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Niggun Contemplation by Rabbi Burt Jacobson (High Holydays 2013/5774)

Good evening and L’shanah tova . . . This High Holy Day season we’ve been emphasizing the notion of teshuvah, the process of personal change and transformation. But teshuvah is not always good or praiseworthy. There are some harmful ways of attempting to change.

Let me tell you a Hasidic story about a simple man we’ll call Reb Eliahu. The day before Yom Kippur this Reb Eliahu appeared at the door of the great Hasidic master, Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Alter, who was known as the Gerer Rebbe. He had come to confess his sins and receive advice from the rebbe.

What this man had done was actually only a small offence. One day a few months before he had forgotten to pray the afternoon service. After sunset, when it was already too late, the poor man realized his error. Reb Eliahu had felt guilty, and not only that, he had also been obsessing over his sin for months. “Oh Rebbe,” he said, “I think about it all the time. I’m such a sinner! I’m such a terrible person! God will never forgive me!”

The rebbe paused and looked into Reb Eliahu’s eyes, and then he spoke: “You’ve fallen into a pit of muck, my son. Shove the muck this way, shove the muck that way—it still remains muck, and you remain stuck. Crying out, “I have sinned! I have sinned!”—what does God get out of it? In the time you are spending brooding over your wrongdoing you could instead be offering blessings for the precious gifts of the life you have been given. And when you offer such praise, it will be as if you are stringing pearls for the delight of Heaven!”

(Half-minute silence)

Reb Eliahu had forgotten that he was made in God’s image and that he was loved by God. Because of this, he had no trust in his ability to rise beyond his perception of himself as a sinner.

I invite you to close your eyes now . . . and look inward . . . Do you have a Reb Eliyahu in you . . . a voice that tells you that you’re not good enough . . . that nothing you do will ever measure up? . . . Now, can you get in touch with another voice within you, the voice of the rebbe, telling you that you are precious, a holy spark of the Universe . . . that you are loved by the mystery that gave you your life . . . and that your primary spiritual responsibility is to offer blessings for the precious gifts of the life you have been given? . . . And now can you let the rebbe within you bless the Reb Eliyahu within you for a year of life and compassion and joy? . . .

Half-minute pause . . .

Hasidism teaches that we cannot all be saints, but neither are we wicked. We are somewhere in between. Yes, we are provoked by urges that are base, but we are also inspired by desires that are virtuous. Our task is to identify with our inner goodness and then to struggle to transform that which is dark within us into light. The niggun that Cantor Shulamit is going to chant reflects this struggle. It’s an optimistic niggun. Its message is that we can change; we can become whole.

I invite you to close your eyes once again for the niggun . . . let it fill your heart and soul to a place of knowing your own goodness . . . of knowing that you have the power to string pearls for the delight of Heaven . . . and also knowing that you are surrounded by this community of good people who are also struggling and who have the power to string pearls for the delight of Heaven . . .


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