Erev Rosh Hashanah 5772
When You No Longer Know Anything About Anything
A group of European scientists recently announced that they “clocked a burst of subatomic particles breaking the cosmic speed limit — [travelling faster than] the speed of light — that was set by Albert Einstein in 1905.” If they’re able to verify this finding, it would literally change the world.
Responding to the news, one of the theorists at the European Center for Nuclear Research said “If it is true, then we truly haven’t understood anything about anything.”
We truly haven’t understood anything about anything.
This seems a fitting finale to a year that was in many ways defined by the motto of another Jewish holiday - Purim: v’nahafokh hu - and everything is turned upside down. This was a year of unprecedented and unpredictable catastrophe and upheaval:
What we thought was safe was not.
We thought Mubarak would reign forever, and nothing could ever challenge the repressive, autocratic regimes that defined the political landscape of the Middle East.
We thought hurricanes hit New Orleans, not Vermont and
we thought earthquakes hit SF/ LA, not Washington, DC.
We thought Congress was elected to run the government, not to obstruct it.
We thought technology and affluence would protect Japan, and us, from the kind of devastation we saw this spring.
Aside from the yearly dose of politician sex scandals, this year has really been characterized by an overturning of the world as we know it - sometimes catastrophic, sometimes wonderful, often terrifying. This has been a year of shattered illusions.
This year, the world ached. And we struggled to keep up with an uncertain economy, an uncertain political landscape, and for many of us, an uncertain future.
And yet, it wasn’t all this upheaval that changed us this year. In the beginning of Elul, I asked you to share with me your stories of epiphany – holy moments that shook you to the core, that changed the way you think about the world. Moments that broke you and healed you; brought you to recognize your vulnerability or to confront your power. My goal was to reinforce something we all innately understood – that every day, every moment, could be the birth of something completely new. I wanted to help us learn that lesson through remembering and honoring the torah of our own lives. But as your stories began pouring in this past month, I started to notice something different. While the earth (and the stock market) shook and tumbled this year, the things that really moved us were much more local and far more commonplace.
In just a single, sacred moment, one of you realized that you were truly, deeply, absurdly in love; one that your marriage was really, finally, completely over. Several of you found that life is precious and relationships precarious and every day is a blessing. But you didn’t find that in the earthquake or the tsunami or the nuclear catastrophe. You didn’t find that in the Arab Spring or at Ground Zero.
You found it in a stack of dishes sitting on the kitchen countertop, when you realized he would never change and you’d be sucked into the vortex if you didn’t leave. You found it while trying to choose a new pin # at the ATM, months after you realized your hands were bleeding from holding the ropes of your marriage together for so long. You found it while holding the Torah at High Holy Days – when your heart broke open feeling the power of community.
You found it alone in the hospital after your beautiful new born baby was swept out of your arms into the NICU – where they would later discover that he had a rare form of childhood cancer. It came without warning - a wave of transcendent calm. A voice telling you that you could breathe. And you found it in a West African refugee camp, when a tiny girl with an old and discerning soul reminded you in your grief that you still had life in you.
Abraham Lincoln’s moment happened when he was 19 years old. He was hired to bring a flatboat of farm produce from Illinois to New Orleans, but when he arrived he saw, for the first time in his life, a slave auction. He stared in dismay – how could human beings be bought and sold like cargo? And in that moment, his entire life changed.
And Moses, the young prince of Egypt, similarly went out for a walk one day and saw – really saw - the suffering of the Israelite slaves. He witnessed an Egyptian man beating an old Hebrew, and overcome by the need to intervene, he struck down the Egyptian man and hid his lifeless body in the sand. But that wasn’t the moment that changed him. The next day, Moses went out again. This time he saw two Hebrew slaves fighting with one another. Again, he became so distraught that he needed to do something. "Why would you hit your neighbor?" Moses shouted. And one of the Hebrews replied: "Who do you think you are? What are you going to do - kill me like you killed the Egyptian?"
וַיִּירָ֤א מֹשֶׁה֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר אָכֵ֖ן נוֹדַ֥ע הַדָּבָֽר
Akhen! “Oh My God!” Moses screamed. (And not in the omg way.) My life, as I knew it, is over! (Deut 2:14) Pharoah immediately set out to kill Moses. But caught in the grips of an epiphany one wastes no time – Moses was already halfway to Midian.
Generations earlier and a world away, Jacob had his moment. He had fled his parents’ home to escape his brother Esav, who had every right to kill him for stealing his birthright. Away from home for the first time, encased in darkness, alone and uncertain, Jacob falls asleep. After a dream in which he sees angels ascending and descending the great, mystical ladder and hears the assuring voice of God, Jacob awakens and cries out:
אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ ה' בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָֽנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי:
Oh My God! You are right here – in this place – and I, I didn’t even know it. (Gen. 28:16-17)
אָכֵ֖ן –- The same word – akhen. An untranslatable, breathless shout - a gasp of realization that appears only these two times in the Torah. An unexpected insight. A vision, an awareness that turns everything you thought you knew and trusted on its head.
For the poet Yeats, the great moment of awakening happens in a crowded London coffee shop, when a 50 year old man, previously untouched and unfulfilled, suddenly looks up from his open book and recognizes the great blessing of his life:
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.
Yeats, Vascillation (Yates)
It seems that the moments that really change us, that open us and shake us, emerge in the most unexpected ways, and are so fleeting that we could miss them if we’re not paying attention.
Tomorrow we read Unetaneh Tokef – the terrifying call to wakefulness. Life is precious! What are you doing? Who are you loving? What time are you wasting? But let us not get so caught up in Who will live and who will die? Who by fire, who by water? that we neglect to see two critical lines that appear earlier in the prayer:
U’shofar gadol yitaka
V’kol demama dakka yishama.
The great shofar is sounded,
But the still small voice is heard.
This is a reference to the story of the great prophet Elijah – a zealot for justice whose final great fight was a desperate attempt to demonstrate to Israel that idolatry was a lie. He challenges the prophets of Baal to a Prophetic equivalent of a dance-off. First Baal’s prophets feverishly work to bring fire from the heavens, but nothing comes. Then Elijah offers his sacrifice and immediately a great fire descends from heaven. Elijah is vindicated, and the people have no choice but to proclaim: “The Lord is God!”
But when Queen Jezebel hears of the ordeal, she orders Elijah’s arrest. He flees for his life, taking refuge on Mt. Horeb, aka Mt. Sinai – the place of God’s revelation to the Israelites. God orders Elijah to stand alone on the mountain. Then suddenly:
…A great and strong wind tore through the mountains, and broke the rocks in pieces… but God was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire; but God was not in the fire. And after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard that, he wrapped his face in his cloak... and behold God’s voice came to him.
I Kings 19:11-13
When God’s voice finally comes, what does it say? God essentially tells Elijah to retire. Why? Because prophets need to know that God’s existence cannot be proven through miracles, through fire pouring down from the heavens. God is not in the fire, but in the whisper. God is not in the wind, but in the dishes. God is not in the earthquake, the moments of cataclysmic havoc -- when the world shakes and regimes are overturned. God is in the unreturned phone call, the near-miss accident. These moments, the whispers, the ones that emerge from an internal guiding voice, often imperceptible to others – are the ones that really change us.
The great shofar is sounded,
But it won’t change you. It is the still small voice that is heard.
The earthquake/ tsunami/ floods, the revolutions in Tunisia and Tahrir Square, the fighting in Yemen and Syria, the UN speeches and social protests in Tel Aviv – they may touch you but they will not change you.
What they will do is shake you. They will wake you. They will create a state of disequilibrium, of instability, a state of receptivity in which you may be moved. Or you may fall back asleep.
Then what will change your life? The whisper. The inner awareness that life is precious and capricious. That our days are numbered. That those we sit with this year – in love, in battle – might not be with us next year when we again hear these words.
The stuff of spiritual transformation comes once we are jolted awake by the world or the shofar, but is actually born out of casual, everyday, conditions. It comes to us accidentally. And it has the power to change us, forever.
Yamim Noraim break us out of our routine and call us look back at the year with open eyes. The season calls us to reckon with our vulnerability, to come to grips with our sense of disempowerment. Our uncertainty and fear. It will hurt our hearts to do this work, and yet we must – because despite the myth of stability, we know that the only thing we can be certain of, in this time of radical uncertainty, is that we really don’t know anything about anything.
Let us use our sense of instability as an opening, an opportunity for spiritual movement. Let us use this time to cultivate a spiritual landscape able to receive the holy whispers, the moments of epiphany when they come to us. In a year of trembling, rather than dwell only on the world’s volatility and our own vulnerability, let us dedicate ourselves to uncovering the miracles and insights that swim around us always. We come here this week to learn again how to be vessels of holiness. How to catch the light illuminating from the darkest corners of our kitchens and our world.
God did not give you a heart to know, or eyes to see, or ears to hear until this day. (Deut 29:3)
עַ֖ד הַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה: - Ad hayom hazeh -- until this very moment. From this point forward, everything changes.
Let the stories of Moses, Jacob and Lincoln, of Ann, Brad and even Wergeles inspire us.
Amidst the tumult and upheaval, let us recognize that any moment could be the one that changes everything, that sets us on a new trajectory, that shapes a new course for our lives.
All around us await moments that are breathtaking and bewildering, mysterious and mesmerizing. With every breath comes the possibility of a revolution of the soul. Let us work this week to peel away the layers that clog our hearts -- so that when these moments come to us, they will change our lives forever.
One final epiphany – perhaps my favorite one: Victor Frankl’s moment of transformation came not from working on suicide watch for years in Theresienstadt, not from the forced labor in Auschwitz, or from the ovens, or the bombs. It came just a few days after his liberation:
I walked through the country past flowering meadows, for miles and miles, toward the market town near the camp. Larks rose to the sky and I could hear their joyous song. There was no one to be seen for miles around; there was nothing but the wide earth and sky and the larks’ jubilation and the freedom of space. I stopped, looked around, and up to the sky -- and then I went down on my knees. At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or the world -- I had but one sentence in mind -- always the same: I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and God answered me in the freedom of space.
How long I knelt there and repeated this sentence memory can no longer recall. But I know that on that day, in that hour, my new life started. Step for step I progressed, until I again became a human being.
Viktor Frankl -- p. 96-97
Min ha-metzar karati Ya, anani bamerhav Ya – the same line we recite at the sound of the shofar tomorrow morning: I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and God answered me in the freedom of space.
As we call out from our narrow place – our place of instability, uncertainty and vulnerability, may we too be answered.
Shanah tovah -