Earlier the summer I was speaking to a friend of mine who told me that she had to go to an appointment at a doctor’s office. In front of her was a person, who was speaking to the receptionist, trying to check in. The person at the front desk asked the patient a question, and before answering, the individual lowered their mask, below their mouth and nose, and asked the reception to speak up because he couldn’t hear her with his mask on. Now, of course this is ridiculous. Masks don’t cover our ears. We shouldn’t need to lower it to hear better. And yet, how often are we guilty of listening with our mouths and minds, rather than our ears and our heart. We are often considering our response before even truly hearing what is being said.
This anecdote got me thinking-how do we, at a time where there is so much noise, even in isolation, find a way to listen more deeply, to be more present.
As some of you know I was accepted this year to a fellowship through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. I applied to the program hoping to “make” our congregation and me better in terms of meaningful services, but I realized, that the only way for us to be better at this, is to first start with the fact that I went to IJS trying to “make” you and us better in terms of worship but I left realizing that I need to be better. I went to IJS to come back to speak to you and I left learning that I need to listen better
So what does better mean?
I think there are three areas:
I need to listen to God
I need to listen to myself
I need to listen to others
In thinking about this I was brought back to the first essential question of our Torah, that God, in the time of the creation of the world, asked Adam and Eve: Ayekah: Where are you? Of course, as Rabbi David Wolpe says, this isn’t a question of geography, (for of course God knew where they were) but it was a question of psychology. Did they have the presence of mind to know where they were and where they had to be. On the holidays, this is what we are aiming for. To figure out where we need to be and how to get there. But we don’t model ourselves off of Adam and Eve on the holidays, we model ourselves of the biblical figures-like Abraham. ,Jacob, and Moses, who could answer hineni, I am here.
So how do we do that?
I learned at IJS that a mantra is something that can be helpful. That is placing something-an idea, a concept, a phrase, in front of us, to help us be present. It could be the words of our sanctuary-hinei mah tov umah nayim, shevet achim gam yachad. How beautiful it is when we sit together. It could be a mizrach-the notice of where to turn east so that our hearts and prayers are towards jerusalem. It could be pictures of our family-past and present, to bring our values front and center to a prayerful space.
One idea that I learned this year, is the concept of actually placing God in front of me, through the words of our tradition:
Shiviti Adonai L’negdi Tamid. “I place Adonai before me, always.” (Psalms 16:8)
By setting an intention and making that intention be God, I am able to shift my focus from my phone, from the noise outside, to that which is timeless.
And in so doing, I am able to nourish a sense of Jewish spirituality for myself and for you. That is why, even though we aren’t all together in it right now, our new sanctuary is so powerful, because we elevated space to make it safe and spiritual
So what does Jewish spirituality even mean?
I believe that spirituality is the ability to see ourselves in relationship to God by nourishing our soul and that Jewish Spirituality is:
Judaism gives us the tools to cultivate that relationship with God and to appreciate who we are and what we are supposed to “be and “do” in the world.
That is what i want to talk about this morning, so that we don’t need to remove our masks to hear better, but rather we can train ourselves to really listen deeply:
Yesterday I spoke about the questions and answers that Judaism might be asking during 2020, today, I want us to focus on what tools does Judaism “provide” to help us feel more present, more centered, more spiritually minded:
First, i would argue, we should focus on Sounds and Silence
There are times every day, several times a day that we come together for prayer. There is a rhythm to that prayer. We might not understand all of the words but the humming of the words can, if we allow them to, seep into our souls in a deep and present way. And sometimes, it is the silence.The silence of the amidah. The silence of the way we cover our eyes for the shma. The deep, intense silence of knowing that so many are trying to be together in prayer. To me, and I hope to you, the ability to engage in daily renewal through sounds and silence can help us understand that even boredom with routine can create creativity. How often do you have an idea as you are just falling to sleep. Or you are washing your hair in the shower. When we allow ourselves to turn off, we often find ourselves the most engaged, spiritually.
It sohuldn’t be a surprise that we ask God to listen to us during these days-in Shma Koleynu-God, hear our voice-and Shomea Tefillah-God, hear our prayer-it is time that we listen also.
I believe that Judaism also wants us to focus on our Breath
Breathing can connect us to God for sure. There is no question that breath, Neshima, has been a huge part of 2020. The ability to breathe or not was very present in how we understood so much of the horror of 2020, especially with how many Neshamot, souls, were lost.
We see both within our shabbat liturgy as well as our torah that the notion of breath is crucial to our connection with God and how we can be present.
Every Saturday we recite: Nishmat Kol Chai Tevareich Et Shimcha,” “the soul (or breath) of each living being blesses your Name”
And we are reminded in genesis 2:7
וַיִּיצֶר֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֗ם עָפָר֙ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה וַיִּפַּ֥ח בְּאַפָּ֖יו נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים וַֽיְהִ֥י הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה׃
the LORD God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.
In these cases, without breath, God, and intention, we wouldn’t be able to become who we are destined to be.
Focus on Study and Mitzvot
I of course also believe that study and mitzvot are a way of focusing our ritual and ethical behavior and that is one of the reasons that this year I will be teaching a course called “The mitzvah initiative” an in depth look at this concept and how it can apply to our lives. But more than that, I believe that study of Torah, observance of mitzvot, and a mindful awareness of our behavior can help us be more present So what is a text that helps us cultivate a spiritual practice?
So where is this most apparent? In the Shma and V’ahvata. We are taught HEAR O ISRAEL. Listen up. Focus.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.
Rami Shapiro wrote “To listen and to Love”
Hearing is the first sense to develop in the womb and the last to fade at death. Hearing is our most fundamental sense and our primal way of knowing. If we are to know God fundamentally, if we are to be aware of God as the primal ground of all being and becoming, it stands to reason that we will do so through the process of hearing. To listen that intently, we have to still the mind and body so as to not be distracted. Our hearing is to be so focused, so intense, so deep that we no longer are aware of ourselves as a separate person doing the listening. To listen and to love. This is the kind of listening that the Shema requires.
These meditative words of the shma and the v’ahavta give us the blueprint for how to be-each and every day. Inside our homes and outside our homes. In relationships with each other, God, and ourselves. WE NEED TO LISTEN and PAY ATTENTION.
The story is told of Franklin Roosevelt, who often endured long receiving lines at the White House. He complained that no one really paid any attention to what was said. One day, during a reception, he decided to try an experiment. To each person who passed down the line and shook his hand, he murmured, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” The guests responded with phrases like, “Marvelous! Keep up the good work. We are proud of you. God bless you, sir.” It was not till the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, that his words were actually heard. Nonplussed, the ambassador leaned over and whispered, “I’m sure she had it coming.” Though a bit funny, how true is this kind of moment. We say hello and ask someone how they are without really listening to the answer. We hear what we want to hear but we rarely listen.
One of the most incredible lines of our High Holiday liturgy, to be me, is the reference to a Kol DeMama Daka, the still, small voice. Recalling that this is the voice that the prophet Elijah heard of God, recognizing that God isn’t always in a burning birth or an earthquake or on a mountaintop…sometimes, we hear God in the most simplest of moments, if we allow ourselves to listen. As Rabbi Leora Frankel asks: Do we, as contemporary Jews, still listen for God in the world?…To listen past and through the cacophony of man-made sounds that usually surround us. When we do, we may hear God’s whispers even in unexpected places. We will also be able to better hear our own aspirations.
The High Holiday process is one of withdrawal and rebirth and then, finding the way to live in the present to appreciate the here and the now. Rabbi Reuven Hammer teaches that “For this one period each year we are given the opportunity to back away from the business and busy-ness of life in order to consider what it is all about. Beginning with the first day of Elul we undergo a process of withdrawal from the world that eventuates in the total estrangement of Yom Kippur. The result is a rebirth and re emergence into the world with renewed understanding and vigor, having atoned and therefore being at one with God and our innermost being, knowing that we relate best to God when we relate properly to other people.”
But how can we get there? How do we get to the point where we have related properly with ourselves and with others?
In the creation narrative, God called out to Adam and Eve and said “Ayeka-“ where are you. They weren’t able to answer Hineni, I am here, because they weren’t calm or focused. They didn’t take the time to understand their needs. They were on autopilot not able to really assess the situation, just trying to get through it.
We are often them. We use gmail auto-reply to fill in our words, we fill up our online food shopping carts with what we always do, we automatically pay our bills. This is the moment to focus. To pay attention. To set an intention of what should really matter.
As we celebrate Rosh Hashanah together, let us find ways to be present.
Please close your eyes and join me in a meditation.
Here I am
Ready to receive,
Here I am. Open your eyes. Shana Tova