Peter Josephson, Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5778

on Friday, 29 September 2017. Posted in Rabbi

Lay Sermon

L’Shana Tovah.

And what an honor and privilege it is to have been asked to speak today. Thank you, Carol. Thank you, Rabbi. And thank you to everyone who has been so encouraging – so looking forward, you told me, to hear what I might say.

I’m a little curious about that myself.

First, a word about my kippah. I bought this when I was in Brooklyn over the summer. It’s kind of splashy, and when I bought it I promised myself that I wouldn’t wear it out of the house. But at yesterday morning’s service everyone looked so nice that I decided to wear it today. Next week I’ll ask forgiveness for my splashiness.

I bought it because it reminds me of the Alaska flag. As many of you know, I was born and raised in Alaska, and lived their almost half my life. (That “half” – almost half – stings a little.) The Alaska flag is described in the Alaska Flag Song, which is the state song, and which every Alaskan knows. I won’t sing it, but the lyric goes like this:

Eight stars of gold on a field of blue,

Alaska’s flag may it mean to you,

The blue of the sea, the evening sky,

The mountain lakes, and the flowers nearby,

The gold of the early sourdoughs’ dreams

The precious gold of the hills and streams,

The brilliant stars in the northern sky,

The Bear, The Dipper,

And shining high,

That Great North Star with its steady light,

O’er land and sea a beacon bright,

Alaska’s Flag to Alaskans dear,

The simple flag of the Last Frontier.

For most of my life that Great North Star with its steady light was all the religion I had or needed – that and some healthy Emersonian pantheism.

I grew up in a quite secular household. I had a few months of Hebrew class when I was about eleven years old, in the basement of the Anchorage Baptist Temple on Arctic Boulevard, but the only thing that has really stuck with me about those months is the generosity of the Baptists who welcomed us into their space.

I should send a note.

The only holiday – the only Jewish holiday – that my family observed was Passover, that most American of holidays. I loved Passover.

My wife attends South Church, and several years ago she asked if I’d be interested in coming with her to a Friday evening service at Temple Beth Jacob. The whole idea seemed quite foreign to me, but as I look back I realize that for years I’d been searching for something in addition to The Great North Star with its steady light, and that – for many reasons – I had become aware that what I was looking for was somewhere in Judaism.

My experience that night was entirely mysterious – which is one of the joys of remembering it. Perhaps that was the third Shabbat service of my life. It was entirely foreign to me. And it felt like coming home. Just like that. Melodies I don’t remember hearing before were entirely familiar to me.

So we’re sitting in the service, and I’m sobbing, and trying to be quiet about it because it seemed so illogical, and Becky said, “Maybe you should talk to the Rabbi.” And I was nervous, and very aware of my inadequacies, but it seemed important. And it felt like, “If not now, when?”

So I asked Robin if we could make an appointment. And I said to her, “I think I might be Jewish.”

I have discovered since that I have been Jewish for a long time, but I didn’t know it, and I didn’t know how.

And so, Here I am, learning how.

So I was in Brooklyn, and I stayed with my sister and her husband, and I was doing a reading of “Twelfth Night” in which I was to play The Fool. We rehearsed in a friend’s living room in Prospect Park, and because not everyone in the cast knew each other our director asked us three questions as an icebreaker:

Who are you?

What role are you playing?

Where do you come from?

Looking back I realize that I should have stumbled over the first two. When someone asks you both “Who are you?” and “What role are you playing?” together, there’s a certain possibility or implication that the way we present ourselves may not reflect our truest selves. The coupling raises a question of integrity.

But I was more flummoxed by the question of “Where do you come from?”

My wife and I moved to New Hampshire about twelve years ago. But we lived in Massachusetts longer than that, and I can guarantee you that I don’t come from Massachusetts. We left Alaska half a lifetime ago, so I can’t any longer claim to come from there.

I suppose I’ve been wandering a bit, like an exile looking for the trail.

Where do I come from?

As we went around the circle in the room and folks answered and my turn drew closer, I was aware of a little tiny voice in the back of my head urging me to a very peculiar answer. It was so peculiar that when it was my turn to speak I said only that I grew up in Alaska, but now I live in New Hampshire. I didn’t give the real answer.

A couple of days later I was having coffee with a friend and I told him what the little tiny voice had told me.

I come from the past.

It has slowly dawned on me that my great ambition in life is to make myself ready to receive what is, to bring it into the present, and to send it along into the future.

I want to be a riverbed.

I think that is why I am both a student and a teacher, both a child and a parent.

That is why my Hebrew name is Baruch Ben-Tzion.

Memory – Active Remembrance – is essential to the Jewish experience. We come from the past. It’s an odd thing. You’d think the past would feel like a weight - the weight of tradition, of custom – and it certainly can be that. I’ve had that experience. But more recently I’ve had this other, mysterious experience, that when I remember those who have passed, and try to live my life in remembrance of them, the weight lifts. The more of them I carry, the lighter my own load becomes.

There’s a poem in our siddur, a meditation before Kaddish. It’s by Merrit Malloy, and part of it goes like this:

I want to leave you something,

Something better than words or sounds.

Look for me in the people I’ve known or loved

And if you cannot give me away,

At least let me live in your eyes.

When someone dies we dedicate ourselves to live in their memory, to continue to bring something of them, what was good in them – their spirit, their work – into the present, and into the future.

Yesterday, for only the third time in my life, I had the great privilege to chant Torah. I remember clearly the first time. I remember it like it was yesterday, and it very nearly was. It wasn’t very long ago, in preparation for my bar mitzvah here at TBJ – that astonishing moment when the Torah is opened, and suddenly the experience of today is bound to the experiences of generations and generations going back thousands of years. There in a single moment are my father and grandfather and others I don’t even know and am not even related to - the past and the present collapsing into the here and the now.

Yesterday we chanted the story of Abraham and Isaac, and there’s nothing I can tell you about that story that you haven’t already thought of. Becky and I have two children, a marvelous daughter who lives in Seattle, and a son who just settled in St. Paul, whose middle name is Isaac. I could tell you a true story about how neither of them is supposed to be with us today. Both are extraordinary gifts. And I will tell you, I couldn’t do what Abraham does. I like to imagine that I would be like the Abraham who argues with God. I don’t know if I’d actually be able to do that – probably I would just find a green pasture to lie down in – but I like to imagine that I would put up a fight.

And yet this Abraham – the Abraham ready to sacrifice his “only one” – has something to teach us about readiness.

Three times Abraham is called, and three times he gives the same answer. God calls Abraham, and Abraham answers “Here I am.” Isaac calls to him, and Abraham answers “Here I am.” An angel calls to him as Abraham’s arm is raised over his son, and Abraham answers “Here I am.”

Abraham has readied himself for whatever will come, but I don’t think he knows what that will be.

There’s an acting exercise I love called “crossing the threshold” in which the readiness is all. We prepare ourselves before an imaginary door. We don’t know what the door is, or what is on the other side, but when we are ready we open the imaginary door and step across the threshold, and every time there is something waiting for us. And every time it is something unexpected, something we can’t plan for.

We stand at a threshold now. It’s Rosh Hashanah!

Here is a poem from the Siddur, by Adrienne Rich:

Either you will go through this door

Or you will not go through.

If you go through there is always

The risk of remembering

Your name.

Things look at you doubly

And you must look back

And let them happen.

If you do not go through

It is possible

To live worthily

To maintain your attitudes

To hold your position

To die bravely.

But much will blind you

Much will evade you

At what cost who knows?

The door itself makes no promises.

It is only a door.

We stand at the threshold of a new year. We must make ourselves ready, as Abraham was. But we do not know what we must be ready for. We will receive something, like a memory, and it will pass through us into the mysterious future.

Ready or not, here we are.

I’ve always loved Pesach. But in the last few year I’ve been bothered by the end of the service, when we declare “Next year in Jerusalem.” I fear that can descend into a moment of mere complacency, an excuse, an “Oh, well, better luck next year.” Like we’ve all become fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers – Wait until next year!

I don’t want it to be that. And it occurs to me that today is a good day to remember that what in the spring we called “next year” actually begins right now. This is the next year. This year in Jerusalem.

Today we discover that what might have seemed an easy “oh well, next year” actually has the quality of a promise. It is as though last spring we already knew that we were falling short, and that the day of atonement was coming, and that we had to rededicate ourselves to do better.

This year we need to build a path, or a hundred paths, to Jerusalem.

So we stand at the threshold. The door is before us. Ready or not, here we are.

Adonau, or Eloheim, or Whatever Is Divine, please plow open my ears. It will take a plow, because I have closed them. Help me hear you. Plow open my mouth, so that I can breathe you into every cell of my body. Plow open my hands so that I can proclaim you, not merely with words but with deeds.

We don’t know what waits for us.

But we have a calendar.

First, we will feed the hungry. We will fill our bags, and we will empty them, and we will fill them again, and we will fill them again.

Then, we will defend religious liberty; we will plant fruit trees; we will ridicule tyrants, and we will shame them; we will bring refugees across the wilderness to freedom, and we won’t leave Miriam behind when she is sick. We won’t even leave strangers behind; we will welcome them.

And we will stay up all night studying Torah together.

And when we wake up in the morning we will thank Adonai, or Eloheim, or Whatever Is Divine that we have one more day to contribute our own little tiny piece of the work that stretches before us.

Now, I don’t want to descend into mere sentimentality, I’m given to that. This year will be hard. We don’t know where we’re going, and each of us has our own wildernesses to cross. Like Abraham, we are both ready and not ready. Like Abraham, we must attend to the now. Here we are, standing at the threshold of a new year. And we made a promise.

And we still have the north star.

We will not succeed. We will not heal all the brokenness in the world this year, and we are bound to make mistakes, to introduce new brokenness. We know already that next spring at Pesach we will have to renew the promise, and we know that next year at Yom Kippur we will have to atone just as we do this year. But failure doesn’t matter, because we made a promise.

The great Jewish American humorist Calvin Trillin likes to remember something his father taught him. “As long as you’re here, you might as well be a mensch.” We might as well be mensches. It’s not like we have something better to do than that.

And if not now, in this year of all years, if not now, when?

Shanah Tovah.

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