A Prayer For the Wounded; A Prayer From the Wounded
Rosh Hashanah 5779
My sisters and brothers, I want to thank you for inviting me to join you for these days, especially for these days when, if you’re like me, you know it is important to be here but perhaps you’re not sure why; you know you want something out of it, but perhaps you’re not sure what. Even my father, am avowed secularist who never belonged to a synagogue, would make it his business to be in synagogue for the High Holy Days. Why? It was important.
We come for a variety of reasons. Maybe for comfort, maybe for inspiration. Maybe it’s to remind ourselves of who we are; or to discover who we might be; and maybe it has something to do with that awesome Out There or that intimate In Here we don’t understand but sometimes name “God.”
And let’s be honest – these are, to say the least, crazy times. No matter what your politics, and no matter where you look, what we see suggests that things are more weighted this year, and that the work of Rosh Hashana - to hide? To regroup? To change? To change the world? – is even more urgent.
So we come with all of that on our minds, not sure exactly what we want but hoping for some guidance, and what do we find?
A great big book.
A book written in a foreign language, and with a translation no less alien. And while there are differences from page to page it can be hard to tell them apart, or to find an arc, or narrative, or sense of direction. It’s not surprise, then, that Jews are constantly coming out with new editions of the Machzor, the High Holiday Prayer book: Maybe if we get the book right, we’ll get the we’ll get the praying right.
Or maybe not. The late Abraham Joshua Heschel said that we were getting it backwards, “We don’t need a revision of the text, we need a revision of the soul.”
That sounds like an overwhelming challenge, that we must revise our soul before we can begin to make sense out of the prayerbook, but what he meant, or part of what he meant, was simply that the work of encountering this book begins with an act of attunement, of being willing to open ourselves up to the magnificent strangeness of the liturgy.
Shall we try?
Let’s take one of the most common Jewish prayers, the Sh’ma. It’s said in almost every service, so perhaps you are familiar with it, but if not that’s ok. It is named for the opening line – “Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ehad” – “Listen up, Israel: Adonai is our God; Adonai is One.” But as some of you know, there is more to it than that. It is made up of three different passages from the Torah: To love God, to follow God’s teaching, and to remember that God is the liberator of slaves.
In that passage on the Teaching, it says, “V’samtem et divrai eileh all l’vavchem v’al nafshechem” – “Place them, these my words on your heart and on your soul.” (p. 77)
That sounds very nice as it rushes by, but what does it mean?
We are not the first to wonder. Almost 2,000 years ago rabbis asked the same question, and one of them answered by way of a play on words. Don’t read it as samtem – place them – but sam tam – a perfect medicine. These my words are a perfect medicine for your heart wounds.
Does that make you roll your eyes?
I must be honest with you: if all this meant was “Torah is good for what ails you,” I don’t know what I’d do with it. I’m suspicious of what sounds to me like simplistic piety, and I certainly don’t have any access to a vision of a world in which everything is made nice by Bible verses. If someone tells me that all I need to do is have faith in “God’s word” they’ve lost me. But our teacher here is much tougher-minded than that, and he offers a parable to explain his vision of the world:
“Imagine a father who wounds his child.” Why? As a punishment? Out of anger? The author of this teaching, this midrash, doesn’t say. He goes on, “The father then gives his child a poultice to put on the wound, and says, ‘My child, keep this on you, and you’ll be fine – you can eat, and drink, and go swimming, whatever you like. But it won’t heal the wound, and if you take it off you’ll be in danger.’”
That’s us, the midrash suggests. Each one of us has been dealt a blow that threatens not our flesh but something deeper, and in need of some sort of medicine to keep the corruption at bay.
But what is that blow? What do you think? Is it lust? Greed? Desire?
By way of an answer, this anonymous rabbi turned to a story way back at the beginning, and since we’re celebrating the Creation of the World – even if we don’t believe in it – it’s appropriate for us to turn back to that story, too.
Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gained a male child with the help of the LORD.” She then bore his brother Abel. Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil. In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the LORD from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The LORD paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell. And the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you distressed, and why is your face fallen? Surely, if you do right, There is uplift. But if you do not do right Sin couches at the door; Its urge is toward you, Yet you can be its master.” Cain said to his brother Abel … and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.
I have to tell you that this is the midrash (Kiddushin 30b) that led me to fall in love with reading Rabbinic texts, because look at what it is saying: “Why did Cain kill Abel? Because he was angry. Why was he angry? Because his sacrifice was rejected. Why was his sacrifice rejected? We. Don’t. Know.”
Just as we don’t know why the father in the parable wounded his son, we don’t know why God rejected Cain’s sacrifice. We’re all taught as children that there must have been something wrong with it, or with Cain, but there’s nothing in the Biblical text to that extent.
Now, the proposition that Cain might offer a sacrifice, and that it would be perfectly good, and nevertheless God doesn’t accept it is grossly unfair. It’s even scandalous. But I am here to tell you that that doesn’t matter, not to the rabbis and not to us. Our only question is, is it true?
Is it true that sometimes you can offer something of yourself to the world and it gets rejected? That you can try and do everything you think you’re supposed to and still things don’t work? That the recognition that you most want is withheld?
This is what it means to be human, the rabbis said. That’s what it’s like to live in the world: sometimes what we most want doesn’t happen. And while the pain that causes is bad enough, the problem is what that pain and the subsequent ego-wound did to Cain, and what it might do to us.
So I ask again: Is that true? Is it true about us? Does our experience of a painful world sometimes make us smaller than we’d like to be, angrier than we’d like to be, more defensive or more offensive than we’d really like to be?
Is it true about others? Do we see that in the world around us: lashing out or closing off against others when the real threat is the one that’s inside the self? Would the world be a better place if we all had that sam tam, that perfect medicine, on our hearts and on our souls?
Maybe this is what Heschel meant, about changing ourselves so that we can encounter the prayers. That we can look at that page, at that piece of the Sh’ma, and think – yes, I have a wound right here, and I could sure use a bandage.
What would happen if we had a way of reminding ourselves of this, that we’re struggling with an ego wound, and maybe it would be a good idea not to allow ourselves to be led astray, not to lash out?
If we were able to remind ourselves that others, too, are struggling with their wounds – would it change the way we encountered them?
Even if we don’t know what to do with words like “God” or “Torah”, even if we don’t believe anything about them, would that make a difference, do you think, if every now and then – once a week, once a month, even a couple of times a year – when we came to the Sh’ma and saw those words, we took just that moment to bring to mind our struggle.
Would we be better able to be in the world, to be the kind of people we need to be?
And now see where we’ve come – we thought we had to change ourselves to meet the prayer, but we find that in meeting the prayer, it changes us in return. Perhaps, even if that’s the only thing we payed attention to in this whole big book, that would be enough?
Is that enough? Given the challenges facing us, however you define them, can it make a difference?
I think the answer – I think the answer offered by Rosh Hashanah, in particular – is yes. Because if the Torah taught offers us Cain as a warning, it also offers us Abraham as a possibility.
In our Torah reading we encounter Abraham, today and tomorrow; in some ways he’s the “hero” of Rosh Hashana. We’ll spend some time tomorrow talking about those stories - and you should know right now that they’re not easy and they’re not pretty, though perhaps that’s alright for Rosh Hashana, to focus on the difficult. But just as we look to the first humans to find out about our humanity, we look to the first Jews to find out about that part of our identity.
Abraham, we say, is our Father, and even if he was not perfect, God used him to bring this whole enterprise into being. Why did God pick him? At first we don’t see him do much on his own – he goes where God sends him, he takes care of his clan – until just before our reading.
The LORD appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, “My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on—seeing that you have come your servant’s way.” They replied, “Do as you have said.” Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quick, three seahs of choice flour! Knead and make cakes!”
I want to point out three things about this passage, particularly as it was read by the rabbis:
1) Our sages understood from the fact that we read of the strangers right after reading that God appeared to Abraham that Abraham went to greet the strangers while God was talking to him; that he had actually put God on hold, as it were, to attend to the human beings before him.
2) They imagined that he didn’t just happen to see strangers, but that it was his practice to sit in a tent open on all four sides, actively looking to see who might need hospitality.
3) And, based on the text preceding this, they imagined this particular event happening just as Abraham was recovering from his own circumcision, his own most intimate wound.
What were the rabbis telling us about Abraham?
While the ego-hurts that come to us as our birthright can make us want to lash out or close ourselves tight, to protect ourselves in our vulnerability, Abraham found a way to open himself up to the stranger even at his most vulnerable. Rather than protect himself he extended himself. Wounded by life – as we all are – the Abraham of the Rabbis’ mind found that poultice, that perfect medicine, that allowed him to turn to those potentially scary strangers, at least at this moment, and that welcome made all the difference in the world. All the difference to the world.
My sisters and brothers:
We have come here from all kinds of backgrounds and for all kinds of reasons. But all of us would like to see the world better in the coming year, and ourselves better in the coming year. And what the Tradition has to offer us is this: Cain was wounded, Abraham was wounded, and we are wounded, too. But the difference between Cain and Abraham was in their ability to deal with that blow, turning to fear and anger and violence, or opening the heart even more. We know which way we want to go, and which way the world needs us to go.
Let’s close by returning to Heschel. By following his advice, we have already begun the work. By opening ourselves up a little to the prayers and the texts and the teachings, we have allowed them to work a little bit upon us, to change us just a touch. In spite of our hurts, we have become just a little more open. We have begun to sense that sam tam, that perfect poltice, and having done that we can begin to share it and ourselves with others. Sweeter than honey, it is; may it be yours throughout the year.