Rabbi David Starr’s Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5778

Rosh Hashanah 5778/2017

David Starr

The Song of Brokenness

*Please see the end for song lyric footnotes.

Everything feels broken. A tumultuous election and new administration combined with a natural order that seems increasingly chaotic and destructive. Painful plagues within our society—alienation, resentment, cynicism, mistrust of govt, our questioning of the motives of others and institutions,—it all adds up to a pervasive sense of fracture and divisiveness: globally as well as nationally. We should not take these matters lightly, or as cyclical in nature. They feel more corrosive now: our alienation from govt. threatens democracy because it DESTROYS our ability TO BELIEVE IN the POSSIBILITY OF CHANGE. Instead, we feel our skepticism degenerating into cynicism about the scope of human freedom.

What should we do about the brokenness? Consider the following.

First, for the sake of intellectual seriousness, I have to say that for all of the concerns we feel legitimately about political madness, the destructive pervasiveness of technology and our unwillingness to accept the fragility of our precious planet and our impact upon it,, it is also the case that we are better off now than we were a century ago, or even fifty years ago. Just ask a black person if he’d return to the Jim Crow South, or a woman who couldn’t vote, or a gay person who had to live closeted, much less marry, or a Japanese-American thrown into an internment camp in WWII, or a person who couldn’t join a union, and on and on and on. My friend Dr. Scott Plotkin tells me that medical knowledge now doubles every seven years. I am alive today because of that knowledge, as are so many of you. We go to hospitals today to get better, not to die. So yes, the world is and feels broken in so many ways, but there is also progress, albeit often slow and halting and in non-linear fashion. And yes, history sometimes veers sideways and even seems to go backwards.

I would say the same as a Jew: a century ago we were poor and powerless, today we live mostly prosperous and empowered lives both in societies like ours and as politically sovereign in the State of Israel. I have no desire to return to the poverty and hardship of the Russia-Poland of my grandparents, though I envy the thickness of their Jewish lives in those places, I wouldn’t trade our freedom and power for their Shabbat cholent and  vulnerabilities.

Bob Dylan wrote an anthem to brokenness, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, which dates from the ‘60’s, a time upon which we look back and say, our brokenness dates from then, featuring traumas like the Vietnam War, urban unrest and decay, and the struggle for civil rights. But Dylan clues us to seeing opportunity for healing precisely by confronting the broken. Where have you been now, he asks, have we been to, paid attention to all the locations here and around the world that need our attention, or are we just tourists seeing the world on a few hundred dollars a day? What did you see, he asks? Do we notice the suffering of others around us and far away or only our own? What did you hear, he continues? Do we hear and listen to the cries, the concerns, the criticisms of others, or only our own? Who did you meet, he continues. Do we learn the names of the custodial staff who take care of us and the spaces in which we live, we work, we study? We meet whom exactly beyond those we deem to be our social peers, our equals, those we VALUE. Do we value every person we meet as equal to us, unique, and precious, as one of God’s creatures as we wish them to see us?

On the deepest level Judaism teaches that we can see opportunities in the broken, that the universe itself exists BECAUSE of brokenness. Lurianic Kabbalah, and then Hasidism, held that in the primordial beginning only God existed, a perfect eternity, a perfect whole space.  But that perfect space and eternity contained no room for Creation. There had to be brokenness, without which there would be no universe, no differentiation, no freedom, no creativity, no human life, no opportunity to repair the broken. As Leonard Cohen put it,

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in

The search for the broken guides us as a community, looking for comfort and meaning and purpose, but we also come as individuals looking for something that will resonate with us in a deeply personal way.

So let me say something to you, as a single solitary person. Because we may feel broken up a bit or a lot by life. Our health may concern us, physically and or mentally. We may feel too little meaning in our lives, in our work. We may feel unloved or unlovable, that we give too much to others and get too little in return, or we may feel that our characters are not what we would like them to be. We may feel hopelessly enmeshed in and dependent on technology that actually makes us feel more alone and less connected– addicted to the curation of the self on what many now dub Fakebook or Instasham. We can no longer truly escape work or post an AWAY message, feeling the need to be ON CALL all the time. The line is indelibly blurred between our public and private selves. The brokenness is all on the inside, hidden behind the façade of well-curated pictures and posts.

A few weeks ago a friend of mine wrote publically about major changes she made in her life: the end of her marriage and the dramatic change in her Jewish practice. Raised in a traditional Jewish home in a traditional community, Tali complied with everything her parents and community believed re. belief and practice and what sort of partner one should seek. College, marriage and family followed according to hoyle.

Then she began to change. She began to feel that she really is an infinitely more complex person. She recognized and embraced that complexity, fought her own inertia, and refused to try to accept some sort of simple wholeness. She divorced and embarked upon a new Jewish odyssey as well, culminating in telling her children that they could be Jewish in meaningful ways even if they ate a slice of non-kosher pizza. She owned her doubts, let the light come in, and wrote a new chapter in her life through her autoemancipation.

How can we address our personal brokenness? Four ideas come to mind, relating to teshuvah. Find the space between the hard and the impossible, embrace our ability to create and don’t dwell on being like Israel saddled with Egyptian habits. Action versus hesed (Deuteronomy: we try to walk in God’s ways even as Avinu Malkeinu suggests that in the end we rely on God’s grace too vis a vis the inadequacy of our acts), turn one’s suffering into a positive not negative story: respond to hurt not with negativity but with a desire to heal and recognize the hurt of the Other, hold paradox: Judaism doesn’t lie. It counsels us to accept our greatness and our smallness and to live with that daylight in life (Majesty and humility).

The central prayer for today, Unetaneh Tokef, tells us everything we need to know to deal with our brokenness. It reminds us how small and vulnerable and powerless we live, but it insists that via teshuva tefillah and tzedakah  we can combat that reality. The prayer insists in effect that those three words all rest on a fourth word, tikvah, hope. We Jews hope. We don’t submit to fate, we create our destinies. We make history. We change history. That begins with an attitude of hope. That is our therapy for brokenness. Tikvah.

I began with Dylan and I want to end with him too. In poetic but also in prophetic voice “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” ends on a redemptive note.

Life tests us every single day and Dylan challenges us to ask: do we have the courage to confront the mess, the sadness, the carnage, the cruelty, the injustice, the sheer hurt and pain that so many of God’s creatures face daily? What do we bring with us to our safe spaces when we gird our loins, shut off our technology and poke our heads out of our foxholes long enough to attack some of that brokenness?  He urges us to “tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it and reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it”—to witness with our lives what we see, to tell others what exists so we can try to work together to fix it. He comes to the end: “Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinking But I’ll know my song well before I start singing.” In other words, we must confront our own truth, our brokenness, and fight the inertia, in order to grow. Figure that out and make it your purpose. Will it redeem the world? Not totally. Probably not enough. But some:

Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well-hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

A hard rain’s a gonna fall. And fall. And fall. But we should still hope. And work. And sing.

Shanah tovah.

 


 

[1] A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

Bob Dylan

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

 

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

 

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

 

Oh, who did you meet, my blue-eyed son?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met a young woman whose body was burning
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded with hatred
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

 

Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well-hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

 

[2] Everything Is Broken

Bob Dylan

Broken lines, broken strings,
Broken threads, broken springs,
Broken idols, broken heads,
People sleeping in broken beds
Ain’t no use jiving
Ain’t no use joking
Everything is broken

Broken bottles, broken plates,
Broken switches, broken gates,
Broken dishes, broken parts,
Streets are filled with broken hearts
Broken words never meant to be spoken,
Everything is broken

Seem like every time you stop and turn around
Something else just hit the ground

Broken cutters, broken saws,
Broken buckles, broken laws,
Broken bodies, broken bones,
Broken voices on broken phones
Take a deep breath, feel like you’re chokin’,
Everything is broken

Every time you leave and go off someplace
Things fall to pieces in my face

Broken hands on broken ploughs,
Broken treaties, broken vows,
Broken pipes, broken tools,
People bending broken rules
Hound dog howling, bull frog croaking,
Everything is broken

 

[3] Anthem

Leonard Cohen

The birds they sang
At the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
Has passed away
Or what is yet to be
Yeah the wars they will
Be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
Bought and sold
And bought again
The dove is never free

Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in

We asked for signs
The signs were sent
The birth betrayed
The marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
Of every government
Signs for all to see

I can’t run no more
With that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers out loud
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
A thundercloud
And they’re going to hear from me

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in

You can add up the parts
You won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march
There is no drum
Every heart, every heart to love will come
But like a refugee

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in
Ring the bells that still can ring (ring the bells that still can ring)
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in

 

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