Rosh HaShanah

Rosh HaShanah Sermon 2019

Shanah tovah, my friends. It’s good to be here together, returning once again to the grandeur, awe, and intimate opportunity for transformation that these High Holidays offer. The earth has spun around the sun another cycle. It is time to examine the habits that we are ready to outgrow. It is time to aspire to change for the better, and to practice our aspirations. It is time for us to be reborn along with this new year. 

We might take that mythical bird the phoenix as a role model for us. The Oxford Dictionary describes the phoenix as “a unique bird that lived for five or six centuries in the Arabian desert, after this time burning itself on a funeral pyre and rising from the ashes with renewed youth to live through another cycle.” 

Every year we too hope to burn away our mistakes, regrets, missed opportunities, and assorted failures, and emerge with renewed resilience and youthful hunger to keep learning and growing and trying and loving.

According to Jewish tradition (TB Sanhedrin 108b), the phoenix has its origin in the great flood story, when Noah and his family tried to save all sorts of animals. Noah established a feeding routine for his floating farm, but after some time came to realize he hadn’t seen the phoenix around in a while. After searching the compartments, Noah stumbled across the once proud bird looking quite bedraggled and faint. Noah exclaimed, “Do you not want food?!” The stubbornly kind bird responded, “I saw that you were busy, and I didn’t want to trouble you.” Noah immediately blessed the phoenix, saying “May it be God’s will that you never die.” And that’s how the phoenix earned its fiery magical rebirth.

The lesson we learn from this fantastical story is a very human one, but frankly not that great of a lesson. The Phoenix is rewarded with the ability to rejuvenate because it learns to persevere quietly, to never ask for help, and to pretend that somehow accepting aid from the person who literally is tasked with that responsibility is being too much of a nuisance. 

The Phoenix is no role model, rather it embodies a dangerous myth – that we humans can be magical creatures blessed with infinite energy if and only if we never admit weakness. In fact, the phoenix is doomed to never really change, stuck in its form forever, cycle after cycle. That’s what occurs when we don’t admit weakness. 

When we pretend we’re stronger than we are, we get blocked from truly changing, from transforming into who we want to become deep down. The only transformations  I have ever experienced came from a place of needing and asking for help.

Many years ago, I was hiking in the spring green mountains of Boulder, Colorado with 9 rabbis and a cantor. We were there to be trained by the original Adventure Rabbi, the wise and energetic Jamie Korngold. I expected to learn about nature and God, about my colleagues, about how to do Judaism in the wild. What I learned instead remains vividly lodged in my heart like a beast in the ark. 

We were climbing a steep trail, one by one. A large boulder proved particularly difficult to scale, yet Rabbi Korngold, who is at least a foot shorter than me, had somehow bounded up it. She turned back and reached out her hand to me. As a tall male who was pretty athletic, I hesitated. Surely I could do this on my own. I’ve got this! 

But Jamie told us, “There’s a lesson here. There are so many times in life’s journey when we could use a little help but there’s no one there to help. So when someone offers you a hand, take it. Take it even if you don’t need it. Because there will be a time when you do need it. Get in the habit now.” When someone offers you a hand, take it. So I took her hand, and she helped steady my balance as I stepped up onto the boulder and into a new humble awareness that I too needed help from time to time. 

When someone offers you a hand, take it. Don’t be a feeble phoenix.

There’s another story (Vayikra Rabbah 24:3) about magical creatures needing help that I came across in teaching midrash last spring. 

Once Abba Yosei was sitting and learning at the mouth of a spring. A certain spirit that dwelt there appeared to him and said to him, “You know how many years I have dwelt here, and you and your family have been coming and going in the evening and at mid-day, and you have never been harmed. But now you should know that an evil spirit wants to dwell here, and this one harms people.”

Abba Yosei said to the spirit, “What shall we do to prevent this?” The spirit said to him, “Go and warn the townspeople and say to them: Whoever has a hoe, whoever has a spade, whoever has a shovel shall come out here tomorrow at the break of day and gaze at the surface of the water. And when they see a disturbance of the water, they should bang together the iron and cry out, ‘Our side has won!’ And they should not depart from here until such a time as they see a drop of blood on the surface of the water.”

Abba Yosei went and warned the townspeople, and told them [what the spirit had said]. Whoever had a hoe, whoever had a spade, whoever had a shovel went out there the next day at the break of day and gazed toward the water. When they saw a disturbance on the water, they banged together the iron and cried out, “Our side has won! Our side has won!” And they did not return from there until they saw the likeness of a drop of blood on the surface of the water.

It’s a weirdly delightful story. But then the midrash gives the moral. If the spirits, which were not created to need assistance, occasionally require assistance, we who were created for assistance, how much more so do we need help! 

We were created for assistance. My friends, we need help. That’s what it means to be human. We are existentially, inexorably, undeniably in need of help. And yet, how many of us think regularly, if not daily or hourly, that we can do it alone, that at best we can fix our own problems and that at worst we’ll suffer silently rather than risk embarrassment and looking weak? 

We are often, as it were, possessed by a spirit of self-sufficiency, imagining once again that we are magical creatures that are totally fine and don’t need to rely on others. When I am possessed by the spirit of self-sufficiency, a hand reaching out to help threatens to remind me I’m only human. I can’t tell you how many hands I’ve swatted away with something approaching terror, and how many more I’ve convinced myself were never there in the first place. 

Rabbi Ruth Adar, our wonderful East Bay Coffee Shop Rabbi, writes: The one who has to ask is admitting and feeling powerlessness. What do I fear, when I ask for help? I fear ridicule. I fear “being a nuisance.” I fear rejection. I fear gossip about perceived reasons for my need. I fear being made other. I fear abandonment. 

Fear makes needing help pretty uncomfortable. But we’ve got to push past that. Unlike magical creatures like phoenixes and water spirits, and unlike most animals, our essence is not gifted to us nor is it instinctual. Most things that make us human in the best sense of that word are hard for us to develop, perhaps by design. To be human is to be born into this world with an invitation to grow into who we need to be. Learning to be ourselves is the task and the path. We are seeds that can choose to grow into trees. We are gardens if we know how to get rid of the weeds. We are interdependent, a stunning mosaic if we could only admit each one of us is incomplete on our own. 

If we are to own our humanity, and not hide behind the deceiving spirit of self-sufficiency, we have to grow in our comfort with needing help and our ability to see those hands out there reaching out to assist us. 

This chart gives us a framework for thinking about our relationship to needing help. It gives us a direction to focus our practice. 

When we are driven by fear and deeply uncomfortable with needing help, and we aren’t very good at noticing help that may be offered, we live in this bottom left-hand quadrant, ignoring and ignorant of help. It’s easier not to see it sometimes, because we can then imagine we don’t need anything. 

Even when we know that help is out there, when a partner or friend or coworker offers advice or we know the doctor has a recommendation if we’d only schedule that appointment, we may still refuse to take that outstretched hand. Stubbornly we stick to doing it ourselves, stranding ourselves in the upper left quadrant. 

But, if we can get more comfortable, we might move towards asking for help, even when it’s not obvious where that help will come from, or even moving to that upper right quadrant by becoming more aware of the diverse resources and support systems and spiritual nourishment available in our lives. Sometimes simply being emotionally and spiritually ready for help means that it may come your way. Of course, what you think you need help with and what you actually need help with may not be the same thing.

There’s a story about a stellar employee at this large corporation who did astounding things with spreadsheets and graphics and getting right to the heart of whatever the core business of this place was, but he had a real problem communicating his amazing work because everytime he showed up to give a presentation, he peed his pants. This made it quite difficult to actually give the presentation. 

But his boss believed in him and knew if only they could solve this problem there would be no limits to this employee’s future contributions to the company. So the boss reached out, and said, “Look, there’s clearly something you need to work through, and I’m prepared to help. We will send you to therapy, and you can figure out what you need to figure out, and then you’re going to give perfect presentations.” 

Gratefully, the employee started going to therapy, but some months later every time he arrived to give a presentation, he still peed his pants. Finally boss asked, “Hasn’t anything changed? We’ve really invested in helping you on this.” To which the employee replied, “Therapy’s been great. Yeah, I still pee my pants, but now I no longer bad about it.” Sometimes the help we think we need, is not always the help we will receive. 

So how do we do the work of getting more comfortable with needing help? First, we need to understand our particular discomfort a little better. One extreme example is to imagine the neediest of people in our society, those who are homeless and living on the streets for any variety of reasons. What happens inside of you when you encounter raw need? 

When I encounter someone on the streets near where I live in Oakland, a rush of impulses flood through me – a desire to help, a recognition of how limited my help is, guilt that I’m not helping more, anger that the system lets people slip through the cracks like this, and also a contraction of my heart, a withdrawing and holding back, as if repelled by a force field. 

If I sit with that feeling long enough, here’s what I have come to realize – what I’m experiencing is the panic of being human. Seeing a particular person beg for dollars, I see any human, every human, I see myself, I see through the fragile web of safety and I see my own neediness, and I judge the hell out of it. Sometimes that self-judgment and fear ends up reflected in judgment of those in need. 

If I can reason myself to a place where perhaps they are undeserving, it doesn’t really matter in what way, I know by contrast that I am deserving, and therefore we are different, and that terrifying mirror showing me my existential neediness is cracked, and I can return to my comfortable world of more mundane needs. 

The same is true when we encounter those who are sick. As Susan Sontag says, we are all dual citizens of the realms of health and illness, and we will inhabit both in our lifetime. When I have been uncomfortable in a hospital, it is because I am still trying to ignore that reality. Here’s the bottom line – being uncomfortable with other people’s needs is almost always at least in part about our discomfort with our own needs, and when we are uncomfortable with our needs, we are living blind to our full reality. Because we are human, and we will need help. We will need each other. 

Here’s another way to practice comfort with help. I would guess most of us love to help other people, way more than we like being helped. It’s important to help each other. And sometimes it is also an overcorrection to feeling scared of our own needs. When we try to help, or to fix, we are trying to feel powerful rather than powerless. 

And of course it is good to help, but human beings aren’t god, we aren’t meant to be all-powerful. When we help in order to avoid remembering that we too need help, it’s time to seek balance. When you have been helped, pay it forward by helping someone else. When you are given the opportunity to help someone else, look carefully for a hand reached out to you and take it, whether you need it or not. Just to practice. 

When you gratefully and gracefully give and receive, you are human-ing quite well. Mary Oliver writes in a poem:

Someday I am going to ask my friend Paulus,
the dancer, the potter,
to make me a begging bowl
which I believe my soul needs.
And if I come to you,
to the door of your comfortable house
with unwashed clothes and unclean fingernails,
will you put something into it?
I would like to take this chance.
I would like to give you this chance.

This is her poetic expression of getting comfortable with needing help. 

A more mundane example: My professional organization, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, matches new rabbis in their first two years with a seasoned mentor who can brainstorm, troubleshoot, offer support, and be a listening ear. I really valued my mentor, Jim, but after the two years of formal connection, I didn’t really keep up contact with him. A few weeks ago I was really missing our conversations, but I was distracted enough that I never managed to reach out. Or at least I used distraction as an excuse. Although I needed someone to talk to, I just kept hesitating, refraining from reaching out, uncomfortable with asking for help. 

Then one morning I was walking to BART, and to my surprise the FaceTime feature on my phone started ringing, and there was Jim, wishing me a happy new year. We didn’t talk long, because, well, it turned out he had accidentally butt-dialed me. But the universe has its ways of teaching us to reach for hands even when they aren’t intentionally stretched out towards us. 

We don’t always get such clear reminders that help is human, normal, and necessary, that there is no shame in asking or needing. As we work to increase our comfort around needing help, we also can increase our perceptiveness around sources of help that are available to us. Here’s my theory – if we are ready to learn, anything might become a teacher. And if we are ready to receive help, we may discover it out there for us, sometimes in unexpected ways. We’ve just gotta be open and aware. 

There’s one type of magical creature I have not yet discussed that’s worth mentioning – angels. In fact, we have a number of angels in this congregation, remarkable souls who through the Angel Network have helped countless members. And we always need more angels, which could be you – to help make a meal, provide a ride, visit someone in the hospital. 

But in addition to needing more angels, we need all of you to embrace being human. Giving help is angelic – receiving help is human. 

In the Ne’ilah service, our final moments of Yom Kippur, the rabbis offered a profound prayer. It reads, Atah Notein Yad – You God, stretch out your hand to us, ready to offer us help. We do not need to be perfect, nor do we need to fix everything. If we manage to open our hearts enough to get vulnerable, to request help in the coming year, God will be there, ready to give us a hand. 

However it appears, through whomever God acts, when that divine hand reaches out, take it. God will help us carry on that most complicated and sacred task, the task of becoming human.