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Why on earth are we here?

Why on earth are we here? You may think I'm joking, or perhaps just trying to wake you up from your slumber. Well, in part perhaps I am. But seriously, I am asking the question: "Why on earth are we here?" Are we here because it's what we've always done? Are we here because it's expected of us? Are we here because we were forced to come? Are we here so we can be seen? Are we here so we can see others? Or are we here because we feel like our souls are on the line and we need to pray with everything we've got?

I would guess that most of us are here for a number of reasons. But my hunch is that most of us would not say at first that we are here because of the existential crisis we are facing in our lives or because our souls are on the line. And yet, on some deep level I believe that we all think exactly this. We may not realize it, but there is a reason beyond the social and communal aspects of today that draws us here each year. There is something that calls us to community and to prayer. The blast of the shofar may not be heard today because it is Shabbat, yet its call echoes within our collective spiritual unconscious nevertheless. But what are we called to do?

Simple. We have ten whole days to acknowledge all the wrongs that we have done during this past year. Ten days to seek forgiveness from others. Ten days to pray to God for atonement. Ten days to find the ability within us to forgive ourselves - which is usually the hardest part. Ten days. A piece of cake. Yeah - right. It took us each on entire year to write out the "wrap sheet" of our crimes and misdemeanors. Now in ten days we are meant to get rid of that wrap sheet - no matter how long it might be - and start with a clean slate. Of course, we could always throw it in the shredder and act like it doesn't exist. But if we do that we will be like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia chopping up the bewitched broom into a hundred pieces- each piece then coming to life and creating a new entity all its own, the sole purpose of which is to reek havoc. Heaping regret upon regret, sorrow up sorrow, guilt upon guilt, until we are so overwhelmed that we either drown or simply ignore what's going on within and around us.

We can't throw our list of transgressions into the shredder. We must erase them all - or at least try to. Yet it seems as if they are written with indelible ink. But nothing is truly indelible. There is always something able to erase the mark, remove the stain and make it appear almost as if it had never been there. This we are expected to do in a mere ten days. No easy feat! And perhaps it is the daunting nature of this task that often keeps us from engaging in it the way the tradition asks of us. It's not that we necessarily have missed the mark so many times this past year (although each of us probably has), but it's the fact that we're supposed to deal with all of this in a mere ten days in spite of the fact that most weeks we don't get half the things done that we had planned because of a perceived lack of time. Though we hear the shofar's call to Teshuvah, and we know deep within our souls that it's not merely what we're supposed to do - but what we must do - we give it lip service and instead focus on reconnecting with family, friends and community to celebrate a new year. I'm not negating the importance of this reconnecting, but it's not a reason to spend a total of two or three days in communal prayer! So this begs the question: "how do we make the process of Teshuvah more meaningful for us in such a short amount of time?" I believe that the answer to this question first requires us to acknowledge that this task is impossible. We can't do it all in ten days. Teshuvah needs to be a yearlong process. We need to look at ourselves every day and see what we need to change or what we need in order to seek forgiveness. But beyond that it would also help if we were to view the Ten Days of Teshuvah - the most intense time for this process - within a larger context.

In his new book "This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared," Rabbi Alan Lew does just that. In short he tells the reader we must each begin to look at this process as starting exactly seven weeks ago on Tisha B'Av. If you didn't go to Jewish summer camp, or have a more in-depth exposure to Jewish tradition you may not even know what Tisha B'Av is. Tisha B'av is the ninth day of the month of Av. It the day on which, tradition teaches, the first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians and the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans. This second destruction in the year 70 CE left the Jewish people without a homeland until the founding of Israel in 1948. But why start the process of Teshuva on Tisha B'Av, a day of mourning and the only complete fast day on the calendar other than Yom Kippur - and one of the most neglected holy days on our calendar?

In order to answer this question we have to look at what Tisha B'Av represents. For it is not just about the destruction of a building or a city, but it is about the utter decimation of our homeland and our home. One of the traditional names for the Temple in Jerusalem was simply "bayit" or "bayit ha'gadol" - "house" or the "great house." The Temple was our people's spiritual home. It was the center of our ancestors' existence. When the walls of the Temple crumbled around them, their home was destroyed before their very eyes. The people were left alone, without a sense of belonging, grounding, or safety. The world was suddenly a frightening and dangerous place in which to live. This, says Alan Lew, is where the spiritual journey of Teshuvah begins. We must begin by allowing the walls of our own spiritual houses to be torn down - and we must be a witness to it - if not a collaborator! The rabbis of the Talmud taught that the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans because there was so much infighting among the Jewish people that they could not work together in order to defend themselves. This may have been true, says Lew, but the greater reality is also that the Roman army was so powerful that no one would have been able to stop them. The Jewish sin of sinat hinam (senseless hatred) may have hastened the destruction, but the defeat was inevitable. For us the warring factions within our psyche and our spirit may hasten the destruction of our spiritual home but it is inevitable - and necessary - if we are to begin the work of Teshuvah. We must feel the sense of loss, the sense of being ungrounded, the sense that we are utterly alone and indefensible in order to begin rebuilding our lives. This is the role of Tisha b'Av in starting work of Teshuvah.

Of course, the reality is that we can also find ourselves frozen with fear once we realize that there is nothing protecting us any more. We can simply focus on the loss and never move ahead into the future. That is the danger of remembering. Though Zachor - remember is a central commandment of Judaism, if we remember only for remembering's sake and never allow ourselves to move out of the world of memory then we are doomed either to a life of stagnation or of unending repetitions. And so we move ahead. We have seven weeks. Seven - the number of creation. In seven weeks we must traverse the world of our psyche and our spirit, as well as the world of flesh and blood - friends, families, co-workers, acquaintances - and begin to recreate our world and ourselves. We must remember what we did that contributed to the destruction of our house and begin by forgiving ourselves. We must remember that at any given moment the choice that we make is often the only choice that we could have made at that moment. It may be difficult to accept that in hindsight - as most of us excel at second-guessing and criticizing our "bad" decisions after the fact. But the reality is that, given what was happening in our minds and our hearts - as well as around us - at any specific moment in time we made the only choice that we could. Now we must accept this while also accepting the consequences of our choices and then forgiving ourselves for being human. Only then can we do the essential work of seeking forgiveness from others. Once we have forgiven ourselves and sought forgiveness from those whom we have harmed, then we can say that God, the power that makes forgiveness possible, has also forgiven us. This is true even if the other person does not forgive us. For tradition teaches that our obligation and our duty is to seek forgiveness sincerely. If the other person chooses not to forgive us then it is as if the mark that was on our slate of transgressions is wiped clean and it now moves over to his/her slate as something that s/he needs to focus on when doing Teshuvah.

Now this may all seem a bit overwhelming, but I do believe that there is wisdom that can help us with this process and I would like to share it with you. Since I first started thinking about this sermon the closing line of the Avinu Malkeinu prayer kept playing in my mind. I knew that it needed to be in some ways the lynchpin of the sermon, but I was not sure how. This prayer, with its haunting melodic refrain, is one of the hallmarks of the Rosh Hashana liturgy. And yet we do not chant it today because we are taught that prayers that are direct petitions to God for help are not to be recited on Shabbat, a day that is to be dedicated to appreciating God and God's world. But even though we will not be singing it today, its sentiment is an essential part of the process of Teshuvah.

After chanting a litany of requests for God's assistance and forgiveness we end with the verse "Avinu Malkeinu, honeinu v'aneinu, ki ein banu ma'asim. Aseh imanu tzedakah v'hesed v'hoshiyanu." This is translated in our Mahzor as "Our Creator, Our Sovereign be gracious with us and respond to us, for we have no deeds to justify us; deal with us in righteousness and love, and save us now." Of course, all translation is commentary, but this modern, egalitarian, politically correct translation is similar to most of the traditional translations in intent. The Silverman Mahzor, with which many of us from Conservative backgrounds grew up, translates this as "Our Father, Our King, be Thou gracious unto us and answer us; for lo! We are unworthy; deal Thou with us in charity and loving-kindness and save us." It is this translation that troubled me from the moment when I first thought that I understood what it was saying. "God, please be good to us and answer our prayers even though we are worthless and undeserving. But please treat us with charity and kindness regardless of that fact and save us anyway." This was not a sentiment that I wanted to associate with my Judaism. I didn't want to accept the idea that Judaism believed that human beings are basically worthless. First of all, that contradicts the teaching that we are each created in God's image. Secondly, if we are basically worthless then why bother doing Teshuvah, since inevitably we're just going to mess up again.

In struggling with this verse I realized that the translation can also simply read "Our Parent, Our Sovereign, be gracious to us and answer us for there are no deeds within us." While struggling to find a new interpretation within me that could help me to understand and accept the underlying meaning of this prayer I came across Alan Lew's discussion of this verse in his book. Basically, what Lew (who is a long time practitioner of Zen Buddhism as well as a rabbi) says is that the verse means that no matter what deeds we have done, no matter how much preparation we have done for Teshuvah, when the moment arrives to face God, ourselves and those whom we have harmed we are utterly unprepared. It is as if we are completely empty. We have nothing in us. We are a spiritual tabula rasa. As the title of his book says "this is real, and you are completely unprepared." The act of Teshuvah is about as real as it gets, and no pre-planning or prior deeds can help us. It all goes out the window. The only thing that matters at that moment is that moment, itself and what we do with it. Our house has been laid waste. The constructs and facades on which we all build and rebuild our lives each and every day are gone. The ground beneath us has either disappeared or is constantly shifting. We only have ourselves and now we must do what we must do. This is also as frightening as it gets. But remember, the prayer is stated in the plural and must be chanted in community. So even though Teshuvah is ultimately an individual act, the fact that we are doing it in a communal context can give us strength.

So now that we've acknowledged our sense of emptiness and groundlessness, how do we go about doing the difficult work of Teshuvah? I would like to offer four pieces of advice that I hope will be helpful. I will call these the four essential truths of Teshuvah:

1. Life is difficult. Stop trying to deny this. Life can never be totally satisfying because everything is temporary and impermanent, even those things that seem indestructible, whether the ancient Temple in Jerusalem or the World Trade Center. Nothing lasts (which one could say is a mixed blessing). If we try to act like things are permanent then we are only going to make Teshuvah more difficult. The guilt and pain we feel will pass, as all things do - whether good or bad. Being mindful of this and acting from this place of understanding will enable us to seek forgiveness from ourselves, others and God.

2. Pain is an inevitable part of life because of this. Don't be afraid that confronting our mistakes will cause others or us pain. Pain is not something that we can ever avoid as human beings. However, we often add to the pain because of our inability to let go of habits, beliefs, patterns, thoughts, and feelings that keep us stuck in the past. It is our excessive attachment to these things and ideas, as well as our excessive thirsts and desires in life that cause us to suffer. Suffering is what keeps us frozen and prevents us from doing Teshuvah. If we never let go of the feelings that we felt as we watched our walls tumbling down around us or if we never stop pining for what we have lost then we will never be able to move on or to even think of building a new home for ourselves.

3. Inner peace and contentment is an achievable goal - regardless of what our internal voices and stories might tell us. But inner peace is not ultimately dependent upon external forces or circumstances. Just as we cause our own suffering through our habits and actions we are also the source of our own "cure." By using the power that is within each of our souls - that which we call God - to bring about our personal sense of forgiveness and redemption we can achieve peace - at least for the moment. Everlasting peace may be a fairy tale, but peace, contentment, and forgiveness are within us. If we only let go of these desires and thoughts that are causing us to suffer.

4. Finally, we must set down a path of action that will bring us back home to God, our souls and ourselves. This path is multi-faceted, but is ultimately the path of Teshuvah. Returning to the One. Returning to the community. Returning to ourselves. The ability to do this is within us and involves paying careful attention to what we think, say and do as we live life. Each of us may find a different way to walk the path, but walk it we must. We must walk it alone, but knowing that others are walking beside us, in front of us and behind us, with the Divine Presence embracing and comforting us as well.

Now some of you may be saying to yourselves, "Hmm, these seem similar to the four noble truths of Buddhism." And you are right. For these represent my Jewish understanding of the wisdom that Buddhism has to offer regarding how we live our lives. For I believe these truths not always to be self-evident, but I do believe that they are universally applicable (with slight variations from tradition to tradition).

Assuming that we accept these four truths, or some variation of them, how do we find this strength to walk the path? How do we connect with the Divine within us and use it to help us find forgiveness and peace? The key is to be found in the second part of the final verse of Avinu Malkeinu. "Aseh imanu tzedakah v'hesed v'hoshiyeinu." I will translate this verse as "Create with us tzedakah v'hesed - righteousness and abundant kindness - and bring us salvation." What we are imploring God to do in this verse is to work with us to create righteousness and justice, balanced by kindness and compassion, so that we can have the strength to walk the path towards salvation.

As Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionism, taught, salvation refers to those things for which people ultimately search: holiness, meaning, peace and the betterment of our world. In order to achieve individual, communal and worldly salvation, we begin with the Divine-human relationship. We begin by creating tzedakah and hesed together with God. Righteousness and justice with which to overcome our excessive desires and attachments, as well as kindness and compassion with which to comfort ourselves and the world. If we can create these and constantly strive to keep them in balance, then we can follow the multi-faceted path of Teshuvah. We can then begin the work of building our personal and communal houses anew, while also accepting the fact that - just as with the Sukkah that we will build in a little over a week - our houses are never permanent. They will come down one way or another, and then we will begin the task again, head down the path one more time, and seek our Source again - day after day, week after week, month after month, new year after new year.

And so, let me conclude with my final reconstruction of the last verse of Avinu Malkeinu. I offer this to all of us as a blessing as we walk this path alone together:

Our Beloved Parent - comforting us, guiding us, teaching us

Our Revered Sovereign - instructing us, directing us, limiting us.

Be gentle and gracious to us, help us to find the answer within us, even though we realize that at this very moment we are empty. There is nothing in us. We are a blank slate ready to be written up by our own hand which is guided by you.

Create together with us - and instill within us - the divine qualities of tzedakah and hesed - righteousness and overflowing love. May we act rightly , lovingly, and compassionately towards ourselves, so that we may find forgiveness within us for ourselves. Then may we use those divine qualities of tzedakah and hesed to turn outward so that we may then be compassionate towards others and the world around us. May this enable us to seek forgiveness from others and to grant forgiveness to others who seek it from us. May we renew this blessing each moment of every day of our lives.

This is our prayer. Help us to hear it. Amen.

Type: Dvar Torah

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