Erev Rosh HaShanah 5774
Wednesday, September 4, 2013
Gate of Opportunity is Open for You
By Rabbi Thomas Louchheim
Congregation Or Chadash
Friends, as we begin our New Year, we need to open our eyes and gaze on new opportunities ahead. At the end of the High Holy Days, during the N'ilah service on Yom Kippur there is a dramatic image: "the gates begin to close." The question we ask at the beginning of the High Holy Days is, "What are the gates that are opening up for us?" Perhaps it is a way of redefining ourselves or rediscovering our true definition.
Let me share with you a story.
A few years ago, Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, author, and poet Thich Nhat Hanh spoke at UCLA before an audience of 3,000 psychologists. He told them a story about his mother, who had died when he was only twenty-one years old.
The day my mother died, I wrote in my journal, "A serious misfortune of my life has arrived." I suffered for more than one year after the passing away of my mother. But one night, in the highlands of Vietnam, I was sleeping in the hut in my hermitage. I dreamed of my mother. I saw myself sitting with her, and we were having a wonderful talk. She looked young and beautiful, her hair flowing down. It was so pleasant to sit there and talk to her as if she had never died. When I woke up it was about two in the morning, and I felt very strongly that I had never lost my mother. The impression that my mother was still with me was very clear. I understood then that the idea of having lost my mother was just an idea. It was obvious in that moment that my mother is always alive in me. I opened the door and went outside. The entire hillside was bathed in moonlight. It was a hill covered with tea plants, and my hut was set behind the temple halfway up. Walking slowly in the moonlight through the rows of tea plants, I noticed my mother was still with me. She was the moonlight caressing me as she had done so often, very tenderly, very sweet... wonderful! Each time my feet touched the earth I knew my mother was there with me. I further knew this body was not mine alone but a living continuation of my mother and father and my grandparents and great-grandparents and all of my ancestors. These feet that I saw as "my" feet were actually "our" feet. Together my mother and I were leaving footprints in the damp soil. From that moment on the idea that I had lost my mother no longer existed. 
This is a story about a mystery, a story told to help those therapists understand their connection to their patients and their connection to their very being. I share this story with you on the eve of our New Year to help you understand your personal mystery: connection to the present, to this place and to this moment.
For some of you, Rosh HaShanah is a moment on the calendar. It represents a time and a place for you. It was this time and this place last year. It was this time and this place the year before. It is on the calendar, so here I am keeping my appointment.
For others, this is what your parents and grandparents did. This is what generations of our family have done, year after year. Perhaps you never asked, "Why?" This is just what your family does. And so, I am following a family tradition.
Perhaps you are here because your heart is broken, your footsteps are unsure, the suffering is so great that perhaps entering this sacred space, during this most sacred time, listening to this sacred, moving music, you will find the joy returning to your soul. Possibly, you may read something, hear something, which will help you find love, give love and receive love.
For all of us, we create together a haven filled with dignity and respect, protecting us, for a few hours at least, from a world filled with conflict, racism, violence, unrest, and unease. Tonight, tomorrow and through these Days of Awe you might discover for yourself a path, an idea, a value which will help you walk beyond these sacred moments and live more courageously in a world which so easily disturbs the very core of our being.
Tonight, I would like to help you grasp what Thich Nhat Hanh took a year of suffering to grasp: unraveling the mystery of your incarnation. The mystery begins with our true sense of identity. Can you honestly answer the questions: "Who am I?" and "Who am I in relationship with others?" The gates that open on Rosh HaShanah become an opportunity for us to take an honest look at ourselves. This is not so easy. We tend to look at ourselves only in how we respond to people and circumstances. Of course, it is those very people and those surprising circumstances that raise our blood pressure and lead to our anxieties and distress. It is no wonder that we view our world as out of control, when in fact, this world and these people just are the way they are; what is out of control is our reaction to it. We are unable to define ourselves by what we value. We define ourselves by the burdens placed upon us by others. By reacting to others rather than responding as ourselves means that those negative circumstances and those negative people are defining us through their negativity. Why is it so difficult to let our true nature respond? Where is our sense of identity? Where is our foundation? Where are our values?
Your opportunity on Rosh HaShanah is an opportunity to think deeply about who you are and what you truly value. Tonight we begin to think about our continuum between generations of our family and how we can be more present.
Perhaps we can learn during the next ten days about looking within to find our true identity that has been slowly covered up since birth.
There is a tradition that comes from India that inside the womb a baby sings to itself: "Do not let me forget who I really am." The moment that child is born, it sings another song: "Oh dear, I am forgetting already."
Tonight I ask you to walk amongst your tea plants, with your ancestors, as they did on Rosh HaShanah generations ago. Look at the imprints in that soft soil, yours and theirs, and perhaps you will find some answers as to how to enter into the New Year a bit differently.
A few weeks ago I spoke about a mystery of identity that should be familiar to you all:
When you enter the land, take every first fruit, put it in a basket, go to the priest: My father was a fugitive Aramean, went to Egypt in meager numbers, sojourned there, Egyptians oppressed them, we cried to God, God freed us, bringing us to the place of milk and honey, and now I bring to You the first fruits of the soil you gave to me.
This passage is familiar because it is read during Passover as a reminder of avadim hayinu, "we were slaves in the land of Egypt." It is read during Shavuot as a reminder to give our first fruits to the priests and to God. And then it is read again just before the High Holy Days. Most commentaries focus on our appreciation of God for saving us and the importance of being charitable; but for me I found something curious in referring to ourselves as "fugitive Arameans." Then it hit me. Throughout all of our sacred stories, almost everyone has been a fugitive. Our mythology is based on running away.
Tomorrow morning we read a story about our patriarch Abraham, who ran away from his parents' home, his homeland, his culture, his religion, and everything that was familiar to him.
Jacob became a fugitive from his father and from his brother, who wanted to kill him.
Joseph was a fugitive from his brothers and when he had an opportunity to return, as a rich and powerful man, he chose to remain a fugitive in Egypt.
David, the future king of Israel, was a fugitive from his mentor and king, King Saul.
You can go back to the very first holy story of Judaism: Adam and Eve were forced out of paradise, fugitives from the Garden of Eden.
It is not just our sacred literature that depicts us as on the run; in reality, we, as human beings, seem to be always on the run. In fact, if we are honest and aware of our deeds this past year, we have to admit we have run away from circumstances and people that are too difficult to face.
My friends, the High Holy Days provide you with the gates of opportunities to stop running away, and to "turn" and face your true identity, and to "turn" and face your God. Teshuvah: "Return" from where you are running from.
We have fooled ourselves that the battle is with individuals or the battle is with institutions; in fact, truth be told, the battle is within. We are fugitives from our true nature – the element in our souls which can find improvement in our lives, the lives of our families, and make improvements in the communities in which we reside. I am asking for you to be courageous this year. It will not be easy to face your demons, your adversaries. When God gave the Promised Land to the Israelites, it was not handed to them on a silver platter; they had to fight for it. Reading the books of Joshua, Judges, and Kings, not only did they have to fight for it to settle there, but for hundreds of years they had to defend this new homeland. The prophets cajoled the people for centuries later to maintain their principles, to fight for the values given to us by God in order return to a place of stability and peace.
We too need to carry our banner into battle to return to our own place of peace and stability. This is not a battle against others. This is not a war against an institution. This is a confrontation with our own very being (essence?) to become the best we can be.
One of my favorite reality shows on TV is called "Restaurant Impossible." The host of the show, Chef Robert Irvine, is invited by owners to discover why their restaurants are failing. Some of these restaurants have been in existence for decades. Every single time, the owners are guilty of the same thing. These restaurants are failing because they continue to serve the same food they served thirty years ago, the decor has not changed in decades, and the customer is never right. Why? Because this is the way they have always done it.
My friends, we need to stop blaming others for burdens we bear. We need to stop using the excuse, "That's just the way I am." Or, "I am right and you are just wrong." Your lives won't improve unless you make the commitment to make things better yourself. You have to shed the old way of doing things and see that there are new gates of opportunity open to you, if you are willing to take a step in a different direction.
One of my favorite lines from Mark Twain is, "Some of the worst things in my life never actually happened." Friends, you do not live in a real world. You only live in your perception of it. That perception is often leading you in the wrong direction, a direction that will leave you bankrupt – like many of those restaurants would have been if they had not taken Chef Irvine's suggestions to improve by doing things differently.
The path through that gate of opportunity is found in the mystery of the Thich Nhat Hanh story I told you in the beginning. You must first realize that you are connected to everything. Fugitives are disconnected. You need to work on "returning" – reconnecting and believing ...
I am the first and the last;
the silence and the sound that is everywhere;
I am modesty and boldness;
knowledge and ignorance;
I am unlearned and yet know all.
I am what I receive and I am what I let go.
I am the one who cries out and the one who answers;
I am what is inside of me and what is outside of me.
Awaken and there I will find me.
Let your heart soften. Quiet your mind and find the freedom that allows you to cease your old way of being. Cease your grasping and your greed. Cease your hatred and your aversion. Begin to let go of the emotions that give you an excuse to run and is the impetus for others to run from you. The world will open when you approach it with this loving awareness. Stay dedicated and present and trust.
I close with a story of a Lakota Sioux medicine man, Black Elk. At the end of his life, he called his friend, John Neihardt to join him as he ascended Harney Peak in the Black Hills of South Dakota for the last time. In his youth he had climbed that peak and had a vision that it was up to him to save his people. He told Neihardt that if the Great Spirit had approved his life rain would fall. On the day of his climb, he was an old man. He wore his red leggings, his feathered war headdress, and a pair of moccasins. As he climbed he was oblivious of the stares of the tourists. When they had reached the summit, Neihardt commented, "You should have chosen a day when there was one cloud in the sky." "Rain has nothing to do with the weather," Black Elk responded. He lay down under a blue sky. A few clouds began to form over Black Elk, and a soft rain began to fall. Black Elk wept with relief. Even though he had not succeeded in his vision, the Great Spirit was signaling him that he had done his best.
So you, too – offer yourself to these High Holy Days, as the gates of opportunity open for you, to do your best. Offer yourself with the devotion and presence – not to perfect yourself, but with a loving awareness and a deep trust in the mystery of your own incarnation – to no longer be a fugitive to who you truly are.
 Excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh, No Death, No Fear.
 Based on Deuteronomy 26:1 - 10
 Story from John Neihardt's, Black Elk Speaks.
Categories: 5774-2013 HHD Sermons
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