Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5783 – Meeting Each Other In Loss and In Comfort

I want to thank my supportive, inspiring sermon hevrutah/thought partner and dear friend, Shira Stutman, for working out these ideas together.  You can hear her Rosh Hashana sermon on Chutzpod.

It’s been 3 years since we’ve gathered together like this as a community in person – how precious and moving.  Seeing each others’ eyes, even behind masks, and even on the Zoom screen, feels like the moment in the Torah when Jacob came face to face with his brother Esau after twenty years, embraced him and declared – “looking at you is like looking at the face of the Divine.”  Hearing our voices together in prayersong feels, in my body, like rain on parched earth.  We’re gathered in shared joy and celebration of a new year.  We’re gathered in the shared, life-affirming project of teshuva – reflection and repentance, coming home to our deepest capacity for goodness.  Whether you know other people here or not, we are here together and we call this community.

Jewish community does many things but one of the most important things it does is teach us how to be with suffering – our own suffering and the suffering of others.  I want us to explore this.  Now this might not sound like the fun you have all been waiting for.  You probably didn’t renew your DJC membership thinking, oh, I can’t wait to grow my practice in being with suffering!  Shana tova!  

But here is the essential truth – being alive includes experiencing pain and suffering.  They’re not a problem to solve.  They are part of life.  One of the central prayers of the Yamim Nor’aim, these Days of Awe, turns our hearts to confront this trembling reality directly – that in the coming year, we don’t know who will live and who will die, who will struggle and who will be at peace, who will be raised up and who will be brought low.  All of it will touch us one way or another.  This is the nature of being alive.  

And in addition to your run of the mill suffering that comes with being alive as finite and fallible beings in finite bodies, the suffering caused by the pandemic has been astounding, and it seems lately like the world has lost its mind with individuals and groups driven by hatred, desperation, and narrow self-interest, picking up tools of violence and causing tremendous pain.  It’s enough to make any of us hide under the covers or want to run away to a remote island.  But we cannot change what is by avoiding it, complaining about it, distracting ourselves or wishing it to be otherwise.  Those tactics, I keep learning, simply create more suffering. 

So how do we learn to meet painful, difficult, frightening realities with stable and wise hearts?  It is clear to me, and clear to the best thinking of Jewish tradition, that we cannot do this alone.  I want us to ask – How can our learning to be with suffering, be central to what Jewish community is for, especially as we begin to rediscover and reimagine what Jewish community can be? 

“All who entered the Temple Mount entered by the right and went around and exited by the left, except for one to whom something has happened – this one went around to the left.”  

This is a description from the Mishnah (Mishnah Middot and Mishnah Semachot 6:11) – a collection of rabbinic teachings from the first and second centuries CE.  This scene is unfolding during one of the 3 pilgrimage festivals – Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot (Sukkot – which is just 15 days from now).  Pilgrims from all over made the long journey to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Commanded not to appear empty-handed, they brought their offerings of first fruits, or new lambs and calves or fall harvest.  Overflowing with gratitude, they prepared to celebrate with the masses.  

When the pilgrims arrived in Jerusalem, the first thing they were required to do was walk around the entire Temple Mount, the very centre of community practice and Divine presence. Imagine a flood of people coming together in celebration, moving together in one direction, BUT,if you are one to whom something has happened, you walk in the opposite direction, you walk against the grain, facing and passing everyone to whom something has not happened.

Who are these people who walk to the left? The Mishnah identifies 4 experiences that send you in the opposite direction.  If you are: 1) a mourner, 2) a person with someone sick at home, 3) a person who has lost an object, and 4) one who has been excommunicated. 

Four different experiences of suffering that set you apart from the rest of community.  You’ve probably known this feeling at some point  – While everyone else is leading normal lives – cheerful and trusting in the comfort of stability – if you are one to whom something has happened, ordinary life has been upended without your control or choosing.  Sometimes there are no clear words to fully name the something that happened to you, that changes you and sets you at odds with the ordinary flow and functioning of life.  When we are inside this kind of pain, this kind of dissonance with the people around us, so many of us want to withdraw and hide.  But this Temple ritual interrupts that impulse and instead builds community around it, insisting that no one should be left to bear their pain alone.  

As the two rows of people pass each other, the Mishnah gives instruction for how the two groups meet.  Those who circle to the right ask each person they encounter – “why do you circle to the left?”

Such a simple question.  ‘Where does it hurt?’  ‘What is your pain?’ The two people may well be strangers, but in community, we practice widening our circle of concern and care in real ways, not only loving our friends and family, and not loving in abstract universal terms. Community is the place where we don’t have tolike everyone, but we practice loving each other, leaning our hearts toward one another and exercising the muscles of loving service.  Just by asking ‘why do you circle to the left?’, those asking, make themselves available and those answering, make themselves visible, and the space between them opens into a field of compassion. 

The Mishnah teaches, if the individual says, “Because I am a mourner,” they respond, “May the One who dwells in this house comfort you.”  

If the individual says, “Because I have someone sick at home”, they respond, “May the One who dwells in this house have compassion upon them.”  

If the individual says, “Because I lost an object,” they respond, “May the One who dwells in this house put it into the heart of the finder to return it to you at once.” 

If the individual says, “Because I am excommunicated,” they respond, “May the One who dwells in this house place it into your heart to listen to the words of your colleagues so they may draw you close again. 

Those who are in pain step into the field of compassion, naming the nature of their hurt.  And those listening, step into the field of compassion to offer a blessing as balm for their wound.  

To the mourner, we extend the embrace of comfort.  To the person caring for someone who is ill, for the person on the edge of compassion fatigue, we extend expansive compassion.  

To the person excommunicated, cut off from community because of real harm they have caused, instead of shaming them on social media or forever isolating and cancelling them, we offer a blessing for genuine teshuvah, a way for the person’s process of repentance and repair to be visible, witnessed with wise compassion and for there to be a route to come back into community.  

And the one who has lost an object?  I don’t think this is just someone who lost their car keys and is crying out,  ‘I swear I left them right here!  Woe is me!  I must circle to the left!’ 

Certainly in ancient times, losing an object of value could have meant the difference between being able to feed your family or going hungry.  For everyone today who has lost work, lost income and stability, lost a sense of themselves as valuable and contributing people, in the field of compassion, the community can respond to their real economic needs alongside the worry and shame that so often come in tandem.

I also hear in this category of losing something, a realm of loss that is more broad and amorphous.  If I think about these pandemic years and if I say these words and let them drop into my heart – “I’ve lost something.  I’ve lost something” – I feel a wave of sadness and truth well up inside.  It isn’t about one clear object I can point to, but throughout this pandemic there has been so much that we have lost, that we may not realize still lives as a lack in our hearts and bodies –  from the loss of touch, the loss of connection, losing a sense of safety in the world, losing parts of ourselves that are more easeful and exuberant.  In the field of compassion, all this is met with a blessing that whatever has been lost can, in some form, be found and restored.

We humans have a vast capacity to love and to receive love.  In my own experiences of suffering, when there are other people, compassionately present, 2 things can happen, if I let them.  I actually become able to turn my attention toward the pain.  When we don’t attend to our suffering and move it through us, we will end up perpetuating it.  The world has enough of that. But when it is held with others, held in the collective practices of community showing up for each other, I become more able to meet it with agility instead of collapsing into it or fighting against it.

At the same time, each experience of caring presence, opens even more vastly into the field of unconditional love, wisdom and care, as Jewish Buddhist teacher,  Jon Makransky, calls it.  We humans get to be conduits of compassion. Through the ways we extend and draw in love, we can discover the underlying, unconditional loving awareness that is there, already present within ourselves and all around us.  It is tender and fierce, wise and stable, beautiful and so much bigger than our pain.  When we can practice gathering there, resting into it, we can face anything together.  In Judaism, we call that limitless loving, Adonai – the One, the Oneness dwelling in this house, emanating blessing.  Looking at you is like looking at the face of the Divine.

This is our project.  This is what it means to choose life.  This is what Jewish community can be for, if we choose it.  Only when we practice meeting suffering – becoming available, becoming visible, lovingly gathering each other in, can the pilgrimage in this painful, beautiful life move into real celebration. Friends, we are all people to whom something has happened.  We are all channels of blessing.  No one may appear at the Temple empty-handed.  Together we make sure of that.  How precious and honest and vigorous is the joy that arises in that field.  This is a joy that has no opposite, because it contains everything.  

In the coming year, may the One who dwells in this house – in the home of our hearts, of community, in the home of loving holiness – may the One who dwells here comfort us, fill us with compassion, restore to us what we have lost and draw us ever closer to each other.  

Shana tova.