Keep Looking Up – Rosh Hashana, 1 Tishrei 5777
Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower.
I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.”
“But he’s moving, he’s moving!”
I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.” 1
These words are from Israel’s best known and most prolific poet, Yehuda Amichai. They remind us in a beautifully crafted way that the phenomenon of seeing and being seen, what we look for and what we find at any given moment depends on our point of origin. How we train our own eyes, and what we focus on. With so much tugging at the margins of our limited attention – whether Amichai’s Roman arches of history or the daily act of nourishing ourselves and our families – where and how do our eyes come to rest? What stays with us, and what goes right by as though it had never been?
I’m reminded here of a modern midrash on our Exodus from Egypt. The story told concerns two Israelites who among their exultant counterparts, complained to each other about how muddy the trek was. One complained of his hunger, the other of his thirst. They were carried along on the great tide of redemption with their eyes cast downward the entire time. In a very real sense, they missed the whole thing.
In greeting each other with the words Shana Tovah U’Metukah, let us share in the hope that this be a year of vision insight – of being there for each other, and truly seeing all that matters most.
Last August while we were visiting family on the East Coast, a meteor shower was predicted that very week. It was the kind of meteor shower with minute-by-minute updates and intense anticipation. We spent a few nights walking in open spaces under the cover of night, craning our necks to see what we could see. My husband, who just happens to be one of the most patient people I know, gazed steadily at the sky. I did my best, but inevitably my mind wandered and I would shift my eyes to look at something else. Wouldn’t you know it: at those precise moments I would hear him say “there’s one! There’s another one!” “Where?” I would demand, looking up again. But the moment had passed. The meteor was gone, with only my inattention to blame.
On the way home that night, we talked about a television astronomy program that Michael remembered from years ago, called (impossibly, for reasons we still can’t figure out) “The Star Hustler.” The host would take viewers on an adapted tour through the cosmos, throw in some educational tidbits, and at the end of each show would say to his viewers: “And remember – keep looking up.”
Like most things that sound simple enough, it isn’t… not really. In part it has to do with holding our gaze skyward for long moments where it feels like nothing is happening. How long does it take before your attention ebbs and your mind starts racing? It’s in those long moments though, as we keep our attention fixed and as we keep looking up, that the extraordinary happens, and we see it.
The other thing that happens in those moments is that somehow the ordinary becomes extraordinary. It’s a phenomenon that lies beyond words. Even Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the most noted theologians of the last century reflected that “the stirring in our hearts when watching the star-studded sky is something no language can declare.”2
Looking up becomes its own reward.
On the threshold of a new year, I want to share just a few ways with you tonight that looking up has the power to enrich us, and to change us for the better.
We don’t have to look far for the first way. It happens over and over in our own synagogue. Thanks to the hard work of architect Peter Golze and the vision of so many, one of our greatest treasures is not a piece in repose under glass in a museum, or anything we have to go far to find. It’s our very own B’nai Tikvah amphitheater. How many times have guests stepped into this space for Kiddush and marveled, “this is so beautiful! Does the view ever get old?” As a matter of fact, I asked something like this two and a half years ago. And I can now give the answer that I was given. “No. It really doesn’t.”
I’ll tell you the other view that never gets old. Looking up at you sitting on the benches…. during a Havdalah ceremony sheltered by the branches of our beloved oak tree that led us to talk about darkness, and all it symbolizes. Or at a recent service planned and led by congregants, infused by the principles of the modern Mussar movement. We all looked up that morning, and celebrated the gracefulness of the sunlight, the perfect balance of breeze and stillness, silence and song. It wasn’t just our prayer that was animated as we absorbed the view. It was also a sense of shared purpose, and an affirmation of the dignity of our relationships with each other. Our attention was pulled to the gratitude we feel when we remember that right in our own backyard is a place that encourages all this and more. After all, it was a prophet, albeit one who began from a stubborn and shortsighted place who “looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe. The spirit of God came upon (this prophet Balaam… and) he said: “How fair are your tents O Jacob/ Your dwellings O Israel.”3 All these years later, our Religious School kids open their services in the amphitheater with these same words of “Ma Tovu” … as they find their own ways of looking up.
Like all good stories that happen to be true, what takes place outside takes place inside too. Tomorrow morning at our Children’s Service, Keren Smith — our Director of Education — will be sharing a story about an apple who on Rosh Hashanah, discovers its star inside. That shouldn’t give too much away! Our own star inside – inside our Sanctuary that is – also serves as a source of visual and spiritual inspiration. Going back centuries, the Magen David – Star of David – has played a central role in defining Jewish identity. It has been painfully used against us, only to rise from the ashes with beauty and pride. In synagogue life it reminds us of the sacredness of the space we’re in, before the rabbi speaks a word or the cantor sings a note. It reminds us who we are. Our star just happens to shine above us, heightening our awareness of the majesty of every season… as long as we keep looking up. Sometimes it seems that it is bearing witness to our lives; from B’nai Mitzvah to funerals, from Shabbat services to concerts and community lectures and yes: the occasional Red Carpet Evening! Our community is growing, and our path is exciting. One of our own congregants put it beautifully when she reflected that she “keeps her eyes open when saying the Shema aloud during services, and looks directly at our Star of David as a symbol of her family’s Jewish roots, and of her gratefulness to be able to call B’nai Tikvah my Jewish home – now and for many generations to come. And THAT,” she concluded, “is something that I never want to be distracted from.”4
A few Sundays ago I met with our kindergarten class in that same Sanctuary. They had visited it with their teacher the week before, and they had some questions! Their identification of the star up above was instant, but they were most fascinated by the ner tamid – the eternal light! Something about the idea that it never goes out held their attention and didn’t let go. With wide eyes, one of our kindergartners asked: “Was the Eternal Light here before I was born?”
“Oh honey,” I wanted to say. “Yes it was.” You know better than anyone, don’t you… how to keep looking up in order to find and feel what is sweet and mysterious. And you know that looking up can turn our whole world on its axis. I no longer see only the Ner Tamid when I look up. In that flame I also see those young, inquisitive faces… that Pintele Yid. The Jewish Spark.
There is one more instance of looking up to reflect on tonight, and it’s one that will bind us all together in a very short time. The Rosh Hashanah morning Shofar service and the narrative it symbolizes is a central shared memory, one we are blessed to experience again and again with the years. It’s actually a practice that can be traced back to the Torah. We are told that when the Israelites heard its sound break through the thick cloud at the base of Mt. Sinai as God’s commandments were revealed, they trembled with awe.5 Imagine looking up to see that! Tomorrow from a somewhat more modest bimah, we will hear the shofar’s call once more. And in a sense, we will see its call as well.
We need that focal point in order to let these sounds truly enter us. That’s something our people struggled mightily with as they journeyed through the wilderness: how to remember their experience of God in such transcendent moments once they were over. On one of our most significant days – the celebration of the New Year — the shofar’s sound will be heard not from on high, nor from the veil of a dense cloud, or a curtain behind which the great and powerful Oz supposedly speaks. It will be heard from one of us. Yet some of my favorite insights about this sacred, wordless call are visual ones. The 19th century Chasidic Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (“COAT-SSKK!”) taught: “Bend! Dare to bend. The curvature of the Shofar is kafuf, or bent; it is bent to teach us to bend our stubbornness and our pride.” That’s just in case any of us are sitting here thinking that we invented negative patterns or ways of missing the mark! Here’s another recollection I’ve never forgotten: “The shofar service brings back such powerful memories. As a child I recall watching the old guy blowing the shofar on the bimah; in retrospect, he was probably younger than I am now. His face would get redder and redder – I would sit there wondering if he was going to make it!”
For him, those feelings of suspense and of being a link in the chain of generations began with keeping his eye on the sounds. Is it a paradox that we need to keep looking up in order to hear this most powerful call? I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that threads of connection are everywhere we look: there in the meteor shower, and in the image of the man carrying home fruits and vegetables for his family, resting beside a great Roman arch. There when in the words of the Psalmist, we “lift our eyes to the mountains” and ask for help.6 There when our minds come to rest, our voices come together and our Sanctuary star truly becomes ours. There in the shofar’s voice as it travels from inside out, and up. And then inside once more. There when all of this brings us into even greater connection with each other, and with God’s ineffable presence.
How we respond of course, is up to us.
On this Rosh Hashanah Eve, as we stand ready to enter into all that is yet possible, my hope for all of us is that we keep looking up, and that the gifts of insight and gratitude will be ours. Let us cast our lot not with the pundits and predictors, the naysayers and cynics, but rather with the prophets and the poets… one of whom said it best: “Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering ‘It will be better.’ ”7
May we make it so.
1 “Tourists,” by Yehuda Amichai
2 Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone, p. 4.
3 Numbers 24:5
4 Tina Guterman, “My CBT,” September 23, 2015.
5 Exodus 19:16
6 Psalm 121:1, paraphrased.
7 Alfred Lord Tennyson, “The Foresters.”