Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman
Congregation B’nai Tikvah
Rosh Hashanah Eve 5775 ~ September 24, 2014
Where have you traveled from tonight?
A few streets over? The next town perhaps? Across bridges... through tunnels? Where are you traveling from to begin again?
That’s what we mean when we speak of teshuvah — the process that takes hold with us and in us — on Erev Rosh Hashanah. Teshuvah is likened to repentance, and it is that. It’s what we do with the reflection, with the accounting of our actions that the High Holidays bring us to year after year.
But teshuvah is something else as well: a turning. Just as surely as the season turns around us, so we turn as well. Teshuvah calls us back to our most essential selves. And it calls us forward too, towards a voyage yet untested — a year yet unlived. Like no other time of year, we are beckoned out of our places of comfort, and called upon to change. Poet Marge Piercy calls the New Year “a great door that stands across the evening.” (Marge Piercy, “Coming Up On September.”) Here we are.
How do we open the door, and begin to move through?
In December of 2013, long before I actually arrived, my journey here began. For some of us whose way of moving through the world involves hitting the ground running, journeys begin with great leaps forward. Others of us, in the words of writer and humorist David Sedaris, prefer to precede every action with ten years of discussion. (David Sedaris, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, p. 232.) I imagine most of us locate ourselves at different points along this spectrum… depending of course on where we are, and where we are going.
This particular journey of mine began with words. A single page, with a description of a synagogue a long way away:
“Our building sits in the hills of Walnut Creek, California, and was designed to take advantage of the beautiful setting the area affords us, from a sanctuary with windows that allow sunlight to stream through during the morning services, to a social hall with floor-to-ceiling windows that allow for a panoramic view of the lush hills around us. We even have a unique outside amphitheater where our Sunday school often meets for their T’filah. It is a very warm and inviting temple that really embraces the congregants and visitors alike from the moment they enter the parking lot.”
Now, is it that I read these words as the snow fell quietly and peacefully outside… in the midst of what would turn out to be the first or second of approximately one hundred snowstorms?
No. It was something more. The Talmud teaches us that words from the heart go to the heart. Reading these words, I could imagine those hills, that amphitheater. They entered my heart.
Still… would these be the words to help me navigate through the winding paths of the unknown? Across the mountains that keep us from really seeing and navigating those first steps, and beginning anew? More practically, how would Michael and I explain to our New England and Wisconsin families that my resume was on its way to California?
My journey had begun. These are some of the words, and the questions that have helped me chart it. I share them with you tonight.
January 2014. First visit to Congregation B’nai Tikvah. Granted any story, any journey has more layers to it than meet the eye. Still… the sunlight, this amphitheater, these hills are just how I pictured them. I had forgotten how vast and dramatic the beauty of California is. “Does it ever get old?” I asked a member of the Search Committee. She thought for a moment and shook her head. “It really doesn’t.” Hearing those words, I feel like anything is possible.
At Shabbat services my second night, I hear Cantor Chabon’s voice for the first time. No further words needed! Now would I make this crossing — to have such a partner on the bimah? A partner in thought, laughter, learning and creativity too, I was to discover. The only sensible and immediate answer was yes... many times over!
But it would be a more complex journey too… for all of us. How would I enter into the story of a congregation that began in the spirit of Theodor Herzl’s words: “Im Tirtzu, Ein Zo Aggadah/ If you will it, it is no dream.” All the way from borrowed prayer books and an initial rabbinic contract signed in a founder’s backyard, to a thriving Jewish community with a vibrant religious school under the gifted leadership of Phil Hankin, several longtime chavurot, a robust band and whimsical, heartfelt traditions all its own.
A congregation where the pintele yid, an enigmatic Yiddish phrase best translated as “the Jewish spark” is recognized, appreciated and nurtured in the hearts of its members.
A congregation whose trademark is many hands on deck, and a passion for seeing not only what is, but also what can be. A new building may have replaced the old one, and indeed, it is pointed out to me at every turn on this initial visit where this doorway used to stop, how low that ceiling used to be. But the inside pieces of the story have remained consistent and true. The treasured American poet Walt Whitman remarked “that the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” (Walt Whitman, “Oh Me! Oh Life!”)
What will your contribution be? What will mine be? As your second rabbi in Congregation B’nai Tikvah’s existence, how will we become a part of each other’s stories now?
July, 2014. Week 1. Lest any of us think that all the moments of all our journeys are transcendent, today Judy taught me the codes for my email, voicemail and building alarm. No voicemails yet of course. There are two messages in my inbox … though one is from our internet provider. I find myself wanting to freeze time, even if just for a moment. Never but at the very beginning are there only two messages in a rabbi’s inbox! I make a few calls which go to voicemail, and scramble to remember the number to tell them to call back. Next, I move the paperclips from one side of my new desk to the other. Good first day.
Week 2. It’s heartbreakingly, agonizingly clear that what’s going on in Israel this summer isn’t just going to go away. There, many Israelis call it the matzav… simply put: “the situation.” I know I need to talk about it. I know we need to talk about it, but how? Who will blink back tears of relief and gratitude to hear their rabbi affirm that our hearts are with Israel, that any sovereign nation has the right to defend itself against incessant rocket fire across its borders? I believe this. Who will feel validated in hearing that these same hearts of ours bend and break at the loss of innocent civilian life on all sides? That this is a long, complicated story, and just when many of us feel we have somewhat of a handle on it, things change. Another pundit weighs in, another set of facts – or are they fictions? – enters the picture, and so much is called into question again. I believe this too.
Is it enough this time around to talk about the history that breathes within those stones in Jerusalem? About the singular deliciousness of feta cheese and chocolate rugelach fresh from the open air shuk? About how it feels to hear “Shabbat Shalom” in the grocery store on Friday mornings? About the theater company in Tel Aviv where every performer has some level of hearing or visual impairment, yet through their productions, they become an ensemble with a voice all their own?
I don’t know, but I think I’m about to find out.
In the meantime, we light a candle for peace to start our Shabbat service every Friday night. We allow our presence together to say for us that we will bring more light, more understanding and more wholeness to a world crying out for all of it. For now, this is our verse, and we write it together.
Week 4. My first Bat Mitzvah. Well, technically closer to my 200th, but it’s my first one at B’nai Tikvah, and that makes it new. Emma has chosen to find the parallel between what it means for the Israelites to stand at the border of the Promised Land, and her own experience of standing at a border as her family prepares to move away from Walnut Creek. I tell her I’ll always remember her, just like I’ll always remember Emily, my last Bat Mitzvah at Temple B’rith Kodesh in Rochester.
I love these kids … they are funny and interesting, and the closer their process of celebrating this milestone comes, the more they come into their own. One of them says that if he forgets to stop between his aliyot, I can just kick him. A parent reflects that in the short time since her son’s Bar Mitzvah, she sees the difference in him. I’ve learned that when we talk with our students here about holding the weight of the Torah, we really mean it, literally and figuratively. Those scrolls are heavy! I’m so proud to be stepping into a place where B’nai Mitzvah are filled with kavannah... with intention, and meaning. In these moments, the next generation reflects back to us all the Jewish education, attention and caring that’s been poured into them. They are helping me begin again. I hope someday they know that.
August, 2014. Week 5. Michael and I are heading up the coast for a few days. “Are you sure this is the way?” I ask as we near our destination. “Well, I turned west, and that’s the only way to the ocean,” he replies.
“You turned… which way towards the ocean?”
Week 6. Now I’ve heard it… the story to end all stories. This is the one we rabbis have nightmares about all summer. A little over a year ago, Rabbi Asher stood before you to offer his last Rosh Hashanah Eve sermon, just as I stand here now offering my first. He turned from page four to page five I was told, and … where was it? Oh dear God. My hands felt icy just hearing this story, never mind living it.
And he finessed it! There is some mathematical disagreement about the shortest distance between two points, but as far as rabbinic distances go, I can tell you one of the longest has to be the space between two pages, especially on the High Holidays, when one of those pages is missing and the room is filled with a sea of expectant faces.
And he finessed it.
My admiration for this rabbi, already considerable, deepened that day. Rabbi Asher’s mentchlekeit, gentle humor, wealth of Jewish knowledge, and modest soul have been a true beacon since I arrived. His wisdom, his grace and his commitment to B’nai Tikvah are, as we speak, allowing a new rabbi to step into this place, into this congregation for the first time in its history. His way of providing me with guidance and context have been, and will continue to be, my signposts.
Some of the deepest and most fruitful new beginnings are also the most poignant, because we are all, in our own ways, saying goodbye to the year that was … to its joy, its pain, its exultation and its losses. We are acknowledging that change will come… and with our presence here tonight, we affirm that we are as ready as we can be to face whatever will be.
The most comforting piece of wisdom I can offer something I learned from one of my Confirmation students in Rochester, which is also greeting a brand new year with brand new clergy tonight. In reflecting on what he had learned about Judaism during the past year, as part of his personal statement during the class service, he said: “we are a people with large hearts.”
I think he’s right. Our hearts are expansive enough to miss what we had, what we knew … even as we celebrate the new beginnings that lie ahead… within our community and beyond it too.
It’s as though that missing page five is speaking to us in its own way tonight, telling us without ever having to say the words, that we all lose pages from time to time. We get exhausted and sad, and have no idea how to journey forward one more day with what feels like the ocean on the wrong side, longing only for what was. And then we find our pages again. We do. Or we find new ones. And that’s how we will become a part of each other’s stories, and how together, we will write the next chapter. Informed and inspired by our past, proud of our present, and confident in our future.
If Rosh Hashanah truly is the time in our spiritual lives that we open the Book of Life, and what is written there reveals itself, then may that opening and that revelation bring with it a renewed sense of purpose, goodness and blessing.
May we all be so inscribed.
Our journey begins.