The Black Moon of Beginning
by Jhos Singer
(This is the text from a drash Maggid Jhos delivered at our Rosh Hashanah service, Tuesday October 2nd 2016)
Our community has suffered many losses this year. I dedicate my teaching tonight to you whose lives and families have been touched by death. May you be blessed with patience, compassion and the courage to find your way through this time of readjustment. Let’s offer a moment of silent gratitude to those who have come and gone before us.
The new year of 5777 begins now. We sit under the hidden moon of new beginnings, poised to face change head on, to examine and correct our missteps and celebrate our ever unfolding and sacred journey in these ever changing bodies, on this remarkable ever changing planet.
To be honest, this year has been hard. So much death in our community, the endless psycho circus presidential election, the obvious and desperate need for gun control, the undeniable fact that xeno-, homo- and, transphobia, racism, anti-semitism, and sexism are alive and thriving in explicit, implicit and institutionalized expressions. Climate change is real and we are totally unprepared. Not to mention the growing presence of unrepentant thuggery on the political world stage. It’s got me down, it’s got me angry and it’s got me scared… and grumpy, snarky, and pessimistic and for reasons I do not understand I grab my cell phone first thing in the morning to see what new irritation has arisen while I slumbered.
And so I am especially grateful this year to our tradition, which sets aside time for us to wrap our heads around the stunning truth that nothing is forever; that change is a given, be it cataclysmic or incremental, desired or dreaded.
Change is hard and exciting, heart-breaking and liberating. Change comes inevitably and unavoidably, with or without our invitation; every living moment, with every breath, every step, and every heartbeat we are changing. So, the question is not, “Will we change?” but, “HOW will we change”, “WHEN will we change”, “WHY will we change”???
What will motivate us?—The quest for Shalom/Equanimity? Or ensuring our individual power and privilege? Will we pursue Justice and social equality? Or will we defend only our tribe, our family, our interests? Will we cling to the past or will we edge our way into the future. Will we answer to this one, or to The One?
There is so much that we cannot control, but the outcome of the human story is still up for grabs. Judaism teaches us that through Tshuvah—our ability to correct our own behavior and direction—and Tephilla—our willingness to humbly ask for help—and Tzedaka—our commitment to live a righteous life—we can avert the severe decree of our own self-destruction.
My guess is that we wouldn’t be here tonight if we didn’t aspire to health and wholeness, peace and justice. And the tradition is, mamash, totally rooting for us. That said, it is a given that no matter how sincerely we are committed to tikkun olam and tikkun hanefesh — repair of the world and healing of our souls — we will repeatedly lose our way….thrown off course by selfishness, ego, and our fear.
And so it is fitting that we sit here tonight, under the black moon of beginning, to take stock, to review the alignment of our beliefs with our behavior, and to allow new directions to develop in the darkness.
The Torah for Rosh Hashannah relates the tale of a group of ancient visionaries who, like many of us tonight, sought to bring enlightenment and healing to their world. Inspired by a vision of Oneness, Abraham, Sarah, Lot and his family, set out from their middle class suburb or Haran, just outside of the thriving metropolis of Ur Chaldees to embark on a spiritual mission. They leave cushy lives, comfortable homes, and their parents’ culture of human sacrifice and polytheism to pursue a new vision of spiritual wholeness. Tellingly, they do not leave their slaves, nor their wealth, these they bring along. Clearly, we are certainly not the first generation to fumble our spiritual ideals for material comfort.
Their journey, full of adventures and great stories, famously falls apart. Lot and company break off early on. Desperate for children after 10 years of wandering, Sarah sets Abraham up with her Egyptian servant Hagar who easily conceives and has a son, Ishmael. Not surprisingly, this complicates the family dynamic considerably.
Thirteen more years of drama follows. Finally, Sarah herself bears a son, Isaac. Now a new mother, Sarah banishes Hagar and Ishamel in a fit of paranoia and self-interest, which Abraham tacitly allows. Isaac grows up; and then, Abraham, in his dotage, is tested by God.
The Holy One calls, “Abraham.”
And Abraham answers, “Hineini—I’m here.”
God says, “Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and bring him up to the land of Moriah as an offering upon one of the mountains which I will show you.”
Abraham complies, and is about to carry out the sacrifice, when he is stopped by an angel, who shows him a ram caught in a thicket to use as a substitute. Abraham stops, sacrifices the ram instead, and God says, “Bi nishbati… I myself swear, Since… because of this thing you have done and you didn’t withhold your only son…. I will bless you.
What?!? The mainstream read on this text is that Abraham passed the test. That his willingness to sacrifice his son proved that he was worthy to be God’s selected agent.
This strikes many of us as immoral and wrong; we wonder what kind of a God would ask this of us? It is at this very scriptural moment that we must remember that the text of Torah isn’t designed to tell us what is right or wrong, or how to think and behave, but rather to ask us to search the storiy to find the truth ourselves. Interpretation of Torah isn’t an act of solipsistic speculation but a creative vehicle for us to contribute our unique perspective to the repository of Jewish wisdom.
As I read this text, God is reprimanding Abraham—
“Hineini—I am here.”
“No, you’re not! Abraham, How, after spending 23 years committed to transcendant spirituality, could you, without a word of protest, revert to the sacrificial practices you swore to me you had rejected!?”
I think he failed the test, and according to the rabbis, so did Abraham himself.
In the Talmud, Sanhedrin 89b, the rabbis literally read between the lines, to intuit a reluctant Abraham and fill out the encounter:
God calls, “Abraham” and Abraham answers, “Hineini” I am here.
“Take your son.” Abraham answers, “I have two sons.”
“Your only son.” Abraham counters, “Isaac is the only son I have from his mother, and Ishmael is the only son I have from his mother.”
“The one you love.” “Master of the Universe, can the heart compartmentalize love? I love them both.”
A later midrash, picks up the story from here. As Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac, the Angels rebuke God for setting this into motion. God snaps “So why are you just standing there?!? You care so much? You go stop him.”
Instantly an angel appears before Abraham, saying “Abraham, Abraham!!” Abraham replies, “Hineini” I am here.
The angel says, “Don’t lay a hand on the lad.”
Abraham looks up and says, “Who are you to stop me? The Holy One told me to offer my son. If He wants me to stop, He should tell me Himself.”
God hears this and cracks open the heavens, crying out “Bi nishbati” I swear, it is me.
Abraham confused, angry, and shaken says “You listen to me now. You said my descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the skies, from whom did you think they would come?”
“And yet you told me to sacrifice him. And I should have questioned that… I didn’t respond as I should have. But since I have bound my son, consider it is as if he was ash on the altar. And have compassion for his children, forgive them for their failings and redeem them from their suffering.”
The Holy One responded, “You’ve had your say, now I will have mine. Isaac’s descendants will sin in my very presence and so I will have to judge them every Rosh Hashannah. Because of this moment, I will hear those who cry out to Me to remember they have merit despite their mistakes. For that, let them blow the horn from this creature.”
God said, “Turn around.”
And Abraham saw the ram caught in the thicket and watched it break free, only to get re-tangled on a tree branch, break loose from that and get stuck in a bramble, break loose and get free, break loose and get free until he grabbed it.
The Holy One said, “Abraham, this is the way it will be for your children as it is for you—they will see clearly, and then be trapped in delusions and then get free only to be trapped again and break free again….”
And Abraham cried, “Master of the Universe, will it always be so?”
“No, in the end they will be redeemed by the wailing, cries and whispers of the rams horn.”
Tonight we gather together to cry out, to wail, to whisper, to sing, to meditate, to pray.
I was born and raised in LA, and like Abraham and his crew, I fled from the bright lights, big city as soon as I could. I set out with a friend in a red, 1968 VW van, which backfired and lurched its way North, dumping me out in Portland Oregon in the spring of 1978. I loved my new home at 1427 SE Taylor St. I had 7 roommates, I was an anti-nuclear activist, I was a member of an organic food co-op, I hung out on a communal farm with a bunch of highly educated, mostly Jewish, old school lefty radicals, I didn’t have a car, I rode my bike everywhere, and I fell utterly in love with the natural beauty and splendor of the Pacific Northwest.
Perhaps the most iconic symbol of the region’s rugged glamour was Mt. St. Helens. She was the epitome of a “purple mountain’s majesty”. Seen from Portland, 50 miles to the southwest, she was a perfectly proportioned, snow capped, equilateral triangle sitting solidly on the horizon. Grand and picturesque, Mt. St. Helens was a comforting sight to my idealistic, radical 19-year-old eyes, radiating a sense of eternal strength and stability.
Mt. St. Helens was, in fact, a volcano. On the morning of May 18, 1980 the earth shook and she exploded in the most destructive and deadly volcanic eruption in the history of the United States. The explosion completely disfigured the mountain. In the first 9 hours a billowing cloud rose creating a ragged crater that dumped 540 million tons of volcanic ash along a 200 mile-long corridor, over an area of more than 22,000 square miles. Most of it went northeast, so Portland only got the backwash. Even so, everything we touched for weeks was dusted with an atomized mountaintop. Abrasive grit crept under our doors, it crunched between our teeth, it irritated our eyes and lungs, it covered our cars and bikes. It left subtle scratches where it had been wiped off, it clogged drains and left a greyish residue wherever it landed—an annoying reminder that all form is fickle.
And then, months later, the dust revealed its other face. It turned out that miniscule seeds rode the blast 10 miles into the sky and 200 miles across the land, and when the fall rains came, they brought forth new life in new places. In the spring we had been covered in the dust of a decimated mountain, but in the fall we witnessed the emergence of a living carpet of brilliant color that grew from the ash.
If an almost imperceptible fireweed seed could endure the what a mountain could not, I had to wonder: might it be that in the clinging dust of our own explosions, of fear, of anger and pain, there are seeds of new life seeking to sprout even as we sit here together?
The psalmist raises and answers similar questions. Psalm 121 asks: “I raise my eyes to the mountains and ask where will my help come from?” I, 1980 I learned this much, it won’t be from the mountains. They will only say, “Jhos, I look strong but I am fractured and fragile just like you. You want help? Look in the dust.” From where will it come? The Psalm continues: “My help will come from far beyond the mountain, it will come from mystery, it will come from the source of day and night, heaven and earth, it will come from the spark of the divine that is hidden in the tiny seeds that will survive even the most fiery eruptions of change. My help is in the mystery that is at the heart of everything.”
Tonight we cross the threshold of a new year under a dark sky. At this very moment we are positioned between our unmoving star, the Sun, which we circle, and the ever-moving Moon, which circles us. Tonight we block the sun’s light, and the moon seems to have disappeared from the sky. But it hasn’t. Tomorrow night, or the night after we will have shifted again, and a skirt of light will make its way around us; it will catch on the edge of our satellite, projecting a radiant sliver in the heavens. That sliver will thicken until the full moon illuminates the night. This interplay between light and darkness, between what can be seen and what cannot is the way Judaism marks the passage of time and the evolution of our souls.
Time is the undisputed ruler of change. Time forces everything along its cyclical path; from the moment we are born, our cells are herded along by minutes, hours, days and years, traveling a constantly shifting trajectory towards death. It is up to us to use our days and nights wisely, to find wisdom in every change, to mine time for gems of beauty, awe, compassion, joy and faith. We were designed to change, to grow and collapse, to get caught and break free, to scatter our seeds and rebuild after great change and loss, change and loss. And that is the great work we attend to now.
And so, I invite you to take a moment of silence, to focus your attention on one change that is really up for you right now. What has changed or what needs to change for you, and how are you embracing or resisting that change? Try to focus on just one.
Now—find a partner—we will spend the next minute letting one of you will be a witness for the other to express an intention for how to face the change your want to make in your life, or the change that you are in the midst of experiencing. You can be vague, or if you would rather not say things out loud you can just be witnessed as you hold your intention in silence.
Thank you. You just made this room a sanctuary. You just filled this room with courage. You just deepened our bonds as a community.
With hopes that our ability to adapt and return to our center brings us great joy, I offer you a blessing from the writer Merissa Nathan Gerson:
On the cusp of the black moon,
On the cusp of the Jewish New Year,
On the cusp of Shabbat, and on the cusp of an election,
On the cusp of all beginnings here-to-forth –
On the cusp – [from the skirt of the mountain, in mid-step–]
I send you sweetness, I send you compassion, I send you warmth and strength and vision.
I send you hope, I send you innovation and congregation,
I send you ferocity, vitality, audacity, self-love and fierce courage,
I send you creativity, divinity, affinity –
for this New Year, for this 5777,
I send you fortification towards the becoming
of everything and everyone you ever wanted to be,
and the acceptance, the adoration, of exactly who you are.
May you be written in the book of the very best year of life you have yet known,
and may all the angels, all the miracles, all the coincidences
and all the flashes of light needed unfold like clockwork.
May you love every second, good, bad and ugly, of your life this year.