I want to share a cartoon on the screen that you may have seen. I’ll describe it as well. There is a person sitting at a table in front of a lemon squeezer. To their right, are mountains of lemons and a cannon firing lemons right at their head. To their left are jars and jars of lemonade that this person has clearly squeezed. The figure is slumped in the middle of this bombardment of lemons, in the midst of their great lemonade effort, with their head on the table, exhausted.
I don’t know about you, but this year I have often felt that despite my best efforts to make lemonade out of all the lemons, I feel exhausted from trying to be resilient, productive and squeezing something good out of the sour. This year has been so hard. In our homes, at work, in our communities and in the world around us, challenges and difficulties have sprung from every corner. In the big picture, we’ve been witnessing challenging and horrible realities – police violence, a global pandemic, unmarked graves of Indigenous children, the climate crises, political and religious extremism. And these things aren’t just out there. They hit us internally as well. We carry their weight in our bodies and hearts.
But I’d like to point out that these things aren’t new. Many of these realities have been going on for a very long time already. What’s new, is that we’re seeing them, and more and more people are recognizing the brutality of them and are feeling the anguish and despair these realities bring.
It’s actually a hopeful thing that we’re seeing them, that we’re seeing them together, that millions of people are crying out in pain and rage about them. Because it means that we are no longer turning away and going about our lives.
Part of the reason we can look and keep looking, is because the pandemic has shaken up our lives, pushed us off course and out of comfort. In the snap of a finger, our lives changed and what felt immovable and inevitable, has crumbled around us.
Of course, when the ground beneath us shifts and gives way, we grab at whatever we can to hold on. There’s been a lot of white knuckling to get through, to get by, to hold on – holding on to stay sane, often holding on just to make it through the day. I want to cheer every one of us for figuring out the best we could to make it to this moment, though we are bruised and fatigued and worn for wear. Shehecheyanu! – Blessed is the source who has enlivened us and sustained us and enabled us to reach this time! Truly! But I have a question for us – How can we ease the grip of holding on, and together shift our orientation so we can be open enough to welcome in the light of a new year?
Rosh Hashana is about life. It’s about being written in the Book of Life. It’s about being remembered for blessing, and peace and for life. Rosh Hashana is about new possibilities and beginning anew. And it’s about sweetness. We put honey on our apples to make that which sustains us even sweeter.
Let’s notice that we’re alive. Let’s notice that we are all still breathing. Maybe even take a deep breath right now, just to be sure that you are, in fact, still breathing. This stunning reality of aliveness and breathing is worthy of wonder. It’s worthy of fall-down-on-your-knees gratitude. And especially this year, not to be taken for granted.
Every morning, the siddur brings us a staple of gratitude for our breath – We say “Elohai, my God, the lifebreath that you have given me is pure and good.” Each breath is cleansing. Each breath is movement. Each breath is a cycle that keeps renewing. And we always, always have to breathe out – to let go, to release one breath – in order to breathe in the next. The cycle is what sustains us. So, in this moment, when things may feel overwhelming or daunting, we keep breathing.
I was thinking about the Jewish practice of how we light Shabbat and Yom Tov candles. We do this ritual of waving our arms over the light and bring the light in toward us three times. It’s an amazing thing – to bring light in, to let light in, so intentionally and consciously. Like breathing, this waving encourages us not to hold on or grip. Our hands are empty as they circle and the light can’t be captured or held. But as we soften and draw the light toward our hearts, our eyes, we can feel it. It can help us grow softer and lighter. We always light candles in a moment of transition from day to night, from the week into Shabbat, from the year that was, into a new one. This is how we swim through time. I know we already lit candles, already did the gesture, but I want to do it with you again. Can you release grip in your shoulders, in your jaw, move with your breath and find ease in the motion, drawing the light in to you?
I propose that we start to do this with each other. Maybe not the waving arms part, but that we consciously see each other as light that we welcome and intentionally bring in. That we see each other as sources of ease and warmth to help us move through.
Here’s another image. My nephew takes swimming lessons. He’s quite good now. But recently his coach made an interesting comment. The coach noted that he has very good endurance, but he uses too much energy in his strokes. He needs to relax in the water, to calm his body so that he can swim faster, for longer. According to the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a), Jewish law obligates parents to not only teach their children Torah and a craft or trade, but they are required to teach their children how to swim! It is understood as a survival skill. I had always understood the skill needed for survival to be a physical ability. But ever since my nephew told me about his coach’s comment, I now see that it is much deeper than that.
This image has profound guidance for all the times when we feel like we’re drowning or urgently holding our heads above the surface and frantically treading water. In order to shift from flailing to swimming, we have to relax. We have to decide to slow down and breathe. Yes, these times feel urgent. So we have to slow down. It helps to feel the sun on your back, to notice the pleasure and sweep of your limbs moving so that you can notice that you’re not actually drowning. But it is only in the midst of being immersed, and finding the ease within it, that movement forward becomes possible. I invite us to notice that if we can find even a bit of ease, of calm, we might notice too that there are so many others in the sea with us, swimming alongside us, and together we can reach the shore.
So let us be here, together, breathing, filled with light, relaxing even in turbulent waters. Let’s welcome this New Year and each other as an intentional, beautiful gathering in. Let’s find hopefulness in the new ways we are seeing the world around us and swim steadily toward the horizon of change. Let us trust in our love and caring for each other. Let us bring in a new, happy, healthy and sweet new year.