By Rabbi Shohama
L’shanah tovah. This is the greeting we give each other at this time of year. May this year be a good year, or at the very least a year with much goodness in it. This salutation might be considered a prayer, a wish, a hope, or an affirmation. Particularly this year, these words feel needed.
Our theme for these Holy Days is Love – and, for this morning, the aspects of Divine Love and human love that arise from feeling vulnerable, wounded or fearful.
We saw this theme in today’s Torah and Haftarah readings. Today’s narrative of Avraham taking his only son for a sacrifice may seem to demonstrate his obedience more than love, but think about Avraham’s journey from the home he had known to a land he did not know. What else but love could motivate Avraham to leave everything he had known to become the first monotheist and to follow what he understood to be the Creator and Source of all life?
Avraham’s God was different from the gods of that era; it was a God of justice and mercy. Unlike the gods of the time who commanded the sacrifice of the first born son, the God of Abraham tested Abraham’s obedience but sent the ram as a sacrifice instead of Yitzchak. At least that’s how I understand the story. In following this God Abraham became vulnerable—open to the not knowing of what would be next and committed to standing up against idolatry and wrongdoing. In return, God told Abraham, “by your descendants all nations on earth will be blessed” (Gen. 22:18).
In our Haftarah, Chanah pleaded with God in desperation over not being able to conceive a baby. She was vulnerable to the pain of infertility and in so much sorrow that she promised her child in Divine service. It was a human act for Chanah to promise something precious in return for a miraculous request. That is not uncommon. We may also guess that her love for God was so great that she would entrust her son’s life to sacred service. Indeed, the son born to her, Samuel, became a great Biblical hero.
While these Torah figures may seem beyond our understanding, larger than life, they challenge us to engage in our own struggle with living a life dedicated to holy deeds.
Looking at our own spiritual journey is one of the ways we all may engage in Teshuvah, returning to our essential divine selves. In that merit, I’d like to share my foundational spiritual struggle, and how I came to be who I am today. You may have heard it before, but I’m hoping that you will find it worth hearing another time. More than that, I hope that before these High Holy Days are over, you will share your unique story with someone you love and trust, and that this sharing will bring you insight, comfort and strength for Teshuvah, coming back home to your soul’s essence .
It was more than 40 years ago. I was a young mother of three, and my then husband was quite ill. I feared I might be left a widow, with no adequate way of supporting my children. At the time I didn’t believe in God; on the rare occasions I would go to services I would recite most of the prayers while skipping over the Divine names: “Baruch Atah … … Melech HaOlam.” That was my practice and how I avoided feeling like a hypocrite. Yet I was desperate to find a Power greater than my own.
Since I had been raised as a Jew, I decided to go to a Jewish prayer service and take a chance on really opening my heart. I was scared and vulnerable. What if I wasn’t answered? What if the answer was “sorry”? As I sat in the congregation I said silently to myself, “God, if you exist, and You let me know that you hear me, I will follow.” Within minutes my heart filled with an overwhelming feeling of love and comfort. I felt heard and I felt held. I felt drawn to attend services and Judaic classes, and … well, you can imagine the rest.
Each of our stories is different. Some of you are here today for love of being with family. Some of you are here because you love our community. And maybe, just maybe, some of you are here for comfort, for hope, for guidance, because the world out there is truly frightening. We fear for our health, our safety, our sustenance, our planet. We feel vulnerable. For some of us that vulnerability can open us to search for a Higher Power; for many it may shut us down in anger that a Divine Source could allow such terrible things to happen. To those who feel closed off, the answer may be that we are God’s partners in creation and part of a greater whole; we all need to do our part. Jewish tradition teaches that God values every little action done with a willing heart. The little things each of us can do, like making a phone call to check in on a friend, or wearing a mask to protect other people, or helping our favorite candidates in some way, add up. Little plus little plus little eventually adds up to a lot.
Our theme for these High Holy Days asserts that there is a love that comes from realm of Spirit (capital S) that pulls or pushes us to grow beyond what we can imagine – a love that can give us hope, joy, and spirit (small s). Maybe you’ll feel an emanation of this love coming through this screen, from people who care deeply about each other. That is the nature of our congregation, Temple Beth El of City Island, affectionately known as “Your Shul by the Sea.” That love, I believe, is part of a Greater Love, a Source of Love Jewish tradition calls God.
The Biblical prophet Isaiah, who lived during hard and dangerous times, spoke for God as follows: “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10). Isaiah didn’t use the word “love,” but what else could promote such dedication?
In time, it became a core of Jewish Kabbalah, mystical teaching, that God reaches out to us as we reach out to God. This teaching shaped the wisdom of Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapiro, rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust, who was known by the title of his book, Aish Kodesh (Holy Fire). He wrote that Teshuvah Shleimah, a full teshuvah, is when we so totally reconnect with the Great Love, the Holy One, our Source, God, Ultimate Goodness – that our reconnection completes the spiritual circuit. And when we do, we receive boundless inflow of Love from the Infinite Source of Love. That’s why, as we reach out toward that reconnection, in openness and vulnerability, Ultimate Love reaches back.
But when we stray from our best selves, when we’ve been hurt or caused hurt, often love isn’t what we feel – or isn’t all we feel. So in those times, if love doesn’t inspire us to reach out, then what? The Aish Kodesh taught that love is our destination, but it might not be our starting point – and it doesn’t need to be. Our starting point is anything that opens us to vulnerability, whether it’s fear of consequences, or fear of bad karma, or guilt, or loneliness, or pain, or longing – whatever first opens our heart. It almost doesn’t matter what gets us started, but once we do start turning, the more we turn, the more Love turns to us, the more Love helps us turn, the more our teshuvah becomes complete, a teshuvah shleimah. In this age of rugged individualism, it is challenging and perhaps scary to open ourselves to Divine influence, but we do have a choice.
We can make our vulnerability propel us to a holier life. As we will read on Yom Kippur morning, Torah tells us U’vacharta bachayim (Deut. 30:19): “Choose Life” – a full life, a life that is filled with Love. Whether we call this Great Love the Good (capital G), or we call it God, living a life of love is the Sacred by any name. It is what we need to repair ourselves, to give us courage to repair the world, and to make this New Year filled with goodness.
May it be so.