Rosh Hashanah 2012/5773 Sermon: On Spiritual Presence
Shanah tovah. I hope that this New Year 5773 is dawning sweet and bright for you and all you love.
One of Judaism’s great gifts to comedy, Woody Allen, famously said that 80% of success in life is just showing up. Rabbi Woody was right: life is about showing up — becoming more present to ourselves and our loved ones, standing in the light of self-knowledge and integrity, peeling back our layers to be all we can. It’s one of the hardest things that we humans can aspire to do, and it’s exactly what Rosh Hashanah asks us to do.
If you’re like me, this season of teshuvah, returning to ourselves, can catch you a bit by surprise. There’s a moment in mid-summer when I first notice the sun still bright but a little lower in the sky, the leaves still verdant but a just bit dull. Summer is resplendent, but a first hint comes that time is marching on. When that hint comes, suddenly I realize that summer won’t last. My mind turns to autumn, to Rosh Hashanah, to teshuvah, to return and renewal — and it hits me. Where was I? How did I miss it? What lured me away? What truth felt so inconvenient that I turned away? The turn of the season turns within me, and I begin my inward journey anew.
This is the human condition, the cyclical ebb and flow of spiritual life. We forget and we remember; we lose ourselves and something returns us to presence — maybe gently with grace, or sometimes with a jolt. We read in Ecclesiastes, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” Now is a time of teshuvah — returning to fuller awareness and showing up more fully to ourselves, our loved ones and the world. And we pray that our return will be gentle and graceful.
In the Zulu language of South Africa, the word for “hello” is sawubona, which means “I see you,” and the polite reply is ngikhona, or “I am here.” What if our own greetings were so meaningful: not just “hello” but “I see you” — really see you, all you are, your essence, your uniqueness reflecting holiness into the world. And what if we could reply, “I am here”: all that I am, rich and varied, pure and flawed, even parts of me that usually hide in plain sight — all now reveal themselves in safety and love? At this time of year, even a simple greeting asks deep awareness and presence.
Today’s Torah reading tells that Avraham bound his son Yitzchak on an altar. At the fateful moment when Avraham thought he’d do God’s will by slaying his son, we read: ויקרא אליו מלאך ה’ מן השמים ויאמר אברהם אברהם / “And God’s angel called to him from heaven saying, ‘Avraham! Avraham!’” And Avraham replied, הנני — “I am here!” Hineni. Ngikhona. I am here.
For centuries, we have wrestled this story: past generations couldn’t imagine that a loving God would ask Avraham to slay his son, and some of us can’t, either. So we evolved ways to explain how maybe we or Abraham got the story wrong. Maybe it’s a polemic against human sacrifice, a tale of what not to do. Maybe God tested Avraham to show the power of faith and build his courage. Maybe Avraham failed the test by not arguing back: maybe God wants justice and compassion more than blind obedience. Or maybe Avraham heard wrong: maybe God didn’t aim to test Avraham but uplift him and his son: in Hebrew, they’re the same word: nisah.
Many of us have felt tested by life, maybe tested by God. Maybe we lost a cherished relationship or a cherished part of ourselves — our health, our wealth, our reputation, our popularity, our self-image, our pride. There are times in every life when tests can feel like sacrifices — painful and persecuting. In the symbolism of Rosh Hashanah, we face a new year in which all we have, all we know, however much joy and blessing we may feel, inherently are uncertain. Rosh Hashanah reminds us of the timeless truth that our lives hang by a thread. Such moments can leave us feeling vulnerable — in Biblical imagery, bound on an altar. We crave knowing what God wants of us and what challenges mean — why us, why now.
One amazing thing about this story — and maybe why we tell it on Rosh Hashanah — is that of the many ways Avraham could have answered his pivotal moment of challenge, Avraham said Hineni: I am here — present, not hiding, not holding back. And Avraham said Hineni not only to himself but also to God. What’s even more amazing is that, whether or not God actually asked Avraham to sacrifice his son, that’s exactly what Avraham thought. But even so, Avraham said Hineni: I am here, God, even to You.
If so, then maybe we can understand Avraham’s story in a new way. We can hear God asking Avraham not for his son (in Hebrew, בנך) but for the parts of himself deepest within and between (in Hebrew, not בנך but בינך — nearly the same word), even his uncertainty or fear. And God didn’t ask Avraham for his only son (in Hebrew, את–יחידך) but for his essence, the soul reflecting divine light, the unique spark we all carry inside (in Hebrew, also את–יחידך, Oneness and Unity). So maybe the story calls us to return to God with our whole selves, whatever we may feel, and to do teshuvah — even with God. Today all of us are Avraham: God calls us by name, “I see you, Sawubona” — and waits for our answer, “Ngikhona, I am here, Hineni.”
Even more amazing is that we needn’t be perfect to hear this call: Avraham was flawed and very human. We need not be perfect to hear, and we needn’t be perfect to answer: as we read in the Torah yesterday, God heard Yishmael’s cry באשר הוא שם, right from where Yishmael was — thirsty, weak but exquisitely perfect in God’s eyes. Same for us: Rosh Hashanah’s call to Hineni is for us to answer wherever we are, however we are. No matter how high or low we feel, or what we think we deserve, or what we did or didn’t do, the gates of repentance, holiness and love are open to all of us. As the poet Mary Oliver put it:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
Love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
Are moving across the landscapes,
Over the prairies and the deep trees,
The mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
Are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
The world offers itself to your imagination
Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting,
Over and over anouncing your place in the family of things.
And as we answer the call and say Hineni with our lives, something magnificent can happen. In chapter 52 of the Book of Isaiah, the prophet promised: לכן ביום ההוא כי–אני–הוא מדבר הנני / “On that day, [we] shall know that, even [God] who speaks, behold, [God will say] Hineni.” On the day we say Hineni to God — fully present, in all we are, whatever our joy or our grief — in return God will say Hineni to us. As we become more present to God, so God becomes present to us. We re-discover the holy handshake, what tradition taught long ago: “Where is God? Wherever we let God in.”
This is our choice: we have the free will to say yes, and we have the free will to say no. And we are promised — not coincidentally, in just last week’s Torah portion, that making this choice is not hard as we might make it out to be. It’s not remote, or in heaven, or across the sea: כי–קרוב אליך הדבר מאוד בפיך ובלבבך לעשותו / “This matter is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, so you can do it.” It’s a choice we can make literally with our mouths and hearts — by what we say, by how we hold our emotions and the emotions of others, even with our breath. With each breath (נשימה / neshimah), with our very souls (נשמה / neshamah), each moment gives us another chance to return to God and say, Hineni: I am here.
So on this Rosh Hashanah, may each of us feel the gates open. May we return in our breath and in our hearts, hearing God call to us: Sawubona, “I see you!” May our hearts choose to answer from wherever we are: Ngikhona, “I am here!” Hineni. And as we attune to the Presence, may we soon hear God’s reply that God is Present to us: for “[o]n that day, [we] shall know that, even [God] who speaks, behold, [God will say] Hineni.”