I send you greetings from Australia just as sun is setting on September 11 Rosh Hashanah 5779.
I was so moved by Irwin Keller’s writing in his blog Itziks well regarding this difficult and holy time that I want to share it. Irwin is a Rabbi in Sonoma County. Ellen Solot, whom he credits for her teachings, is one of our hidden monastery. She chants and leads with him in their Congregation Ner Shalom.
Irwin argues for surrender in his Rosh Hashanah writing, what the Sufi calls to die before you die. He talks about the power of dreams we pray to understand, about falling down flat, and the mystery of grounding in What Is.
My own year has been a stream of unrelenting family, work, health care, therapeutic, social, and political challenges. The latest is a water-damaged kitchen diagnosed with asbestos. The good news is that I am in face on the ground surrender. As Irwin says it comes when you must let go, let go, let go. He and his congregation had to do this when Fire displaced Sonoma County residents one year ago/
If you are journeying with great unknowns, like me, called to go where you didn’t ask to go, then Irwin and the High Holy Days offer a portal to find the accompaniment of ancestors who’ve gone before us.
“Tonight we take a step into the Unknown. With a new year ahead of us and the old year behind. This is exciting and brave. There is so much possibility in this moment! I mean, when was the last time we stepped into the Unknown?
That’s right. This morning. And there was yesterday too. And the day before that. Over and over, at every instant, there we are, stepping into the Unknown; leaving the familiar and stepping out, without any assurance of where we will end up. Because on any day anything can happen. It is All-Unknown-All-the-Time. And somehow, with the perfect combination of faith and denial, we get up every day and step out anyway.
We probably only notice the Unknown-ness of it all at key life moments. Like a new year. Or a new relationship. A wedding. A breakup. A death. Starting a profession. Leaving a profession. Making the cross-country move from Flatbush or Rockaway or whatever homeland we left behind.
These are the moments when a voice in our ear says, “Go” and we do, daring to stare the Unknown in the face and roll with the consequences.
Take a second now and think about how many times you have knowingly, consciously, stepped into the Unknown.
And look, you’ve landed here. Maybe it’s not where you intended. Maybe you didn’t know where you intended. But all things considered, it’s not a bad a place to land. It is a blessing. May every destination be so loving and pleasant as this room tonight, amen.
Tomorrow we will also be departing: departing from tradition, by reading Torah that is not customary for Rosh Hashanah. Instead of telling about Sarah and Hagar or about Abraham binding Isaac, we will read the portion called Lech Lecha. This is really the beginning of our Abraham and Sarah stories. The two of them are still called Avram and Sarai at this point of the Book of Genesis. And God speaks to them and says, Lech lecha me’artzcha umimoladet’cha umibeyt avicha el ha’aretz asher ar’eka. “Go, go! Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”
We will explore this more experientially tomorrow. But for now, let us notice that Avram and Sarai are commanded away from their eretz, the geography that they know. And away from their moledet – their birthplace, and all the culture that comes with a motherland. And away from their beyt av – their clan, their parents’ house – the songs and beliefs and peculiarities they learned from their family.
In exchange for what? Ha’aretz asher ar’eka. “The land I will show you.” A land that is not even named. There’s no travel brochure. No sales job. No Tripadvisor reviews. Just “Lech lecha – go, go, without knowing, and I’ll show you the way.”
Avram and Sarai have no clarity on where they’re headed, only on what they’re leaving behind.
Which is in fact the template for this life of ours. As we live, as we grow older, we leave more and more in the rearview mirror. And ahead of us our visibility is so limited.
Going into the Unknown is a leap of faith – a necessary leap of faith; a kind of mundane bravery that we exercise every day.
And I’m sorry to say that we all learned more about that leap of faith, that mundane bravery, than we’d ever expected or wanted to, eleven months ago tonight, when many of us in this room – perhaps most of us in this room – in the course of 15 minutes fled our homes, leaving behind keepsakes and heirlooms and stupid stuff that we never managed to throw away and valuable stuff too heavy or awkward to carry, or too self-effacing to draw our attention in the moment.
We left behind stuff, mountains of stuff – none of which was “just stuff,” as in the platitude, “it’s just stuff.” Instead what we left behind were things not just physical but symbolic. Things that make us us. That make our homes an extension of us, that make our homes our greater body. The art on the walls. The gifts received. The things we’ve created. The photos of loved ones who raised us. And the house itself, that we chose to live in with great care.
In fifteen minutes, or for some of us less, we left it all behind. For the sake of life, for the sake of survival, we left it all behind. Most of us, but not all of us, were able to go back to our smoke-steeped houses in a week or ten days. But on that first night it was the same for all of us: we didn’t know if we would have a home to go home to. On that first night, we experienced letting go and leaving behind. With lech lecha in our ears, we grabbed those few things, threw them in the car, and hit the gas pedal into the Unknown.
It sounds like bravery. But it didn’t feel like bravery. It felt like there was no choice. All we could do was surrender to that moment and what it demanded of us. Actual sacrifice or the possibility of sacrifice. We were filled with fear and we were fearless, all at once. We surrendered to what the moment demanded.
Now I know surrender is a tricky word for us. It conjures all sorts of feelings. In the spiritual realm “surrender” sounds almost Christian. And in the political realm it sounds like admitting defeat.
But I intend to argue for surrender tonight.
Stepping into the Unknown necessarily involves not knowing how things will turn out. We can respond to that not knowing with anxiety and worry, which have always been my personal favorite go-tos. Or we can respond by surrendering to the Not Knowing. Surrendering to not knowing how it will all turn out. A bow to a bigger picture, the full breadth of which we cannot see. An honoring of our limits – marking off, perhaps, the far end of what I can do, and where it borders on where I have to trust others – or Nature, or God, or the Universe. Surrender is an openness – not necessarily a delight, but an openness – to whatever comes. Not a giving in, Heaven forbid, but a giving over.
That is what we did the night of the fire. We surrendered to that moment, not knowing what would happen. But knowing that leaving was required and the Unknown was before us.
It’s amazing what you can leave behind when you have to. There were no bad decisions that night. Even if there were later regrets, or enduring grief for what was lost, on that night there were no bad decisions.
It’s remarkable, actually shocking, to learn what you can live without. And not just stuff. I took a class over the summer that explored different kinds of Judaism – the cultures of the Jews of China, India, Ethiopia – and what it is like to have a very different looking Judaism that was shaped neither by a history of rabbinic law nor by the experience of generations of European persecution. On the last day of class, we were each asked to imagine a Judaism of our dreams and to identify a short list of four elements of Judaism that must be part of it. What would be the four things that we could not give up and still call it Judaism? We shared our lists. People had written Torah, Shabbat, Seder, the Hebrew language, prayer, tikkun olam. And then our teacher asked each of us to now imagine giving up one more of our items. We gasped. Because we had already taken our entire history and culture and religion and reduced it to 4 non-negotiables. And then with some gravity, some sadness and great surrender, we each gave up one more.
In that moment, my friend Caryn Aviv reminded us of a Sufi phrase – “to die before you die.” She said the truth is that we will all one day give it all up. The day we die we will give up everything: the memories, the loved ones, the favorite music, the skills and languages we have so proudly mastered. Engaging in surrender in the here and now is just practice.
Surrender is not one of those words that is a translation of some core Hebrew value word, like tzedakah or tikkun olam or mitzvah. Maybe the closest we have in Hebrew is anavah, self-humbling, humility. But the lack of a key word in Hebrew does not mean that surrender isn’t part of our tradition, and a deep part of it at that.
When we awaken from a bad or confusing dream, there is a prayer that Talmud recommends, that begins, Ribono shel Olam, ani shelcha v’chalomotai shelcha.
“Master of the Universe, I am yours and my dreams are yours.”
Right there, a giving over. And the prayer goes on and says “I had a dream and I don’t know what it means. If it’s good, make it come true. If it’s bad, transform it into blessing.” That’s the short version. But in this experience of waking up, heart pounding, upset, and unable to understand why or what to do, this prayer doesn’t say, “Analyze the dream and figure it out.” It instead suggests surrender. “If it’s good, let it be so. If it’s bad, God please change it.” Give it over. I am yours my dreams are yours.
I first learned this prayer seeing it painted on the wall of a wooden synagogue in Tykocin, Poland. I rediscovered it this year and have found it to be helpful. In part because I dream a lot. I have wild, complicated, sometimes upsetting dreams. When I wake up, I write the dream down in my journal so that I can think about it and try to understand it if I want to. But then I recite this prayer, to let go of the anxiety that accompanied it. It is as if I am saying, “Okay, I dreamt this thing. I’m open to learning what it means. But I accept that I might not know.”
I have taken to using this prayer sometimes when I am upset about things in the real world. Not in order to stop caring, but in order to let go of the debilitating anxiety. “If it’s good, let it be so. If it’s bad, God please change it.” Sometimes it bursts out of me right in the middle of a New York Times article.
Another time anavah – humbling or surrender – emerges in our tradition is in our Aleynu prayer. Three times a day traditionally, it is our custom to say the words va’anachnu kor’im umishtachavim umodim. Which means “we bend and we prostrate.” In other words, we get flat on the ground, like Muslims do five times a day. And it is funny that we recite these words conveniently in a language we don’t understand, while not doing the thing at all. As a teacher of mine said, “We’re not a stiff-necked people, we’re a stiff-kneed people.” In fact, the Union Prayer Book of my childhood translated va’anachnu kor’im umishtachavim as “We bow the head in reverence.” When the prayer really says,
“We fall down flat!”
To fall down flat in surrender is cross-cultural wisdom, world wisdom. We sometimes need to go to ground, like an electrical circuit. Flat on the ground. We’re more open to it when we call it “Child’s Pose”. But letting our worries and yearnings and attachments drain out of us into the Earth, into what kabbalists understand as Shechinah, in a yoga-like pose we could maybe call Shechinasana: there is wisdom in this.
This is surrender. Not defeat, but an opening up to What Is. Rather than what we’d like it to be and are freaking out that it’s not. “What Is” is stronger ground to stand on. It leaves you better prepared for the Unknown that comes next. Not an earthquake-kit kind of preparedness but a Soul kind of preparedness.
“What Is” is, arguably, the meaning of God’s name – YHWH, Yahweh. I think that’s kinda cool, understanding the Divine as being simply What Is. This is the place where believers and atheists and all the rest of us might meet. Because ultimately we are all tied to What Is, and are humbled before it.
Perhaps we would all be more effective in the world and better grounded at making change if we could see the What Is of the time we’re living in; the What Is of our country; the What Is of Israel; the What Is of our own hearts and natures. Rather than being caught in the roller coaster of what we wish, what we imagine, what we are invested in, what we fear. We would be more effective in the world if we could leave behind our fantasies. Our beliefs that are born of an unjust past. Our biases taught consciously or inadvertently by our parents.
Being grounded in What Is gives us so much better footing than the mire of our worries and the quicksand of our illusions.
Oy. I never imagined myself as someone who would be using phrases like “the quicksand of our illusions.” I guess it’s the perk or the peril of the pulpit.
So let me humble back up. There are so many things I don’t know how to fix in this life, in this world, in this community. I feel overwhelmed so much of the time.
And I’m tired of dwelling in hope and disappointment. I am willing to surrender some of both. I am willing to die before I die. I am willing, like Avram and Sarai, to leave behind birth and bias even if it brings me to the Unknown.
Because that kind of journey is not thankless or meaningless. God said to Avram and Sarai in the same breath:
וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָה
“I will bless you and give you a good name and you will be a blessing.”
Maybe in the story their blessing was the reward for their obedience to God. Or maybe blessing is the natural consequence of being willing to leave behind what we know and what we think we know, and being willing to surrender to What Is and to dwell there, in a land without a name.
I know we can do this. We walked out of our houses in the middle of the night, frightened and resolute. With mundane bravery we did that. And we can do this. Surrender, give over, leave behind what isn’t important to us, and some of what is. In order to be grounded, humble conduits of blessing.
“Lech lecha,” we are being told, spoken right in our ear. “Go, leave, leave behind, walk into the Unknown, as you have done at every moment of your life. Be grounded and held by What Is. Be blessed, and be a blessing.
I owe so much here to all my teachers: Rabbi Shulamit Thiede, Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan, Michael Kagan, Rachel Naomi Remen, Yiscah Smith, Atzilah Solot and Caryn Aviv.
Thank you Irwin for your writing, your spirit, your honesty and your support through Itziks Well.