How to find and offer wisdom in a polarized world?
We live in an uncompromising age, a time of hard edges and bristling polemic. Our current culture too often confuses strength with bombast, conviction with absolutism, passion with intolerance. Deliberation and compromise are portrayed as weakness, and unyielding rigidity as power. Beit Hillel is AWOL. Rage is all the rage.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Louise Gluck wrote: “And the mind/wants to shine, plainly, as/machines shine, and not/grow deep, as for example, roots.” In Gluck’s terms, we live in a machine age: too readily and too lazily, our minds prefer shine to roots.
And then along come the High Holidays, and urge us to be the klei kodesh of a completely counter-cultural message to our people and to ourselves: slow down and stop shining. Look within before you shout without. Stop. Reflect. Struggle. Consider your responsibilities to others. Create the space for questions that do not have easy answers. Permit uncertainties that shake you off center. Allow for regret and change. Open your heart to new possibilities. Grow deep.
Consider the sound of the shofar: ragged, varied, piercing precisely because it’s not pretty. It is the sound of roots, not shine.
The Mishnah teaches (RH 3:7) that if the shofar is sounded in a pit or a cistern, if one hears the sound of the shofar, one has fulfilled the mitzvah of listening to the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. But if one hears only the sound of the echo, then one has not fulfilled the mitzvah. The Gemara (BT RH 27b) goes on to comment that if the listener is in the pit when the shofar is sounded, then surely the listener hears the sound itself, and has fulfilled the obligation. But if the listener is standing only on the edge of the pit, then the listener has only heard the echo, and has not fulfilled the obligation.
An interpretation about the opportunity and purpose of these days: if you stay only on the surface of things, if you do not grow deep, then in fact you have not fulfilled the obligation of these Days of Awe.
None of this is easy. The sermons weigh on us, the logistics burden us, we apply all sorts of pressure to ourselves, and we get stuck thinking in terms of shine rather than roots. Unwittingly, we allow the space of self to crowd out the presence of the sacred: what will they think of me? Will I be good at this? How will they react? We want to get it right and do it well, but it can be hard to distinguish the commitment to calling from the seductions of ego.
Like many of you, I have certain touchstones at this time of year: passages, poems, teachers on the page who help me stay centered. For me, the best of these anchoring teachings comes from my grandfather, Rabbi Jacob Philip Rudin z”l. Because he wrote these words for a series of homiletics lectures at HUC-JIR (in 1959), they refer specifically to preaching. But they are surely about more than that. They are about what it means to be a rabbi, and what it means to be human. They are about speaking and living with integrity and heart, at any season but especially this one. They are about going and growing deep, despite all the temptations to shine. They are a gift to me each year, and this year I hope, to you:
If you do not love those to whom you preach, you will not preach successfully. If, secretly, you do not respect those who listen to you, then you will not touch them deeply. Preaching must be purged of condescension, of a sense of superiority. If it isn’t, then you will not talk so that people will care about what you are saying. By the same token, if you have no deep concern, you may be engaged in a homiletical exercise, but not in preaching a sermon. If you do not care passionately, you will not convince your hearers that they should. If you preach from outside your subject, you will leave your hearers outside. If you preach from within, you will take your hearers into that same inner place.
May these days be eye-opening, soul-opening. May the call from the heart of the tradition enter our own. May we hear it and offer it with courage and strength, and the depth of God’s blessing. Shana Tova!
Rabbi David Stern serves Temple Emanu-El, Dallas, and is President-Elect of The Central Conference of American Rabbis