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Sacred Discomfort – erev Rosh Hashana

Shana Tovah! Whether you are joining us here in person or online, we are so grateful to have you here in our sacred community. And whether you are joining us here in person or online, this probably isn’t the Rosh Hashana you were dreaming of when we gathered virtually last year.

To have survived from one year to another is always an accomplishment. This year, especially, we are grateful for our life and our health, and the progress that has been made in fighting COVID-19. Many of us were able to get vaccinated this year, from our senior citizens to our b’nai mitzvah. Even if we aren’t quite back to our normal ways of gathering, many of us have been able to reconnect with friends and family, and return to many of our beloved places and activities.

This year, we also have a new beloved place in which to gather. Last year, there was a great deal of uncertainty about the future of Kol Ami’s physical location. Tonight, we are grateful to have entered into a partnership with Beth Sholom Congregation, so that we might make a new home for ourselves on this campus. We are proud that our High School Road property will continue to be a Jewish institution, and that the proceeds from the sale will help us to sustain our own community for years to come.

But we cannot celebrate this new year without acknowledging all that we have lost this past year. While we hope that many of the empty chairs in this room will one day be filled with people, we all have places at our tables, and in our hearts, that will remain empty. Some of us have lost loved ones; nearly all of us have lost precious time with the ones we love. We have faced illness and injury, suffered frustrations and failures of leadership. We acknowledge all of this pain, and we pray for the strength to move through it together in the coming year.

While coming together for Rosh Hashana provides us with a much-needed sense of familiarity, we must also acknowledge that so much is different this year. It may take a long time to get used to this space and to learn how we will operate within it. We still have many questions to answer and problems to solve. All of that uncertainty—something we have had way too much of over the last two years—can feel extremely uncomfortable.

But in case a year and a half of watching services from our couches has made us forget, the High Holy Days are not supposed to be comfortable.

We don’t welcome the New Year with the smooth sound of a silver trumpet. The cry of the shofar is a raw, animal sound—meant to snap us out of our slumber, and break down the walls we put up to protect ourselves. We hear harsh words and face hard truths. Staring into the chasm between who we are and who we want to be, both as individuals and as a sacred community, can make us profoundly uncomfortable.

That discomfort is an essential part of the Jewish story. In fact, it’s an essential part of any good story.

In Brene Brown’s book Rising Strong, Pixar producer Darla Anderson lays out the three acts of an animated film:

“Act 1: The protagonist is called to adventure and accepts the adventure. …

Act 2:  The protagonist looks for every comfortable way to solve the problem. …This act includes the ‘lowest of the low.’

Act 3: The protagonist needs to prove [they’ve] learned the lesson, usually showing a willingness to prove this at all costs” (Rising Strong 29-30).

We see these acts played out also in the Jewish story. Someone says Hineini—Here I Am. They end up in a pit, in jail, bound to an altar, or in the belly of a whale, before realizing what it will take to follow the path that God has laid out for them.

Take the story of Jonah, a High Holy Day favorite, for example. In Act 1, God calls to Jonah to be a prophet, and Jonah buys a ticket on a boat heading out of town. In Act 2, Jonah is thrown overboard and calls out to God from inside the belly of a fish, his personal “lowest of the low.” In Act 3, Jonah arrives in Nineveh, ready to speak the truth.

Looking at this model, usually used to plot the movement of computer-generated animations, Brene Brown shares an important truth about the stories of our lives: We can’t skip Act 2.

“Whatever that middle space is for your own process,” she writes. “[Act 2] is when you’re ‘in the dark’—the door has closed behind you. You’re too far in to turn around and not close enough to the end to see the light.” Whether you are a cartoon clownfish, a biblical prophet, a human being doing teshuva, or a community inhabiting a new space, Act 2 is “a non-negotiable part of the process” (Rising Strong 26-7).

In a movie, the drama of Act 2 serves to create tension and hold the viewers’ interest. But in life, where we have more than enough drama and tension, thank you very much, Act 2 is where we come face to face with the mistakes of our past, the challenges of our present, and the work we need to do to create a better future.

The High Holy Days are all about Act 2. And this year, especially, we get it. 

The shofar blast on Rosh Hashana morning splits open the happy little world of Act 1. It calls us to go deep into that dark middle space and examine our lives and our selves. How did we get to where we are today? What works, or doesn’t work, about how we are living our lives? And what is the hard work that needs to be done to ready us for Act 3?

Brown calls this the reckoning, the rumble, and the revolution. The reckoning is walking into our story, taking a step back to acknowledge what is happening in our lives. The rumble is owning our story, diving deep into why we do what we do, what the consequences of our actions have been, and how we need to change. Finally, the revolution is writing a new ending for our story, by changing the way we engage with the world. It is only by doing the hard, uncomfortable, and sacred work of Act 2, that we can Rise Strong after a setback, and live our lives in a more wholehearted way.

The Jewish tradition calls the work of Act 2 teshuva, tefillah, and tzedaka. Teshuva is when we turn inward and examine the impact of our own choices. Tefillah is when we turn towards God for guidance and the strength to change our lives. Tzedakah is when we turn outward, to make things right within our communities, and to help those in need.

In our teshuva process, as in a Pixar movie, we can’t skip Act 2. We can try our best to root our feet firmly in Act 1 and stay there, pushing down the emotions that result from the negative patterns in our lives. We can let the rifts in our relationships grow wider, and refuse to take responsibility for healing the hurts we have caused. We can stay in one place, until someone else shuts the lights off on us.

But no one wants to see that movie. Because in that story, there is no Act 3. There is no new-and-improved us, riding off into the sunset, ready for the next day’s adventure. There is no new-and-improved relationship, based on honesty, vulnerability, and mutual trust. There is no better life or better future about to be handed to us. We have to open the door to the darkness of Act 2, so that we can go out and grab Act 3 for ourselves.

Act 2 is uncomfortable, whether we are seeking to change ourselves, repair our relationships, or transform our communities. But this is the discomfort we feel when we are engaged in the holy work of transformation. This is a sacred discomfort.

Years ago, as many Reform communities were introducing the new High Holy Day prayer book, my friend, Shira Teich, told this story: Her parents, Rabbi Bob and Cynthia Rozenberg, were at a conference discussing how to revise Gates of Repentance (the red one), to be more gender-inclusive. The most contentious discussion whether to change, Avinu Malkeinu, which translates to, “Our Father, Our King,” to Avinu Imeinu, “Our Father, Our Mother.” You can probably imagine how it felt for the people in this meeting to hear the new version of the prayer for the first time. Uncomfortable, right?

But one participant said, bravely, “I’m willing to be a part of the generation that feels uncomfortable, so that the generation after me can experience this as normal.”

Not everyone was open to this level of discomfort, however. Avinu Imeinu was relegated to an appendix of the revised machzor, and thus it never really caught on.

Shira’s story reminds us that nothing can ever really change without one generation feeling uncomfortable. For every generation, there is something “we’ve always done this way,” and a way that things have been “for as long as we can remember.”

This feeling of discomfort is a major theme in the Exodus story. Throughout the Israelites’ journey out of Egypt, those who had literally been slaves to Pharaoh were suddenly plagued… with nostalgia. “Yes, we were slaves,” they conceded. “But we ate three square meals a day. There was meat and fish and fresh produce. We never had to worry about what was coming next. This wilderness is dangerous, and the Promised Land is full of giants! I don’t care if it is flowing with milk and honey. I’d rather live as a slave than die out here.”

I’m paraphrasing, but I’m not making any of this up. The Israelites, who literally ate manna from heaven, and bore witness directly to God’s miraculous intervention in history, said often that they would rather return to their known experience of slavery than muddle through the discomfort and uncertainty that comes with freedom. 

Because of this unwillingness to be the uncomfortable generation, God turned their words into a self-fulfilling prophecy: The generation that fondly remembered slavery in Egypt did not make it to the Promised Land. Only the generation born in the wilderness was ushered into their rightful place in the land of Israel.

The Hebrew word for wilderness, midbar, contains the same letters as m’daber, speech. Thus the rabbis tell us that God could only speak the words of the Torah to us in the wilderness, far removed from our experience of slavery. But the rabbis take this one step further, teaching us that we not only have to be in the wilderness, we have to become like the wilderness. Only when a person is humbled and deserted and open like the wilderness can they receive the teachings of the Torah, and learn them in an enduring way (Nedarim 55a/Eruvin 54a).

Well, if that is true, this community is more than ready to receive some Torah. Wandering has always been a part of our not-yet-forty-year history as a congregation. And for the last year and a half, we’ve been wandering in cyberspace, as we took precautions against COVID-19, and transitioned from one physical space to another.

Sometimes, as we enter the High Holy Day season, we consider how we might need to make ourselves uncomfortable, in order to make this a season of change? But most of us haven’t had to seek out discomfort this year. Instead, we might ask ourselves, how has the discomfort of this past year changed us? How has it disturbed the familiar patterns in our lives and our relationships? How has it changed our priorities? How has it influenced the dreams we have for our selves, our loved ones, our communities, our nation, and our world? How can we transform this unavoidable discomfort into sacred discomfort?

In many ways, these High Holy Days were supposed to be our community’s triumphant Act III. If we were following the Pixar formula, Act I was when our leadership realized that Kol Ami needed to do something radical in order to sustain ourselves for another generation. They then set out on the hero’s journey of determining the best course of action. In Act II, our community reckoned and rumbled with the heartbreaking news that our best way forward was to sell our property on High School Road and find a space to rent. For some of us, saying goodbye to our beloved building might have felt like “the lowest of the low.”

We might think, then, that we are solidly in Act III, having arrived at our new space, our building sold, our endowment established. But we are really only beginning Act II. Once again, we face the reckoning, the rumble, and the revolution as we consider how we inhabit this new space and establish our identity here.

There are many questions still to rumble with: How do we make this space feel like our home, even as we share it? How do we live out our values of inclusion and accessibility in this new space? How do we form strong relationships with our friends at Beth Sholom Congregation while maintaining our own unique identity? How do we respect the traditions of our neighbors while being true to ourselves? How do we cultivate the love and familiarity we once felt on High School Road? And what technology and innovation, creativity and outreach, do we need to develop in order bring that sense of community to an even wider circle of people?

We might be starting to formulate some answers to these questions. But none of us have all the answers to these questions. Answering these questions, even asking these questions in the first place, is going to be uncomfortable. It is already uncomfortable.

But this can be a sacred discomfort. Because this is discomfort rooted in the desire for the Kol Ami community, and Beth Sholom’s community, to be partners in building a vibrant, sustainable, multifaceted Jewish future in this neighborhood.

The only way we have ever affected meaningful change has been by disrupting the way things are, and inhabiting that uncomfortable space between where we’ve been and where we are going. We will need to have conversations about difficult things, amongst ourselves and with our neighbors, without shutting each other down. Not everything will go the way that we want it to go. The solutions we reach together might be a little bit uncomfortable for everyone. But by staying in conversation with one another, we make it possible to continue the work of our sacred community, even when we disagree.

And if we can go on this adventure, what might our Act III look like? It will look like weddings and b’nai mitzvah, Shabbatot and holidays, in a space that feels like home. It will look like our art on these walls and our people in these offices. It will look like our children bursting through the front door on Sunday mornings and Wednesday afternoons, the choir’s music resonating in its rehearsal space, the volley of lively Torah study in the chapel. It will look like opportunities to form new partnerships with our neighbors. It will look like joyfully greeting our neighbors in the hallways as we head to our own unique activities. It will look like a new generation that grows up here, unable to imagine that we used to be anywhere else. It will be starting all over again in Act I, turning ourselves toward new challenges and new adventures, as we enter the hero’s journey of becoming an intimate and dynamic community in the 21st century.

These journeys are neither simple nor straightforward. So tonight we pray for the strength to stand in our disagreements and our discomfort. Let us enter this Act 2 with our minds and our hearts open to the possibilities of transformation. And let us not pray only for pleasant conversation and peaceful resolution of conflicts. Rather, let us pray for the courage to make ourselves uncomfortable. And let us say, Amen. Shana Tovah.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz