Clarity, Courage, Compassion, and Curiosity
Erev Rosh Hashanah • Rosh Hashanah Eve
September 4, 2013 • 1 Tishrei 5774
Rabbi Bridget Wynne
Not long ago I was chatting with a rabbi I’d just met. After a couple minutes, he leaned in close. “So, what drew you to Judaism?” he asked.
I didn’t understand, and looked at him blankly. “Uh … what do you mean?” “Well, with a name like Bridget,” he said, “I assumed you’d converted.” “No, I didn’t,” I said, and then tried to gracefully change the subject.
Before I continue, I want to make clear that I’m not saying anything negative about conversion. According to Jewish tradition, there is nothing embarrassing about it. A person who converts to Judaism is -- a Jew! And that’s that.
I’m telling this story because it reminded me of the distance I’ve traveled on my path as a Jew. Years ago, I stood awkwardly at the threshold of Jewish life, wondering whether there was a way in for me, a way I could enter as my real self, my self named -- Bridget.
I grew up culturally Jewish, celebrating holidays with family and friends. My mother was Jewish, my father a non-practicing Catholic. We didn’t go to synagogue or otherwise participate in organized Jewish life.
As an adult, I was curious about whether the Judaism I’d learned informally was the “real thing.” I took some classes, tried out Jewish groups, and even explored synagogue services. There was a lot I didn’t know, but I was willing to learn.
I was surprised to discover how meaningful Judaism could be. At the same time, the more involved I got, the more barriers I faced. My name was not the only problem.
I want to step away from my story for a moment to explain why I’m telling it to you tonight. Years ago, I stood at the threshold of Jewish life, wondering whether and how to move through the doorway.
Tonight we all stand at the threshold – of a New Year. What choices will we make in this New Year? Which doorways will we walk through? Which will we turn away from?
Rosh Hashanah is an opportunity to stop and reflect on these questions. I say “opportunity” because we don’t have to do anything beyond being here, enjoying the evening, perhaps being grateful for having lived another year.
But this marking of the New Year can mean more, if we accept the invitation it offers.
I want to share a poem that describes where we might imagine ourselves standing this evening. It’s by American Jewish poet Adrienne Rich.
Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.
If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name …
If you do not go through
it is possible
to live worthily
to maintain your attitudes
to hold your position
to die bravely
but much will blind you,
much will evade you,
at what cost who knows?
The door itself
makes no promises.
It is only a door.
As the poet says, it is not the door that matters; it is the choices we make.
When I made the choice to walk through the doorway into Jewish life, I found meaning and wisdom, but I also encountered obstacles.
I remember being at a workshop on some aspect of Jewishness. A participant spoke passionately about people who were “half Jewish,” and how they couldn’t understand what it meant to be a “real” Jew. I sat there feeling – all of a sudden -- like I had a terrible secret.
And my name really was an issue. Many people couldn't believe someone named Bridget was actually Jewish. They’d say things to me like, “Where did a nice Jewish girl get a name like that?” And there’s really nothing useful I can say in response.
Other barriers came from my own assumptions. Like many people, I thought there was something I was “supposed” to believe about God, and if I didn’t, I could at least keep quiet it about it.
I’m not the kind of person, though, to just go along and pretend, so I explored Jewish understandings of God. I discovered that Judaism’s teachings were way more complex than the vague notion I had grown up with, of a guy in the sky who works miracles, and punishes us when we do wrong.
Eventually I began to dream of becoming a rabbi, but I could barely believe my own thoughts. I knew women rabbis existed, but I had never seen one.
With the support of family and friends, I got past these barriers, and more, and as you know, I did become a rabbi.
As a rabbi, when Jews or people of Jewish heritage meet me and learn what I do, they often offer sad or defensive-sounding confessions like, “I’m Jewish… sort of,” or “I’m a bad Jew.”
The amount of what I’d call feelings of “Jewish inadequacy” that I’ve encountered has been amazing.
And I knew from my experiences that people do not have to feel this way!
I often responded to these confessions by asking people to tell me more. I discovered that many of them didn’t want to stay where they were, but didn’t know what else to do.
I became passionate about helping people move through this kind of "stuckness", to find whatever is meaningful and alive for them in Jewish life. This became my mission as a rabbi.
Let’s return now to you. What thresholds do you stand at, as the New Year begins? What choices do you face? What fulfillments, and what barriers, do you imagine you might encounter?
I invite you to reflect on these questions. Not every doorway at which we stand is worth walking through. Some of the thresholds at which we feel stuck, and perhaps inadequate, are ones we could cross, if we find the courage and support.
I’ve had the privilege of watching people who longed to cross the threshold to greater Jewish connection, yet faced fears and barriers, and I’ve seen them move ahead in amazing ways.
What I’ve learned from these inspiring individuals is not only about Jewishness. It is about choosing a doorway that matters, and creating your pathway with openness and creativity, despite the doubts, despite the obstacles.
I’ve discovered what I think of as the qualities we might call on when there’s a threshold we long to cross, and I want to share them with you now.
First, clarity. What is important about the path you want to take? Why does it matter so much? Knowing the answers can help when the going gets difficult.
Second, courage. It takes courage to move ahead into the unknown, courage to change, courage to take risks.
Third is compassion, for ourselves. As we journey on a new pathway, there may be times that are painful, even frightening. We need to treat ourselves with kindness, find ways to move through the hard parts, perhaps allow ourselves to slow down, or even turn aside briefly to find comfort in the familiar.
Fourth, we need curiosity. Things don’t always work out as we expect or wish. If we can be open to surprises, and meet them with curiosity, there is more chance that we will learn, more chance that we will enjoy the journey.
Finally, we need companions. Friends, family, teachers, colleagues, mentors – who will help us find resources, who will support us, cheer us on, and celebrate with us.
Clarity, courage, compassion, and curiosity. Qualities to call on, to bring on our journey. And, good companions for that journey.
I want to close now with the story of a woman who went through a challenging doorway, and created a path for herself and her family. I think you will see in it the qualities I mentioned. Rebecca* wrote about her journey, sent her writing to me as a gift for the New Year, and gave me permission to paraphrase her story and share it with you.
It is about Jewish connections, but I encourage you to listen to it not only as a story about Jewishness, but also about the choice to go through a doorway.
Here is Rebecca’s story.
It is Friday afternoon. I stand at the kitchen island with my children, flour up to my elbows. With no one to guide my hands, I must feel my way. We are borrowing from the past, but this tradition is one we must make from scratch.
I’ve never fashioned a loaf of challah before. My father’s mother, my Jewish grandmother, never made challah, though she loved to bake. Nor was challah a part of my own upbringing in a family with both Jewish and Catholic roots.
A legacy of familial rejection and competing rituals left me without a clear sense of spiritual identity. To move forward, I have to uncover who I am.
I am the child of loving parents, whose own loving parents nearly rejected them when they found each other.
I am the child who grew up with a miracle of magnified light each December — Advent wreath next to menorah. … the child who wanted so much to please her Catholic grandparents, yet mistrusted the church … the child with the Jewish profile and name, of a people who insisted she was not one of them, who nonetheless felt drawn to that ancient religion and culture. I am the child who turned away from the organized religions that divided her extended family. Now I am the adult … longing for community, who wants to give her children a framework for their questions … the adult who needs to define her identity, but no longer wants to explore her spirituality all alone. The children and I begin to plait our ropes of dough together. I have never done this before and it is awkward. But our efforts prove nothing short of miraculous. Our beautiful braid looks as if we have been shaping challah all our lives. Within minutes the house is filled with a powerful scent -- an aroma of sustenance, containing the sweetness of hope and the acrid hint of burned dreams. Later, as dusk falls and we light candles to begin our first “welcome weekend” meal (I dare not call it Shabbat), we each break off a piece of this new bread. While it evokes the taste of challah I have purchased, or eaten in the homes of others, it is not exactly the same, and I am disappointed. But then, I realize, it cannot be [the same]. … our bread is special, not because of its gorgeous braid or burnished surface, but because it includes the sweat of our palms. Our very essence. We have our new tradition. We will bake again, we will gather ingredients, infuse them with the leavening power of life’s possibility, weave together multiple strands of past, present, and future. We will do this, not because of religious fiat, or a sense of obligation, but because it sustains us.
Rebecca Stein*, who shared this story with me, faced barriers greater than mine, or many other people’s. She gathered the courage, the support of family and friends and teachers, and crossed the threshold.
She discovered, many times, that the way forward was not what she had expected, or even hoped for. But she braided the strands of her past with her present, and created a meaningful future for herself and her family.
The door itself makes no promises. It is only a door. It is our choices that determine our pathways.
Which thresholds will you cross? Which doors will you enter? What pathways will you create in this New Year?
I hope you will take this opportunity to reflect, and, if it is the right choice, to choose to move through the doorway.
May you do so with clarity and courage, compassion and curiosity. May you find the traveling companions you need. May you be blessed on your journey, and may your journey be a blessing.
* Name changed to Rebecca Stein in order to protect the privacy of the writer.