Sermon for Day 2 of Rosh Hashanah by Rabbi Mark Melamut
For many of us the New Year is a mix of emotions. It can be a swirl of anticipation, anxiety, awe, and expectation, a feeling as if we are being turned inside out or even upside down on our own Rosh, on our own heads, as another year passes and another begins. In the mix for some may be sadness for loved ones lost along the way, as we think of them not being here to celebrate with us today. Fear may be present, as we face our future or the great unknown. Anger and frustration may also make their way to the forefront, as we reflect on the injustices of the past year. I can only guess that these are just the tip of the iceberg, as each of our own internal drives is unique, forming together as a community an entire emotional galaxy. But, where would we be without joy? When we acknowledge what’s present for us on our insides, we let down our guard, our outsides become more visible and vulnerable, and then, we grow. This is a crucial part of what happens on the inside, under the surface, so to speak, or in a spiritual dimension, as we plug our external drives or memory cards into the Rosh Hashanah experience.
It wasn’t the meltdown in the Dallas, Texas airport this summer with Geffen literally lying down at the busy entrance to the airport bathroom, throngs of eager passengers rushing by and needing to find immediate relief. It wasn’t his child’s pose full body stretch out in that spot, really of all the places in an airport to lie down. It wasn’t even my tossing Kinneret’s various balls of colored yarn across the top of the car in anger and frustration to the kids’ protest and refusal to buckle their seat belts after an afternoon of Boston heat (and a pleasant ride in the Swan Boats and a beer at Cheers to boot). It wasn’t these that turned me inside out, but rather the Pixar movie of the same name.
Among our summer adventures and family time, note, we no longer call this vacation, because vacation implies relaxation, we always include a couple of family movies, both for the kids and for us to give us all a break. Like many others I kind of saw the Pixar movie “Inside Out” this summer. By kind of saw what I mean is that for our family to venture out to the movies really means that we all sit and munch popcorn, and I, because it’s just one of my many abba roles, get the popcorn refill when it’s needed (btw, the popcorn refill is the only way to really get your money’s worth at the movies). I also take the kids to the bathroom when it’s appropriate. I had seen enough of the movie between my four intermissions to learn it’s about a young family with an 11 year old daughter named Riley who picks up to move from Minnesota to San Francisco. I saw enough to know that it’s something I could relate to on a few levels. I saw enough to witness Hayley crying, to see other Moms’ and Dads’ tears, and to feel a certain tug on my kishkes, a butterfly flurry, or, as we say, flutterbyes in my insides.
It was enough to make me venture out again, one late night for a rare treat, a 9:45pm late showing of Inside, Out, and I had the theatre to myself. Funny the way that themes come back, but I really enjoyed holding on to that family size gigantic bucket, bucket of popcorn that is, and not having to share it with anyone. Was this selfish or just good self care? Turns out I didn’t miss any of the movie this go around and didn’t even need to get up to refill the bucket. You could say that in many ways my bucket was not just full but overflowing. What was it about this movie’s smart and animated characterization of the brain’s emotions that we all share that was so moving? Was there any connection to Jewish life?
Before I go any further, I want to let you inside of my head for just a moment. You don’t want to be there any longer than that; I’m a rabbi after all. Suffice it to say that people seem to tell me all kinds of stuff. Which, by the way, is one of the reason’s I love being a rabbi, really. Whenever I see movies, they tend to end up being understood through some sort of Jewish lens. It’s just hard to turn off. To me, Jewish themes seem to be embedded in the very nature and fabric of the universe. Is it just me? Sometimes this can ruin a movie experience, because often I just want to sit back and enjoy a night “off.” And, sometimes it can enhance a movie, as I’m able to bring my life experience to the screen. I’ve come to understand this as part occupational hazard, along with the ever present reality of food at every place, meeting, and gathering that a rabbi appears, but also part of mostly just being who I am. This late night out at the movies was different though because I went back to the movie for the explicit purpose of seeing it for myself and mining it for its Jewish and emotional themes. Back to the movie and its themes in a moment. First, a couple of previews.
For those of you for whom this is your fiftieth Rosh Hashana in the congregation, welcome back to your High Holy days at B’nai Emunah. For those who are newer, who’ve been a couple of times this year or for whom this is your first time, welcome to the community where we really do strive not just to know your name, but to know you and to honor your Jewish journey. I want you to know that I’m here as your personal Rabbi in order to serve you and to partner with you along your Jewish path, wherever you’ve been, wherever you are now, and wherever you set your Jewish Waze or GPS. As our pilots sometimes say, I know you have a choice and I thank you for flying with us into this New Year. Together with Cantor Linda, we both welcome you, as the big screen of the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, now lies in front of each of us. We invite you to sit back, relax and participate, and enjoy as well.
I’d like to take this moment to thank all of those who support the community. Your names fill up the credits, literally, and we all credit you, as we couldn’t do any of this without your community support. A special thank you goes to the entire board. You provide strong leadership and eager dedication, and you sacrifice tons of personal time and energy to keep the credits rolling, to produce authentic Jewish community, and to make the magic happen! A special thank you goes to Shais, who is not merely surviving but thriving in his first holiday season with us as our superstar administrator.
By the way, how many of you have been to the movie theatre by yourselves? I mentioned doing this to my mom the other day and she said she had never done it before. I took it for granted that this was something that many do, but come to find out it’s a little more uncommon than I had thought. It’s dark, quiet other than the movie, a little lonely feeling, very deliberately not social, but relaxing and fun. After all, as I mentioned, I have that bucket of popcorn all to myself, and it’s way more than I need.
With our previews over the movie finally begins. The camera zooms in on Riley, an eleven year old who relocates with her parents from Minnesota to San Francisco. We are introduced to her from the inside out, as the cameras transport us into her mind to meet her five emotions. These are represented by five animated characters: joy, sadness, fear, disgust, and anger, which are not only Riley’s primary emotions but ours as well. Along the way we learn that Riley’s brain, and all of ours, works in part by storing core memories which power our islands of personality. These are the essential make up of who each of us is. Riley’s islands, or personality composition, is comprised of enjoying being goofy and having fun, family, friendship, honesty, and hockey. By extension each of us also has our own core memories that make us who we are as individuals, and collectively, the Jewish people. Among us, our core memories include mishpacha/family, y’tziat mitzrayim/freedom from Egypt, food, music, humor, welcoming the stranger, taking care of the needy, and tikkun olam, just to name a few.
As Riley moves with her family to San Francisco, sadness begins to intrude and take over her world. She leaves friends behind and misses her home and how things used to be. Sadness interrupts her heretofore pretty happy life, and joy, the character who represents Riley’s most common emotion, gets upset. Joy doesn’t like crying and sadness and draws a circle to try to isolate sadness from intruding and eroding the core memories of joy. Sadness protests in a very wise way, saying, “but crying helps me slow down and not obsess over life’s problems.” The inside of Riley’s brain is referred to by the emotional characters as HQ, headquarters, the local site and seat of all of our emotions. To summarize, sadness begins to take over, and joy fights back to keep this from happening.
In a moment of deep truth we remember that at the core each of us as parents or grandparents, as loving partners and friends, we really just want for our loved ones and ourselves to be happy. Sadness and joy go on a journey together and anger takes over. As you can guess, without these two in the driver’s seat, and anger left in control, well, things don’t go so well. Riley fights with her parents, steals from them, and eventually decides to run away.
Joy and, by extension, the audience, finally learn that sadness is a real part of life that can’t be cut off from life’s experience. Even more than that, it is both sadness and joy together, sort of like two sides of a coin, that comprise life’s actually lived experience, rather than some sort of artificial smile. For some, allowing sadness a seat at the table evokes tears. For others, it’s the scrolling through of the bygone memories of childhood and life’s passing by so fast that brings us to tears. Images and snapshots of life project on the screens of little life bubbles, some of which are stored and some of which disappear never to be accessible again. On one end of the spectrum we watch as our kids and grandkids grow up so fast and on the other end we say goodbye to friends, colleagues and family. What does this mean for us in practical terms today? It means that it’s ok to tear up on Rosh Hashana and it’s ok to feel joy at Yom Kippur. This is natural. To try and make ourselves fit into a black and white box is to ignore the grey shades we call life. At the movie’s conclusion, Riley is able to reveal her sadness to her parents about missing home and she says she thought that they didn’t want her to be sad. Then comes the family moment, the huddle together, as her parents acknowledge that they too miss home, and life as it was. And then, after a moment, we watch as Riley’s frown is turned upside down, and joy finally returns.
Tugging on my heart strings, beyond the family moments, is the statement that sadness and adversity are parts of life. They are also a part and parcel of true joy. Zooming inside out to Jewish life and ritual, doesn’t the ritual of a Jewish wedding make the same statement? That is, as a bride and groom or groom and groom or bride and bride come together in sacred relationship and covenant, they enter into the holiest and joyous moments of life, yet, what happens at the end of every ceremony? What ritual is included no matter what, at even the least traditional of Jewish weddings? At the end of the wedding, we break a glass. On this, the most joyous Jewish occasion, we don’t end with blessing or wine or even food. Rather, we smash a glass into pieces. Why? In order to remember, to touch that core memory of a sacred place once destroyed and of the brokenness that still is part of the fabric of the reality of living in this world. There are of course challenges to this, where joy prevents any intrusion, like with Shabbat and mourning for example. Jewish law during a shiva period for the loss of life prohibits public mourning on Shabbat and requires the mourner to remain at home rather than intrude upon the oneg and joy of Shabbat. Like joy in the movie, joy compartmentalizes sadness, drawing a circle or fence around it, to be acknowledged at another point in time.
At the end of the day, or should I say at the beginning of the year, we also aim to make our outside like our inside. What does this mean? It means that we make a renewed effort to pair them well together. We aim for an integrated whole and achieve it by acting in a way that what we do is what we say and what we say is what we do.
Returning to the theme of joy, we can locate in our lives, as in the movie, joyous times that are both preceded and followed by moments of sadness. I stand before you today in full joy of the New Year, even while remembering that at this time yesterday morning I was officiating at the funeral of a friend’s father who had a stroke and just two days before that I returned from a memorial of a friend who didn’t even make it to 40. Our joy has to include our tears, because that is what is real in life. Whether they’re tears of sadness, or longing for what was, or nostalgia, or loss, or memory, we just can’t go back. In the song “The Circle Game” we sing “….we’re captured on a carousel of time, we can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came and go round and round and round in the circle game.” And it’s hard not to be able to go back… but that’s the very same place from which something is created anew on Rosh Hashana, the very same place from which joy will be able to flow. It is a mitzvah to be in a state of joy. We say “mitzvah g’dolah lihiyot b’simcha!” It is a mitzvah, a commandment, to be in a state of joy. But, this isn’t “an ignorance is bliss” kind of joy. Rather, it is a joy that confronts and even integrates into its tapestry all of the threads of life. Even the word “joy” has this complexity built into it. Think about it for a moment. Just delete the “J.” It’s as if any Jewish expression of joy has to be comprised of some oy.
Where do we see this played out but in the drama of Shabbat ritual, as we all huddle in together in the Shabbat Torah service each and every week of our lives, and in the Torah service of our holidays. If we zoom in to the end of the Torah service, where we literally just were, we find the phrase we sing so beautifully as we return the Torah to the ark, “hashiveinu Adonai elecha v’nashuva hadeish yameinu k’kedem.” Return us, O G-d, to You, and we will return. Renew our lives as they were before, or renew our lives as they used to be, or renew our lives as in days of old. On this theme of teshuva and return, we’ll return, next week at Yom Kippur. For now, if we just skip two lines back in that same liturgy, in that same ritual of returning the Torah to the ark, we find the phrase we need for today. We find today’s Rosh Hashanah crackerjack prize. [magnet handout]
When we sing etz hayim hi, we are comparing the Torah to a tree of life, and saying, “climb on my branches, taste my fruits, see the world, even build your home here.” Life flows here with a golden honey-like a sap that is just waiting to be enjoyed. Its melody is a blend of emotions, like the emotions we spoke of today. We sing that “It is not only a Source of Life but a Source of Joy,” a place of m’ushar, connected to the Hebrew word, “osher,” or the familiar, “ashrei,” happiness or joy. How do we get It? How can we find that happiness or place of joy? What does It look like? It is a joy that is colored by the experience of life, literally rooted in the very nature of being that is planted in our existence, and we find it by simply connecting to It. We plug into It, we study It, and like our mobile devices, our spiritual batteries run low if we don’t plug in. How do we know if we got It? We simply feel It in our hearts and we experience Its full range of emotions. Sung together as a community, there is nothing like It and no replacement or alternative social media that connects like It does. Practice It at home and along your way, b’shivtecha b’veitecha uvlechtecha vaderech, when you’re inside and when you’re out, when you’re at home and when you’re out and about, meet up and connect with this powerful Jewish mantra. Add Its magnet to your fridge, car door or anything it will stick to, just as long as you see it and remember that no matter what, It is a source of life and joy.
Tradition teaches us that life is so busy and goes by so fast that, like anything we care about, we have to make the time for It. We have to make our time to connect, to study, to engage, we have to make it a fixed time, otherwise it just doesn’t happen. Someone wiser than me said, “life is what happens to us while we’re busy making other plans.” This Rosh Hashanah I invite you to place in your and your family’s core memory the notion that we are partners in the motion of making It a tree of life. Just as we need It for sustenance and joy, It, being the Torah and anything we hold sacred and important in this one shot at life, It needs us, for Its vitality.
It is a source of life and joy not by accident but by design, and all we need to do to connect to It, is to plug in, to plug into the flow and to connect to the wifi of life, the lifi, if you will. The password is out. You hold it in your hands and it’s already inside each and every one of us. From the outside in and the inside out, Rosh Hashana is our invitation. So, go ahead, grab on to a branch, pluck a fruit, and dance around the trunk. Climb up into its canopy for some perspective or to gaze upon the eternal horizon. Mourn with It by your side and meditate upon Its meaning. Celebrate your simcha and sing in Its shade, grieve under Its growth, and play and pray under Its leaves. Root yourself firmly in the reality of being, and grow and flow into the life force that animates the universe and gives vitality to everything. I promise you, if you reach out for It now, at the beginning of our New Year, you will find not just a Tree but a beautiful and complete forest full of true and complete Joy!