Teshuvah and the Great Turning: Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5779

The following sermon was given by Rabbi Ariana Katz at Hinenu on September 10, 2018 on the first day of Rosh HaShanah.

Shanah tovah. In the lineage of our people who speak not first of our own lives, but the lives of those who came before us, I’d like to share with you the story of Herschel Stiefel.

Herschel was my great-great zeide, my mother’s mother’s father. Herschel was born July 15, 1899 in Snitkov, Ukraine, then Russia, 4,795 miles from where we are in this very moment. When Herschel, or Tzvi ben Menachem Mendel as they called him in shul, was a young man, he tried to leave home. Twice.

The first time, Herschel decided to leave because of the increasing anti Jewish violence of pogroms, the sudden quotas and restricted access to education, crushing restrictions to shtetls--the results of the Edict of Expulsion against the Jews in nearby Kiev, just 224 miles way. He left because of the coming forcible “draft”--a knock at the door, into the Cossak army, a guaranteed inevitability. So Herschel left, and traveled to British Mandate Palestine.

But when he arrived at the border, his immigration papers were not in order. So they sent him back to Russia.

But he decided to leave again. This time, he did not have enough money to get from Eastern Europe back to the land about which he prayed and planned his whole young life. So, he walked.

Herschel is reported to have said that he liked walking through Turkey the best, and held a fondness for the country the rest of his life. I wonder if Herschel was terrified when he walked the 2,337 miles, passing through countries whose borders have long since changed. I wonder if he felt sick, bouncing in the back of wagons as he hitchhiked to cover more ground, I wonder if he had enough layers, as he moved through climates and languages and cultures. I wonder if Herschel felt fear when he made it into the Aretz, the land. Because after traversing 2,337 miles, he made it.

I wonder if Herschel ever felt fear’s twin, awe. I wonder if he prayed, what he prayed when he arrived. I wonder if he was so tired, he could barely look up.

Herschel struggled to find work and then ended up working in the port of Haifa for a few years, but reported that it was not what he expected. He loved living there, loved his neighbors, but knew there were political changes he wanted to see, but knew he couldn’t impact. Realized it was not the place he wanted to be. I wonder what the stories he heard from Israel/Palestine were, the promise, the opportunity for a young Jewish man from Russia looking for a chance, for safety. I wonder if he felt disappointed. Or angry. Or embarrassed, that it was not the place for him.

So what did Herschel do, not loving his life as a dock worker in 1920’s Haifa? He kept journeying. He packed up, and left. Herschel left Haifa October 1, 1923 and arrived in the Port of Providence, RI on the 1st of November, 1923 at the age of 24 years old, on a boat called the Asia. He became a citizen of the US on March 19, 1925, where he changed his name from Herschel Stiefelman to Harry Stiefel. In 1926, at the age of 27, he married my great-great bubbie Pessie Gorberg, who immigrated to the US before they would meet, but was born into a rabbinic family just 108 miles away from Snitkov in the great Jewish town of Ostropol. They settled in Philadelphia, they owned a grocery store in Powelton Village, 4,709 miles from Snitkov, and lived above it with their children. Herschel of Snitkov and Pessie of Ostropol. Many times Pessie of Ostropol made milkshakes for her granddaughter, my mother, on Shabbes, when her husband was at shul. Once their grocery store was robbed and Herschel of Snitkov was beaten. Herschel learned how to play chess on a computer in 1987 weeks before he died, davvened every morning at the shtiebl around the corner, filled kiddush cups to overflowing at Passover.

I wonder if Herschel ever felt like he was from a place. Was he from Snitkov, Haifa, Philadelphia? Was Herschel from the Journey, was his origin and his becoming and his destination the Midbar, the wilderness, the path? Was he from the place called Leaving?

I wonder how Herschel expereinced fear. Bone chilling, flee or be consumed, all is lost fear. I wonder if that’s what made him keep working till he found a kind of safety, as complicated as it might be.

Herschel Knew: The Great Turning
A few years ago, I gave a sermon that declared “I don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.” Bold, confident, I declared to the assembled college students in front of me that while it might feel like the world is ending, while our liturgy printed in black ink on white page before us tells us so, we must fight the urge to believe it. “So you tell me, over and over and over again my friend, that you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction” that’s what Barry McGuire sang.

I was wrong. It’s the season for admitting when we’re wrong, and so before you now, I’ll share I was wrong. We are on the eve, indeed.

Over the past year, we have watched this city shake.

Over the past year, we have watched our country wage a violence many of us know all too well personally, and more of us have only feared.

Over the past year, we have watched our world heat, cool, tremble, and change.

And over the past year, we have wondered, where are we amidst it all?

Over the past year, our relationships have changed, failed, soared, morphed.

Over the past year we have become different, or stagnated, or overcome, or grown to unimaginable heights.

Over the past year, we have wondered, where am I, amidst it all?

We are certainly in a time of great turning. The eco-philosopher Dr Joanna Macy, scholar of systems theory, Buddhism, and deep ecology, teaches of the Great Turning. She explains that there have been three major revolutions that have shaped our world--the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, and our time now. The Great Turning, when environmental collapse, when the extractionist capitalist death machines has brought us to the very brink. This great turning that Dr. Macy describes is not the falling over the edge into chaos, but rather the great turning of consciousness rising, people rising, power rising. We are in a time of great turning, and that means great change. Transition. The pain of one way of being dying and another beginning. This change is not all good as we know, it is not all bad, but it is all change. Dr. Macy calls on us to see this time of Great Turning as historic as the time of agricultural settlement, industrialization.

In this season in our year of turning, we might be a little more flexible to see how change can be not all bad, not all horror, in as much as it is never all good. “All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. ” writes Octavia Butler of blessed memory, in the Parable of the Sower. “The only lasting truth is change. This Great Turning is a time of change. Our planet, our country, and our lives are changing and we don’t yet know if it will be l’chayyim, for life, or l’mavet, for death, as our liturgy asks. We see great unrest and the cost of human lives, and wonder, what is it all for? We ask “where am I most of use in this change?” “How can I keep myself and my family safe?” “How can I protect others?” “Where are we headed?”

We are in a season, a 10 day stretch of our own great turning. Tonight, the world is new. The world is changing before our very eyes, and there is  loss. There is a feeling of “oh, but I’m not ready!” So much is left undone in the past year. So many goals not met, so many dishes left dirty, plans yet to be followed through on.

“So you tell me over and over and over again my friend…”

We might be on the eve, on the edge. We might be teetering. It might not be as bad as we thought, if we can begin to find answers by asking one another some of the following:

During times of great turning what tools do we rely on?

How do we find stability in a changing world, how do we find empathy and tenderness in a culture that prefers we be hard to one another?  

How do we survive? How do we change? How do we turn the tides?

What are the best practices for living into the best versions of ourselves and our values that we can?

Ancestors Have the Answers

We are reaching out, over the next 10 days from erev Rosh Hashanah to the end of Yom Kippur, for connection to each other, to ourselves and the parts we have neglected, reaching out to God. And we will begin to find answers to this question, what tools do we have for survival during times such as these?

בכל דור ודור, “In every generation,” we are called to see our ancestors stories in our own time.

Because this is not the first time anyone has ever felt this way. Our collective ancestry have seen this before, truly. And by ancestors, I mean the ones who came before us--connected to us through blood or by choice, known in this lifetime or met only after their death, in family photo albums, names we carry, or stories read. The stories we guess at that were never told because of misplaced shame, or generational trauma. They have travelled on foot, by boat, by wagon, by plane. Border crossers, or those who stay put. Our collective ancestry have survived, war, being kicked out of homes, kicked out of countries. Survived fire, flood, famine, plague. Survived familial dispute, violence between family, changing nations, changing custom, changing languages. Our collective ancestry has survived.”We are a red sea parter, a bridge people,” said the poet Kevin Coval. We can get from one place to another, be it spiritual or physical.

There is much more knowledge we can bring into the conversation.

Our liturgy calls out to our collective claimed ancestry, our mothers and fathers in the Torah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Jacob. We remind, plead, beg God to “zocher chasdei Avot v’Imot,” remember the goodness of our ancestors. In our Amidah prayer, the central prayer of each service, we bless God as the God of our ancestors--the collective Source we pray to now is the same one that Avraham, Sarah….prayed to. Before we say any other blessings, we invoke our lineage, the people who got us to this moment. We rely on credit with God--”remember how much you loved clever Leah? That’s got to count for something!” In our liturgy, and in our lives, our ancestors are not remote concepts that we talk about. No, we pray these words, call on these ancestors to intervene for us, are in deep relationship with those who came before us. And if we call on them, why can we not call on them for some survival strategies?

Join me, close your eyes if you’re comfortable, as we call in our ancestors into this room.

Imagine a beloved grandparent, parent, ancestor you’ve only seen a picture of.

Imagine a historical figure who has been a guide to you. Invite them in to this room, let them sit beside you, fill in the empty seats, the blank places around the wall.

Welcome, you all. Thank you for filling this space.

You know more than ever, we need you here. We need to learn from your wisdom, how you have managed a time of turning. How did you stay connected to tradition? To your neighbors? What foods sustained you during times of great shift? What songs did you sing while marching? How did you learn to go inside yourself to survive?

Take a moment with your beloved guests. Listen to them. Thank them.

Ancestors, stay with us on this journey. Linger here tonight as we sing, accompany your beloveds home. Teach us.

We do not have to come up with new ideas from scratch. The powerhouse organizers and healers in Baltimore Letrice Gant and Erricka Bridgeford from Baltimore Ceasefire teach “don’t ask why isn’t the work happening, ask “who is already doing this, and how can I learn from them and help?” We are calling out for help in this moment in history, and this moment in our year.

Remembering stories from our ancestors, in Torah, in political history, in biological family, reminds us that we are not the first. Affirms that yes, things are bad. That yes, things are as bad as they have ever been, but we are not alone, they are still here to help us and walk alongside us.

Look up.

So we may, in fact, be on the eve. But we hold stories of balance, survival, grace. Let us focus instead on the balance. This is what the Great Turning calls us to notice--not crisis, but the turning in the face of it.

In the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the story of the Akedah is traditionally read, the binding of Isaac, son of Abraham. In the span of one chapter, we read a story of violence and abuse that takes generations  to heal from, that we still to this day remember. God calls to Abraham by name, and he answers simply “hineni,” here I am. In swift fashion, Abraham is instructed from the very words of God to “take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” (Breisheet 22:2)

And so he does. He saddles up the donkeys, brings two servants and his son, chops the firewood, and heads out to do one of the two most horrific things this parent will do to his sons over our high holy day readings. Abraham ditches the servants at the base of the mountain, and hands his son the firewood. Abraham carries the knife. The two of them ascend the mountain, verse by verse our horror builds. Crisis is coming, decision and violence, disobedience or pure faith. Abraham and Isaac come to the crest of Mount Moriah, and Isaac asks, Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” And Abraham said, “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them walked on together.

It is only once Isaac is tied up, his father’s arm raised over him with knife in hand, the whole world about to change based on what happens, that a voice calls out:

וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֵלָ֜יו מַלְאַ֤ךְ יְהוָה֙ מִן־הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אַבְרָהָ֣ם ׀ אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיֹּ֖אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי׃

Then an angel of the LORD called to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.”

In this moment of great turning, of disaster immanent, of it all about to change forever as we know it, our ancestor Abraham has an out.

And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.”

An interruption to his pattern of behavior in this moment, and for the past dozen chapters of his life as written on our Torah. The interruption comes not a moment too late. Abraham is called to look up. Look up from the crisis, his son bound below him, the certain plummet. In Abraham’s case, he is called to look up by a messenger of God, called out of the depths, the muck, the error, and the panic, pulled out of crisis.

Abraham knows he must sacrifice something. Perhaps he is already in the ritual and cannot stop even because of instructions from some heavenly voice. Perhaps because his patterns are so ingrained, because he is so focused on looking down, he is so ready for this crisis, so geared up for the crash, he must do something.

But the solution presents itself, like our solutions will present themselves, when we truly look, listen for the voices that call us to look up from meditating on the crash.

When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.

It is because of this ram offering, made on the top of Mount Moriah, offered up to a vengeful, tearful God while Isaac weeps covered in a blanket under a tree, that we blow the shofar. The ram’s horn. The cry of the potential crash, the wake up call that demands we look up.

When we hear the shofar blasts, we are awakened by that ram again and again. The sound as old as the entire universe, as infinite as love, and bold as making a new choice and shattering an old pattern. The shofar calls us back to the moment of Abraham’s offering. At a moment of great turning, when crisis might strike, we can look out to find solutions.

When I hear the shofar blasts, I am awakened by the chance to see a way out, again and again. I am awakened by the cries that Herschel heard when he knew it was time to leave. To find a way. When Herschel looked up, what did he see?

Answering the call
In the next 10 days, we reach out to one another. We reach back into history to grab the hands of our ancestors. We reach into ourselves and explore our depths. We stretch out into the fullness of Creation. We dip our toes in the eternality of this time, this liminal in between space between the new year and the closing of the Book. In the next 10 days we will uncover, lift up, exalt, and praise the tools we have to rely on during times of great turning. We will hear the call of the shofar as a reminder that in times of crisis, there have been creative, dynamic, emergent solutions to survive. We will seek the tools we need in our relationships to repair, shift, heal, change. We will ask ourselves about who we are, and what this turning of the year demands from us.

May there be a ram in the thicket. May there be a wedge in the cogs. May there be a blast from a shofar that calls us out of the cycles of harm, the patterns of violence, the seemingly unending march toward destruction and crash. May we be blessed to hear the calls of one another’s hearts, calling us to wake up. May we accompany each other on the path. May we be treated kindly by this lifetime.

When Herschel knew it was time to leave, to change, he went, he shifted, answered the call of his future, his unfolding, his grounding. When Avraham was called, he said HINENI. This year, we respond, we vow to look up, to answer the call that is saving us from the edge, the fall, the brink, the crisis. This year, when we called by brilliant creative dynamic solutions that call us close to ourselves, closer to one another, we answer the call. We say Hinenu.

May we be written and sealed in the Book of Life for goodness, health, connection, safety. Shanah tovah.