Good morning, and Shana Tovah. I am honored to have the opportunity to share these words this morning with our Or Shalom community. Thank you, Rabbi Katie, for the invitation.
As I thought about what to speak to today, how to begin this new year—this new year of all years, with a pandemic out of control, with the west in flames, with Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed—I was struck by how little in fact seems new. How the days, stuck in our homes, stuck in video boxes on screens, blend one into the next. It is so easy to slip into distracted ennui, into lethargy and apathy, into the metaphysical boredom of alcohol and Netflix and Amazon shopping carts. What is the shofar blast, the wake up call, for such a time?
For me, it was a broken refrigerator. One day recently we returned home to a puddle of red ooze at the bottom of our freezer, raspberries and popsicles having melted into goo. We unplugged and plugged things, pressed buttons and Googled solutions, but to no avail. It was just the end of this appliance’s working life as a cooler for food.
So we hopped online and made some calls, sure of the easy availability of a new icebox, but it turned out that refrigerators were hard to find. The “compressor supply chain,” we were told, had been impacted by the pandemic. Not knowing how to visualize either compressors or supply chains, the image that popped into my head was a painting I had seen some years back, by the artist Rick Oginz.
Here is one of these paintings—it is a subject he has taken up many times. In these pieces, Oginz paints the container ships that slip in and out of the San Francisco Bay, always with smoke or fire on the horizon line, a burning something just beyond sight. These are the ships that we don’t think of when we click “buy now” on our Amazon apps, the aquatic lynchpin of that global supply chain that was suddenly short on compressors. These paintings, like this moment of being unable to find a fridge for me, render our invisible assumptions visible, and in so doing return us to a different world, with “eyes remade for wonder,” as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner once put it.
We did, eventually, get a refrigerator. Since then I have encountered other interrupted supply chains, as I imagine you have as well. (26” bicycle tubes, for example, oddly enough.) When I do, I try and hold the sublime impossibility of that supply chain in my mind—the individual workers not going to individual factories, not tying individual shoes or packing individual lunches, not loading individual shipping containers, the real human lives that are the fabric of it all. It is a hard thing to do, to hold all of that in one’s mind, to try and open it up to the full connectedness of our world. It feels especially hard to do now with our attention so frayed: with our newly multichannel worklives, rife with zooms and chats and tabs and texts; with our homes become offices and gyms and school rooms; with all of us stuck, so unendingly present and yet so unable to be present at all.
There is a teaching from Rabbi Allan Lew of blessed memory, longtime rabbi at Congregation Beth Sholom here in San Francisco. In his book This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, he writes:
“Before Israel goes off to war, the Torah tells us, the officers of the army must address the people and tell them the following [and here is quoting Parshat Shoftim]:
‘Who is the [person] who has built a new house but has not yet inhabited it? Let [them] go and return to their house, lest [they] die in the war and another inhabit [their] house.’
The idea of it all seems to be that if we leave something incomplete, we fall into the state of mind the rabbis called trafe da’at—a torn mind—a mind pulled in various directions.”
Who among us could answer that our minds are not pulled in many directions? As we enter this new year, when so much and so little feels new, what are we to do with a torn mind?
Rabbi Lew offers a possible approach. He writes:
“But there was another instruction officers were required to give their troops toward the end of Parshat Shoftim…
‘Who is this [person] who is fearful and faint-hearted? Let [them] go and return… lest [their family’s] heart melt as [their] heart has.’
The assumption beneath this admonition is both staggering in its scope and simplicity: we all share the same heart…. Ordinarily we are taken in by the materialist myth of discrete being. We look like we are separate bodies… Physically we can see where one of us begins and another of us ends, but emotionally, spiritually, it simply isn’t this way.”
To share a heart. To be spiritually inseparable. What might that mean? In her brilliant book My Common Heart, the poet Anne Boyer writes:
I keep in my heart my empire the spoils the missiles and congresspeople
the drones of the common empire
the radars of empire and the robotic arms of empire and the nanotechnologies of empire
the corrective surgeries and interdisciplinary departments of empire the wired and the unwired configurations of empire
the profits both personal and impersonal the margins both personal and impersonal the suffering both public and privatized the profitless profits of universities
the invisible hands of the invisible workers
the invisible hands of mostly women and children I keep in my empire the empire's hands
I keep in my heart an empire
of the sleeping and the unsleeping visible and invisible crowd I keep in my common empire my heart also common
How might we make our hearts common? To hold the suffering and the sleeping, the torn and the repaired, this world and the world to come. How to put our hearts in service of that world that art makes just barely visible, a bright possibility burning on the horizon? How to hold the truth of our nation as a white supremacist, occupying force, and the beautiful diversity of our cities, our schools, our neighborhoods. How to hold the cops kneeling on necks and pulling triggers, and Jacob Blake and George Floyd. How might we transcend the singularity of our hearts, such that they become a common heart, such that they could encompass so much pain and so much possibility?
Arthur Green, in his book Radical Judaism, suggests that “‘Transcendence’... does not refer to a God ‘out there’ or ‘over there,’ somewhere beyond the universe… Transcendence means rather that God—or Being—is so fully present in the here and now of each moment that we could not possibly grasp the depth of that presence. Transcendence thus dwells within immanence.”
I would suggest to you this morning that the spiritual work of this new year and these days of awe is precisely to find our way to the transcendence within immanence, to repair the tears in our lives and our minds. So: may we work together in the days ahead to find our way to be fully present to the fullness of this world, to make the invisible visible for ourselves and each other, to open our hearts to the commonality of our spirit, and in so doing steer our aching nation and earth toward justice, burning yet without being consumed, bright still on our horizon.