Life, Re-inscribed

*re-recorded due to tech issue

R. Jessica Kate Meyer // Rosh Hashanah, 5779

We stand tonight on the cusp of the New Year.

The sound of the shofar, the taste of honey on fresh baked challah. The day of Remembrance--Yom HaZikaron.

Do you remember where you were this time last year?  Take a moment. How are you different? How are you not different?  Who has arrived in your life this past year. And who is no longer here?

On New Years around the world, we drink and dance until we forget.  But on Rosh Hashanah, we’re here to remember. To remember the melodies in our bones.  To remember the words many of us have forgotten. To remember the soul behind all of the distraction.  To remember our mortality. And we take an unflinching look at who we have been this past year. Where we have shown up, and where we have stumbled.  We pray: ‘Inscribe us for life.’

We imagine a book of life, a giant ledger of names and we ask—please, may ours find its way inside.  But what’s really going on when we pray ‘Inscribe us for life’? 19th century Hasidic Rebbe, the Sefat Emet, says that each one of us has a Divine point, a nekudah kedusha inside.  And on this point—is inscribed the word ‘life’. Like the 10 commandments etched on the luhot--the tablets, you and me, we have LIFE written here.  During the year, as we mess up, we don’t fess up, we make excuses for ourselves, we hurt each other--and this inscription on our heart, this beautiful, beaming life gets covered up with detritus -- like a buildup of plaque in our arteries or on our teeth. Our ‘life’ gets clogged. When we arrive in our seat here tonight at the JCC, our inscriptions are faded.  And our job over the next 10 days is to lift our tools--chisel and stone, voice, heart, prayer, to re-etch, to scrape out the plaque, and re-emblazon life, bold and insistent, into our hearts. It’s not Inscribe us for life, but Inscribe life in us.   

This New Year, there is more darkness than usual casting shadows over life.  Fear for our country; Fear of a deeply unstable government, of checks and balances checked out and out of balance; the future of our highest court of law hanging in the balance.  

In a year like this, we need to call up our strongest tools, the big guns.  I’m talking about our nigunim, melody, poetry, prayer, stories, questions...this is the most potent stuff we have to fortify ourselves — and to face this new year with courage, hope, and life.  Right now, I’m thinking about one prayer in particular.

My great grandmother Jenny for whom I was named, never went to shul, didn’t speak a lick of Hebrew, but you better believe she was there for Avinu Malkeinu in the women’s section on the High Holy Days.  The rhythmic, pleading language and haunting melody have become, for many Jews, the symbol of the Yamim Nora'im.

The first line of the melody hovers within four notes of the scale, repeating over and over [sing nigun].  This repetition creates a space intimate enough to address G-d as אבינו, as a loving parent. We then demand of God עשה עמנו, Be loving to us, and the nigun opens up, reaching to the sixth of the scale.  When davvened through a whole community, this creates a sonic grandeur fit for God as Malkeinu, our King. As we plead for צדקה וחסד one final time— we climb a little higher—reaching toward God [nigun], and then we crawl back down the scale [nigun], returning to the intimacy of אבינו. Through this nigun, the soul of the prayer is illuminated.  

But where does Avinu Malkeinu come from?  Who wrote it? It just so happens, that the origin of this prayer is recorded in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Taanit.  

In the time of R. Eliezer, a devastating drought tore through the land.  Plants withered on the vine. Sheep dropped in the flock. Hundreds died from thirst.  It was a national state of emergency.

“Teshuva!” commanded R. Eliezer—“only complete, full teshuva will awaken Divine compassion!  And Divine compassion will bring the rain from heaven. R. Eliezer instated a week-long fast so that each and every Jew would make vidui, confess her sins, and return in full teshuva to her creator.

Every Jew abstained a full week from food and drink.  To be honest, there wasn’t much to eat or drink anyway…but truly, everyone followed R. Eliezer’s command to a ‘t’.

After a full 7 days without food, without drink, without bathing, we lifted our eyes expectantly to the heavens…but only the cruel, unblinking sun stared back.

It was time for more desperate measures.  The fast didn’t work. We needed a different mode of action.

“Tefilah!  Prayer!” commanded R. Eliezer—“only prayer will awaken God’s mercy in heaven, and God’s mercy in heaven will bring the rain from heaven!”  

So R. Eliezer convened everyone for an emergency outdoor mid-day prayer service. Thousands of Jews, hungry, grumpy, and sweaty, packed together under the glaring sun.  

R. Eliezer ben Hurkanus hushed the crowd.  He descended with measured steps to face the aron hakodesh—the holy ark.  With much gravitas, he raised his voice, and began to pray…

We stood almost noiselessly while R. Eliezer recited the special 24 verse amidah of a fast day.  Why the extra 6 verses of the amidah? So that every Jew might turn in teshuva, the teshuva that will awaken God’s compassion, the teshuva that will bring the rain.

As R. Eliezer uttered the final word of the final beracha of the 24 blessings, an expectant silence.  Everyone lifted their eyes toward the heavens…but not one cloud in the sky. Only sun, and heat, and death.

Suddenly, from amidst the crowd, R. Akiva, student of R. Eliezer burst through, ran down and threw himself before the ark.  From the depths of his despair he cries out: Avinu Malkeinu!

Rain, rain pours down, rain from the heavens, wet, and good, quenches the dry people, feeds the cracked earth, and soaks R. Akiva, who stands trembling before the ark.

This beloved prayer, which is such an institutionalized part of the High Holy Day services, burst out of R Akiva as a cry from the most broken place.  He teaches us how to pray these hagim, he teaches us what it is to daven together in a time of crisis. Yes--There are prescribed prayers (including Avinu Malkeinu).  These are crucial. But the rain won’t come until we open our hearts and let it out.

For centuries after R’ Akiva uttered these words, Jewish communities around the world added their own pleas, unique to their community, generation, time.  So there was a living chain from R Akiva to each subsequent generation. What Avinu Malkeinus will we add from San Francisco in 2018?

The story of R Akiva and the rain ends with a curious coda:  It’s a few weeks later, the fields have turned from brown to green again.  And the rabbis sit around a table in the beit midrash, completely stumped: why did God respond to R Akiva and not to R Eliezer?  What made one more successful at intervening than the other? Amazingly, they get a communique! A bat kol, an echo of the Divine Voice says: It’s not that Rabbi Akiva is greater than R Eliezer. It’s that R Akiva ma’avir al midotav.  This phrase is a bit tricky to accurately translate.  Rashi interprets it as: ‘Rabbi Akiva has a forgiving nature, while R Eliezer does not.’  In other words, the skies opened with compassion for the one who carries compassion for others.  

A more literal translation of ma’avir al midotav might be:   one who surpasses his attributes, or rather goes beyond his limits  It rained for the one who transcended himself. In a time of crisis, the one who brought rain, was the one who went beyond his understanding of himself.  He stepped out of comfort zone.

For many of us, particularly those born in the US after WWII, born after the Vietnam War, we are facing in real time something we have never seen, and are not prepared for.

As we leave 5778, and step into the current of 5779, are we prepared to go beyond what we have been in the past, beyond our definitions of self?

At its core, RH, and the 10 days are a time of possibility--Hayom Harat Olam, on this day, our world is created, conceived.  We are the ones planting seeds.

I want to bless us to take our tools in hand and in heart over the days of Awe.  To remember why we’re here. To chisel away at what is concealing the life inscribed within us.  To go beyond ourselves, and to make the rain fall.