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Rosh HaShanah Sermon: What Do I Stand For?: “Some Nights,” “Psalm 27,” and the Metaphors of Conquest or Connection

“What Do I Stand For?”: Some Nights, Psalm 27,
and the Metaphors of Conquest or Connection

Erev Rosh HaShanah 5773
Rabbi Rick Brody

We are at war. The awful violence last week in Libya reminded us all too well of this sobering fact. Even here in our own country, fanaticism of all kinds and an ugly lust for violence has made our world, wherever we are, a very dangerous place. But there’s another war raging even closer to home—within each of us—a war of confusion, of conflicting feelings of purpose, of remorse, of struggle to be better people. It’s a war in which we try to manage the onslaught of responsibilities, concerns, and challenges that threaten our emotional security or a sense of stability in this life. And it is, in many ways, what the coming days are all about.

In the current popular song “Some Nights,” by the band Fun [on p. 2 of the linked lyric page: please click here], the singer cries out in the third stanza, “This is it boys, this is war,” words that I have put in bold-face. But if you notice in the stanza immediately above and below, the essence of the war he’s fighting is the asking of deep questions—which I have also bold-faced. “What do I stand for?” “Who am I?” These are the fundamental questions that lie before us in our own personal war of purpose and meaning.

The military metaphor—army versus army—is one approach to making some sense of the drama of these Days of Awe. But what’s its end point? First of all, we need to remember that it’s a metaphor—that mostly we’re not talking about real violence or real, physical enemies. Yes, we want to vanquish evil, yes we want to stop those who wish to harm us, yes we want to rid the land of vicious beasts—or, more in the spirit of repentance, to tame those beasts, to bring evildoers out of their darkness into the light of righteous living. But we also contend with existential obstacles that are more difficult– less concrete and more pervasive forces in our lives that prevent us from achieving the fulfillment we seek. We concretize them in the metaphor of a military enemy so that we can see them and face them. 

But even inside this metaphor there are limitations. What can we gain from the face-off? I would suggest that seeing ourselves at war can lead us towards goals of—at least—a feeling of victory that comes with vanquishing an enemy, but perhaps also a sense of security or maybe even a new era of peace—though usually real peace requires some radically different action in order to break out of a cycle of violence. Because when we focus on the vanquishing, the defeating of the enemy—as real as the threats might be from the destructive challenges all around us, physical and symbolic—what we’re still left with is the proverbial “zero-sum game.” We stay stuck in a place in which there’s a winner and a loser. And if we’re trying to be the winner, we need to recognize the grave possibility that we can wind up being the loser. The singer in “Some Nights” seems to suggest that his options are that he can “cash in” his bad luck, somehow get something out of his suffering and not give in to complete defeat; or he can call it a draw—no one wins; or, some nights, as he says, “I always win. I always win.” I can’t help but feel that he repeats this proclamation ironically, realizing that this win-lose-or-draw mentality is a sham. He’s stuck, feeling like he’s lost his soul, traded it in for false promises of fleeting satisfaction.

This view of win-lose-or-draw is not only scary or, to use the language of the season, awe-inducing. It’s also potentially toxic. We need to find alternatives to this black-and-white thinking. As the speaker in our song is suggesting, we need to get beyond “the hype,” “break the rules” that keep us stuck in a conflict-addicted mentality, a thinking that pervades our newspapers and other media—the literal “black-and-white” of twitter-style sound-bytes that trade in stark winner-loser modes of seeing the world.

So, the need for an alternative leads into the other metaphor I want to explore, one that also captures a sense of tension and conflict, but that also offers a greater promise than what we get from the military image. The image is one of intimate, personal relationships—between parents and children, between friends, and of course, between romantic lovers. On one level, these relationships aren’t metaphors at all—they’re very real parts of our lives that define so much of our existence, even more than the military model. But they also point to deeper activity that goes on inside each one of us and in our relationship to the Divine.

While any of these deep, personal relationships will necessarily involve disagreement, frustration, anger, and conflict, each one also offers profoundly rich feelings of connection that give our lives meaning. So, sometimes we find ourselves in conflict that feels like a military face-off of global proportions. But—even as we contend with all kinds of manifestations of real enemies that seek to undermine us, be they other people or just the vagaries of life—we also know that the prospect lies before us for not just protecting ourselves but for entering into warm, tender interactions. These interactions enable us to be more fully human and to discover the beauty within our fellow human beings and with the rest of Creation.

Our tradition celebrates both of these approaches to the Days of Awe. Over the course of my sermons this season, I want to look at various images and expressions of these metaphors—in our own sacred texts, in popular songs, and in the wisdom we discover in our own lives. My hope is that we can feel more fully engaged in the drama of the High Holidays in ways that can be relevant to us and that can connect us—not only back to our living heritage but also more deeply to ourselves, to those around us, and to God.

There’s an extremely popular teaching that connects the name for the Hebrew month that we’ve just completed, Elul, to a beautiful and very famous verse from Song of Songs. The verse is “Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li”—“I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine”—and we can make an acronym from those 4 words to spell the word Elul—Aleph Lamed Vav Lamed.

The message is that the month leading up to Rosh HaShanah, to today, is one of courtship and bonding between God and God’s beloved—us. But this isn’t a new relationship—we have some history with God. So the rekindling of connection requires the work of reconciliation, of coming back, of return—which in Hebrew is t’shuvah, the same word we use for repentance and which is one of the main buzz words for the season. Rosh HaShanah begins Aseret Y’mei T’shuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, culminating of course in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement—which is a great English word that comes from the idea of “at one”-ment, meaning that’s when the reconciliation is complete, when we’ve fully arrived back into the relationship that we’ve—ideally—been actively seeking throughout the past month and that becomes more and more real to us over the coming days.

Yet, alongside this romantic metaphor—even with the recognition that it’s not all lovey-dovey but rather contains very difficult challenges—we also find much more violent imagery.

The Rabbis of long ago established that starting at the beginning of Elul—through this new month of Tishrei until the end of Sukkot—we would recite, each morning and evening, Psalm 27. [You’ll find the text to this psalm on p. 3 here.] Notice the first few verses, which immediately mention the fear the Psalmist might have in the midst of attack by wicked enemies who mount a war against him, seeking to destroy him, to devour his flesh. The really startling element here is that despite these grave threats, the speaker clings to a faith in God’s protection. Of course, the underlying emotional truth for him could be more a case of “the lady doth protest too much, methinks”—that he is so concerned about being alone and vulnerable and forsaken that all he feels he can do is express faith, even without any evidence to support it—an exercise in wishful thinking. How very human. We have no guarantees, but we can adopt an attitude of strength as a matter of choice.

And with this faith in Divine protection, we can develop images of contentment—images that are the polar opposite of the war we feel raging upon us and of the abandonment of loved ones that can add insult to injury: This contentment is captured in the image of dwelling in the presence of Divine shelter, of seeing goodness, of being moved to offer celebratory song as a sacred gift, of shofar blasts that express our unbounded joy.

In fact, I’d like to suggest that in verse 6, where the Psalmist begins imagining these reactions, that he’s describing a shift in his own consciousness. He is very deliberately and concretely moving his focus away from the military threats to a disposition of gratitude. He says, “my head rises over my enemies all around me,” meaning, in my interpretation, “I’ve gotten over them”—my consciousness has transcended a cycle of fear and has entered Divine space, God’s tent, where it now is overcome with joy. Even the shofar, which just as easily could be invoked as a clarion call on the battle field or an alarm of impending doom, is instead introduced as an instrument of expressing gratitude. Our minds and the tools all around us can all be transformed as we step out of harm’s way and into the shelter of the Divine.

But even that confidence is fleeting, because in the very next verse he returns to petitioning God and asking for assurance that he will be safe. His faith, like ours, is a precarious one, subject to the realities of living in a complex world where one wish or request does not magically dispel all fear. It’s an ongoing battle.

And it seems pretty clear as we move towards the end of the Psalm that just as the speaker might fear for his physical life or wellbeing, so too he struggles with a sense of being recognized, accepted, welcome. “Don’t forsake me, don’t abandon me like my parents did…” Like the singer in “Some nights,” he’s scared of being forgotten again, of being “half as liked” despite trying “twice as hard,” of being without friends, of not being understood, of his song being a “swan song”—a dying shofar blast, perhaps—of dying “alone, all dried up in the desert sun.”

I believe the Psalmist and the singer in our pop song both want to be in the presence of love, even though neither of them uses that word. They want not just protection but comfort and connection. These are basic human needs, and when we feel that they’re not being met, we can feel terribly vulnerable, like we’re being attacked by an army.

So, how do we achieve this sense of connection, this feeling of dwelling with the Divine? Obviously, there are no easy answers, and the struggle takes a life-time. But the great wisdom of our tradition, especially as it relates to this time of year, is to ask the big questions of ourselves. To engage in the process of cheshbon nefesh, an accounting of our souls. The Psalmist asks God to point him on the right path, but it’s up to each one of us to use our own faculties to see and hear God’s instruction, to figure out where we’re going, to make sense of the questions “Who am I? What do I stand for?” In the song “Some Nights,” beginning with its introduction [on p. 1 here]—the singer says, “I never look inward, try not to look upward, But some nights I pray a sign is gonna come to me.” The suggestion, as I hear it, is that the hard work is one of inner reflection or of developing an actual relationship with God.

But if you think you do that by literally looking upward or even of thinking and praying for some sign to come, you’re likely to be disappointed. In the Psalm, the request is “Horaini darkecha” show me your path. The root for “Horaini,” show or instruct, is the same one we find in the word Torah, the sum total of all our sacred instruction. There is a path we need to walk in order to get to God’s tent and it takes discipline and commitment. It’s not going to come as a flash from the sky to solve all our problems overnight.

Nor do we have to “stare at the calendar, waiting for catastrophes.” Fear of the worst isn’t the only shofar blast available to us to wake us up out of slumber and remind us to live more meaningful lives. It’s not just that we’re being pursued by our enemies or that we realize we might drown or burn in the coming year—“Who by fire? Who by water?” we ask as a way to scare us into change.

There’s probably a place for that approach in the grand palette of options for jumpstarting renewal and transformation, and we’ll dramatically engage that approach tomorrow morning and on Yom Kippur with “Un’taneh Tokef.” But “Some Nights” and Psalm 27 seem to be suggesting that it might not be the best way, and the psalm definitely presents an alternative of not living in fear but rising above it.

The singer in “Some Nights” is also struggling to find something more than what he currently has. And in some respects he’s gotten more specific than the Psalmist in introducing the big questions about his own place in the world. Of course, he’s still trying to avoid asking these questions, relying on some martyr to take away his worries, but I believe he’s being ironic, that he sees that this isn’t a solution. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” After all, the words that follow are “But I still wake up.” It’s as if he’s saying, “I can’t sleep in blissful contentment—life is not so simple. I do hear the shofar call that stirs me from complacency and I do see ‘your ghost.'”

Is the ghost himself, an image of what he could have been and still could be, the soul he has lost? Is it the fleeting, intangible “You” with a capital Y, the Divine presence that continues to haunt us into asking the essential questions, that draws our attention to what we still don’t know: “What do I stand for?” The key awareness on this first night of the new year is that we are standing, and we’re actively engaged in the search to figure out why.

The Psalmist suggests our search is about walking the Divine path and that the walk will ultimately lead us to God’s presence, where we can live in contentment. But even then, there’s an uneasiness: He wishes to dwell in God’s house all the days of his life but then also wants to visit in the palace of the Eternal. He knows that as much as he’d like to be completely with God always, he’ll need to step out and step back in, making regular return visits that can keep the relationship fresh and renewed.

The singer in “Some Nights” has a similar feeling of a push-and-pull in his relationship. In the Intro, he says, “there are some nights I hold you close, pushing you to hold me.” Pushing someone in a relationship doesn’t usually get the other person to hold you, to pull you back in. We struggle for our own space—“it’s for the best we get our distance” is the sad way “Some Nights” ends. “It’s for the best you didn’t listen. It’s for the best we get our distance.” But we know he wants to be heard and wants to be held. Even as he pushes, he yearns for the loving pull—for presence, for connection. The Psalmist wants the “You” he’s addressing to listen—“Hear my voice!” he calls. He knows he won’t always be in the safety of God’s space, but he wants to be able to keep coming back, wants to have a clear path of return that he can walk.

Perhaps we’ve spent a lot of energy pushing away our loved ones and pushing away the Divine presence in our lives. Perhaps we’re afraid no one will listen, or that those who listen won’t understand us, and that we’ll be left all alone. These are important fears for us to recognize. The beauty of Rosh HaShanah is that, through the holiness of time, we have entered Divine space. We are on a sacred path that can lead us deeper and deeper into the pleasant chambers of God’s presence, into the assurance that we will be heard, we will be understood, we will be held close. Perhaps walking that path begins with the welcoming calls of the shofar that we’ll hear tomorrow, God’s answer that we are free to enter—or perhaps even God’s cry of wishing for our presence. It’s an invitation to arise, to figure out what we stand for—and maybe to just start walking even before we have it all figured out, but to not stop asking the question, as long as asking it doesn’t paralyze us.

Many nights we can feel confused and stuck. “Most nights I don’t know,” the singer laments. This night, our tradition says, on Rosh HaShanah, we can rise—we can stand with the confidence, or at the least the hope, that we are on a journey back towards a loving embrace, a holding, a connection, back to our own soul and into the shelter of an even greater Soul that not only keeps us safe, but that leads us to joyful, shofar-blasting jubilation.

The Touch of the Divine

In my theology class this morning, I was facilitating a discussion that was building a bridge between Yehudah HaLevi’s rejection of the philosophical approach to God and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s similar effort to transcend the realm of rational speculation in theology.  One student hit upon an idea that I have distilled in the following manner, with additional commentary:

The philosophical or scientific approach to religion is trying to touch God; the truly religious or spiritual path is one of being touched by God.

I think this sums up so much of Heschel’s approach.  After all, one of his books is “God in Search of Man.”  To clarify beyond the sound-byte, Heschel definitely sees a 2-way (I-You) relationship with God in which we have an impact on the Divine, but he’s more interested in framing God as the “I” (subject) and us as the “You” (object).  He also doesn’t dismiss the philosophical or scientific approach and there’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to “touch God,” by which we meant today being able to point to God, identify God — as if under a microscope.  It’s just that such “contact” is inherently objectifying and limiting and so simply isn’t enough; it therefore can’t be our chief activity in the religious enterprise.

We can also, by the way, say that the philosophers are trying to figure out the ways that God “touches” us from a sensory or rational perspective, but are not necessarily in touch (no pun intended, at least not consciously!) with how God might be touching us in a more penetrating, transforming, soulful manner.