight the changes in our lives. This holiday asks us to review our year, admire it, and then sweep it away with the recognition that it will never be seen in that form again, just like the sand of the mandala. Rosh HaShanah reminds us that we cannot hold on to time, the new moon is here and with it a new year, 5778.

We seem to recognize our desire for things to stay the same at the exact moment they are changing. At a pivotal moment in the Torah, Moses asks to see God’s face. He is in the midst of great change, he is chosen by God to be the leader of the people. While Moses knows God is there because of the miracles God has shown him so far in his life, he hedges a bit on the mountain. (By the way: We do the same thing. At least I do). Moses, our greatest teacher, wishes things would stay the same at the moment they are going to change for the rest of his life. We know this because the next three books of the Torah are all about him. Moses was lucky; we don’t get the luxury of knowing what is coming next. Sensing Moses’ desire to feel and know the Ultimate, the Unknowable, God tucks Moses in the cleft of a rock and God’s presence passes by him. Moses is able to feel the warmth, the power, the One pass by him and see God’s back. But that isn’t all that happens in this moment. God also speaks, saying that you will know me by name, אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, often translated as “I will be what I will be.” Rabbi Lawrence Kushner teachers that instead of “I will be what I will be,” we might understand this complicated syntax as God’s name as “I am not done yet.” At this moment of ultimate change for Moses, God is also saying I am not done yet. I am change. “My name is in flux, dynamic, the one who is not yet.”

If God tells Moses — and, by extension, us, that God is not done; how much the more so can we also claim our not-doneness, our perfect imperfectness? So often in our lives we like to wrap up and tie a bow on our experiences. Most of the time, we do this by incessant picture-taking. School started about a month ago for many of our local students, from preschoolers to college-age. Many parents, myself included, snapped a few photos of our kids as they embarked on their journey to knowledge, kindness, and socialization. A few months from now, I’ll look back at the picture and compare it to the one on the last day of school. We will marvel at the height difference, the face squaring, the happy smiles and see the passage of time. One school year will be complete and the chapter will close. As parents and as humans, we love this. However, it does not capture our continual becoming. The end goal isn’t the image created but the life lived.

A better metaphor is teaching a child how to walk. This past summer, I had the sacred opportunity of watching my younger son, Asher, do this very thing. For a few weeks, he was practicing standing by playing “stand up and fall down.” Then one day we were at a park in Burlingame and he saw a ball that looked just ripe for throwing. Without any hesitation, he took a few steps and fell down right before getting to the ball. The next day, my husband, Brent, was sitting a few feet in front of him and asked Asher to walk to him. As soon as Asher took two or three steps Brent backed up to get him to walk even further. Asher’s goal was to get to Brent but Brent’s goal was for Asher to walk further. We were teaching him that he is not done yet, just as we learned from Moses and Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.

While we can learn about our people’s history from Torah, we can also learn a great deal from the secular world around us.

Just over a year ago, Terry Gross, the host of NPR’s Fresh Air, interviewed author Jonathan Safran Foer on his book, Here I Am. As one of the best interviewers of our time, Gross asked insightful questions about the impetus for writing the book, how he crafted the characters, and how much crossover there was between the characters’ experiences and his own life. Much of the interview focused on the Jewish aspects of the book. When asked about his own practice, Foer described his Judaism as being shallow. He then clarifies, noting “that it’s not a bad thing to acknowledge a shallowness, it implies a kind of aspiration — like, a hope to have more depth.”

I bristled when I heard him say these words. As someone who takes pride in going deep into our tradition, I want others to see its beauty and richness. But after listening to it another time, I heard the bravery in his statement. He is saying that he can imagine the depth that Judaism has to offer but he is currently on the surface. Similarly, when 19th-century Jewish philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig, was asked if he was religious he famously said, “Not yet.” In the interview, Foer says, “Those two words [not yet]  imply both a present failure but also an optimism or a hope or maybe even a kind of dedication.” Not yet could be a not today, or not tomorrow, but maybe in a year, or five years, or ten years. The important part is that it not never.

We must recognize our ever-unfolding story. There are no hard stops, just moments in the year that draw our attention to what is happening around us.

Just as school photos are a way of seeing our becoming, retirements are too. Cantor Barry is literally in the midst of the first of his last High Holy Day service as Cantor at Peninsula Temple Sholom. After fifty years of serving this congregation, he is affirming his not-doneness by retiring from his day-to-day responsibilities at PTS and moving on to other things. In preparation for this moment, I asked him what this idea of becoming means to him. He said:

One of the best ways to think about this moment is what I heard in an interview with Miles Davis. They asked him about what it feels to be a legend and he said, I’m not a legend because I’m not done yet. I don’t consider myself to be a legend but I loved the spirit of what he said in that moment.

The unknown is what we face at each Rosh HaShanah. “Miles Davis being interviewed on being a legend, I’m not done yet.”

It is difficult enough to recognize our own faults and accept them as our perfect imperfectness but we often do not draw on the same mantra when dealing with others. We are quick to judge, quick to be offended when someone walks by without a smile, or cuts us off at a traffic light. What we might accept in ourselves, having a bad day or in the middle of a crisis, we often to do not accept in others.

Rabbi Kushner also teaches that recognizing that other people are in progress is a helpful way to interact with the world. He says,

This is what a tzadik (a righteous person) is like, continually aware of her deficiencies [and] inadequacies. And you trust in God that when the time comes she will get to where she needs to be.

That is the secret of the name Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh. It is a future yet to attain now incomplete, riddled with inefficiencies. This means in real terms that we should go easy on others who are also not done yet, don’t hold it against them, they are ever-evolving too.

Our big question for this new year or 5778 is – Who will we be? How are we becoming? Our job is to notice it now, from today until tomorrow. How are you going to express your not done-ness this year? Rosh HaShanah is the holiday of recognizing our becoming.

May this new year be one of searching and finding, fulfillment and action. May it grant us the space to change, to return to our better selves. May it allow us to give others the space to change and become better. May this year allow us to draw nearer to Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, the Great Becoming.