Erev Rosh Hashana Sermon by Rabbi Dev Noily: “A River Goes Out From Eden”

I want to talk with you tonight about home. About what it means to have a home, to be pushed out of our home, and to long for home.

These questions feel so urgent because so many people in the world are being forced to leave their homes­‐­‐by violence, and climate change, and simple greed. And these questions are urgent because for most of us, feeling completely at home is elusive, even if we have a safe and stable place to live. Part of being human is feeling a kind of separateness that leaves our souls longing for home. Being physically displaced, on the one hand, and feeling spiritual separateness, on the other, are very different kinds of experiences. But I want to look at them together—because both share this element of yearning for home.

As we draw near to our own experiences of longing, we also fill up our reservoirs of compassion, and our capacity to respond to the suffering in our world. And when we experience the spiritual truth of our souls’ longing for home, we also fill up our reservoirs of strength and aliveness, and our capacity for joy.

We’re living in such an intense time. It’s so easy to shut down, to push aside the fear and anxiety that lurk just beneath the surface. But we know, too, that when we walk toward our fear, when we let go of our expectations and open ourselves to new and sometimes difficult truths, that on the other side of fear there is freedom and joy.

What I hope for us is that through the practices of this season, and the good company of this community, we’ll walk together in the direction of home. I hope that our practice will soften our hearts. That the shofar will wake us up. That by being together and looking out for each other in this practice, we’ll be able to look at the things that are hard and scary. I hope that as we build our community of practice, we’ll keep learning from each other and supporting each other as we answer the cries for help that we hear, in whatever ways each of us is able.

If you want to know about home—about having it, losing it, and longing for it— there is no better book than our Holy Torah. Our first story of home is in the mythical Garden of Eden. The first humans begin their life in a place of safety and pleasantness, of ease and joy. It’s a place of wholeness and innocence— innocence because we haven’t yet crashed into the jagged edges of life. We haven’t yet stumbled into the pit of suffering and causing others to suffer.

We know that the first humans are forced to leave the garden. But there’s a remarkable, grammatical oddity in the story that keeps them, and us, connected to this place of wholeness.

It comes in Chapter two of Bereshit, of Genesis. The Torah uses the composite name YHVH­‐Elohim for The Creator. It says:

YHVH­‐Elomin planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and placed the human, the adam, there.

YHVH Elohim caused every type of tree to spring up from the adamah, the soil, pleasant to look at and good to eat….

And a river is going out from Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four head­‐waters.

The ancient rabbis noticed something very interesting about the grammar here. At first the narrative uses verbs in the past tense, and then suddenly, it shifts to the present, and then just as suddenly, in the part that follows, it shifts back to the past:

YHVH­‐Elohim planted, placed, caused to spring up. And Then: A river is going out from Eden. Not a river went out, but a river is going out.

And the rabbis discerned from this that the river is still going out! Its origin may be in the mythic past, but it is also part of the present, always. They imagined that the source of this river is ever­‐present, and that it continues to flow right up to this very day!

They saw that river, which divides into four headwaters, continuing to divide, becoming the living source of all of the rivers in the world. For them, the river connects us all through time, to that mythic beginning, and it connects us all through space, from the Garden to every place on earth. And through those waters, we are all connected to each other.

In the words of the Indian poet, Rabin­‐dranath:

The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world.

The river that is going out from Eden is the source of the sweet headwaters of the Sacramento River that gush from the foot of Mt. Shasta. And the River from Eden is the source of the mighty Missouri River that flows through the land of the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota, threatened by an oil pipeline and fought for with the simple and stunning words, “Water is Life.”

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan shares a midrash that after the expulsion from the garden, adam, the human, sought out one of the four rivers, and immersed himself in it. He wanted to do teshuvah, to cleanse his mistakes and feel whole again. He wanted to go home. No longer able to return to the garden, he still found a connection to home through the waters of the river. He couldn’t go back to Eden, but a little bit of Eden was always flowing out to meet him.

And to this day the practice of mikvah, of immersing ourselves in the free­‐flowing waters of life, is a way to remember that the Garden is still part of all of us, and that we are all part of each other, of all life.

Just as the rabbis teach us that all water is part of that river, our mystical traditions teach us that all life is part of a great Oneness that occupies all space­‐ time. This embodied life that we experience is an aspect, a manifestation, of that Great Oneness.

Rabbi Arthur Green writes:

The basic teaching of mystics, dressed in the garb of many traditions, is essentially this simple message: There is only One. All multiplicity of beings and their sense of separateness or distance from one another are either illusion, or represent a less than ultimate truth. This is especially the case, [to use the] language of Western mysticism, in the great alienation or sense of distance that humans feel between themselves and G­‐d.

Maybe G­‐d isn’t the right word for you – it’s an inadequate convention of our language.

But maybe you still know what Art Green is talking about.

I’ve felt that distance, that alienation all my life – sometimes more, sometimes less; sometimes whispering and sometimes crying out. Once in a while, I’ve felt it disappear completely—in my love for my partner Sara and my son Jesse, on a retreat after many days of silence, and with you all, during Ne’ilah, when our voices lift the roof off our sanctuary as the gates are closing.

As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

There are moments in which, to use a Talmudic phrase, heaven and earth kiss each other; in which there is a lifting of the veil at the horizon of the known, opening a vision of what is eternal in time.

But most of the time as I move through the world, that feeling of separateness is with me. I think maybe that separateness is what the first human, the adam, felt when he plunged into the river, needing to touch home.

In our separateness, we feel something missing. Some deep part of our core that’s not quite whole. And this longing for wholeness sends us on all kinds of adventures – we reach out in love to our parents, friends, sweethearts and teachers. We strive to learn, to grow, to make the world better, to climb mountains, to build things, to make art, to get close to G­‐d.

Abraham Joshua Heschel says:

There is a loneliness in us that hears.

When the soul parts from the company of the ego… [and we] pray the world’s cry, the world’s sigh,

our loneliness may hear the living grace beyond all power.

Or, as Shel Silverstein put it:

It was missing a piece.

And it was not happy.

So it set out in search of its missing piece.

Just as the Torah’s tale of our beginnings in the garden is a story about being home, then losing home, and longing to return home from our place in exile and separation, so too the central narrative of the Torah, the story that frames how we see the world as Jews, is a story of searching for home.

Our foundational story, the story that unfolds through the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, is the story of the journey from narrowness, through wilderness, and right up to the edge of home. We return to the same truth of our lives that we saw in the garden, but now through a different story, now through a new metaphor.

During most of the Torah’s main narrative we are in exile. We are displaced, we’re on the move, we’re searching for home. We strive and grow and build a community as we try to get ourselves home. We get closer, and then we lose our way and are set back­‐­‐ a lifetime of wandering in the wilderness. Finally we reach the horizon of our exile, the promise of home­‐­‐just across the river.

And just as we’re about to cross over­‐­‐ the Torah ends, and the cycle of reading begins again, and we find ourselves right back in the garden, a moment we now know is fleeting.

Shortly after the Israelites leave Mitzrayim, as part of the first set of laws and ethical instructions that YHVH gives to Moses, we are taught for the first time to love the stranger, the ger.

In Exodus 22:21 the Torah says,

Do not abuse, and do not oppress the ger, the stranger, because you were gerim, you were strangers, in the land of Mitzrayim.

It’s the first of many times that this teaching appears.

The word “ger” is a really interesting word. It has a big range of meanings in Biblical Hebrew. In its verb form it can mean to dwell, to inhabit, to remain, to sojourn, to stay with, to be a stranger, and, most striking to me, to be afraid.

As a noun the word holds many of these meanings, and refers to someone who is a resident of a place, or living with a nation of people, but without inherited rights, without full citizenship.

The teaching against oppressing the ger, is addressing the vulnerability of the ger in a society where others hold more power. The ger is with the Israelites, but doesn’t have the same status as they do. The ger doesn’t belong to an Israelite tribe.

The teaching against oppressing the ger has to do with checking our own power and our privilege when we encounter people with less power or status. It has to do with trying to understand how easy it is for us to abuse our power and to be blind to our privilege, especially when we are ourselves are recently gerim.

There’s another context where this word, ger, shows up. It’s in the Psalms. The Psalms are a record of our ancestors’ most intimate conversations with their G­‐d. Many of them are attributed to King David, a man of great power and status.

In Psalm 119:19 it says: I am a ger on the earth. ‐­‐I am a temporary resident on the earth.

And in Psalm 39:12 it says:

Hear my prayer, G­‐d, and listen to my cry. Don’t ignore my tears,

for I am a ger with You,

a sojourner like all of my ancestors.

In these psalms, we are all gerim, we are all strangers on the earth, and so were our ancestors, no matter where we live.

Two weeks from now we’ll be building our Sukkot – our temporary outdoor dwellings with open roofs. On October 23 you’re invited to join us in the Kehilla Sukkah, where recently­‐arrived refugees and families who have hosted them will share their experiences.

On Sukkot, we move outside and live in temporary shelters as a reminder that we are gerim, we are visitors here. And Sukkot is called the season of our joy. We celebrate arriving in a place where we know the truth of our impermanence.

So being a ger, a stranger living in someone else’s home has these two meanings – the meaning in Exodus and the meaning in the Psalms and Sukkot. The ger of Exodus is more material, and the ger of the Psalms is more spiritual, more poetic.

Today we meet the ger of Exodus in the millions of refugees fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Central African Republic, the Balkans and other countries torn by war. We meet the ger of the Exodus in the tens of thousands of immigrants fleeing violence in Central America and arriving here with no papers or status.

And we meet the ger of the Psalms in ourselves, in all of us. We are all temporary residents, sojourners for a brief time in a vast and mysterious universe.

But across these meanings, the word, ger, connects all of these experiences. They have something to do with both presence and impermanence. They have to do with being here, but not being of here. They have to do with a kind of partial belonging.

A big part of our practice during these Days of Awe is to turn toward this truth: we are gerim, we are visitors here in this life. When we can relax into this truth instead of resisting it, we begin to find our real home—not a fancy mansion, but a fragile Sukkah.

By doing the spiritual work of these holy days we draw closer to the truth of our own lives.And when we do that, we are also prepare ourselves and strengthen ourselves to respond to the crises that have sent so many of our siblings wandering the earth in search of food, shelter, safety and a chance to live.

The Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy says,

Our pain for the world not only alerts us to danger, but also reveals our profound caring. And this caring derives from our interconnectedness with all life. We need not fear it.

So let’s link arms and walk this road together, into the awe and fear and truth of Yom Kippur, and from there into the joy of the Sukkah, and beyond.

Let’s take with us the words of the Psalm,

I am a ger, a stranger, with you on this earth.

Let’s remember that the river is still going out from Eden.

May this practice bring us strength, and open our hearts, and bring us closer to home.

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