Rabbi’s Drashot for High Holy days 5784
Rabbi Alicia Magal
Jewish Community of Sedona and the Verde Valley
“Tell me a story” – What does that phrase bring to your mind? Memories of a parent telling you stories about when they were young? Fanciful tales of fairies, princes, dragons, and super-heroes? Quiet nighttime reading of a bedtime story? Our granddaughters recently visited and when I told them the story of Miriam, the sister of Moses, and how she and her mother put him in a basket and set him in the reeds of the Nile River, and how Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him but let him be nursed by his own mother until he was weaned, they asked me to read the story again, and then again. Why? They were soaking up the story of how a little girl could speak up to the Pharaoh, to her father, to grownups, and make a change in history. At the end they asked me, “Is it true story?” And how could I answer that? Well, it is in the Bible, our holy book, and is a traditional story of our Jewish history and ancestors. It has meaning and helps us live our lives in a holy way and teaches us ways to make the world a better place. So, I cannot say if it is historically true, but it is real and meaningful and important.
As I was preparing for these High holy days, I kept thinking about how much the girls loved to hear stories, about when their mother, our daughter, was a little girl, about the very different landscape and animals they saw here in the Arizona mountains, and how even as we get older we still love a good story. Our brains are wired for stories. We love examples and case histories rather than just a dry theoretical text about psychology, but rather a historical novel, or an intriguing magazine spread with pictures. Our Torah is filled with stories that inspire us, challenge us, and invite us to discuss and figure out ways to make the lessons relevant to our lives.
Those of you who have been coming to Torah study have been taking in these stories in a deep way and finding the lessons about relationships, and emotions, and gratitude, and dealing with choices which enable you to deal with actual problems and situations in your own lives.
So, during these high Holy Days, Tonight, tomorrow on Rosh Hashanah, and then next Sunday and Monday, on Yom Kippur, I will be asking questions about the stories we tell— those we tell others, and those we even tell ourselves. How do we make sense of the thousands upon thousands of events and encounters in our daily life and pull out just those moments to “edit” into the story of who we are and how we behave with others?
Remember that sopher, sphira, lispor, sippur… the story and the counting all have a common root in Hebrew… as well as in English so we say what counts as we recount our story.
What counts as important or interesting or colorful enough to tell someone else, to write in a journal, to post online on Facebook or Instagram, or turn into a book?
What deeds, what generous acts, what missing of the mark and less than kind words have we left as a record of this past year? What weight do the good deeds have as balanced against our misdeeds? What is written in the Book of Life about us? I don’t think there is a heavenly scroll that someone else is writing, but rather, our words and actions create their own record, and if we look at them honestly, we see where we might have done better, and where we truly want to make amends and write a new chapter starting now.
During these Ten Days of Awe, we look into the mirror and honestly face our reflection. I invite each of us to reflect on the past year and write down what title you would give your Story of the Past Year? Jot down a few phrases that you often say in telling your story. Consider what you may have regretted over the past year, or overlooked, or wish you had done better. Then end with what title you would like to give to your life story for the next year as a goal to keep in mind as you make your choices. If you wish to send me an email I will include some of your words in my Yom Kippur drash, without any identifying names or specifics.
Tell me as story. Please. Review your year, your wishes, aspirations, growth, challenges, surprises…. And know that your story is continuing and it is fascinating and worthy. You don’t have to compare yourself to anyone else. We will read the story of our ancient beginnings tomorrow, and will continue our prayers and songs and readings so that we enter a safe space of honesty and deep connection with our soul, with each other, and with the Holy Presence. Let our story unfold, and let us keep telling it.
Shabbat shalom and wishes for a Shana Tovah, a good year.
Rosh Hashanah Day 1, Saturday morning, September 16, 2023.
This year I am looking at the stories we tell about what is important or interesting or dramatic in our lives. And what weight we give to some scenes or experiences over others.
There is a definite relationship between a story and counting. How is that?
The Hebrew root samech, peh, resh gives rise to many meanings: sefer is a book, sopher is a scribe, lispor is to count, lesaper is to tell, sippur is a story. Our group is gathering at people’s homes to discuss articles in the publication Sapir, which is related to sapphire, that divine stone that is described as under the throne of God. How are these words all related?
“I am going to ask you a lot of questions. Questions are invitations to uncover YOUR stories. In my teachings, there will be at least one question that resonates, disturbs or awakens a truth for you. Put that question onto your heart and hold it through these Yamim Noraim, Days of Awe.”
What do we count as most important? What stories do we tell about ourselves and about the most important events in our lives? What do we count and how do we recount the tales? In English as well there is this connection – counting and recounting.
We talk about doing heshbon hanefesh. An accounting of our souls. In looking back on this past year, what stories stand out? What counts most in our vision of how we want our life to unfold? How do we count the ways in which we achieved our goals or missed the mark and have regrets? What is the accounting we must now make? During this time of heshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of the soul. What might be written for us in sefer ha-chayim, the Book of Life? We will reflect together on these themes during the Days of Awe.
On the front table in the lobby we have a basket full of our own version of the Book of Life in which you can write about what regrets you have and what vision you hold for the coming year. I have filled out one of these for the past 20 years. Watch out for expectations… This year I went to look at some of the past ones to see if I had made much progress, and to my shock I saw that they had been placed near the window on my desk where there had been a leak at some point during the year, and the ink had washed away leaving only a few words legible.
At first I was so disappointed, but then I took it as a sign. I had to switch from “How could this happen?” To “Let go of past issues and concentrate on right now. Don’t hold on to old patterns, I can choose new ways to express myself and react to triggers that used to get me upset.” I’m not perfect in that effort, and still react with a scream if I drop or break something… but I’m quick to say, “I’m ok, I’m ok.” Because Itzhak comes running every time I yell out. He thinks I’ve cut off a finger.
So this year I started fresh, not looking back but answering the questions as I see myself now.
Right now. Today. What is special about today? This is Shabbat as well as Rosh Hashanah. In traditional synagogues they do not blow the shofar on Shabbat because of carrying, but we have it here and we do have a shofar service. To me and to many of my colleagues it is very important to those who come to one day of rosh Hashanah, even if it falls on Shabbat that we hear the blasts of the ram’s horn, that wake up call that cuts through all the words on the page and grabs us, and also with the broken notes, sounds like our own calls, our sobbing, or broken hearted plea to be forgiven and to become whole again. That is why the very last note is a very long tone that carries us to a place of connection with our soul and gives us a feeling of satisfaction. When I was a child I thought that the longer the last note of the shofar, the more souls would be alive in the coming year.
Maybe that’s superstition, but it led me to hold my breath when Rabbi Shwartz blew that shofar, back in White Plains, NY, and it thrills me now, when my husband Itzhak blows that shofar that he and Dan Cohen chose in Jerusalem, and that Dan gifted us. It is a moment that counts and touches us. And therefore, becomes part of the story I tell.
It is a reminder of the ram in the thicket that was substituted for Isaac when Abraham thought he would have to offer his son, but the angel stopped his hand and insisted that sacrificing children was not required as in the surrounding nations of the ancient middle east. It is a great, complex, troubling, yet redemptive story, and makes its point strongly, much better than if there was simply a line about not hurting your children. It got the attention of those in the ancient world who heard it, and it stops us today when we read and discuss the Story of the binding of Isaac.
What stories do you tell about obstacles that you overcame or moments of enlightenment and openings that you share with others? I encourage you to write to me on my email or through the office email both some experience that was difficult and also one that uplifted and enabled you to see with greater vision and clarity.
We are supposed to treasure each day, and make each day count, as in Psalm 90. Let the blasts of the shofar and music of our prayers today open your heart and allow you to enter into this new year with a new perspective on what counts and what you wish to recount as important.
Shabbat shalom and may we all be written into the Book of Living Fully in the coming year.
Kol Nidre, Erev Yom Kippur. Sunday, September 24, 2023
Yom Kippur is a time of taking account of our words and deeds over the past year. And then… how do we weigh the positive mitzvot, good deeds against the less -than-admirable times we missed the mark? Maimonides writes that a Jew must view himself and the entire world as equally balanced between good and evil, and that our every word, thought, and action can have a tremendous impact. In that way, we would consider that the very next action we take will tip the scales either way, toward blessing and aliveness or toward disconnectedness and separateness from our soul path.
“Each person with all of their being and doing determines the fate of the world in a measure unknowable to them and all others….”
Buber, Hasidism and Modern Man
At the end of the secular year when we prepare our tax return, we look for tax deductions, those things worthy of giving us credit. At the Jewish new year, we review our past year and that accounting is quite different… we look to add up our mitzvahs, and receive forgiveness for the ways in which our soul got into debt, so we can start off new and whole, not owing or being owed, a clean slate.
We are dressed in white; the Torah mantles are all white, and if we can fast or reduce our normal level of food nourishment, we attain to be a bit like the angels, and be nourished by our prayers, our sense of community, this time of connection through many generations of our ancestors singing, Kol Nidre, asking for forgiveness, shedding tears of true repentance. This is a time of teshuvah, of returning to a path we once walked, but strayed and took detours in the forest of everyday upsets and emotional reactions.
Our inner compass is reset toward the true north of compassion and kindness.
This theme I have during these High Holy Days of accounting for ourselves and then recounting our stories, brings us to a bottom line, not of money spent or invested or loaned or lost, but rather a top line of mitzvot that add up to our highest, best selves. When we ask in our prayers Selach lanu mechal lanu, kaper lanu, we are requesting that through our sincere regret and choice to act better, our missing of the mark and less than holy actions be forgiven, wiped clean, erased.
The Book of Life is open, and who knows what is written there for us in the coming year? But the Book of Living Fully, in which we ourselves have been making entries all year, especially when no one was looking and we weren’t getting any public credit, well, that book is a reflection of the story we ourselves have authored. Our personal Sefer Torah, the story of our teaching. Please take the time to write in our little Book of Life (show the blue booklets with the seal on the back to peel off), and see what regrets, hurts, challenges you need to document. And then also inscribe the affirmations of your hopes and better choices you intend for the coming year.
Over the past week several of you have made amends and asked for forgiveness from each other. I too want to ask most sincerely that you forgive me for anything I might have said, or for neglecting to be present in your time of need. Let’s open a new page and start a new chapter together on this holiest of days.
May we all be written in the Book of Living fully for a sweet new year.
Yom Kippur day, Monday, September 25, 2023
Throughout these Ten Days of Awe we have been making an accounting of our souls – Heshbon HaNefesh – weighing and taking account of our deeds: making a true effort to repair any hurts we caused.
Part of making reparations is aiming to respond in more positive and affirming ways in the future. I say aim because cheyt, the word for sin is really “missing the mark,” and just like in archery or any sport, we practice to increase our aim to reach the goal more accurately. Let’s aim better and get closer to the bull’s eye.
In our morning prayers we say each day, “The soul You have given me is pure.” But through inattention or impatience or anger we can cover over and muddy up that clear connection with our highest self. All through these services I’ve kept two copper bowls on the table and haven’t mentioned why they are there.
My father, Alfred Fleissig of blessed memory, gave three copper bowls to my mother after they were married in 1946. Copper was my father’s specialty as a metallurgical engineer. She couldn’t use them for cooking because vinegar or lemon or other foods would discolor the copper. So she kept them as a decoration for many years. I gave the middle one to my friend Eve Ilsen who had known my father and appreciated this loving link to our family when she married Reb Zalman Shachter Shalomi many years ago. She says she looks at it where it is displayed every time she enters her office and gets a little “hit” of loving connection, in her words.
Over time, copper oxidizes and gets dark and looks dull. This week I polished the larger one to return it to its original shine and sparkle. OK, there are a few dents and spots, but really it looks almost like new…
So it is with our souls! After the work of these Days of Awe and Repentance and affirmations, our souls feel shiny and renewed.
When we call out “Selach lanu, mechal lanu, caper lanu,” one could translate that plea as “Forgive us, pardon us, and wipe our slate clean.” We want to finish the long day of Yom Kippur all shiny and returned to our original state of purity, well almost, but with more experience and understanding, so we can evolve to a new level of compassionate response and not just revolve into old patterns.
Several of you wrote to me about your stories, your “accounts,” of the past year, and I was very moved to see how genuinely you wish show more patience and understanding in the coming year. Despite great challenges, you have come to a place of joy and gratitude.
Here are just a few excerpts from some of the stories you shared:
One member related that her son had a remarkable recovery from a severe illness and was able to avoid needing an organ transplant, and is now able to live a healthy, active life. She got to take an amazing trip filled with exciting adventures. In addition she took a leadership training course which has led to a new job and possibly a move to a desired city that would be the place for retirement in a few years. All in all, these experiences have left her with a huge sense of gratitude.
Another member shared a very moving story. I’ll just quote an excerpt:
I was diagnosed with a serious cancer that required surgery, after which there were difficult complications. I had to learn a whole new way of being, since for the first time I was not in control. Here was a whole new chapter: Asking for help, making new friends, connecting with family in a way that I had been taking for granted, depending on my spouse who had to do so many things for me, accepting this huge loss of control and of being in charge, and dealing with being just downright furious about what was happening to me. I am now on a positive road to recovery. My relationship with God has shifted from assuming that Presence in my life to active prayers, meditations, and private conversations in my garden. My circle of friends has increased, and I feel completely blessed and in a constant state of gratitude that I have gotten to come back with a very full heart and so much love to give and receive.
Another member shared that he was mourning the deaths of four close friends; He said: “The tears flow trying to wash away the pain, which will continue. And yet…
Looking back at the old year is not an option, I’m looking forward toward a better year with my eyes wide open!”
And a long time member wrote: “[I was on a] journey of exploration, researching other services – even in other countries. Like Dorothy I searched everywhere but home. I always was clear that I wanted to support a Jewish presence in Sedona (and the world) and am grateful for the miracle of inner peace I received through finding the awareness that JCSVV is truly my place.”
And several of you have shared with me that despite hurts and upsets, you have come to a place of compassion regarding relationships with other people. We will never fully agree with everyone. That’s not possible and not a realistic goal, but we can be curious rather than critical, and we can soften our judgments and avoid instant reactions, so that we reduce angry interactions. Rather, we can rise to a state of kindness and compassion, so that ties are not cut off but rather strengthened.
Whatever your story about the past year, I pray that by the end of this evening’s closing service we will all feel ready to take on new challenges with a sense of hope, and with positive, life-affirming energy.
Use this whole day of fasting and reflection, and even if you cannot fast from food, try fasting from technology and distractions that feed our impatience. Take time to read from some of the books I’ve placed on the table downstairs in our library, or come to the discussion led by Paul Friedman about Judaism’s Ten Best Ideas, or just rest and reflect on your soul work in the world. It is a grand gift and adventure being alive in the span given to us. This is a reminder not to waste a moment, but rather to seek to improve relationships among people, and to bring our talents, gifts, and our very presence as our unique gift to our family, to our circle of friends, to this community, and to our wider connections.
May each one of us be written and sealed in the Book of Living Fully in the coming year.