By Rabbi Shohama
Shanah Tovah, everyone.
Our theme for these High Holidays is “Journeys of the Soul.” Last night, Rabbi David introduced our theme with the soul level of nefesh and the world of Action, with a clarion call to act to save the planet, restore civility in our politics, and mend our relationships. This morning’s teachings center around ruach, the soul level of emotion or feeling, to improve our lives and the lives of others. Ruach literally means wind, but in this context it refers to the flow that powers change.
The greeting Shanah Tovah speaks to this flow. The English rendition is “Happy New Year,” but the more accurate translation of Shanah Tovah is “Year that is Good.” What’s the difference? Happy connotes joy, but “good” has many meanings. Good can include joy, hope, and satisfaction – and more likely it also includes loss and grief, anger and fear – because to be fully alive is to feel the full range of human emotion.
For me and my husband Alan, entering this year has been an emotional roller coaster. You probably know by now that this is the year of my retirement as year-round rabbi and Alan’s retirement as a holistic medical practitioner. Come December 1, we plan to be in Sarasota, Florida, returning to visit here from time to time. Besides you, beloved members and friends, we have family and deep roots in this area. Our feelings around this move are happy and hopeful, and also sad at what we will be enormous loss for both of us.
Why now? My mentor, the late Rabbi Maurice Davis, said it well in his retirement speech. He said, “I want to retire when people ask: ‘Why are you leaving so soon?’ – not when they are thinking, ‘When is he going to retire already?’”
Aging is one thing we cannot stop, and I am now 77. But we can make the best of what we can contribute, while leaving more time for feeling the joys that the “golden years” can offer. Alan and I plan to do just that. We intend to put new treads on these old tires and give re-tire-ment a new meaning. A different chapter lies ahead, and it will be “good,” God willing.
For all of us, this New Year gives us an opportunity to re-tread old tires. That retreading is called teshuvah – returning to our goodly, our Godly essence. This morning’s Torah reading also speaks of a wide range of emotions – joy and embarrassed laughter around Isaac’s birth after years of Sarah’s infertility, and Hagar’s fear when she was banished as Sarah’s servant and mother of Abraham’s first son, Ishmael.
Torah addresses the full spectrum of feelings. Some emotions are clearly so good that we know they are God sent. The birth of a healthy child to parents well past child bearing age is a miracle and cause for unimaginable happiness. On the other hand, we are taught that the Divine is in kol ha-olam kulo, the entire world. That means we can reach for holiness in all emotions – even the ones we consider negative like fear, anger, grief. All these can be transformed so that their divine essence is revealed.
My mentor Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, of blessed memory, liked to tell a story that illustrates this principle. It goes something like this.
There once was a rebbe who was thought to work miracles, because when people would come to him with their petitions, he would look deeply into their souls and see what it was they really needed – not what they wanted, but what they needed. His connection to God was so strong that he would bless them, and the need would be fulfilled.
One day, one of his students said, “You know, rebbe, there is someone else in town who has the same power as you. He gives blessings, and the blessings come true.”
“Nu, who is that?” asked the rebbe.
“The bartender,” answered the student.
The rebbe was surprised, as he knew the bartender to be a simple, unlearned man. So he decided to check this out for himself. He dressed up like a villager and paid a visit to the inn where the bartender worked.
The rebbe saw that it was true: the bartender did give blessings of great power that spoke to the need of each person. At the end of a week of observing, the rebbe confessed his identity, and asked the bartender how he came to have such holy power.
“Well,” said the bartender, “I am not learned and I haven’t lived a holy life. But a few years ago, my business was failing. You see, I have a terrible temper. Someone comes into the inn, I don’t like the way he looks, I jump over the bar and I punch him out. It’s not good for business – but what could I do? I had such a terrible temper and I didn’t know how to control it.
“Things got so bad that we were almost starving. And my wife, she tells me to get a partner. I know she’s right, but with my terrible temper, how could I have a partner?
“But I had to do something. I broke down and cried, and said, ‘God, listen to me please. I need a partner, but my temper is too great for a partner of flesh and blood, so I’m making You my partner. From now on, half of my profits are yours, and ten percent of my share as well, because, after all, you’re God.’
“So ever since, God has been my partner and business is booming.”
The rebbe said, “I see. But what about your temper?”
“What about my temper? I still have a terrible temper. But when someone makes me angry, I wait and see what it is about him that makes me so angry and I say, ‘By God, what you need is such and such!’”
The rebbe nodded. “Yes. That’s a blessing. By invoking God you bring in your partner, and God has to keep up the blessing part of the partnership. That is why the blessings you bestow come true.”
This story about partnering with God illustrates how we might deal with the addictive quality of an emotional pattern that is self-destructive. By calling on God, or Higher Power, or whatever name we have for the Goodness in Life, we harness the ruach, the flow of the soul sphere of emotion, that makes for positive change.
The Sefat Emet, a renowned Hasidic rabbi of the last century, taught this: “Every feeling and emotion, every want and desire, comes from nowhere other than the being and will of God – for there is no other root. To uplift the undesirable feeling, you can say to your desire, ‘I know that you too come from God, even in fallen form. Now I will take the energy you arouse in me to give to God in yet a more whole way.’”
The Sefat Emet lists one way to uplift our negative feelings: we make God our partner and Divine help comes. Another way is to attend our holiday services, where we focus on spiritual transformation. For example, our prayer song for healing is phrased in the collective, as ruach refers to flow within ourselves and within the collective body of humanity of which we are a part. We ask for waters of healing to flow through our soul, our mind, our heart, and our form. Other ways to work on uplifting negative emotions are to join a spiritual support group; to work with a friend who can serve as a spirit buddy; or seek out a professional spiritual director.
The first step is to look deeply at ourselves. What feelings do we have that call for transformation from the lower realms to the upper realms – from the worn out old tire to a retreaded one, one that works like new?
I’ll share with you – I’m working on bitachon, the Hebrew word for trust, the feeling of peace that comes from feeling that God is in every aspect of my life, helping it turn out for the best. Too often I’m anxious, because I forget to say “Thank you God” for being with me. My grandmother Mollie of blessed memory, would often say, “Tanks Gott,” in her Yiddish accent.
I say “Tanks Gott,” for being with me for 18 good years at this Shul by the Sea. ”Tanks Gott” for bringing us Rabbi David who has been bringing new music and spiritually enlivening experiences to us for a decade, and hopefully will continue for many, many years to come. “Tanks Gott” to our Board of Trustees and all of you who serve this community with a full heart. “Tanks Gott” for the wide variety of seekers who come here. You feel deeply; you bring righteous anger to combat injustice; you laugh and you cheer and you cry all in the space of one service. That’s as it should be.
In both the uplifting and the challenging emotions let us turn to the Force that created the universe to be our partner. Then it will be a Shanah Tovah, a year of goodness.
Amen – may it be so.