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Sermons for High Holy Days 2021

 

Links to Sermons on this page:

1) Fred Swartz
2) Vicki Herriott
3) Rabbi Alan Green
4) Joy Hirshberg

 


PRESENTATION BY FRED SWARTZ

Tonight we’re celebrating the New Year, a time to set goals and plans for the year ahead. I’ve been thinking about making New Year’s Resolutions like

  1. Get more sleep . . . especially at work.
  2. Get more steps in everyday. . . by making more frequent trips to the refrigerator.
  3. Eat more vegetables . . . like fried onion rings and baked potatoes.

But since it’s the Jewish New Year, we should make Spiritual New Year’s Resolutions, like

  1. Be thankful for all the little things in life . . . like winning the lottery or large tax refunds.
  2. Show forgiveness to the neighbors . . . who are spreading Covid with knowing it.
  3. Make more donations . . . to my favorite charity — my family.

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Rosh Hashanah, the head of the year, is a time for reflection and planning. We engage the intellect and begin the special period, the 10 Days of Awe, leading up to Yom Kippur the Day of Atonement. During this period, we search our hearts to forgive ourselves and others and God for whatever wrongs and challenges we have encountered during the year. We have these 10 days to change our perspective and outlook, to seek forgiveness and give forgiveness, to really listen to our hearts, and amend our ways.

In these 10 days we have the opportunity to connect our minds, our plans and aspirations, with our hearts. This I believe is the true spiritual dimension of the High Holidays.

 Connecting the head and heart during this time boosts our evolution and brings us closer to the Divine, living more of our true nature which is divine, as we are made in God’s image.

How do we connect our hearts and minds? Our sages offer two methods.

The first is through prayer. Prayer with the proper kavanah, focus, intention, devotion, engages both the heart and mind and brings us closer to God.

The second method is Chesed, kindness. Kindness is so important in our tradition.

We listen with our hearts, seek to understand what is needed, and then take action. In the Mishnah, Rashi states that Chesed is when you give your heart and mind to the well-being of another, when you truly understand another and fulfill the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

The Talmud says, “The highest form of wisdom is kindness.”

In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of Our Fathers, Shimon the Righteous observed “the world stands on 3 things, on the torah, on service to God, and upon acts of loving kindness.”

Kindness, Chesed, in our tradition is one of the 13 attributes of God. Acts of kindness bring us closer to God. God’s chesed is unlimited. It is often translated as “mercy” and “unwavering love.”  Chesed is so important, it is mentioned 245 times in the torah, psalms, and proverbs.  The Torah says “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in chesed (mercy).”

Kindness is found throughout the Torah:

  • We remember how Abraham welcomed into his home strangers who were travelers, gave them food and washed their feet.
  • Joseph, when he was reunited with his brothers, welcomed them and treated them with kindness without any thought of revenge.
  • Pharaoh’s daughter saved Moses from the river in a selfless act of kindness.

Even the word Hasid, a pious one, comes from the word Chesed.

On Yom Kippur, we hear about the importance of Tzedakah, charity, in redressing our sins. Yet, the Rambam observed, “Acts of kindness are greater than charity. They can be done for both the rich and the poor.”

Kindness is more than just having an open and generous heart. It must be acted upon. It often takes courage to be kind. And it is important not just to give what you want to give, but to give what the other person really needs.

I am reminded of the 3 very wealthy brothers who wanted to do something special for their mother on the occasion of her 80th birthday. The eldest brother bought her a $2 million condominium on the beach in Hawaii. The middle brother bought her a brand new Rolls Royce with all the latest features for $800,000. The youngest brother, knowing his mother was very religious, bought her a trained parrot who could recite any verse from the Torah, Psalms, and Proverbs. He spent $500,000.

Soon after, the youngest brother called his mother and asked how she liked her birthday presents. She responded, “Well, your oldest brother gave me a condo in Hawaii, but it’s so far away, and I don’t know anybody there. Your other brother gave me a Rolls Royce but it’s such a big car, and I’m going blind, I don’t drive anymore. But you my precious son, so thoughtful and kind, . . . it was such a delicious chicken!!”

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Isaiah exhorts us on the importance of acts of kindness for spiritual rectification.

In talking about fasting on Yom Kippur, he says,” On the day of your fast, if you fast only to quarrel and fight, to deal wicked blows, such fasting will not make your voice heard on high.”

“This is MY chosen fast:

To loosen the bonds that bind men unfairly,

To let the oppressed go free,

To break every yoke.

Share your bread with the hungry,

Take the homeless into your home,

Clothe the naked when you see him,

Do not turn away from people in need.

Then the cleansing light will break forth like the dawn,

And your wounds will soon be healed.”

Those are inspiring words from Isaiah.

The more love we give, the more love we have available to give.

“A part of kindness consists in loving people more than they deserve.”

“It can become its own motive. We are made kind by being kind.”

“The kinder we are to other people, the kinder the Universe is to us.”

Human kindness evokes God’s kindness.

Chesed can change the world. “The answer to so many of the questions and problems in our world today is one simple thing:  Kindness.”

“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness.”

“There’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every kind act, a smile, a compliment, a word of support, creates a ripple of love and positivity with no end.”

Kindness can happen in so many ways.

A woman at the supermarket found that when her groceries were totaled, they came to $12 more than the money in her wallet.  As she began to remove items from her bag the man behind her in line handed her a $20 bill. “Oh, you don’t have to do that,” she said. The man said, “Every day I have been visiting my mother in the hospital with cancer, and every day I bring her flowers. This morning she got mad at me for spending money on more flowers. She said ‘do something else with that money.‘  So, here, please, accept this. It is my mother’s flowers.”

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An artist going through security at the airport had forgotten about the rules on liquids in carry-on luggage. Sadly, she had to give up all her painting supplies. She was so surprised when she returned a week later that an attendant met her at the gate and returned all of her supplies. Not only had he kept them for her, but he looked up the date and time of her return flight in order to meet her at the gate and return them to her. She was overjoyed with gratitude.

———————

Every tradition emphasizes the importance of kindness.

Aesop said, ‘No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”

The 14th Dali Lama said, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”

Yogananda said, “Kindness is the light that dissolves all walls between souls, families, and nations.”

And one of my favorite quotes, “If you have to choose between being right and being kind, be kind and you will always be right.”

This has been a challenging year for so many. Let us use the miracle of Chesed this year to bring much love and peace to the world, at a time when it is so needed.

May this be a year of kindness to each other. And may we each experience more of God’s Chesed, his kindness and mercy.

L’Shanah Tovah.

 


PRESENTATION BY VICKI HERRIOTT

L’shona Tova!

Today is a day of many names. Each name has a profound meaning and gives us a specific directive. 

Today is known as the Day of Remembrance.  What do we remember?  We remember the creation of the world.  “Today the world was born.”

According to the Sages, however, the world was created on the 25th of Elul, so that Rosh Hashanah actually marks the sixth day of creation, the day on which G‑d created humanity.  So today we remember the creation of Adam and Eve.

Why do we commemorate the creation of Adam and Eve and not the creation of the whole world?

According to, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson

“This is especially strange, given that the creation of the world demonstrates G‑d’s Absolute power in His unique ability to create something from nothing.  Only G‑d, free of all limitation, can bring about being from utter void.

G‑d was alone in His world. Though the entire created world already existed, it was not separate from its Creator; the world was one with G‑d.” on that first day.

The creation of Adam and Eve opened up a new and deeper relationship between G‑d and the created world.

“Of all the beings in the physical and spiritual realms, we alone can choose to accept G‑d’s sovereignty. Our relationship with G‑d stems from our conscious decision and free will. Though G‑d creates and regulates all the other beings in the universe, they do not consciously accept this relationship. Their link with G‑d flows from G‑d’s creativity; it does not result from their own decision.”

With our creation, G‑d introduced the potential for voluntary acceptance of His unity and active consent to His will.”

We alone were created in his image.

Unlike every other created being, we have the choice of acquiescing to G‑d’s dominion or rebelling against it. We alone have been empowered to acknowledge and experience the unity of G‑d through our own consciousness.  To us has he given the gift of consciously recognizing his will, his laws of nature, and the gift of our own free will to choose to follow those laws.

 

Rosh Hashanah emphasizes the special relationship between G‑d and humanity: our dependence upon G‑d as our creator and sustainer, and G‑d’s dependence upon us as the ones who make His presence known and felt in His world. Each year on Rosh Hashanah, “all inhabitants of the world pass before G‑d like a flock of sheep,” and it is decreed in the heavenly court “who shall live, and who shall die . . . who shall be impoverished, and who shall be enriched; who shall fall and who shall rise.”

 

On this day G-d remembers and reviews all our actions.

So what do we remember on this day?   This is the day we proclaim G‑d King of the Universe. We remember and recognize G-d’s sovereignty.

We remember and recognize G-d as our creator and we remember and recognize our unique ability to consciously act in accord with the will of our creator.

The Kabbalists teach that the continued existence of the universe is dependent upon the renewal of the divine desire for a world, and when we accept G‑d’s kingship each year on Rosh Hashanah we inspire the renewal of this divine desire.

 

Today we also celebrate the beginning of a new year.  Rosh Hashanah.  Literally, Rosh Hashanah means head of the year.  Rosh is the Hebrew word for head. Shanah is the word for year.

Shana is also the root of the Hebrew word for change or transformation and the root of the word for rehearse.  When we rehearse we change negative behavior, correct our mistakes and repeat positive behavior till all the mistakes are gone.  We transform wrong action to right action.

 

Rosh Hashanah as the head of the year is said to be like the head of the body. The head controls the body.  What happens during the 48 hours of Rosh Hashanah is said to control the rest of the year. 

 

How could that be?  How can our actions today affect the whole rest of the year? 

According to Shifra Hendrie, the kabbalah tells us that

at sunset on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, G‑d will remove some of His light from the world. He will still remain present in a basic way, of course, or the world could not exist. But that presence will be remote, withdrawn.

Then He will wait. The next move is ours.

At around midday of the holy day, when Jews in every corner of the world acknowledge His sovereignty with prayers and the blowing of the shofar, G‑d will once again agree to be our King. He will recommit to His relationship with our world. And when He does so, it will be with an entirely new level of light and power. Entirely new possibilities—possibilities that never existed before—will enter the world. We will advance one giant step closer to our ultimate destiny.”

This seemed like a very strange idea to me.  G-d would withdraw from Creation?  Impossible.  But then I thought about our experience of transcending.  What might appear to others, as withdrawal is really going beyond the surface level of creation and reconnecting with the source of creation.  So during this time when G-d appears to have withdrawn, we can transcend and reconnect with him.  This act of reconnecting allows us to return to the world with a fresh perspective, more clarity and strength.  We can begin again.  We let go of our past behavior and spontaneously act more in accord with the will of G-d, more in tune with our ultimate destiny.  So during this time it is not G-d who withdraws from us, but we who withdraw from the outer world to reconnect with him – to reaffirm our relationship and commitment to live in accord with his will.

 

This is powerful time of transformation or change that allows us to reflect on our behavior over the past year and choose to let go of that, which is not useful to us or to others.

 

We are given this opportunity to reset ourselves, to change and transform any behavior that takes us away from living in accord with G-d’s will.

 

According to Maimonides, “Free will is offered to all men.  If they wish to follow the path of goodness and become righteous the will to do so is in their hands, and if they wish to follow the path of evil and become wicked, the will to do so is also in their hands.”

Rosh Hashanah is our opportunity to reset ourselves and our behavior for the rest of the year.

 

This is brought home to us in another special feature of today. The Torah does not actually mention the term Rosh Hashanah, but instead calls for a day of memorial – of blowing the Shofar as a call to remember the events and attitudes which led to the destruction of the two ancient Temples and the subsequent exiles.  Such a day offers us a chance to learn from our mistakes and improve our behavior.  In the Torah, today is called “Yom Te’roo’ah” (the day of blowing the Shofar). The mitzvah of the day is to hear the blasts of the shofar. But the blasts of the shofar are also wake-up calls. Rosh Hashanah is the time to shake out of our spiritual slumber, reconnect to our source, and recommit to our divine mission in this world.

 

The Shofar is the key symbol of Rosh Hashanah.  It was blown to gather people to the battlefield and is a symbol of Jewish unity.

Today, the Shofar gathers us to a soul-searching battle between positive and negative attitudes and behaviors.  It begins the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

 

Between two notes there is a gap, an empty space, just so, there is a gap between two ways of being. There is always an empty space, a space of transition. In this space we have the opportunity to let go of the old—the pettiness, the resentments, the past mistakes, failures and fears. We can embrace a brand-new way of being, a more passionate sense of purpose. We can commit ourselves to a new level of kindness, as so beautifully expressed last night by Fred, to a new level of respect and compassion for the people around us—those we already love, and those we could love if only we stopped being angry, defensive or afraid.

 

In listening to the Shofar we open ourselves to life, we create the greatest possible opening for G‑d to inscribe us in the Book of Life for a year that is good and sweet in the truest sense.

 

Bob Rabinoff described this battle in one of his Torah commentaries,

“Our tradition tells us that our essence is our soul, and that our soul is placed inside a body in order for it to be able to interact with the material world. The material world of course poses moral challenges for the soul, and it is through meeting these challenges that the soul grows, and the Divine plan for the perfection of the universe unfolds.

The body is described as the “garment” of the soul. Now a garment can both reveal and conceal. A tight-fitting garment may cover the entire body, yet it can also reveal quite a lot about that body! The body, by its actions, can reveal something of the character of the soul, which inhabits it, but it can also conceal from that very soul the nature of its own source. The reason for this concealment is sin. The natural tendency of the soul is to seek its infinite Source, which is all-good and is eternal bliss. The natural tendency of the body is to seek physical pleasure, as ephemeral as it may be. It is this tendency of the body to seek physical pleasure at all costs that creates the moral challenges the soul must face. Essentially the soul is in a constant battle to control the body, like a rider on an unruly horse. Sin occurs when the body “coerces” the soul into making a wrong moral choice, in order for the body to gain some kind of physical pleasure. The wrong moral choice distances the soul from its own nature, covers it over, as it were, with a thicker, less permeable crust of materiality, and in doing so, makes it easier for the soul to make further incorrect moral choices. As our Sages say (Pirke Avot 4:2) – a sin brings another in its wake.

We actually experience this mechanics in our day-to-day life. If we get a good night’s sleep we are fresh and clear, and we make good decisions. As the day goes on we get fatigued, our mind gets cloudy, and sometimes this causes us to make less than ideal decisions. Once we start making bad decisions, it seems to spiral out of control, as we frantically try anything to put the genii back into the bottle. In some cases, environmental stressors are so severe that they leave a deeper, long-lasting fatigue in the nervous system. The remedy for these vicious cycles is t’shuvah. We do not deal with the sins/problems on their own level. It’s become a common saying that the kind of thinking that created a problem in the first place will never be able to solve it. With t’shuvah we return the soul to its infinite source and allow ourselves to see the world from a completely new perspective. Real t’shuvah is a life-transforming experience, one that irreversibly alters our perception and our behavior, because through it we are able to transcend our normal way of life, to contact the basis of our whole life. It forces us to readjust our priorities from the gaudy and ephemeral which demands our immediate attention, to the eternal, which is, after all, the only thing that counts, because it alone is real life.”

 

The act of Teshuva is a gift from G-d.  He gives us a second chance.  In the service today we heard. “I am the Lord G-d, merciful and compassionate, patient, loving and forgiving, promising My love until the last generation, forgiving transgressions and pardoning.” And also

“My children, if you turn this day, changing your bad ways, you will become new creatures, not the same people as before.  Then will I consider you as if I had created you anew, And then shall you, newborn, be as the new heavens and new earth which I shall create.”

 

 

Rabbi Harold Kushner tells us,

“In plain language, G-d is saying, “I am not just a G-d of awesome power, a G-d who decides who should be rewarded and who should be punished. That is what human rulers do. I am a G-d of second chances. I understand that human beings can’t be perfect. I help people so that they don’t repeat next year the same mistakes they made last year. I give people the amazing ability to be somebody different next year than they were this past year. I am a G-d who helps people in difficulty, not by making their path smooth and easy but by holding their hand as they walk a difficult path, not by taking away their problems but by giving them qualities they didn’t believe they were capable of, so that they can deal with the problems themselves. You yourself become the answer to your prayer.” And when the Israelites heard those words on the 10th of Tishri so many years ago, they realized they had not lost their connection to G-d after all. What they had lost was a childish notion of G-d, one that was never really true to begin with, and replaced it with a more realistic one, a demanding G-d who was also a G-d of forgiveness.

 

So the call of the Shofar today also invokes the sounds of the Shofar on Mt. Sinai, when Moses received the Ten Commandments.  It reminds us of the responsibility that we assumed when we accepted the Torah.

The book of Exodus describes the covenant between G-d and the people of Israel that had been led by G-d from Egypt.  A special relationship was created before the revelation of the 10 commandments: “If you will obey me faithfully and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all the peoples…you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…”

And the whole nation responded collectively, “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do.”

 

We are considered chosen because we have a special covenant with G-d to follow his laws and live according to his will.   Rabbi Hillel once expressed the essence of Judaism and the fundamental law we must follow to a would be convert, “What is hateful unto you, don’t do unto your neighbor.  The rest is commentary  – now go and study”.  He is citing the more positively stated instruction from G-d in Leviticus (19:18) “Love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord.”

In Amos 3:2, we learn, “You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth.  That is why I call you to account for all your iniquities.”  Iniquities or sins are transgressions against our fellow man or against G-d.

 

It is in this period of T’shuvah between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that we “account for our iniquities.”   T’shuvah is often translated as redemption, and we ask forgiveness for our sins, during this 10-day period.

During this time we ask ourselves, “Who might have been hurt by my words or actions?

Who could I have helped that I ignored?

What might I have done differently?

How did I fall short of my commitment to live according to G-d’s will?”

Not only do we ask these questions of ourselves, we ask forgiveness from those we have harmed and on Yom Kippur we ask forgiveness from G-d.

But shouldn’t we also ask why we have sinned in the first place?  It is because we have forgotten who we truly are -that we are indeed made in the image of G-d, and that we have the choice to live in accord with his will.

Rav Kook, the spiritual guide of the generation of Jews that began the return of our people to the Land of Israel, was especially attuned to the power of t’shuvah:

sin primarily harms the one who sinned, as it cuts him off from the roots of his very being, from the light of his soul. This estrangement is sin’s worst punishment. T’shuvah, on the other hand, redeems the sinner from this darkness. It rejuvenates him, restoring his previous state of life and joy.

The word t’shuvah literally means, “return.” It is not an escape from the world. On the contrary, it is precisely through genuine, pure t’shuvah that we return to the world and to life. 

What are we returning to?  Our Self with a capital “S”.  We are returning to our Oneness with G-d.  On the Day of Atonement we are literally at one if we have the eyes to see.

More than a simple horn, the shofar is an instrument of transformation. Its sound is said to be “like a heartbroken cry, and its power is the power of tears.”

In the words of Nahman of Bratslav, the great-grandson of the Bal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hassidic movement,

“Just as a hand held before your eyes hides the highest mountain, so our petty day-to-day life hinders us from seeing the fantastic lights and secrets that fill the world.  He who is able to put life from his eyes shall see the intense brilliance of the inner world.

Every man is called upon in his own way and at his own level.  G-d summons one man with a shout, another with a song, and a third with a whisper”

The Days of Awe that begin today are a way to take down the hand that hides our inner light, and turn away from our day-to-day activities and return to Our Self.  We respond to the call of G-d to return, to remember our true Self.

This is a time of Self-reflection – on every level, and in every sense of the word.  May we use this time to return to our true selves and reflect the glory of G-d in its fullness.

 

And remember the words of Moses of Kobrin

“We must live in joy.   We must live in love.  They are moreover one and the same thing.”

 

L’Shonah Tova!

 

 


PRESENTATION BY RABBI ALAN GREEN

1. The universe was created in order. Some people love to study this order, because it provides us with a way of passing our days in wonder, looking at the endless interconnections between things. Maybe we remember from our youth—how perhaps, we’d go outside to look out at the stars and be overwhelmed with a sense of awe.
2. The order of the universe is vast and incomprehensible. So, it can keep us busy for a long time. But one thing about this order is that everything unfolds in a very neat way—what looks like cause and effect. And so, it also means that we might be able to get a handle on it; and that we might even be able to control it. And we like that, because the universe is so big, and we’re so small, that if we can control it—well, maybe things will go a bit better for us.
3. The rabbis of old said that the distance between this world and the next is five hundred years. It means that if all goes well in our personal evolution, it will take us some five centuries to be able to comprehend, even in some small measure, what goes on in the world to come.
4. That is, if we go in order. And yet, Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nasi—the rabbi who formulated the Mishna some 18 centuries ago—said, YESH MI SHE KONEH OLAMO B-SHA’AH ACHAT – “There are those who acquire their world in a single moment.” Even though order would dictate that it would take however long, and however many miles, to get from here to there—yet, in Jewish tradition, there’s testimony to the idea that someone can leap from wherever they are, to a place far beyond that which they could ever dream.
5. This leap is so wondrous, we might think that it never could happen to us. And yet, the teaching Is that anyone can leap from here to there, in less than a moment.
6. So, we have the holiday of Pesach—the celebration of freedom from slavery. But the word Pesach actually means, “to jump.” It means, the ability to leap from the deepest darkness into the greatest light. This is also a characteristic of these High Holy Days–called, “Days of Awe,” just because God gifts us, at this time of year, with the opportunity to achieve amazing personal transformations. This is a teaching that gives hope during difficult times.
7. Now, most of us are educated to believe that the laws of nature are something firm and fixed. And we like it that way—because we like to know that the sun is going to rise in the morning. We like the solidity of law.
8. And so, one of the great names of God in the Torah—the name of God that refers to the laws of nature–is Elohim. This is the Divine name that orders creation. And what a wondrous order it is–that we can count the days in a year, and a year later, the earth is back in the same spot. Or that we can make a clock, and tick off the seconds, and tell time, all day, every day.
9. But there are two basic modes of human awareness—called in Kabbalah MOCHIN D’KATNUT and MOCHIN D’GADLUT. Translated, they mean, “small mindedness,” and “large mindedness.” MOCHIN D’KATNUT—from the Hebrew, KATAN—is that quality of mind completely governed by the laws of nature—where we’re completely certain that the laws of nature are the only laws that govern this world. Nothing seems to go beyond these laws—or if it does, it must be some kind of trick.
10. And that firm belief is the lock on the door of our small mindedness. This is the meaning of the divine name Elohim—God who creates the appearance of stability and continuity in creation; the appearance of cause and effect; the appearance of needing to travel five hundred miles one step at a time.
11. However, if we lived in the early 18th century, and we were followers of the Baal Shem Tov, we might have been exposed to an order of reality not governed by the divine name Elohim. Actually, we might have been exposed to an even greater name of God – known as the SHEM HAVAYAH – the great name of Pure Being—YUD HEH VAV HEH.
12. The SHEM HAVAYAH governs the laws of nature—rather than being governed by them. It’s also the name of unbounded mercy and absolute love. Because nature, we know, is harsh. There’s no such thing as a merciful alligator. To an alligator we’re lunch, or dinner.
13. But human beings have the potential for mercy. You and I can be merciful. Because we’re human beings, created in the image of God, we carry within our hearts the SHEM HAVAYAH—the name of unbounded love and infinite mercy.
14. Sometimes Nature gets the best of us. Sometimes we conduct our affairs according to the letter of the law. Now, that normally makes for a good person. But the letter of the law, devoid of mercy, means that we have to go the long way around—step by step.
15. But when we bring the attribute of mercy into our lives—when we allow our hearts to melt—to be soft; to be alive—then the power of love can overwhelm the whole natural order. In other words, where there’s great love, there can also be great suspension of Natural Law. And then, there can be rapid leaping, from one level to the next.
16. Apparently, the Baal Shem Tov would do this physically and literally. People would get on a horse-drawn wagon with him, and they’d need to travel a thousand miles—a distance that would ordinarily require a few weeks, at least. And the Baal Shem would tell the driver, “Drop the reins.” And then, the driver would fall into a semi-sleep. And he would have a kind of sensation that they would be flying, as if in a dream. And then, suddenly he would awaken, and they would be at their destination. And it would only have been a few moments later.
17. Just a story? Perhaps. But the Baal Shem Tov seemed to use this technique quite regularly. So, if it’s more than just a story, how was the Baal Shem Tov able to overcome the need for a three-week journey? Because you can’t get there from here without three weeks and healthy horses.
18. But the Baal Shem knew the meaning of infinite love. There was so much love in his heart, that the laws of time and space would simply bend. They took second place; because the laws of nature are a servant in the household of one whose heart is filled with unbounded love.
19. But how could it be? How could there be such a complete suspension of something so firm as time and space? The answer is that creation itself is an act of love. If creation were only an expression of precision and predictability, then precision would be the ultimate. Intelligence, calculation, planning, would be the supreme powers in this world. Nothing could supersede them because they would be the purpose and intention behind all life everywhere.
20. But it’s simply not so. Beyond the sharpest intelligence; beyond the shrewdest calculation; is the greater attribute of HAVAYAH–Pure Being—the reality of unbounded, unfathomable love.
21. Now on one hand, we’re called upon to be precise. We go to school and our teacher says, “Do your homework, and have it in by tomorrow.” And we say, “I think we’ll just watch TV, and she’ll understand. Because she’ll understand that we didn’t feel like doing it. Our mother understands. Why wouldn’t our teacher?” So, we hand in our homework two days late, and we get an F. Our teacher is teaching us precision.
22. Just like most people in the world—our boss at work, or even our friends, when we hurt their feelings. So, in one way, we’re forced by life to be precise—or what we usually call responsible. But what happens when we become the pinnacle of responsibility? We’re good citizens. We don’t exceed the speed limit, even though everyone is passing us. We do everything exactly right. Well—this is what the Torah calls, “Noach.”
23. Remember Noah, who built the Ark? TZADDIK HAYAH B’DOROTAV. Noah was a Tzaddik in his generation. Now, you might think this is high praise coming from the Torah, and in a way it is. Here’s the law; and here’s a person who follows the law.
24. Yet the rabbis teach that there was someone in the Torah much higher than Noah—and that was Abraham, the first Jew. Why was Abraham so much higher than Noah? Because Abraham loved. Because Abraham’s heart was so full of love, that even when the time for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah had arrived—
25. He said, “God, maybe there’s fifty good people in that city. Maybe there are 45. Maybe 40. Maybe ten.” He stood before God, established in the attribute of love—with full knowledge that love is even higher than the law.
26. Commonly, we make the same mistake as Noah. We have family and friends, and sometimes perhaps, they do something they ought not to have done. And so, we start reviewing the situation, and perhaps, the first place we jump to is the law. We think: “They didn’t do right by me.” So, if the law gives us permission, we now have just cause for anger.
27. Something was done to us, unjustly, and we didn’t deserve it. The law was broken, and now, we can be angry, or perhaps, even vengeful. Maybe we want to get our two words in. And so, we invoke the law, and we feel correct in doing so.
28. But what happens when we invoke the law, is we invoke it in two directions. The obvious direction is the one going from us to them. But the direction we don’t see, is the one that comes back to us from the universe around us.
29. Now if we like, we can be like Noah, and be right. But we might also live in a world that gets destroyed. Or we might begin to understand that it’s specifically in those cases where we’re uncomfortable in relationship to others, that we’re being called upon to be something higher than just being right.
30. So, if there’s someone around us who’s irritating, and we don’t like them, and we’re keeping a righteous list of how we’re being wronged in that situation—who would stop us? Who would even say that we’re wrong? Because in fact, we’re right.
31. We’re Noah. We’re a Tzaddik. But what happens when WE do wrong, and we expect people to be merciful towards us? What happens when WE make the error? Should we presume that everyone should be nice—forgiving and forgetting? Well, that doesn’t happen unless we conduct ourselves beyond the law in the first place.
32. To graduate beyond the laws of nature, we must transcend the laws of nature in our personal relationships. This is a very practical approach to the highest level of spirit in creation–that we practice going beyond claiming the law.
33. Jewish tradition teaches that we can take the name HAVAYA–the great name of Eternal Being—into our heart, and allow it to guide our actions by simply waiting, and reflecting upon what it is that we’re thinking, saying, or doing, before we say, or do it—and by asking ourselves the question: “Do I wish to live in the world of law? Or do I wish to transcend the world of law, and invoke mercy?”
34. To come from the place of Abraham—to be a descendant of Abraham–means being merciful. And mercy is only revealed in a place where there’s a conspicuous lack of it. That’s where it’s most clear–when a person opts not to go according to the letter of the law.
35. So, a husband and a wife take their vows, and resolve to live together—what they’re really saying is, “Let’s live together in love. Let’s live together in mercy.” And what does that mean? That the way that we conduct ourselves inside our house will be governed more by mercy, than by justice.
36. When we go outside our house, we expect justice. We don’t expect people on the street to treat us with love.
37. But when we enter the doorways of our homes, we see the Mezuzah attached to the right side of the doorpost. What that scroll says in so many words, is that anyone who walks through this door should know that here, we conduct business with mercy.
38. Outside the home, business is business. Inside hopefully, there’s love. And when we walk through that door, hopefully, we leap into another world altogether. It’s a reminder, every time we enter our home, that there’s another way besides going every step of the journey; that there is within each one of us a mercy so great, and a love so deep–that the end is already connected to the beginning.
39. Nachum of Chernobyl once taught, YESHUAT HA-SHEM K’CHEREF AYIN – that whatever distance you may feel from God, that gap, no matter how great, no matter how far away it may seem, can be bridged in the blink of an eye. That sense of disconnection–of living in a world of fear and separation—can be remedied at a moment’s notice.
40. But how does it get remedied? Only when our hearts overflow with that great love which is the true foundation of all life. Then, we can leap from this world, to the Infinite. But how can our hearts feel such a profound love? The answer is, our hearts need to resonate with that love in the first place. That’s why we have friends and family.
41. And that’s why we’re given challenging situations. Can we awaken the mercy within under difficult circumstances? This is how we learn to leap. We shouldn’t underestimate the power of a human being who holds their tongue, even though they have every right to do otherwise.
42. In that non-speech, that person blazes a trail to heaven. We don’t often hear such things, because our world says, “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” You get me, and I’m going to get you. This has been going on since forever.
43. But to come under the influence of the great name of God—the SHEM HAVAYAH—the name of Eternal Being—is to need no protection. It’s to allow ourselves to be free of disguises; to be free of the need to defend; to let go of restrictions, like the Baal Shem Tov’s wagon driver who dropped the reins.
44. This isn’t something you learn, so much as do. Learning is a step-by-step process that occurs in the world governed by law. On the other hand, Being is something that reveals itself through you and what you love. And in your love, you become its likeness.
45. And so, on this Yom Kippur day, I would ask for all of us to be blessed with love and forgiveness; with compassion and mercy—that our hearts no longer be bound by the strictures of our behavior; or the influences of our angry thoughts; or by our quest for vengeance. But rather, that we should just BE–and be happy–to serve God, and to serve each other, with joy.
46. G’MAR CHATIMAH TOVAH—may we all be inscribed and sealed, for a good, sweet, healthy, happy, fulfilling New Year of peace–for us, for all Israel, and for the whole world. Amen.


PRESENTATION BY JOY HIRSHBERG

Return to the Place

There’s an awesome premise in Isaiah accompanied by an amazing promise. The verse says,

The mind stayed on Thee,
Thou keepest in perfect peace.

Tonight we’ll discuss the practical application of this eternal wisdom. And we’ll explore how a conscious awareness of what mystics often call the Self (S) is perfect peace.

We begin with an account from a business person who writes:

“I was once told to ‘go back on the Self’ whenever fear or anger arises. But I didn’t realize this neutral ‘still point’ is the source of problem-solving until I noticed a pattern, especially when working with people or numbers.

“Whenever I feel less than at peace and remember to ‘go back on the Self,’ almost always the situation resolves, or the answer quickly appears. Sometimes it’s in an instant, in the blink of an eye.

“I have come to rely on it—not only in the face of fear or anger—but also when I feel resentment, disgust, confusion, and even plain old impatience, like when I’m sitting in a traffic jam.

“With so many opportunities every day, I spend a lot of time on the Self with my eyes wide open!

“Once I was in a meeting with a younger colleague whom I had mentored. He began to angrily and loudly berate me in front of others. I felt so disheartened and embarrassed. I was frozen speechless, my heart was pounding, and—worse—it felt like it was doing giant flip flops.
“But when my attention fell back to my Self—away from words and sensations—the physical trauma stopped immediately and I felt wrapped in a column of pure peace. The atmosphere changed and I was able to respond calmly and professionally.

“What’s surprising to me is that it took so long to see the pattern and to have confidence in this life-changing gem of wisdom.”
Our Jewish tradition includes other similar instructions for assuring peace and deliverance. For example, in the book of Job it says:

Acquaint now thyself with [God],
and be at peace…

And in Joel it says,

whoever calls on
the name of the Lord
shall be delivered.

Again from Isaiah,

Look unto Me ,
and be ye saved,
All the ends of the earth.
For I am God, and there is none else.

Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation is the oldest and most mystical of all kabbalistic texts. Although we don’t know who wrote it, it’s said to include the principles of Abraham’s spiritual practices.

For example in Professor Daniel Matt’s book, The Essential Kabbalah, we find that Sefer Yetzirah gives this specific instruction:

‘When your mind races,
return to the place.’
Return to where
you were before thought.
Return to the site
of Oneness.

The ‘site of Oneness’ is divinity, it’s pure Peace and pure Love, none other than the silence and sanctity of pure awareness. Pure awareness, or pure consciousness, is our essence, our true nature. It’s the Light of God that shines as our very being!

Our emanation as the Light of God is why we can —and why we must—express the loving kindness so beautifully discussed by Fred Swartz on Erev Rosh Hashanah.

Oneness with God is a theme in the Abrahamic religions. For example, the Psalmist, knows well the answer, when he asks,

Whither shall I go from Thy spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from Thy presence?

The Christian scriptures record Jesus saying,

I and my Father are one.

In fact, divinity is so close in the Abrahamic traditions that the teachings of Muhammad say,

Whoever knows their [Self]
knows their Lord.

This transcendental reality—what Vedic sages call Atma or the Self—is our safehouse. This is the Self that always has been and always will be. Cutting edge physicists call unbounded pure consciousness the Unified Field, the home of all the Laws of Nature such as the laws of Peace and Love. This field is frictionless!

Because we’re never separated from our Source, we can—with confidence—sink back to pure consciousness. This is the ‘I’ that eternally declares ‘I AM.’ It is at once our divine nature and our refuge.

Psalm 91, attributed to Moses, speaks of the “covert [secret place] of the most High…” where “…no evil [shall] befall thee, nor shall any plague come nigh thy tent.”

Here’s the secret of the ‘secret place’ of the most High: We can take recourse to ‘the place,’ our source, our true Self, by simply sinking back to the peace and power of pure consciousness, divine Love. And here we find we haven’t gone anywhere!

The truth, peace, power and bliss of our divinity is as near and as eternally accessible as are the eternal principles of mathematics. With repeated experience we discover peace isn’t something we get, but that it’s what we are.

Another Psalm, this one attributed to David, says,

In the Lord I put my trust:
How say ye to my soul,
Flee as a bird to your mountain?

This Psalm has several different translations and commentaries, but most scholars agree that when David is in trouble, he takes refuge in God.

As for the conclusion of the verse, The Jewish Encyclopedia from 1901 translates it as: “Flee as a bird to your mountain.” To understand the mystical message we must go beyond the surface reading of the text and rise to the highest spiritual standpoint we know.

Here we find that God, pure consciousness, what Kabbalah sometimes calls divine mind, is our ‘mountain.’ It’s unshakeable. It’s ‘the place,’ the site of Oneness, the ‘high point’ where our vision is clear and where we can intentionally take refuge, anytime, anywhere. Just as birds naturally flee to their mountain for safety when a storm threatens.

When we ‘flee to our mountain’ it’s the highest form of teshuvah. It’s the experience of ‘no thought,’ literally what Kabbalah calls “the place you were before thought….” and what Vedic Science calls the source of thought.

It’s here “from where speech returns, and poetry begins,” as described in the writings of our own Kenny Chawkin. It’s here we return. It’s here that we intimately experience that we are “rooted and grounded in [divine] Love.” And it’s here we discover that Love isn’t something we do, Love is what we are. It’s our nature.

On Rosh Hashanah, Vicki Herriott’s inspiring remarks reminded us that often teshuvah is translated as ‘repentance,’ instead of more correctly as ‘return.’ This is an important point for our discussion. In a book entitled Everything is God: The Radical Path of Non-dual Judaism, Jay Michaelsen also emphasizes this and says,

…[teshuvah] is simply a return
to a way of seeing clearly,
the return to Who we really are,
and the mending that comes from it.

Teshuvah is essential for effective, scientific, healing prayer. Effective prayer is neither prayer to divine Mind, nor prayer about divine Mind. Rather it is prayer that knows Truth and sees Reality as divine Mind knows and sees Itself. This is what Maharishi calls “transcendental prayer.” He says,

[Transcendental prayer] is instantly heard
and instantly responded…

Teshuvah makes it possible to fulfill the Christian command to pray without ceasing, a Bible verse that has long been a challenge for so many. I mean, how do you pray without ceasing and live an active life?

Kabbalah says, “return to the place.” And Vedic Science says, return to the place and stay there! In the words of the Bhagavad Gita:

Yogastah Kuru Karmani.
Established in Being, perform action.

To live established in Being 24/7 is to truly pray without ceasing.

We don’t need to stop what we’re doing. Right here, right where we are, whatever we’re doing, we can see clearly, and more clearly, our divine nature.

When we go back to the Self, it’s simply a subtle shift, an instant awareness of infinite awareness itself, an inner glance available at any moment regardless of what we’re doing.

Impossible? Not at all! The Zohar says,

In one instant you can do teshuvah.

And Rabbi Rami Shapiro assures us that,

each of us has the ability
to return to God and godliness
at any time.

Here’s another person’s experience that relates to our discussion:

“Some years ago when I was playing soccer, I snapped a major ligament in my knee and splintered the kneecap. The sports medicine surgeon who was going to do the repairs agreed to try using a local anesthetic.

“The operation turned out to be more complicated than he had anticipated. It was taking so long that the local anesthetic wore off. The anesthesiologist cautioned against trying to administer a general anesthetic or even another local at that point in the surgery.

“It was a difficult situation, but since I was conscious, I suggested that I could try something if they would give me a few minutes.
“As a longtime TM [practitioner], I have an established habit of settling into the silence of myself…[in that silence] I was able to locate a point [beyond pain.] Holding my attention here, I told the surgeon to continue as he had planned. He did.

“My experience during the rest of the operation was such that I was actually sorry when it was over.
“Afterwards, the anesthesiologist followed me to the recovery room and wanted to know what I had done that enabled me to endure what should have been an excruciatingly painful operation…”

Another account, this one very abbreviated, is that of a first-time expectant mother. She experienced painless labor and childbirth due, in part, to months of extra meditation and prayerful preparation. She had especially studied the effortless and orderly unfoldment of creation in Genesis chapter one, as well as the promise in Isaiah where God says,

I have made,
and I will bear;
Yea I will carry and [I] will deliver.

Her birth plan included dim lighting, and as much silence in the room as possible. She and her husband planned to pray and meditate during labor, along with the support of a professional prayer practitioner located some miles away.

When the expectant mother arrived at the alternative birthing suite, she settled in and closed her eyes. To her surprise she was pulled inward like by a magnet. She found herself instantly immersed in deep silence, harmony, peace and bliss.

Yet she was clearly alert and able to cooperate with the nurse for periodic monitoring. As for the contractions, she was thrilled and awed by the warm
wave of bliss that accompanied each one. No one, but no one, had told her to expect this!

The doctor was in awe. As he was leaving, he said “That was the best demonstration of positive thinking I’ve ever seen.”

Of course, it wasn’t positive thinking! It was simply repeatedly sinking deeper and deeper into the silence of the Self, the source of thought. This is “the place,” the site of Oneness.

In searching for an explanation of these pain-free experiences, I came across an article in The Economic Times of India. It speaks from the non-duel standpoint of Advaita
Vedanta. It says,

Pain—whether physical, mental or emotional—
has only a negative existence,
like darkness…[which]
exists only in the absence of light…
it has no positive existence of its own…

The article concludes saying,

no pain can touch the real ‘you’.

As it says in Psalms,

Even the darkness is not too dark for thee.

These personal accounts each demonstrate that, when we’re lost in the infinitude of divine Mind—literally floating in the bliss of divine Mind—pain, anger, fear, confusion, and so forth are simply not possible.

Vedic scholars will recognize teshuvah as nivardtadwam which also means “return,” or “transcend, to go beyond.”

Christian scholars will recognize teshuvah in the Bible where God, divine Mind, speaks intimately as Jesus’ voice,

Come unto me, all ye that labour
and are heavy laden,
and I will give you rest.

This eternal “me” that beckons and the eternal “I” that gives rest is the great I AM revealed to Moses.

Vivian May Williams is the author of a book entitled There is Nothing but God. She pens an urgent message for each of us that is even more relevant today than in her day some 90 years ago. She writes,

We have declared
an omnipresent God long enough —
the time is here for us to prove this Omnipresence.

As the Lord blesses you and keeps you on this holy day of Yom Kippur, may you be consciously aware that the ever-present Light of God shines as you, right here, right now.

And may you recognize that it is this light of pure consciousness that reveals Itself as your inspiration, bliss, healing, and enlightenment.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, says,
There is no moment more vital
than the one right now.
There is no space more crucial
than the one in which you stand.
For this is the moment
and this is the place
from which Moshiach may come.

With great awe and respect, standing on the holy ground of pure consciousness and knowing the Rebbe also speaks so beautifully of the Moshiach within us, let us revisit these words and say to the those awakening in our world,
Whether you are waiting
for the coming of Moshiach
or waiting for the return,
stop waiting!
This is the moment
and this is the place
in which Moshiach consciousness
comes to our awareness.
It’s we who (seemingly) “return.”

Amen.

© 2021 Joy Hirshberg
Reprinted by permission