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Rosh Hashanah Day Sermon 5776/2015 by Howard Hamburger

Howard HamburgerGet comfortable; I’m going to talk for a little while.

Later in the morning, Rabbi David will lead us in the Torah service; we’ll chant how the Torah describes the creation of the universe. Traditionally, we treat Rosh Hashanah as the birthday of the world, a day of beginnings. This year, our High Holiday theme is how speech, how we talk, can be creative and healing and, in the Jewish creation myth, G-d creates the world by speaking.

Who was G-d speaking to when G-d said, “Let there be light”?  Maybe G-d was speaking to     G-d’s self; maybe to angels – but angels in Judaism are more like sub-selves of G-d, sometimes seemingly with a mind of their own, but never really separate from the whole. G-d talking to the angels is really in some sense an inner dialogue. So I’m going to use the Torah reading as an excuse to talk about how we talk to ourselves.

As you can tell, the image of G-d in Genesis (and most of Torah) is very anthropomorphic – that is, G-d is described as like a person, as like us.

We at Kehilla tend to shy away from this, and for good reasons. But although thinking of G-d as like us might not teach us much about the true nature of the divine, it might help teach us a lot about what it could mean to be a person and what it could mean to talk to ourselves and to create. Because, after all, Rosh Hashanah is about beginnings; about what new things we want to create within ourselves and between one another and in the world. And how we talk to ourselves affects what we are able to begin and create; so, for the next bunch of minutes, I’m going to accept the Torah’s anthropomorphism and just run with it.

So, if G-d is like a person, like us, I will use some of the pronouns we use to refer to us; sometimes I will use “he”, sometimes I will use “she”, and sometimes I will use “they” as a singular pronoun to denote genders and gender identification not reducible to “she” or “he”. I feel we are blessed to live in a time when we are beginning to expand our understanding and our language of genders to reflect how people really are.

And if my G-d language doesn’t work for you, anthropomorphic or not, complexly gendered, ambiguously gendered or not; please feel free to translate anything I say into the words you need. Feel free to do this for any reason. May what I say be of use to you.

I have often imagined that G-D said, “Let there be light,” in a commanding, regal tone – like Patrick Stewart in Star Trek saying, “Make it so.” – or maybe more like James Earl Jones, Judi Dench, Maya Angelou and Ian McKellan, all wrapped into one voice.

But maybe G-d began their experiment in a voice filled with wonder and delight. Or maybe there was a little hesitation, concern and uncertainty in her voice; the Torah is very clear that the anthropomorphic G-d, like us, does not know how something is going to turn out until it actually happens – right, we read that “G-D saw all that He had made and found it very good.”

He found it very good; the anthropomorphic G-d was pleasantly surprised and maybe relieved. And it’s true that we people have to begin things without knowing how they will turn out.

We read in Torah that this G-d, just like us, can be disappointed and want a do-over (and doesn’t always get one); this G-d, just like us, doesn’t always get to take back her words.

But this G-d also sits back at the end of the day and gives themself a pat on the back – what they created was “very good”.  It wasn’t perfect – remember, G-d said this after creating us.

This is not just like us – when we talk to ourselves, we often obsess on the negative. But what if we got better at praising …praising everything, even ourselves and what we accomplish, no matter how imperfect?

In Judaism, a central aspect to our relationship to the divine and to the stuff of creation is praise; praising G-d and the stuff of creation at least one hundred times a day is considered a good start, but just a start. But the stuff of creation that we are to bless includes us.

We don’t praise G-d to butter her up or to prevent her anger; we don’t praise ourselves from a narcissistically bloated or shriveled place. We praise because to thrive and to be in relationship is to be available to experience whatever is praiseworthy in every moment; we are asked to praise from an actual experience of what is praiseworthy in the world, in each other, and in ourselves.

For those of you who “speak to” and “listen to” yourself or “have a relationship” with yourself, if that Self is constantly and harshly telling you how unworthy and insufficient you are – that is not your highest, truest, deepest self.

(And for those of you who “speak to” and “listen to” and “have a relationship” with G-d or your Higher Power or with the Source and Mystery of All Life, if that G-d is constantly belittling you, that is not G-d, but one of your inner characters or a person or voice from your past projected upon your image of G-d.)

If you or G-d or your true self is telling you this Rosh Hashanah that your worth, your goodness of being, depends on your: losing weight or gaining weight, or making more money or letting go of material possessions or even on making a positive difference in the world – be wary.

Your well-being and the well-being of others and even your life itself may in fact depend on making important changes in your life, but your worth does not. Making important changes may help you contact and feel your essential goodness, but that goodness, that beauty, is there to begin with.

And if you or G-d or your true self is telling you that there is nothing you ever need to explore; that you are justified in hurting yourself or others; that there isn’t anything you can do anyway; or that it really doesn’t matter – please be wary. That is not your true self and it’s not G-d.

I should probably say a word about what I mean about talking to myself and to G-d.

In my early twenties, a counselor gave me a psychological test of 600 true/false questions. I was tooling along until: “True/False:  I am the personal messenger of G-d.”

I answered the question they were asking – are you delusional? – took my number two pencil and filled in False. But if I were to tell the real truth, I’d say: “No, I am not the personal messenger of G-d, but I’m working on it.”

And while we’re at it: “No, I am not the clear channel of and manifestation of my true self, but I’m working on that too.”

Maybe, when I am talking to G-d, I am really learning how to direct myself to my wisest, truest, most loving inner self. Or maybe the closer I get to my true self, the more my true self can be a channel to the divine. Or maybe, to really live fully is to look at things from multiple perspectives and to hold opposites and my talking and listening to G-d and self is just one way of achieving that. And one can talk to G-d as a person and still hold other and multiple relationships to the divine, including atheism; one can reject anthropomorphic images and still nurture connections to some something beyond our own ego.

For me, learning to hear the still, small voice within me and beyond me enriches my life; for me, trying to create a holy I-Thou relationship within myself and between me and the world is necessary for my survival and my thriving. For me, only speaking to myself or only speaking to G-d or only speaking to people is not enough. The Zen teacher, Norman Fischer, writes that “to speak, to form words….is to reach out and reach in.” It is not easy to make all my communications be intimate and tender reachings-in and reachings-out, but I am working on it.

At a certain point, both praising myself and talking seriously to myself about something I need to look at – these blur together and become equally essential parts of an ongoing relationship with myself. If I look at myself truthfully and lovingly, there will be things to praise and cherish and changes to encourage and commit to.

But our worth, our preciousness, is beyond our strengths and accomplishments, independent of our genders, races, or sizes; our worth is beyond our deficiencies and the hurts we have caused. Our deep worth does not erase the hurts we have caused and does not free us from the consequences of those hurts or from the need to do Teshuvah for them.

But lovingly relating to ourself from an experience of our worth, of our beauty, enables us to face our shortcomings and address them, no matter how large, and to drink in our strengths and build on them, no matter how small (or large) they are and enables us to work for justice with commitment, compassion, and joy.

Please turn to page 13 – V’Ahavta L’Reyacha: Here and now, I take upon myself the following commitment – Love your neighbor same as you love yourself (and love yourself as you would most want to love someone or for someone to love you, same as you want us all to love each other).


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