Compiled by Rabbi Sherril Gilbert
Inspired by and adapted from Rabbi Shefa Gold (2002) and Rabbi Jonathan Kligler
According to the Sages, Rosh Hashanah is supposed to be celebrated in Joy. Not a raucous party kind of joy, but not a restrained or stoic or sober joy either. This is a joy that is majestic, it is reverent, it is a joy that has its source in the depths of our humanity.
Psalm 46 says, “Nahar, p’lagav y’samchu Ir Elohim.” “There is a river; its streams water the cities of God.” So Rashi, the great medieval commentator asks, “What river is this?” and then concludes that it is the river of joy that flows forth from the Garden of Eden, the garden of delight, the place where we all come from.
The mystics teach that the river that flows out from this garden of perfection is still flowing, but it has become an underground river that branches out in many streams. Even now, its waters are coursing and flowing deep through the holy ground of our lives. This is the river that connects us with our Source and quenches our deep spiritual thirst.
When we are connected to that river of joy, then we have the strength and inspiration to participate consciously in our own evolution. Our inheritance provides us with a treasure chest filled with precious tools that can help us to dig beneath the surface of our lives, to find meaning here and now, to act in ways that reveal the essential mystery of Creation and our interconnectedness with all life. These tools are language, story, culture, the rhythm of the seasons and festivals, our music and the ancient dreams that were born of the wilderness.
These tools are sometimes inaccessible to us, locked away, hidden behind a great wall of misunderstanding. And the river of solemn joy flows merrily on beneath us while we become dry and crusty and bitterly imprisoned on the surface of things. It is as if this great
misunderstanding is the concrete pavement separating us from the ground of our being.
As a rabbi I often bear the burden of this misunderstanding. People come to me with questions about how they should live their lives. They have been taught that Judaism is a set of rules. Tell me what’s kosher and tell me what’s treif. Tell me the words that I should say at the shiva house. How do I say kaddish? Is it wrong to not go to the mikvah? What’s the right blessing? What will make me yotzei? What is the halachah? If I just follow these rules then will everything be fine and will I be blessed? And if I don’t obey the rules, then will I will be cursed?
The word halachah means, “the Way”. Its root, haloch, means walk, or go. It is the spirit of guidance that helps us take the next step in our journey. Originally halachah was something fluid. Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits z”l wrote that “Halachah is the bridge over which the Torah moves from the written word to the living deed.” Torah is eternal and should be interpreted anew for each generation according to principles of goodness and kindness and justice. “Every day the Torah should seem to you as if you had received it that very day,” says the Midrash (Tanchuma Ki Tavo 1).
The word mitzvah means commandment. It’s also related to the Aramaic word tzavta, which means to attach or to join together. And so the word mitzvah can be understood to mean not only commandment, but also connection.
I really love that notion of mitzvah as connection. When we do a mitzvah, we are connecting with what is holy, what is sacred to us. A mitzvah connects us with our traditions. It connects us with one another and it connects us with the rivers and the trees and the earth. It connects us with a deep part of ourselves from which we may have become disconnected.
Through the mitzvot we can connect with our Source, to that river of joy. With every spiritual practice I do and with every prayer I say, I ask the question, “Is this working?” Is it connecting me to that river, to the truth hidden inside this moment? Does this practice make me more compassionate? Does this prayer open my heart, expand the boundaries of soul, connect me to others? Or does it separate me, blind me to beauty, make me more judgmental, dull my senses? If so then it cannot be Torah, for Torah is darchei noam, the ways of pleasantness. If it doesn’t grow my love in some form, then it isn’t Torah.
The task of our generation, like each generation before us, is to enter into the holy conversation of our tradition. We do this by reaching in to Torah, into the treasure of our inheritance, in search of answers to the questions of our time, to deal with the crises of body, heart, mind and soul that so urgently call. And here is where the misunderstanding lies: We think that receiving is a passive thing, that the truth is already formed, that someone else’s Torah will speak to us, that the Torah of the past will be enough. Or we think that our tradition is something fixed, and if it doesn’t fit our sensibilities, we’ll just look elsewhere.
Reaching in to the Torah means participating in a process and being part of the conversation. It means digging down beneath the soil of our everyday lives and finding the holiness that has always been there.
On this day of turning, we are invited to turn to ourselves with compassion and ask: How can I make my life holy, moment by moment? How can I tap into that underground river that flows beneath my feet?
We call Torah a “Tree of Life”, and it is a good analogy. A tree is both visible and invisible. The visible part of the tree – its trunk, branches, leaves and flowers – is alive only because of the unseen network of roots that draw moisture and life up from the underground. And we know that without this unseen network of sustenance, the tree will die. By extension, when we view and measure our lives only by our visible accomplishments, and cut ourselves off from the unseen flow of life that animates us, we also wither and dry out.
Our Sages teach that the Torah we can see and hold is but a visible aspect of the cosmic tree of life. On that tree, we are the fruit, and yet we absurdly view ourselves as somehow independent creations. Our sacred task, the Sages say, is to plunge into the mysteries of the branches and roots from which we spring, the roots that are fed from the rivers that flow from the garden of Eden, connecting our life force consciously to the Source of Life, so that we might ripen to our fullest expression of giving, creativity and goodness.
When we reach into Torah, we receive its essence through word, music, and story and then mingle that essence with our own desire. That mingling happens in the innermost reaches of the heart. To participate in this process requires cultivating and nurturing an inner life. A life that is spacious enough that we can pay attention to the subtle shiftings of the heart, to the still small voice that is forever whispering to us the truth of who we are becoming. Psalm 95 says “HaYom – you will experience the infinite treasure of this present moment , “Im b’kolo tishma’u.” If only you would listen to that voice.
On this day, “The Great Shofar is sounded, and the still small voice is heard.” On this day we take drastic measures to tear away the veils of distraction and busyness by surrendering to that great primal call which holds in it both the wailing tears and the fierce battle cry. It clears away a space inside us and gives us an opportunity to listen to the still small voice.
Find time each day for listening. May the wisdom of Torah and these Holy Days all serve as signposts and reminders to us that there is more to life than meets the eye. Who is to say that our inner lives, our creativity, our search for understanding, our silent prayers are not sustaining the world in this very moment, as surely as our outward acts of kindness, righteousness and caring?
As you contemplate the coming year and create your vision to make this world a better place, remember to pay attention to your inner life. Touch the earth. Tend your garden. Listen to your dreams. Let music move you. Take time to be deep in nature. Make space for chance encounters. Make art. Make love that is loving. Let your tears flow. Talk to God. Pray. Celebrate Shabbat. Sit on the beach, or by a stream, or on a hillside, and let life in. This is profoundly important, in ways we barely understand. Tending to our inner lives is tending the roots underground that sustain our visible lives.
May each of us, in the coming year, be our own unique embodiment of the Tree of Life, with roots dug deep, arms reaching for the sun, offering shelter and sustenance to everyone and everything we love. And when we are in need, may we rest in the shelter of one another by the river that flows forth from the Garden. May we all have a truly good year.
L’Shanah Tovah tikateivu v’teichateimu.