Here it is everyone. Rosh HaShanah is here and I am completely unprepared. Yes, I am reading prepared words off the page. Yes, I am all dressed, I got the room looking alright (well, Ariel did - thank you). Yes, we - a full and amazing we - have been working for months and months to get this service and all the events of the holidays ready. But having things to say and being prepared, I am learning, are very different things. This year has brought the feeling of unpreparedness to the forefront. Unprepared for the longer-than-I-thought-it-would-last pandemic. Unprepared for an attempted coup. For devastating climate catastrophe. For arguing about Critical Race Theory with my family? For another onslaught of Gaza. For an assault on reproductive justice. For virtual school. For in-person school. For a puppy. For virtual high holidays, again. Tell me, friends - what about this year did you actually feel prepared for?
The High Holy Days are all about being unprepared. We call these days Yamim HaNoraim, and I want to invite us all into a particular meaning of these days. There are many associations we might have with this idea of awe. Awe is a complex emotion. It is defined as a mix of surprise and fear. Have you seen those wheels of emotions? On the ones I examined, awe is placed as an offshoot of surprise branching out from either startled or amazed. Words in English like awesome and awful make awe a word that contains paradox and contradiction. It describes a mix of disgust, terror, shock, and wonder. And I will tell you, at the beginning of this year, I am feeling about all of that.
In Hebrew, the complicated nature of the word awe fully translates. Nora - the Hebrew word for Awe as we use in Yamim HaNoraim - comes from the root yud-resh-aleph: to fear, revere, honor, to be amazed.
This form of that root, nora, first appears in Torah when Jacob had his famous dream known as Jacob’s Ladder. Awakening from this dream, while sleeping on a rock pillow, visioning angels ascending and descending a ladder, Ya’akov Avinu, Jacob our Father exclaims: “God was in this place and I did not know.” The torah describes his state of awe/fear before putting these words in his mouth “Ma Nora HaMakom HaZeh, ein zeh ki im beit elohim, v’zeh sha’ar hashamayim” - how nora - how awe-inducing, fear-causing, how humbling - is this place. It is none other than the abode of God, and this, this is the gate of heaven.
For Jacob, who would later be renamed Israel - from whom our people are named - it was from a place of awe, a place of humility, a place of fear, a place of understanding his humanity - that he could access the divine. How could we possibly be prepared for such a place?
And it is exactly this that in our liturgy we seek during the days of awe. The gate of heaven. Sha’ar HaShamayim. Also known as the gate of justice. Pitchu li sha’arei tzedek. Our ancestors have passed down to us the idea that we find ourselves at this gate tonight and we pray for them to open. That we are to go through these 10 days as though we were at the precipice of that very gate - to have a stance of surprise and fear over the duration of these days. Unpreparedness as a spiritual practice. We do not know what is coming. Tonight is an invitation to let it scare you, yes, but to perhaps cozy up to the freedom that dwelling in this lack of preparedness might bring.
The shofar alerts us to the opening of the gates. It has been blasting daily for all of Elul to wake us up to being unprepared. With all due respect to my Sunday morning shofar comrades these past four weeks, I have heard and I have even blown the shofar, but I have been mostly hitting the snooze button as it attempts to wake me. I have been avoiding the arousing, the startle, the fear, the awe, that the shofar is meant to stir and inspire.
Like the prophet Jonah running from his assignment to Nineveh, I have been running from the inevitability of this season. Jonah, the reluctant prophet who avoided God’s call to him, was, commentaries say, worried that the Ninevites would readily repent and make his people, the stubborn Israelites look bad. My friends, today, unlike Jonah, I want to ask you to make me look bad. I need your help. Your leadership. I pray to us, turn toward the awe. Repent in ways I find myself currently unable. Return from ways which I am still stuck in. Transform in ways I remain closed off to. May the people of the world say Kadima is a community of fierce teshuvah-doers, despite their rabbi.
Cause, well, ya know? And it wasn’t just me, maybe. This past year, in the cycle of years, is known in Hebrew, from Tractate Arakhin in the Talmud, as a Shanah Chaserah - a “deficient year.” The term Shanah Chaserah, literally “a year that is lacking,” comes from the fact that the two months which sometimes have 29 days and sometimes have 30 days both had only 29. It was, in this way, the shortest year the Jewish calendar allows for at 353 days. For so many reasons would I say this year was indeed lacking. And while this year had its deficiencies, looking back, you may agree that this last year felt anything but short. In fact, it seems like perhaps it was never ending, endlessly repetitive, so much of it indistinct from the rest of it, and what was unique was chilling, startling, awe-full.
Thus, dwelling in 10 days of nora might be hard to distinguish from any other day at this point. In this respect, perhaps this whole deficient year was full of days of awe.
But these days are differentiated in our tradition, and one of the ways in which we differentiate them is through the blowing of the shofar. Central to these days, indeed another name in Torah for Rosh HaShanah is Yom T’ruah. Day of the horn blast. But indeed, t’ruah is just one of the four unique horn blasts heard during these days. In particular, t’ruah is the shofar call leading to 9 persistent, unique staccato blasts. 9 short and sharp blasts mark the name of today. The word t’ruah has the root resh-vav-ayin. The meaning of this word t’ruah is to raise a shout or give a blast, or even utter a grumbling cry. Specifically, the word refers to an alarm of war, a cry of distress, and also a shout in triumph or applause or joy. It is an exclamation beyond vocabulary.
Tomorrow, we will blow shofar on zoom in the morning, and then in the late afternoon, there will be in-person gatherings in Seattle’s north and south ends to give us all the chance to bring the vibrations of the shofar into our bodies and souls. One tradition implores us to hear 100 blasts in order to fulfill the commandment. Perhaps, more than any other year, it might take every last one of those one to finally shake me.
Tonight though, we are by definition unprepared, before the gates, perhaps seeking a key. We find ourselves at the gates. Praying that they open. And even once they do, that we have the courage to enter. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote asking us all to “see life as all doors. Some are open, some are closed. You have to know how to open them.” Later, he tells us that “the key is a song.” A song is an expression from the depths of our breath, the bodily connection to soul. A song requires calling out from within, like a shout, a cry, an alarm, an expression of distress, but, like our holiday invites, dipped and dripping with honey. Let us each tonight begin a search for the key that will open our own gateway to heaven, to justice, to repair. Let us sing that we might open the gates of our emotions. Open the gates of expression. May the shofar blasts we hear tomorrow be a model for us to sound our own voices, our own means of expression as the prophet Isaiah says: like a shofar - to awaken, to startle, to humanize, to humble, and to act. May these 10 days be days in which we dare to express ourselves - loudmouthed, brash, voluble, bellowing, bigmouthed, big-voiced, blustering, boisterous, obnoxious, vociferous - in all the modes of the shofar. Whether 9 sharp short notes, 3 medium wails, or 1 long cry.
While this past year was called a deficient year, the year that begins tonight is an extra long year - a shanah me’ubarim, literally a full year - a leap year consisting of an entire extra month. May it indeed be full. Full of growth, of goodness, of health, of release, and of transformation. For this year, ‘82, is also the 7th year in the shmita cycle - the seven year cycle similar to the seven day cycle - six of work, of the mundane, of toil, and of production, and one of rest, of reflection, of release, of realigning our trajectory. Of living off of what we already have and taking a break from productivity and consumption. Similar to shabbat, this seventh year is one to differentiate. The question again, is what is the key? So, maybe it will be singing for you, like Rabbi Heschel. Or perhaps for you, you have carved another means for unlocking the gate from where you have been to someplace beyond. Like Jacob who built a pillar at the gate of heaven he experienced, like refugees whose key is a symbol of their hope of returning, I invite you to have a material reminder for how to access the gate throughout this entire year. Something to carry with you, something to notice and remember. For while we continue into that which we are not prepared, let us remember and hold dear what keeps us open to our humanity.
In a 7th year, in a full year, in a year that follows lacking, may teshuvah translate as rebound, and may we utilize this year to come back, re-emerge, re-lease, re-distribute, and re-commune.
L’shanah tovah u’metukah - may it be dipped in honey.