There’s a story toward the very beginning of the Talmud where famous rabbi, Rabbi Yochanan goes to visit another famous rabbi, Rabbi Eleazer, and finds him sitting on the floor, weeping. At first Rabbi Yochanan does the thing that many of us do when we think we know someone and why they’re upset, he suggests mental reframes to help him feel better. Are you sad because you’re poor? Don’t worry, not everyone gets to be rich. Are you sad because you haven’t learned more Torah? Don’t worry, you just do what you can do. This isn’t helping, and finally when he shuts up long enough for his friend to share why he’s crying Rabbi Eleazar says, “I’m crying because of all the beauty that’s going to pass into dust.” Rabbi Yochanan thinks about this and says, “Over this, it is certainly appropriate to weep.” And he sat on the floor, and they both wept.
I had a Rabbi Eleazar moment earlier this year. I had many really, I have them all the time. When Serena Williams quit tennis, during the Broadway In Chicago curtain call for Frozen: The Musical, the first in-person show I saw with my children since the start of Covid back… but I’m thinking about a particular one this past winter, 2021 during the height of omicron, my family decided to take a road trip to Nashville Tennessee. And I’m driving, and it’s cornfields as far as the eye can see… but at a certain point I look up and I see a windmill, a big beautiful steel bladed windmill, and I look out and it’s suddenly it’s windmills as far as the eye can see. Even Indiana is part of the solution to climate change, I think for a fleeting moment, before I burst into tears. And what comes out of my mouth is, “It’s not enough. It’s not enough. Us composting is not enough, me biking the kids to school isn’t enough, these windmills are not enough, our children’s lives will be a hellscape and whatever we do will not be enough — it’ll all be too little too late!”
Water works. My husband Henry’s like, take a deep breath, be the supportive husband who doesn’t want to say the wrong thing, nod with empathy. And like we do for our kids when they’re crying about something totally understandable that we can’t fix… he lets me cry. “Over this, it is certainly appropriate to weep.”
The shofar that we’ll hear 100 times tomorrow embodies many things– a shout, a battle cry, an alarm awakening us to the truth of our lives… and also the wailing sobs of heartbreak.
To be heartbroken is to have invested yourself in a present who’s future you realize is dust. To be heartbroken is to take the picture in a frame that you’d looked at with love and expectation for a long time — months maybe, years maybe, a lifetime, maybe — and to see that picture smashed on the ground. To be heartbroken is to be in the world as it is and feel inside of yourself the world that could be, that could have been… and to feel the gaping chasm between them; and to doubt very, very deeply that that chasm will ever be bridged. It’s an all-consuming emotion, heartbreak.
As much as Rosh HaShannah comes to bring in the optimistic possibility of renewal for all of us in this new year– and it does– this holiday also comes as a space to hold us in our heartbreak, and help us navigate it together, so that we might find our way back toward hope. And that’s what I want to talk about tonight.
Because whether this year you cried or felt rage or simply shook your head incredulously reading or listening to the news– whether it was another mass shooting– this time children, or this time close to home–, or the rolling back of women’s rights or trans peoples’ rights all over the country, or the floods or the wildfires, or the glacially slow movement of our government to mitigate climate change, or the repeated assaults on our democracy itself, let alone the disappointments and losses and breakups and diagnoses that happened in our own lives– for all this and so much else that we’ve confronted this year — it is certainly appropriate to weep.
God knows this feeling, too. In the book of Genesis God creates human beings– the pinnacle of God’s magnificent creation on this planet– just lower than the angels, we, mere mortals are entrusted to care for this glorious place called Earth. In Chapter 1 of the Torah God gives humanity a charge – to tend to the earth, to protect it לעובדה ולשמרה — and by only 5 chapters later, the end of that first parasha in the Torah, these human reflections of the divine have disobeyed, have committed murder, have figured out every ruse and way of cheating their neighbors and getting ahead, they have so desicrated the world they were handed that God feels regret, the text says: “וַיִּנָּחֶם יְהֹוָה כִּי־עָשָׂה אֶת־הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּב אֶל־לִבּוֹ׃ – God regretted creating the human being on earth, and felt sad in God’s heart.” God was heartbroken.
Turns out human beings have been disappointing ourselves, not to mention God, from the literal beginning of time. I know it feels like there’s something different today, more dire, more urgent about this moment than ever before in time–but spiritually speaking we’re dealing with something familiar, an eternal, essential human experience. One that our ancestors wrote about, and one that moved them to create the traditions we have today whose whole purpose might just be to give us tools for living in a world that breaks your heart.
And I know that might sound exaggerated, like surely, the entirety of our tradition must be about something other than mitigating heartbreak. But hear me out — what does heartbreak do to us? It makes you want to lie in bed forever, it makes you think that the way things feel right now will never change, and anyone who thinks they will is naive, or misinformed or stupid. It makes you think that the loneliness, or sadness or despondency at the state of the world that you feel, is both justified and permanent, in which case, why bother doing anything differently? Why bother doing anything at all?
But the Jewish story from the beginning, including our mythic history stretching back to Abraham, is the opposite response, a story of resourcefulness and creativity in the face of heartbreak. When Pharoah decreed that he would throw all the newborn baby boys into the Nile, the midrash tells us that Israelite couples stopped having sex — they didn’t want to risk the possibility of their child meeting such an inhumane fate. The world seemed an impossibly dark and inhospitable place to imagine bringing children into. Some of you have written to me over this past year and said, given the circumstance we know we live in and the ravaged world all signs and science tell us is only a few decades away, the world seems an impossibly dark and inhospitable place to imagine bringing children into. How do we justify bringing new life into this world? How could it be anything other than an exercise in heartbreak?
There is a little girl, the midrash describes, Miriam, who says to her parents Amram and Yocheved, “Your decree is worse than Pharaoh’s! Pharaoh has only doomed the baby boys, but you, you foreclose any possibility of any child of any gender. Maybe our savior will be a girl. Who knows, anything is possible! You could choose to create possibilities, or you could choose to close the door on possibility. Be brave,” she says to her parents. Take a risk. Her parents listened to her, and nine months later, Yocheved gave birth to a little boy, named Moses. And his savior was a woman– many women in fact, the midwives who broke the law and didn’t enforce Pharaoh’s decree, his own mother who nursed him and sent him down Nile, his own sister who watched over him, and of course Pharaoh’s daughter– and this combination of holy audacious bravery, civil disobedience, community organizing, collective vision, and a little divine grace sprinkled in for good measure… created a way where there had been no way. Miriam, in the depths of darkness and in a heartbreaking world, believed and preached– starting with her own family– that things could be different, and that rather than waiting for that time to come, people should start living that way right now, and she paved the way for that future that no one could yet see, but that she suspected might be possible.
I think about those rabbis who penned that midrash, and who, in the midst of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70 CE and the forced dispersion of the Jewish people all over the world — how these rabbis, in the midst of heartbreaking national decline, they envisioned and planned for their people to survive… and they did that by creating new rituals, festivals, fasts, new ceremonies and new texts for a new generation of Jewish people they hoped and prayed would exist, even as all evidence suggested that was a ridiculous thing to hope for, and an even more ridiculous thing to spend time planning for. Most Jews at that time responded to the destruction of the Temple the way most people respond to heartbreak, which was to distance themselves from the source of their pain, to dissociate from Judaism. After all, if God’s home was the Temple, then with the destruction of the Temple, clearly God had left the building, had abandoned the Jewish people. And with that heartbreaking interpretation of the facts before them – most Jews opted out, joined local pagan cults and simply faded out of the Jewish story. What Rabbi Benay Lappe calls going “Option 2,” just turning around and walking the other way in the face of heartbreak. The fact that we are here and have a Judaism to practice today is a tribute to the spiritual audacity and intellectual creativity and the counter cultural instincts of those rabbis, and their partners, and their families, and their students and everyone who was hopeful enough to along with them, even when everyone else was giving up around them.
And every time I stand under the chuppah with a couple and prepare to sing the seven blessings, the Sheva Brakhot, I think about those rabbis who created this ceremony imagining that one day there might be Jews, who would fall in love and get married, somewhere in the world. And this idea to them was like putting a spiritual brick in the edifice of a new Jerusalem, even as the Jerusalem they knew had been reduced to a pile of rubble. If you go to a Jewish wedding today you might not catch that this deeply joyful ceremony celebrating the power of love, was constructed against the backdrop of heartbreak. And I think there’s something for us here tonight, in these 7 blessings, as we enter this new year:
The first blessing, over wine, reminds us to find joy, wherever we are. L’chaim. The second blessing, reminds us that everything in this world reverberates with God’s glory. The second blessing is a reminder that even as things seem to be falling apart that we are not separate from everything as we might feel, but deeply, inextricably, lovingly bound up with all creation, radiating God’s love in every incredulous, bothered, skeptical breath we take… For the rabbis who wrote these blessings to assert that, was to assert a theological reframe that had the power to change everything, because in their vision of the future, God was not just present in a Temple in Jerusalem, rather, would be present with us wherever we are, in our joy and in the brokenness around us, and in us as we piece it back together.
The third and the fourth blessings celebrate the creation of the individual human being, the infinite creative potential of each human being. The fifth blessing says that anyone who has felt bereft or depressed need only look and see at how these two souls have found each other against all odds, and that this in and of itself is cause for hope, and for this triumph Zion herself rejoices. The sixth blessing calls back to the first human beings in the Garden of Eden– before the fall, before humanity broke God’s heart, when we still lived in balance with the earth and with each other… I believe that the rabbis in that 6th blessing, were saying, you can take humanity out of the Garden of Eden, but you can’t take the Garden of Eden out of us. And it’s that body memory of what it looked like, smelled like, tasted like, felt like, for us to be in harmony with nature and with our true nature– and we need each other to get our world and ourselves back into balance. We can’t do it alone. And by the seventh blessing the rabbis have imagined nothing less than the messianic redemption of the world, embodied by people singing and dancing and celebrating in the streets of a rebuilt Jerusalem, as the city, and the world it represents, has been rebuilt by love. That’s the Jewish wedding ceremony. Isn’t that a beautiful vision?
And at every wedding, I think of the dreams this couple holds – for a home, for health, for children, for the jobs and lives they imagine – and I know at some point their hearts will be broken. And yet, we stand under the chuppah and dream. And we break a glass for the unredeemed and broken world we still live in, they kiss, we cry, and we shout mazal tov, and then we dance like the world could end tomorrow.
And I know that each one of us comes here tonight, with our own tears, and our own dreams and our own heartbreak. It would be false, a distraction, to focus only on the joyful noise of the shofar. I know this year for so many the shofar is pain, loss, disappointment and heartbreak.
Our tradition doesn’t call for distraction, dissociation and distance in the face of heartbreak, even tho that’s what any normal person would do. Our tradition asks us to bring our open, broken hearts with us, because as we’ve sung before, there is a crack in everything– that’s how the light gets in. Our broken hearts tell us what we love, what moves us, what motivates us, what helps us get out of bed in the morning. Our broken hearts remind us that we’re alive– and as long as that’s true, tears may flow at night (as the psalmist writes) but joy comes in the morning.
Rabbi Yochanan visited many sick, sad people, as it turns out. The Talmud is full of stories of him going to people, asking them about their suffering, listening and then saying, “Give me your hand,” and they’d give him their hand and he’d raise up the broken, despondent person he was talking to. We can sit on the floor and cry together, but we need each other to pick us up off the floor, too. Love is the building block of the rebuilt Jerusalem, according to the sages because love– of course, not just romantic love, but all love– is fundamentally social, is about all of us not distancing ourselves from this world that breaks our hearts but investing ourselves in it even more, falling more deeply in love with it, not just dreaming dreams in heartbreak but building, minyan making, ideating, campaign organizing, donating, protesting, praying, learning, loving, raising children, rescuing animals… and acting on behalf of the future because hope lives in the space of what we don’t yet know. Who we won’t yet know.
We are here because of the audacious dreams dreamt by those who came before us — all those ancestors whose bravery, resourcefulness and resilience led to our being here today, against the backdrop of heartbreak. Let us act in this new year as if we are the inheritors of that bravery, resourcefulness and resilience– because we are– and may we be the ancestors our great grandchildren will look back and thank.
I understand that facing heartbreak takes strength. You show us, Rabbi Lizzie, that facing heartbreak gives us strength too… May you have a year of health and happiness for you and your family.
i am revisiting your words after telling Paul Nicklin about them last night.(In addition to being one of the world’s most acclaimed nature photographers, Paul is an acclaimed polar specialist, speaker, author, conservationist, National Geographic Fellow, and a regular contributor to National Geographic Magazine with 20 completed stories to date.) As I listened to him, i realize how i DO the not-jewish thing…(distraction, dissociation and distance)(about the physical world -fucking WAY- and about my only son…). Paul N, I suspect is more familiar with the Inuit than Jewish. and, still, i know he will HEAR this. I shall see him again tonight, with his miraculous life partner christina (Cristina Goettsch Mittermeier is a Mexican photographer, conservationist, biologist, and author…the marine biologist and activist who pioneered the concept and field of conservation photography). I shall drag my my broken heart and open it to possibility. love, me
Glad that a posting on facebook brought me to read this sermon.