Rosh Hashanah Day One 5783

“In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars
of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,
the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

The poem is not just about people. It’s about homes. Jobs. Your past.  Losing a game. Missing the bus. Striking out. Getting lost. A Lifestyle. A Life Stage. A marriage. Our youth. Who I was. Who they were. 

 Our ideas of what was supposed to be. How it was supposed to go.  All of it is Changing, everything dies. 

How can we embrace things as they are now and release, let go when it is time? 

 Here. Now. Rooted in our cells and pores are the essential soulfulness of each of our lost loved ones and lived stages and cherished objects and adored places. While everything changes. Their essence – the soul of each thing, place, person, thing, stage, never dies. Seek to hold on to only what supports you and guides you towards your possible future. 

Much easier said than done, Awakening to an unexpected future – being in the reality of what is now –  can be so, so  harsh sometimes. 

Real wisdom is knowing when to let go, what to let go, how to let go and how to find the courage – the support – the loving partners – the sheer will – to build a future of possibility out of whatever you are given. 

Hope: tikva is an ethical imperative in Judaism. 

Hope: trust in the power of an ethical-spiritual vision to guide our actions towards renewal, justice and compassion. 

Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav used to say: “People don’t despair, a difficult time has come upon us; love must feel the air.”(singing)

Reb Nachman had 8 children, 4 of whom died within a year and a half of their births. Then his wife died, his house burned.  He lived in a time when pogroms and anti-Jewish massacres were not uncommon.

Rebbe Nahman wasn’t sheltered or naive.

“People don’t despair” are words of someone who has experienced real suffering, real pain. Gevalt! He cried. 

I picture that gevalt as almost a primal scream, holding so much pain — Gevalt!! And yet, after that scream, was the refusal to let despair win. 

“To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair,” wrote Rabbi Sacks. “Every ritual, every mitzvah, every syllable of the Jewish story… is a protest against escapism, resignation or the blind acceptance of fate. Judaism is a sustained struggle…against the world that is, in the name of the world that could be, should be, but is not yet.” 

Elie Wiesel, who certainly knew his share of hopeless situations, once said, “One must wager on the future. I believe it is possible, in spite of everything, to believe in friendship in a world without friendship, and even to believe in God in a world where there has been an eclipse of God’s face. We must not give in to cynicism. To save the life of a single child, no effort is too much. To make a tired old man smile is to perform an essential task. To defeat injustice and misfortune, if only for one instant, for a single victim, is to invent a new reason to hope.”

“Optimism is the belief that things are going to get better,” writes Rabbi Sacks. “Hope is the belief that we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope is an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it does need courage to hope.” As we approach the New Year, in whatever situation we might find ourselves, may we find the courage to hope.

What is hope? In the Jewish worldview, hope isn’t an instinct; it’s a value and therefore a choice.

Standing in the possibility of possibility itself

Standing in hope 

This is a jewish way to stand. 

Asking what’s possible now is not false optimism or looking for a silver lining. 

To plant our feet squarely in the earth, in the mess, in the pain, staying in the room when we want so much to escape, to scream no to reality. To this.

Heart soft,

mind curious, 


being with what is

For Your sake, for the sake of possibility. For teshuva – the return to what is possible for ourselves, our loved ones, the world.

There was never more need for Hope in many of our lifetimes than when a global pandemic hit the world in March of 2020. How long ago does it seem that many of you were seated here, in 2019, 3 years ago? Time is weird because there was a great rupture. And the rupture still exists.  

“The Coronavirus brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. 

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. To lean into hope for a better future. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of prejudice and hatred…our dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can … [be] ready to imagine another world. And be ready to fight for it.”[1] Arundhati Roy wrote these words in April 2020… many of us were not thinking this way then.. 

in her book Active Hope, Jonna Macy describes three world-shaping stories that co-exist uncomfortably at this moment:

1. “Business as Usual,” the view that economic growth must continue, and that for a market economy to grow, we need to consume more and more than we already do. 

2.   “Great Unraveling.”  
The conditions of the next generation will be much worse than for people living today because of economic decline and environmental collapse; we continue with business as usual.

3.  The third story is “The Great Turning,” This is the story of HOPE. A hope that a new world is possible!
Hope— and a commitment to act, as well as the vision, courage and solidarity to do so. to see with new eyes together— to hope together— to find and do our part to create an olam hadash— a new world. This is the enormous challenge of our moment. The ethical imperative is to give ourselves to that story – the teshuva story – so it can act through us, breathing new life into what we do, and what we demand and expect of ourselves, our government and our leaders. A great teshuva —a great turning is possible.  

For America a great Reconciliation with our past is possible, a reckoning with the shadows in this place. With the skeletons hidden in our closets.  “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

What are we being called to be responsible for?  What is it time to let go of in order to shape something new and who are our partners? 

I shared the idea of a thanksgiving event in which we sit and eat and talk together… not just have the clergy speak to people who agree with each other…crediting Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan with the idea of a Thanksgiving ritual for America… 

A great teshuva is possible. a conscious, careful, collaborative, turning. Yet great large scale turning takes place locally.   

Ari Wallach, a friend and neighbor in Hastings, is the author of the recently published book Longpath: Becoming the Great Ancestors our Future Needs which describes the time we are in as intertidal, akin to the agricultural revolution. Wallach suggests that we cultivate transgenerational empathy for previous generations, holding with kindness and truth, how things got to be the way they are. This is necessary in order to cultivate a mindset geared for the far future. 

May we discern the right balance of daring to dream and daring to stay in the grit. May we know who our true partners are as we dare to do the three things:

  • to love what is mortal;
  • to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

  • to let it go.