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“Hello. This is G-d.” Listening around Rosh Hashanah

We’ve all blurted it out at times. We have stood at the bedside as a dear one passed away, or witnessed the birth of our child, or seen a breath taking vista while hiking, or experienced the peak of sexual ecstasy, and cried “Oh G-d! Oh G-d!”.

Then, almost as soon as it’s out, what the Rabbis called kateigor, our internal, prosecuting attorney chimes in: “What, that old man in the sky with a beard that you stopped believing in years ago! C’mon,with all the suffering in the world, you still believe in that! The G-d who commands this and forbids that! You take that seriously!”

All the objections, all the theological discussion and intellectual reflection about G-d has its place. But fundamentally the challenge is not one of the intellect. We have, more immediately, our experience, moments of rage or wonder or bliss that bring us close to the Center of the Universe and cannot be denied.

Unless you have a regular spiritual practice, it’s likely that after these experiences you go back to default, the world of meetings and deadlines and payments and promotions and dinners and parties and hobbies and exercise. G-d is Alive and Present in all of this, but we don’t have the tools to access Her. So our wonder or rage or yearning, what my teacher Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, of blessed memory, called “the pull toward the All”, go on. But when we feel it, we first try to ignore it. If it remains persistent, we reach for a pill or go to the fridge or plan our next weekend “get away”.

We come together on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur because that stubborn G-d voice inside us, what our tradition calls our neshama, our soul, won’t let us settle. The soul inside us is a spark of G-d, and as G-d endlessly renews life, so we have an inner urge for inventiveness, for meaning.

There is a widespread misunderstanding that the ultimate goal of the High Holidays is to take stock of our conduct and correct the consequences of misdeeds. This is absolutely central to the meaning and practice of these days, but not the ultimate goal. These are Y’mei Teshuva, days of teshuva, and teshuva in its root means not repentance but return. We strive to return to the deepest layer of ourselves. Repentance is the first step but, as the liturgy reminds us, it is followed by Tefilah prayer, reconnecting with G-d, and Tzedaka, righteous acts, a dynamic, compassionate embrace of the societies around us.

There is a precious Talmudic story which teaches that when a baby is still in utero an angel comes along and teaches her the entire Torah. At birth, as the baby starts to exit, the angel returns and slaps the baby above her lips, causing her to forget all the Torah completely (and creating the physical indentation of the philtrum).

This story speaks to many of us because it points to that pull we have to some knowledge, some inspiration that was once clear but is now clouded. Dormant, inside us, there is a place of guiltlessness and possibility, and because we don’t settle for lives of routine, we remain restless, drawn to it.

A divine spark, a soul is embedded inside us and it reminds us of who we are, and of our power to live with passion and purpose. All human beings need to expand, to evolve. We know in our kishkes (gut) that stagnation is dangerous, and so we set aside these days every year to reflect, to embrace life with meaning.

The High Holiday refrain is Zachreinu L’Chayim “Remember us for life, You, Sovereign who desires life”. May we find ways to nurture that spirituality which is nascent in us. May our tradition inspire us to live more fully over these High Holidays and throughout the New Year.

Shana Tova,
Rabbi Weintraub

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