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Rabbi's Erev Rosh Hashana Sermon: Actualizing Metaphors of the Machzor

Actualizing Metaphors of the Machzor
Erev Rosh Hashanna 5779
Rabbi Ranon Teller
Congregation Brith Shalom, Bellaire, TX

Tonight, we begin our High Holy Day journey. Tonight, we allow ourselves to be transported and lifted into transcendent, High Holy Day space. We are presented with an opportunity – the opportunity to use our religious images and our metaphysical metaphors to do our soul-work. When we read our machzor, we are presented with traditional theology in which God knows us completely. God knows our thoughts, our actions, and God knows our deepest secrets. It sets up a model of God’s involvement, directly and personally, in our lives.

We may not subscribe to this theology intellectually. Here’s my High Holy Day suggestion. Even if we don’t believe in every specific theological assertion in the machzor, we can still utilize its poetry. With one notable exception, the machzor doesn’t tell us what to believe. The exception is the prayer v’chol ma’aminim, we all believe. I’ll address that tomorrow when we get there. Aside from that prayer, Rosh Hashanna isn’t about honing our theology. The theology and the poetry are there to enable us to do the work of teshuvah: self-awareness, reflection and repentance. That’s the purpose of our machzor: to inspire the work of introspection and growth. Consider a practical approach to the machzor. You don’t have to necessarily believe in the theology of the machzor in order to use the machzor’s literary artistry to become more self-aware and more repentant.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein suggests that we view the machzor like an art gallery. Each prayer hangs before us, a glimpse of the world from a great poet’s point of view. Here’s one example.

Next week, on Yom Kippur, during the culmination of our High Holy Day journey, as we confess our sins, we’re going to open our machzor and pray these words, “God, You know the mysteries of the world and You know our innermost secrets.” Ata yodea razei olam, ata yodea sitrei kol chai. God knows and sees everything. God knows our actions and our intentions – and our secrets.

This machzor poetry asks us to imagine that when we become more connected with God – when we let God in – we open our selves; we open ourselves to a broader view of the world. The idea of God knowing our secrets allows us to access that perspective. We’re not alone. We’re being accompanied and observed down to our very core. We can use our imagination and access God’s perspective and look at ourselves from a different vantage point. We can look back at ourselves and become more self-aware. We can look at our friends and our family with new eyes – from a long-view, a broad perspective, a more strategic approach – and develop more patience and deeper understanding. Our machzor can help us reflect and become more self-aware.

Psychologists have discovered that the key to emotional intelligence is self‑awareness. People who are self-aware tend to act more deliberately rather than react passively. People who are self-aware tend to be in good psychological health and have a positive outlook on life. They tend to be more compassionate to themselves and to others, open to learning and growth. Rabbi Debra Orenstein wrote, “The first step to true repentance is to overcome our natural, understandable resistance to finding ourselves at fault.” No one likes being wrong. That’s the challenge to self-awareness.

Research has shown that self-awareness is the primary trait of successful business leaders. In a study at Cornell University, researchers found that the strongest predictor of overall success was a high score in self-awareness.

When we cultivate our self-awareness, we become more successful, more compassionate, and just overall better at life. The question remains, “What’s God got to do with it?”

When we spend time and energy in “God space,” in a religious environment, we practice the art of seeing ourselves with more clarity and more honesty. Imagine what it feels like to be known completely – more than humanly possible – inside and out. Let’s call that God’s perspective. The prayer in the machzor invites us to imagine that God knows us completely. When we suspend our intellectual, theological resistance, we can enter a powerful place of symbolism and mythology. When we imagine, pray, understand that God really knows everything about us, we might as well get honest with ourselves. And it is this transparency that sets up the Yom Kippur confessional. Once we’ve achieved a depth of transparency with ourselves, repentance can follow.

We’re all human, and that means we’re all fallible. In certain aspects of our lives, we have not lived up to our own standards. We have let ourselves down. We have let other people down. The theology of our machzor asks us to imagine that God already knows all this. God knows our actions and God knows our intentions. God knows that we mess up sometimes. We were created that way. And, according to the machzor, we are judged generously. We go through the painful process of acknowledging our shortcomings – with a loving, nurturing God. God gives us the benefit of the doubt. God judges us by our actions and by our intentions – and God judges favorably on both counts. The rabbis explain.

Our Talmud teaches that when we perform good actions, even without the best of intentions, then God judges by our actions. And when we don’t perform good actions, but we had good intentions, God judges us by our intentions. God judges favorably – both ways! The machzor poetry encourages us to seek repentance with our compassionate, forgiving, patient God – rachum, vchanun, erech apayim – God gives us every benefit of doubt. Our relationship with God is a source of inspiration to set our standards high, to feel remorse when we miss the mark, and return once again to exceed those expectations.

Our machzor is a glorious museum filled with the greatest Jewish text and poetry and song of all time. I pray that we use these High Holy Day services to give ourselves the gift of spending time with each prayer, appreciating its poetry, and allowing ourselves to be carried – lifted up toward ultimate perspective and self-awareness.

Ribono shel Olam, Source of All, You know the mysteries of all eternity and You know our innermost secrets. We are fully transparent before You: all our strengths and successes, and all our weaknesses and failures. Help us enter these High Holy Days body, mind, and soul, so that we become more self-aware and more sensitive to the people around us. And in that way, we will be inspired to repent and grow, to heal, and to actualize our potential. May we become a true blessing for ourselves, for the people in our lives, and for all the world. And together we say: Amen.