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Connection, Context, and Courage

Erev Rosh Hashanah • Rosh Hashanah Eve

September 13, 2015 • 1 Tishrei 5776

Rabbi Bridget Wynne

Have you had an experience like this? You’re out somewhere, talking with friends or family. A question comes up. “Remember that park we used to go to? It had those amazing rock formations …” People start to answer excitedly, “Woah, those were incredible.” “Yeah, and when I was little I thought they were castles …”


Out come the phones. Heads go down, fingers get busy. “I’ll check … was that in Arizona?”  “No, Utah. I found it.” “Are you sure?” More heads go down, more fingers get busy. The thread of amazement, and memories of castles, disappears.


Where might that thread have gone if it had continued? Maybe to childhood imaginings, and how we see them today. Maybe to moments of awe we experience in nature. We’ll never know, since we were waylaid by the instant availability of infinite amounts of information.


I mention this because this season – Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the days between – is a time to ask questions, but not the sort we can answer by searching on the Internet, because they are not questions that can be answered by information.


They are the big questions -- about our lives, our world, how we are spending our precious and limited time, what we are here to do, and whether we are doing it.


Last year at Rosh Hashanah I asked those who were here what your big questions were, as you entered the New Year. The responses you shared, anonymously, were powerful, and moving. Here are just a few:


What steps can I take this year to make the rest of my life more meaningful?


How to turn endless worry into endless gratitude?


How can I be more present for my family?


Am I making enough of a difference in the world?


We don’t often focus on questions like these. It’s not surprising. Our culture trains us to think about information, analysis, and efficiency. It encourages us to keep a safe distance from the big questions of life, or to settle for answers that are too tidy to be real.


Imagine for a moment the blast of the shofar that we’ll hear tonight and tomorrow. This haunting sound is an annual alarm, a communal version of the one that wakes us up in the morning. It calls to us, “You, who are sleepwalking through your days, you, who are rushing headlong through your days – wake up! On this day, of all days, pay attention!” (Maimonides, Hilchot Teshuva 3:4)


And many of us do. We reflect on our lives, we try to gain perspective, to focus more on what really matters, on how to live in ways that are true to our deepest values.


Hopefully we carry some of these reflections and resolutions into the New Year. But it is hard to pay attention to the big issues as life takes over.


This is a great loss. How might we be able to reflect on the meaning of our lives, and our choices, throughout the year?


To answer, I want to share some of what I’ve learned from being part of a counterculture. I don’t mean a Berkeley or Bay Area counterculture. I mean Jewish culture, which approaches life quite differently from the way American culture does.


There are three crucial ways that Jewish tradition teaches us to wake up, to examine our lives, on a regular basis -- by offering us connection, and context, and by helping us to find courage. Connection, context, courage. I’m glad that each of these happens to start with a C, since I’m passionate about this topic, and I hope you it will help you to remember what I’m about to say.


First, connection. American culture places a high value on self-sufficiency, but when it comes to what really matters in life, we can’t figure it out alone.


We need stories, teachings, and rituals that help us to reflect on our values, gain new perspectives, and draw on what others have learned who’ve wrestled with the same issues.


We need to know that we are part of something far larger than ourselves. It may be connection to God, or the sacred, to our tradition, to ancestors, to the future, to moments of awe, or to shared responsibility for one another and our world.


And, we need one another. To realize that, no matter how challenging our questions, no matter how difficult it is to pay attention to what matters most, people all around us are wrestling with hopes and fears and choices like ours.


Connection … with stories, teachings, and rituals, with something larger than ourselves, with one another.


Second, we need context. The routines of our lives – the busyness or pressures or isolation – easily lull us into the sleepwalking the shofar is meant to wake us from.


American culture encourages this sleepwalking, urging us to keep busy – with work, entertainment, information, acquiring and caring for “stuff” … The expectations of what it means to lead a “successful” life increase all the time.


Jewish culture counters by calling us to interrupt the busyness and isolation, to create frequent contexts for stepping back to reflect, connect, and make choices. Did you know that the word Shabbat, which refers to the break we’re invited to take each week, means “stop”?


Our tradition asks us in many ways to stop sleepwalking, stop rushing, and to step into a context that helps us return to our deepest selves. The yearly cycle of holidays, the weekly cycle of work and rest, the daily cycle of times to pause for awareness and gratitude …


We may have learned about these parts of Jewish life as obligations without much meaning, or as times to gather with family and friends, perhaps for a special meal. I bet you’ve heard the joke, “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!”


I invite you, though, to see these rhythms of life as invitations most of us have not yet understood in their true depth. These breaks from routine are here to remind us that we need to carve out spaces within our lives where our souls can breathe, where we can share our human vulnerability, spaces for reflection, for mystery, for compassion, and deep connection.


Context – opportunities to stop, to step back, to make space for what matters most.


Third, and finally, we need courage.


Looking deeply at our lives can be frightening. It means paying attention to realities we might prefer to ignore; taking responsibility for our choices, past and future; acknowledging our limitations and our mortality; seeing how we may have held back from pursuing what we care most about.


Instead of inviting us to look deeply despite the fear, American culture encourages detachment. It tells us that the world is too much, and we are not enough, to make a difference, so it’s best to stand back – to keep busy with information and entertainment, to distance ourselves from risks and vulnerability and caring too much.


I urge you – our tradition urges you – not to detach, but to engage, to find the courage to care passionately, to envision how we – and our world – could be better, to dream and try to make our dreams real – to have faith.


Faith not that everything will work out for the best, or that God will provide, but faith that our big questions matter, that our lives matter, that our choices matter, that we matter. Faith that, if we seek connection, context, and courage, whether from a Jewish perspective or in other settings, we will discover meaning far beyond anything we can find by searching on our phones.

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