Rosh Hashanah 5779/2018

Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman







There is so much that is beautiful in this space, under this dome — coming to this sanctuary and taking in the grandeur of the architecture, the gravitas of the day, the melodies that move us from year to year, is for many a long-treasured gift and for some of you a new experience to cherish. But there is something even more beautiful and fundamental for each of us here…..each other. I would like you to look around the room and just take in the diversity of the community that is gathered today. Look at all of these faces – in every shade of emotion – each one the surface of a totally unique soul, a neshama! Look around at the faces that are familiar, and unfamiliar…each of us comes from somewhere, each of us has traversed a different path to get to this moment in this sanctuary today, this new year of 5779. Each of us sharing in an ancient tradition to move through time mindfully and in community. There are so many stories in this room. The grandeur of the space we share today highlights the luminous sanctity of this human community. There is so much for us to learn from one another – so much we can share that would echo in the soul of another, if we open ourselves to an authentic encounter. In a way, we are a kind of a library, each of us a text that is a wellspring of wisdom and connection for others.


There is actually a Human Library – a project born in Copenhagen 18 years ago, which according to its website is “designed to build a positive framework for conversations that can challenge stereotypes and prejudices through dialogue. The human library is a place where real people are on loan to readers. A place where difficult questions are expected, appreciated, and answered.” Now active in 80 countries, The Human Library now calls itself “a worldwide movement for social change.”1


Hearing another person’s story and sharing our own, is at the root of building community, and fundamental to the change we must work for at this most divisive and fraught moment in history: building understanding, compassion, connections, and an awareness of our shared humanity and shared struggle and joy. How might the honest sharing of our own stories, help not only to strengthen our own identities and our relationships, but ultimately help us to heal our world?


Let’s go back to the beginning– actually, to the beginning of the beginning: Among the very first verses in the book of Genesis, the first book of the Torah, God asks the first human the first question in the Torah: “Ayekah?” “Where are you?” Adam replies: “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.”


When God asked Adam “Where are you?” Adam didn’t reply with an answer about his physical location, though the question “Ayeka” could have been taken literally. Adam answers instead with a story, and even though he is wearing a fig leaf, he is certainly exposing himself here, making himself vulnerable by answering honestly with his story. “I was afraid and I hid.” He admits his shame, his anxiety, and his attempt not to be honest, but in so doing, he is in authentic encounter with God, sharing his story honestly.


It sounds easy enough to be open and honest with one another. Some of us who are members of communities like this one have come together for several decades. Some have supported and accompanied each other through life’s greatest sorrows and most profound joys. But it is easier than ever to be distracted and inattentive, or to be overwhelmed by the constant flow of information and virtual contact with so many others. We can feel more connected than ever, and yet…. a growing body of evidence suggests that authentic connection, which requires us to be vulnerable with other people, is increasingly rare. To share our full humanity with one another and therefore to increase our own well-being and that of the world, means that we must acknowledge that our lives are messy, complicated, and full of challenges as well as triumphs. I recently listened to a podcast in which a former Surgeon General of the UK said that loneliness is reaching epidemic proportions, and that its effects on our health are real. He said “as we have focused so much on technology and mobility and productivity in the workplace we have lost sight of…our connection to each other.”2 One study showed loneliness to be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and as being worse than obesity. Last January, Prime Minister Theresa May appointed the world’s first Minister for Loneliness, to help manage this epidemic.

And this disconnection is manifest in the political realm as well. A Pew Research Center Survey from just last month notes that “Just 18% of Republicans and 23% of Democrats say that voters of the two parties can agree on basic facts even if they disagree over policies and plans.” As we disconnect from each other and each other’s stories, especially from stories that challenge our own perspectives, we are growing more divided as a nation. There is an organization called Resetting the Table that aims to
“build meaningful dialogue and deliberation across political and communal divides.” Drawing from facilitation and mediation expertise, Resetting the Table supports participants to “address differences directly as they move through charged conversations with honesty, mutual recognition, and respect.” How do they often have participants begin the process? By listening to the story of why someone cares about the issue. What is their personal experience that leads to their current perspective?

Rosh Hashanah is called Yom HaZikaron – the Day of Remembrance. In Hebrew, the word has the resonance of being “thought of,” seen, known. That someone is paying attention. God remembers us! We experience both joy (and trembling) when we feel known. Each of us has a primal need to be seen – to feel that our story matters – that someone is paying attention. I think of my kids – and how often they say “Mom – WATCH!” They want me to witness them – jumping into the pool or building a giant lego tower or doing a flip…We are so happy to be known. Of course – we don’t want to be too known, too watched. There are plenty of things I’m sure my kids don’t want me to witness. 0But being and feeling known, acknowledged, “counted,” is something every human being longs for. Really hearing one another, and allowing ourselves to be heard, is so difficult, so easy to avoid, and yet – what is more soothing, sustaining, nourishing and nurturing than the feeling that you have been fully known? Heard, seen, understood in all of your complexity, in your mistakes and your misgivings, in your hopes, your triumphs, your sorrows?

Most likely, we are all familiar with the “metoo” movement. When one person made herself vulnerable and shared her story, out came story after story after story, until there were tens of thousands of individuals saying “me, too.” While these particular stories were stories of sexual assault and harassment, all stories have their power in the “me, too” – the way that stories connect us, enable us to find common ground, to remember that we are not alone in our experiences and emotions. When we read the sacred stories of our people handed down through millennia, we are reminded that our individual struggles and joys connect us to those who lived generations ago, and to the generations who will come after us. We are part of something much greater than ourselves – horizontally in community, and vertically through time.

As we face an unprecedented sense of anxiety on the global level, about our rapidly changing climate, about the rise of authoritarianism and extremism, and so much else, it is important for us and for our communities and our world to get back to the basics of sharing heart to heart, soul to soul, face to face. Sharing our stories reminds us that there is so much goodness in this world, so much reason to be hopeful…that amidst the brokenness there is a true and deep wholeness, of which we are all a part, together.

The shofar, the hallmark of Rosh Hashanah, can be understood as a call for us to know others. In the cry of the shofar, can we hear an assertion of the demand to listen? Renowned Educator Parker Palmer, in his “Circle of Trust Approach”3 guides individuals to share authentically in order to strengthen integrity, courage, and relationships in all kinds of communities. One of its key principles is: “To hear each other into speech.” To hear each other into speech. The call of the shofar is a cry that demands to be heard in the depths of our soul and also reminds us to hear the souls of others, that they might then open themselves further to our hearing and our knowing.

Of course, our most central text, the Shema, is itself a commandment to listen. This verse from the book of Deuteronomy is not a blessing, not a prayer, but a command: “Shema, Yisrael — Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.” “Listen, Jewish people. God is our god. God is One.” What if we understand the Shema in this way?: “Shema. Listen to one another– don’t just hear, but listen. In the uniqueness of each other that we discover in authentic encounter, we are reminded that we are all connected by the same source. Adonai Echad – God is One: When we listen deeply, God’s unity echoes throughout the vast diversity of this human family (and indeed, the entire created world).”

Another word we find throughout our most sacred texts: “HINNENI.” (I chanted it last night and today, to indicate my readiness to serve as prayer leader…) “Hinneni” – you have my full attention. I am ready. This is what Abraham responds to God when God calls out to him before asking the unthinkable – that Abraham should sacrifice his beloved son (in the story of the binding of Isaac which we read this morning). “Hinneni” is Moses’ response to God when God calls to him out of the burning bush, to send him to lead the Jewish people out of slavery. “Hinneni” is also the name of our endowment here at Temple Ohabei Shalom! I believe that in the same way the endowment strengthens our community and enables us to build for the future, so too, saying “hinneni” to one another in this community – sharing and listening authentically with each other, creates a foundation of strength and a vibrant future.

So how do we here at Temple Ohabei Shalom heed the call to LISTEN and WAKE UP and BE PRESENT for one another? One of the highlights of the past year for our community and for me has been our membership in the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization last spring. The GBIO, as it is known, was founded in 1998 by a group of 45 clergy and community members — Jewish, Muslim, and Christian — and works to implement broad scale, concrete social change, starting with authentic individual relationships. The founders aimed to build a new organization which could help form relationships across these divides of race and class and at its founding assembly in November of 1998, 4000 people from across the Boston area attended the largest and most diverse meeting held in Boston in the past 25 years.”4 The GBIO now has 43 member organizations, including synagogues, churches, and mosques.

Some of our members who have become involved in the Temple’s partnership with the GBIO have been learning and utilizing the organization’s particular methodology of relationship building, based in sharing our stories, active listening and sustained attention: Meetings should be face-to-face and one-on-one, in “an active attempt to understand another person more deeply, and his/her interests.” These meetings prioritize sharing “what are the stories that explain who [we] are, and explain [our] actions, values, priorities?” Their materials suggest that we “go deep rather than wide” – “It is more important to understand deeply why they made one action rather than know a list of twenty actions that they made. It is the moment in which one shares why and another relates to the why that relating happens. Ask about key moments in their life and how these moments transformed them.” On June 15th, following Shabbat evening services, we created an opportunity for members and guests to share stories over a delicious Shabbat dinner. We intentionally had participants sit in mixed groups (not with those they already know well) at round tables, and began with a conversation prompt: “What was your first experience of injustice?” We all came away feeling we knew those we had listened to in a new and different way. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could have a Temple Ohabei Shalom “Story Slam” inspired by The Moth Radio Hour or record each other for a Temple Ohabei Shalom “Storycorps?” (Both of these are podcasts, with similar missions. Storycorps’ mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.)

Last year, we undertook a strategic planning process, which brought a broad range of TOS members together to share their experiences and hopes related to this community and ultimately related to their own lives. Every voice matters in this ongoing process, and many new connections were made. Through this process, the community identified three core values of Temple Ohabei Shalom: Tikkun Olam (the repair of the world– social action), Creating a Caring and Inclusive Community, and Learning. Through our new partnership with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, we have the opportunity to bring all of these values and goals together. When we listen to and share our stories with one another, we are building a strong community not only for its own ends, but in the service of a better world.

My favorite Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, understood God as what happens in authentic relationship. God is what is in-between. When I read a few lines of this 20th century thinker’s most famous book, “I and Thou,” (over the shoulder of a college friend who was reading it for a class), I immediately connected with this concept of God as a force between two people, rather than the many other metaphors in Jewish liturgy and tradition of God as a father or God as a king or as a judge, etc. My mind was blown, my heart was opened, and I felt a stirring in my soul that led me to study Judaism, to travel to Israel, to incorporate more Jewish ritual in my life, and ultimately, to become a rabbi. I see my role as a rabbi to hear and to hold the stories of others, to facilitate the sharing of our stories with one another in the service of building community, and to help us see the divine in one another and to feel connected and embraced by our shared “meta” story – the story of the Jewish people, as it has been handed down to us through Torah and layers and layers of commentary, experience, history, and wisdom.

The idea for this sermon came to me when I was moved by a line at the end of a breathtaking documentary called Nanette, which is a testimony of Australian comedienne Hannah Gadsby. At the end of the emotional rollercoaster of one hour, which is both a standup routine and a commentary on the limits of comedy (and really so much more), Hannah Gadsby says: “Stories hold our cure…I just needed my story heard, felt and understood by individuals with minds of their own.  Because, like it or not, your story is my story and my story is your story.  I don’t have the strength to take care of my story (alone)…All I can ask is that you please help me take care of my story.  Connection is the focus of the story we need.”

It is my hope that here at Temple Ohabei Shalom we will offer many more opportunities to know and to care for one another’s stories. When we do that, we are uncovering and discovering the divine in each other — and in this way, actually in this way, coming to know God. When we remember that we are part of a Jewish story, and a human story that transcends space and time, we are tending to our souls, and to the the source of all souls and all stories.

In the coming year, can you commit yourself to sharing yourself more authentically, and being present for someone else’s story? Even if you’re in a hurry, can you ask someone “how are you?” and really want to hear a fuller answer? Can you make more opportunities to sit face to face over a meal or a cup of coffee, phones put away, and listen?

May we honor our legacy as a people unafraid to be vulnerable with one another, knowing that in sharing our true selves we both draw strength from and give strength to others. May we remember that we are a sacred part of a shared and sacred story, as individuals, as Jews, and as human beings. May we on this Yom HaZikaron be remembered for a good new year in the book of Life – the book of beautiful, heartbreaking, amazing, wonderful LIFE. L’chayim! And, Shana tova tikateivu. May we be inscribed for a good year in the book of life.

1 http://humanlibrary.org/
2 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1298225/Loneliness-killer-Its-bad-health-alcoholism-smoking-eating-say-scientists.html
3 http://www.couragerenewal.org/approach/
4 http://www.gbio.org