#blogElul 29: Return
Vayeilech: Be strong and open your heart

The beginning of change: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning

ChangeRosh Hashanah is often translated as "head of the year." That translation isn't incorrect. Of course rosh means head, and shanah means year. The headwaters of a river are where the river begins, and the head of the year is where the year begins. But Hebrew is a deep language. Words that share roots are variations on a theme. And because of that, "Rosh Hashanah" also has a deeper meaning.

My friend and teacher Rabbi Marcia Prager, the dean of the ALEPH Ordination Program, wrote a book called The Path of Blessing. (That book is in our congregational library.) In The Path of Blessing, she dedicates a whole chapter to each of six Hebrew words: ברוך אתה ה׳ אלוהינו מלך העולם / Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha'olam.

How could one possibly have that much to say about each of those little words? Because of how Hebrew works, each word is a linguistic hyperlink to a cluster of other words in ways that radically deepen our sense of what a word means. Here's a tiny taste. How would you translate baruch?

Maybe you're thinking "blessed." As in, "Blessed are You, Adonai our God..." But baruch also relates to berech, knee. That means baruch can suggest a posture of willingness to be humble before the person to whom I am speaking. Baruch also relates to breicha, a flowing fountain. So baruch can suggest both the cosmic flow of abundance, and the flow of spiritual life. This is why Reb Marcia often translates "Baruch atah" as "A Fountain of Blessings are You..."

Just as baruch holds hints of berech and breicha, hints of bending the knee in grateful humility and drinking from the fountain of divine abundance, shanah holds hints of another word in its word-root family tree: shinui, which means change.

Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of change.

I've known this linguistic teaching for years. But it speaks to me in a new way this year, my first Rosh Hashanah as someone whose marriage has ended. That's a pretty profound change.

Here are some things I have learned about change since the last time I stood before y'all to offer a high holiday sermon.

Change can feel good. Have you ever had the experience of going into a department store and being fitted for something, and even though you thought you knew what size you needed, the expert salesperson recognized that you would be better off in a different size? In cases like those, change can be a relief.

But more often, change is hard. Change is uncomfortable. Even if it turns out you need a narrower shoe than you thought, your feet are probably accustomed to the way your old sneakers fit, and new shoes can rub blisters.

Change takes some getting-used-to. Every kid in this room just started a new grade, and even if you're at the same school you attended last year, there are new rhythms and new expectations. Bumping up against those can be awkward and disconcerting.

Change involves risk. You buy a new car and then discover you don't like how the back-up camera works, or you can't get the seat adjusted exactly the way you want it, or it isn't quite what you imagined. Or you leave a job and then discover you don't like the new one, or retirement doesn't agree with you the way you expected.

Change goes hand-in-hand with loss. Maybe you liked the way things were, and then they changed. You liked kindergarten, and now first grade is overwhelming. You liked your old haircut, and now the new one feels strange. You liked the way a friendship used to function, and now it isn't supporting you the way it used to. Or: maybe you didn't like the way things were, but now that they've changed, you miss what used to be. It wasn't perfect, but it was familiar, and now that familiarity is gone.

Change is inevitable. Authentic spiritual life requires us to be open to change. Because change is always happening, whether we want it to or not.

I adore my son, who's going on seven. There are times when I wish I could live an eternity with this version of my kid, who is sweet and funny and thoughtful and surprising. He won't always want to cuddle with me before bed and sing the shema and the angel song. He won't always look up to me the way he does now. But the only way to freeze a life in time is, God forbid, to end it. As long as we live, we're changing.

Our relationships change. Sometimes that's truly dramatic -- two people decide to marry, or to end a marriage. Sometimes it's subtle -- a friendship slowly disintegrates, or slowly deepens and becomes something rich and new.

Our emotional lives change. We move through periods of grief and periods of joy. When life feels sweet, it's natural to want to hold on to that sweetness. And when life feels bitter, it's natural to yearn for a life that's "better than this." That may be especially true when the bitterness afflicts someone whom we love, because watching a loved one suffer can be harder than suffering ourselves. When life hurts, the promise of change can bring hope. When life is sweet, the promise of change can feel threatening. But either way, the fact of change isn't optional.

Some changes are one's own decision. Maybe you've chosen in the last year to begin a relationship, or to end one. To try to get pregnant, or to stop trying. To begin a new job, or to leave the job you had. But even when we choose change, we don't get to choose how that change feels, or whether it's difficult sometimes. (Pro tip: there is no change that isn't difficult sometimes.)

Other changes aren't up to us. The loss of health, of a job, of a partner, of a cherished personal story about who we thought we were and what we thought our lives would be -- these may happen to us, with or without our consent.

Whether change is pursued, or foisted upon us, here's what we do get to choose: whether to fight change, or to embrace it and flow with it. It may seem as though the opposite of change is comfort and familiarity. But the opposite of change is stasis, and ultimately stasis is death. If we're alive, we're changing. We don't get to choose not to change.

But we do get to choose how gracefully we allow change to shape us. When change comes, we can choose to let it make us more brittle, or we can choose to deepen our resilience.  When change comes, we can choose anger and fear, or we can choose to renew faith and trust. When change comes and we feel a sense of loss, we can choose to resist it, or we can choose to let it flow through until a newfound sense of freedom lifts us up.

Many years ago my oldest brother sent me a card featuring a quote from the Japanese poet Mizuta Masahide: "My barn having burned down, I found I could see the moon."

Here's what that quote isn't, for me. It isn't a suggestion that loss is "good for us." (Oh, your barn burned down, that's great, now you can experience the gift of losing all of your possessions!) It isn't a suggestion that change and loss happen because we did something bad. (Oh, your barn burned down, it must be because you didn't take good enough care of your woodstove.)

What I love about the quote from Mizuta Masahide is the reminder that change has the capacity to open our hearts. Change can open us to recognizing new blessings, even if they come in unexpected guises. Change can open us to recognizing new facets of ourselves, even if we think we already know who we are.

This morning's Torah reading is a story of profound change. Hagar is cast out of Avraham's tent. She and her son are sent into the desert, and when their water-skin is empty, she despairs. But an angel speaks to her and tells her not to fear, that God sees her and her son where they are, and her eyes are opened to a life-saving spring.

Hagar lets her emotions and her tears flow. Maybe that's why she's able to hear the angel who gives her hope: because she isn't closed-off, she's letting herself feel. Change comes with all kinds of emotions. Like Hagar, our task is to let ourselves feel -- and to be open to the voice of the angel: to our friends and loved ones, to unexpected kindness from a stranger, to startling coincidence, to the opening of a new door.

It's Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of change. Will you let life change you this year? Will you let change enliven you?

What would it feel like to be more fully alive? If the opposite of change is stasis, which is death, then if we choose the opposite of stasis -- and embrace change -- we move toward a richer and fuller life. Not rich in the sense of dollars and cents, but rich in self-discovery.

What would it feel like to let go of your expectations for who you'll be in 5777, and instead open yourself to the flow of your own unfolding? Stasis is impossible. Stasis is the barn that has always already burned down. We can't hold on to yesterday. But if we open our hands, we can receive the changes of tomorrow.

What would it feel like to let go of attachment to what was, and to truly open our hearts to change? Our barn having burned down, can we learn to rejoice in the light of the new moon that is just beginning to shine?


Also posted to my congregational blog.