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Erev Rosh Hashanah D'var 2017

12/06/2017 11:14:49 AM


Casey Hall

Given by Casey Hall

A month ago, we started Elul—our 29 days of reflection prior to these Yamim Nora’im,  Days of Awe—on the heels of that amazing cosmic event—the Great Eclipse of 2017. I had been preparing for months. I reserved a cabin in North Georgia along the path of totality, talked with my daughter Elena’s teachers about missing school, and even scoped out the night life in the small town where we’d stay. I wanted this to be a memorable event. A week before the eclipse though, my thoughtful and very prepared wife Ariela, questioned my plan to leave for North Georgia immediately after work on the day before the eclipse. To drive home the point of my likely folly, she cited multiple sources including FEMA and the Department of Health and Human Services which predicted the mother of all traffic jams. If the fear of a 2-hour drive turning into a 12-hour drive with a 7-year-old in the backseat wasn't enough, the thought of having to watch the eclipse from the side of the road … I wasn't going to risk it.

So, despite all my attempts to plan the best of getaways for this cosmic event—Elena and I ended up at Arabia Mountain. I still had hopes that we could have a special time. I still had snacks!  This being my first time to Arabia Mountain, I didn’t realize that it is the earth-bound equivalent to the moon in its rocky desolateness. And, this was one of the hottest days of the year. I learned that day, that moon rocks like those at Arabia Mountain are insulators and turn a 100-degree day into a scorching 120-degree sauna. Elena and I hiked the mountain and wandered for 40…minutes, unable to find shade.

Just as the moon started to move across the sun, Elena offered a sweet appeal for self-preservation: “Abba, it is way too hot. I want to go home.” My heart sank. At this point you might be able to imagine that tangle of emotions: “We can’t give up now! We’ve come so far! You’re right kid. Let’s go--we’re burning up inside!”

So, we quickly hiked down the mountain and back to the car and we raced home with a few minutes to spare. We watched the moon cover 97% of the sun from our sidewalk. That's when Elena said, “Abba, I thought it was going to get dark. I thought there would be… more.” My heart sank again. The sun—that giver of warmth, of life—was reduced to 3% of her brightness but was still-so-disappointingly-bright. Sure, I appreciated how the light had an otherworldly, slightly surreal quality and this did make me feel a little out of my body. But I understood what Anne Dillard meant saying that, ‘seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing your partner does to marrying them.’

I wanted Elena to have this memorable, magical experience. I wanted to share with her this connection to the universe, a sense of Yirah, that feeling of belonging to something greater, of awe. I was disappointed that this didn’t happen. I thought maybe if I’d stuck to the plan and braved the traffic it would have been better. I felt like I failed to create this opportunity for her. I’m not sure if I was so caught up in feeling frustrated or disappointed in myself, but I must admit that I felt a little let down by the eclipse as well. I expected to be amazed—you know, to stand in awe at seeing the workings of universe—I thought there would be more too.

That all this was happening at the beginning of Elul didn’t escape me. This is the time of year when we are to contemplate where we’ve fallen short to others, and to our own ideals. And here it was, not even day one and I feel like I’m already falling short, so caught up in my own attempt to craft this perfect moment that I wasn’t present enough to appreciate the moment itself.  

I share this story with you tonight because for several years now I have been wrestling with this idea of Yirah—which is often translated as “reverence”, “awe” or “fear”—as in “fear of God”. I think most of us can relate to, and most of us deeply connect with some sense of awe or reverence for life—for me, holding Elena as she was born, or standing before a Giant Sequoia Redwood or sitting quietly with one of my patients in the hospital. This is that sense of awe that just hits us—whether we like it or not.  I have a much harder time grasping the “fear of God” aspect of Yirah. The “fear talk” just doesn’t resonate. Rabbi Josh and I had spent many afternoons grappling with the idea of “fearing God” and “awe” when I shared a poem with him that had become and remains very meaningful to me, Mameen, by David Whyte. In the first line, he says,

Be infinitesimal under that sky.

I take this to mean that we are such a small piece of this expansive universe, and right when feeling so powerless becomes overwhelming, we realize that we are forever connected to the infinite. The poem goes on to remind us of our fragility

Recall the way mere mortals are overwhelmed
by circumstance, how great reputations
dissolve with infirmity and how you, how you
in particular, live a hairsbreadth from losing
everyone you hold dear.

Given the recent tragedy that the recent hurricanes and earthquakes have wrought, it’s hard not to feel the utter vulnerability at the awe-inspiring power of nature. Personally, as a physician that cares for brain injured patients, I face this fragility daily. Yet, it has taken me years to accept and acknowledge that this aspect of Yirah has been so close to me all along. I am beginning to wonder if my understanding of awe, that it has to be some “overwhelming, incomprehensible experience” is only part of the story. Or, as my wife says, “awe doesn't always show up with jazz hands.”

The reality is that most of us don't walk around in constant awe, or in a perfect state of reverence, Yirah Shalem.  Believe me, I’ve met some of my parent’s friends who were searching for that constant state of bliss back in the 70’s—I’m not sure that is such a good thing. It seems to me that we are lucky enough to have a handful of deeply meaningful moments in our life. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says despite the world being crammed full of marvel, it is too much for us—it’s not easy to be tuned in all the time and grasp the amazingness of every moment. Yet, he says, we can be attuned to experiences where we ‘sense a spirit of something that is just outside our ability to comprehend.’ Heschel calls these sacred moments. Alan Morinis in his book on Mussar, With Heart in Mind calls these “Yirah experiences” and believes they can be a transformative force in our lives. These are more than experiences; they offer us a pathway to understanding, and a chance at insight into a meaning greater than ourselves.  But how do we know when we might have one of these sacred moments?

I can’t imagine they are all immediately recognizable—as in cue the John Williams soundtrack.

One of these moments occurred for me several years ago. It is a moment I often come back to. I was caring for a young woman who suffered devastating bleeding into her brain. She was holding on by a thread, but there was no hope for a good recovery. I met with the family to explain how sick she was and that if she survived, she’d be unaware and unable to interact with her family for the rest of her days. The chaplain, the social worker and I supported the family through this difficult discussion, comforting them and ensuring that all their questions were answered. At what seemed like the end of our discussion, the patient’s father looked at me and asked “Do you think you’re God?”. I was stunned. Before I could respond, he spent the next several minutes challenging everything we’d done to help his daughter: medicine, doctors, the care we offered to the family—he thought it was all bunk, to put it nicely. I walked out of that meeting in as state of shock. I still remember the heaviness I felt. As I walked away, the chaplain followed after me. We had worked closely over the prior year and she had a deep sense of the commitment I have to this work we do. She grabbed my arm gently, acknowledged the tension, and asked, “How are YOU doing?”, I said something about how tough that was, and she agreed, and she stopped me and again asked, “How are YOU doing?” When I stopped to think about it, I felt challenged as a physician—not on my merits, but that he thought being a doctor was worthless.  I felt misperceived, wounded in my core as a person. I felt angry, and I felt guilty that I wasn’t skilled enough to prevent this terrible conversation from happening.

So, what makes that a sacred, transformative moment for me? I am starting to get the sense that that difficult conversation and the chaplain’s question of me—these are just the beginnings of a story. And that the beauty and importance of this story is that it remains forever incomplete and imperfect—the meaning is never set in stone and the lessons are never finished. In repeatedly returning to these sacred moments, we are, as Heschel says “transported beyond the confines of time” and from every small ‘insight we gain a fortune’.  But these moments require us to revisit them and learn from them, again and again. The poet Derek Walcott captures this so beautifully in his poem Love after Love

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

I love that line, “You will love again the stranger who was your self.” Rachel Naomi Remen suggests there is a sense of mystery in being a stranger to ourselves. “It opens in us an attitude of listening and respect.” She says, “If everyone in them has a dimension of the unknown, possibility is present at all times.

Wisdom is possible at all times. … Perhaps real wisdom lies in not seeking the answers at all. Any answer we find will not be true for long. An answer is a place where we can fall asleep as life moves past us to its next question. After all these years I have begun to wonder if the secret to living well is not in having the all the answers but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company.”   

On this Erev Rosh Hashanah, together again, we look back at the series of moments that have made this past year, and turn to face a new year. As this is our first night of these Yamim Nora’im, these Days of Awe--I can’t help but to see this idea of returning to sacred moments as a form of teshuvah—time traveling back to revisit moments of meaning. The scholar Jay Michaelson says, that teshuvah “is a return to a way of seeing clearly, the return to Who we really are, and the mending that comes from it.”  As you might guess, I am starting to see the High Holy days a little differently now. No longer am I expecting some “jaw-dropping revelation” or to be overwhelmed by the grand power of the liturgy. I am no longer looking for these Days of Awe to be that Total Eclipse, to then be disappointed when I don't reach some sense of Spiritual Totality.

I think now, that Yirah—that sense of deep connection to something greater—can be found in subtle moments or in finding just one unanswerable question. But it is up to us—we have to do the work!—to return to these moments, these questions, and discover how they connect us to something greater than ourselves.

A week ago, as I was working on this d’var, I had an opportunity to realize the power of returning to what could ultimately be a sacred moment. I was heavily consumed with the process of writing when Elena started excitedly yelling out “Abba, Abba, come here and check it out!” I rushed over to the computer where she was watching a Monster High cartoon. “Look! They are having an eclipse, just like we did!” There was a sense of reverence in her voice—maybe not for the eclipse, but because something in how we experienced the eclipse together made that a sacred moment for her.  With my arm around her, we watched the eclipse all over again.

Thu, February 21 2019 16 Adar I 5779