Rosh Hashanah Sermon 20 September 2017

Shanah tovah.

It is wonderful to be here to celebrate the beginning of the Jewish New Year with you all.

We are here now with an awareness of the passing of time and the changing of seasons. There is another kind of awareness that I would like to discuss with you tonight. An awareness of self and what are senses tell us. Let me give you a personal example. I afraid to admit that I am not the neatest person in the world. At home, I tend to make piles of things. And those piles tend to stay where I put them for quite some time. In fact, I often cease to see them. Then one day, as I get ready to have company and am cleaning up the house, I walk in the front door and try and see my house as a guest would see it. Oh boy…. A whirlwind of clean up follows as I reshuffle piles, throw things out and clean up stuff I haven’t really seen in a long time. I am guessing that while many of you are likely neater than me, you have had similar experiences, of, at one point, become aware of things that had escaped your notice for some time. Of smelling something then no longer detecting it anymore. Of hearing a sound and later noticing that even though it has been continuously audible, you hadn’t been aware of it.


It turns out that we human beings are remarkably adaptive. Given our finite capacity to process input, and those of us who have had “senior moments” know what I mean, our brains tune out what we can call background noise: basically, the sensory input that is not a threat and is actually part of our daily or even momentary experience. Selecting what is not really important and in essence, forgetting about it is something we do unconsciously. Letting it go so we can focus on the things that truly have an impact on us- the smell of our cooking food, the sight of someone we care for, the sound of an oncoming car or our favorite piece of music, the sensation of holding someone’s hand or touching something of which we like the feel.

Habits are like that as well. If you stop and think about it for a minute, when was the last time you consciously brushed your teeth fully aware of what you were doing. You may know what direction you start in, but you probably really have to think about. And yet, hopefully, everyone here brushes their teeth and gums at least twice a day. In fact, because we do it all the time we no longer even need to think about it. Habits let us get on with what is crucial and leave the mundane and repetitive to our unconscious.

In essence, there is a part of all of our lives that we live on autopilot. To me at least, that is a mildly disturbing notion. I strive to be a discerning person, conscious of what is going on around me and aware of what I am doing. At the same time, I know that without being specifically aware of it, I do things without thought all the time. There are things that occur around me which I am not aware or that I do not see. I know for example that there are times when I am already thinking about what is coming next while I am in the middle of something. Or worse, have you been preoccupied enough that when you greeted someone your answer was to a question you only later realized they did not ask?

On a purely physical level this lack of awareness or preoccupation with other things can be a real problem. For a variety of reasons, many of us tend to ignore our bodies. We soldier through aches and pains, headaches, stomach aches or what have you, and do what needs to be done. We ignore how we feel physically so that we can get on with the task at hand, with fulfilling our obligations and responsibilities. Yet our bodies are a sort of canary in the coal mine, a sort of early warning system for impending trouble. Our bodies are more than just the beast of burden that carries around our heads. Body awareness warns of us problems- both physical and emotional. Many of our physical complaints can have emotional components and/or causes. Shoulder neck and back problems, migraines, stomach or intestinal complaints and many other things can be helped by changes in lifestyle and routine. Awareness of our bodies and what they are telling us about our lives and how we live them can save us untold suffering. For that to happen however, we need to be truly aware of it. Not just to hear, but to listen, and not relegate it to the background noise of our lives that we tune out. Perhaps it is not by accident that some people think Rosh Hashanah is also the day that God created human beings- a mix of body and spirit. Our bodies are holy and deserve our full attention and awareness in the same way our spirit, mind and emotions do. Often by listening to our bodies we are helping our minds, hearts and souls. Not to mention the people around us who care and worry about us.

We can also move through the emotional world on autopilot. Emotions are messy and can get out of hand. They are generally not well appreciated in the work place. Moreover, things like anger, pain, hurt, disappointment, can ruin our rest at home or spoil a nice time. It is often easier to ignore them and go on our way. While that can be successful for a time, we can succeed in ignoring our emotional reality, our inner world, the water is building up behind the dam. Worse than the feelings that can leak out at inopportune moments, the feeling of being dead inside or not being able to feel at all if we lock things away tight enough, is the reality of not being a whole person. Our emotions make us whole genuine human beings. Experiencing them is healthy and honest. It makes us present fully in any situation. That is not to say we let our emotions get out of hand or that we do things that are misguided as a result. But full awareness of ourselves and who we are, being true to ourselves and those around us requires us to experience how we are feeling, acknowledge that and to understand what calls up those emotions for us. It is an awareness that can lead to wholeness, which in Hebrew is shalem, the same word that we use for peace. Shalom.

Rosh Hashanah, when we celebrate creation, is a call to move in the direction of full awareness and wholeness. Celebrations are moments when we are extremely conscious of an event that is positive and worth making remarkable in all the sense of that word. In some places, special events or persons with status were announced with a fanfare; the sound of trumpets ensuring that those present were aware of the gravity of the moment or the extraordinary nature of the personage in whose presence they found themselves. We use the shofar and its primal wordless cry to shake us out of autopilot mode and into awareness. It is a cry from our tradition to do more than just go through the motions while our minds are elsewhere entirely. Rosh Hashanah and the shofar, is the Jewish tradition urging us towards living in radical awareness.

This time of year is often called the Season of Repentance, teshuvah, in Hebrew. Teshuvah actually means return, coming back. The process of teshuvah is a means of becoming profoundly aware. Changing direction requires us to make an assessment of where we are and where we want to go. Even before that, each of us needs to see and understand where we have made mistakes and acknowledge that we have made them. Coming to that awareness, owning it, embracing it even, can be one of the most difficult things that any of us can do. It is in some way doing that is an acknowledgement that our self-image may not be accurate. We are not who we wanted to be, who we wish we are, or perhaps not as bad as we think of ourselves. Repentance demands that we are fully aware of who we are and what we have done- to ourselves, to those around us, to our dreams and our aspirations. Between us and what we hold the most dear.

Next repentance, teshuvah, asks us to re-vision ourselves. Once we are fully aware of who we are and what we have done, it is time for us to search our souls, our minds, our bodies and decide what kind of person do I want to be? We have to choose a new direction, to consciously reorient ourselves, our lives, our thoughts and our actions. We will have to break old habits- in actions and relationships- with others and ourselves. It is hard. Sometimes brutal. It can be done and often we will need the support of others to achieve it. Learning that about ones’ self is also a sign of awareness and presence. We all need help and there are people who care about us that will willingly be there to do it just for that reason. Every day, every year, we get a chance to re-direct, re-orient and change what we are and what we do.

The next phase of teshuvah is making amends. Why you might ask? I could be a hit and run driver, as it were, leave the scene and not be any the wiser as to what the real consequences were of what I did. One could, and there are people who choose to do that. However, they are abdicating responsibility for themselves and their actions. In the end, leaving behind what was, freeing yourself in order to take a new path, cannot be really achieved by running away. One must become fully aware of who they have been and the consequences in order to make a real lasting change. It is not an accident that 12 step programs of all types require people to make amends to those they have hurt. That wisdom is a part of Judaism as well. Hatred, dislikes, regrets, pain, loss, and the like are all ties that bind us to people and patterns that we may want to change. They keep us pointed where were going, even when we no longer want to head in that direction. By acknowledging what we have done and the pain we have caused, by consciously naming it and making amends for the suffering we caused others and ourselves, we are able to let them go. It will be humbling and also freeing.

As we formally enter the Season of Repentance tonight on Rosh Hashanah, I want to invite you trying living the next 10 days being fully present and awareness. See what it is like to be aware of the sensations that our bodies generate, and the emotions we all have, especially the unpleasant ones we tend to avoid. Sit with them, acknowledge them and feel them. Be fully present in your encounters with yourself and with others. Fully hear, listen, see, perceive. It will be a completely different experience for you and for the person with whom you are interacting.

Take it one step further. Be aware of who you are and what you have done this past year. Where are you happy with yourself and where not- there will always be something on both sides of the balance. What has the impact been on others and on yourself of the things you have done? With whom do you need to make amends? What is your new direction? What do you need to do to get there? Let the shofar be an invitation to live in full awareness. To wake or shake you so that you are not living on autopilot, putting things, emotions and people aside without thought. It is the examined life that is worth living.


Shanah tovah. May be all be blessed with a year of health, happiness and well-being.