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Sermons at First Parish Church

Reflections for Rosh Hashanah: Sweet and Thankful For Any Small Gesture

Sunday, September 25, 2011
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton

This story comes from Barbara Kingsolver’s beautiful book of essays called Small Wonder. Barbara Kingsolver tells the story this way:

On a cool October day in the oak-forested hills of Lorestan Province in Iran, a lost child was saved in an inconceivable way. The news of it came to me as a parable that I keep turning over in my mind, a message from some gentler universe than this one. I carry it like a treasure map while I look for the place where I’ll understand its meaning. I picture it happening this way: the story begins with a wife and husband, nomads of the Lori tribe in western Iran walking home from a morning’s work in their wheat…. And then suddenly they’re stopped cold by the sight of a slender figure hurrying toward them: the teenage girl who was left in charge of the babies…. She runs to meet the parents coming home on the road, to tell them in frightened pieces of sentences that [their 16-month-old son] has disappeared, she has already looked everywhere, but he’s gone.

They refuse to believe her at first… and with fully expectant hearts they open the door flap of their yurt and peer inside…. They look in his usual hiding places, under a pillow, behind the box where the bowls are kept… but no, he’s gone. First [they search] their own village, turning every box upside down, turning the neighbors out in a party of panic and reassurances, but as they begin to scatter over the rocky outskirts it grows dark, then cold, then hopeless. They venture closer to the caves and oak woods of the mountainside.

Another nightfall, another day, and some begin to give up. But not the father or mother because there is nowhere to go but this, we all have done this, we bang and bang on the door of hope and don’t anyone dare suggest there’s nobody home…. At the mouth of the next cave they enter, the fourth or the hundredth,… they hear a voice.

Definitely it’s a cry, a child. Cautiously they look into the darkness and ominously, they smell bear. But the boy is in there, crying, alive. They move into the half-light inside the cave, stand still and wait while the smell gets danker and the texture of the stone walls weaves its details more clearly into their vision. Then they see the animal… the dark round shape of a thick-furred, quiescent she-bear lying against the wall. And then they see the child. The bear is curled around him, protecting him from these fierce-smelling intruders in her cave.

Kingsolver writes: “I don’t know what happened next. I hope they didn’t kill the bear, but instead simply reached for the child, quietly took him up, praised Allah and this strange mother… and swiftly left the cave. I’ve searched for that part of the story — whether they killed the bear. I’ve gone back through news sources… until I can go no further because I don’t read Arabic or Farsi. This is not a mistake or a hoax; this happened. The baby was found with the bear in her den. He was alive, unscarred, and perfectly well after three days — and well fed, smelling of milk. The bear was nursing the child….

“What does this mean? How is it possible that a huge, hungry bear would take a pitifully small, delicate human child to her breast rather than rip him into food? But she was a mammal, a mother. She was lactating, so she must have had young of her own somewhere — possibly killed or dead of disease, so that she was driven by the pure chemistry of maternity to take this small, warm neonate to her belly and hold him there, gently. You could read this story and declare ‘impossible,’ even though many witnesses have sworn it’s true. Or you could read this story and think of how warm lives are drawn to one another in cold places, think of the unconquerable force of… love, the fact of the DNA code that we share in its great majority with all other mammals — you could think of all that and say, Of course the bear nursed the baby. He was crying from hunger and she had milk. Small wonder…. In a world whose wells of kindness seem everywhere to be running dry, a bear nursed a lost child.”

Kingsolver says, “I elect to believe that the Lori men didn’t kill the bear. For years to come I will picture the father quietly lifting the boy from her belly, wrapping him in the soft cloth of his shirt and reverently leaving the cave of his salvation. Leaving a small pile of acorns outside the lair of this mother… as a sacrament. I believe in parables. I navigate life using stories where I find them and I hold tight to the ones that tell me new kinds of truth. This story of a bear who nursed a child is one to believe in.”

The story of a bear who nursed a child and kept him safe is a story to believe in. Yet it is also a strange and perhaps singular tale. We know, some of us from painful and devastating experience, that all lost children do not get found safe in the caves of bears. We know, some of us from painful and devastating experience, that some stories do not have happy endings. Just this week Troy Davis was executed in Georgia after the US Supreme Court rejected his plea for a stay of execution. Just this week, children in Somalia have died of hunger caused by drought, famine and intractable violence. We know, some of us from painful and devastating experience, that desperately wanting a miraculous ending does not make it happen.

So why do I tell you a story about one baby saved by a bear? I tell you this story because we already know we live in perilous times. We already know that human life is fragile and precarious and sometimes, in fact often, the news is bad. But we also know, though it is so easy to forget it, that the bad news is not all there is. We also know, though it is so easy to overlook it, that there is wonder here. Some of this wonder is strange and mysterious but much of it is of our own making. We also know that the only sane and saving choice we truly have in this life is to hold on to hope, to keep banging on the doors of hope, and to tell each other stories that remind us of all that is still and always possible. As the writer Wendell Berry put it: “To treat life as less than a miracle is to give up on it.”

According to the Jewish calendar, this week is the world’s birthday — every year at Rosh Hoshanah, the Jewish New Year, the world is renewed and we are renewed along with it. Every year there is another beginning, another chance to walk through the doorway of hope. As many of you know, Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the holiest time in the Jewish year. According to ancient tradition, on Rosh Hashanah God opens the Book of Life and the Book of Death. The names of the few who are completely righteous are immediately written in the Book of Life and they are granted another year. Likewise, the few who are completely wicked are immediately inscribed in the Book of Death. The fate of the rest of us is suspended until the end of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. So according to tradition, our very lives in the year ahead depend upon God’s compassion, as well as upon our own heartfelt efforts to make amends to those we have wronged and to show compassion to those who have asked us to forgive them.

While I think it is extremely rare for people to take the books of life and death literally, for observant Jews this is a deeply reflective time of year. It is a time for looking inward, for mending relationships where it is possible to do so and for asking for forgiveness or offering forgiveness when it is possible to do so. It is a time for seeking a sense of resolution or peace or understanding about the year that has just passed so that we might also have a sense of hope toward the year to come. To me this tradition speaks to a deep human longing, a longing that is shared by all people: the longing for renewal, for restoration and for healing. In Hebrew this is called tshuvah, or turning.

The traditional understanding of tshuvah is a turning back or a return to the Godly path, the path of righteousness. But to me this understanding implies that the Godly or righteous path is apparent and easy to find and the hard part is staying on the path. I don’t think that is how it is for most of us. There are perhaps some ways we humans can get lost, in deception or cruelty maybe — when the path back to ourselves, back to rightness is clear, though it may be extremely painful and seem difficult to the point of impossible to begin to walk it. But much of the time, the right paths are not clearly marked. The trails are often confusing and the directions are subtle and come only in the form of questions — questions such as: What does it mean to live with integrity? What does it mean to live with authenticity? Does the work I do contribute something that is good or useful to the world? What is the right amount to give? What does a good life look like, feel like? How much time do I have left? What is still possible? What does it mean to turn? How do we turn?

Every year we are invited to wrestle with this question of turning, returning to the right path.

As many of you know, the shofar, or ram’s horn, is blown during services on Rosh Hashanah, traditionally 100 times on each of the two days of the holiday. Rabbis have come up with many different explanations for why this is done. Some believe it is a reminder of the story of the Israelites blowing trumpets when they surrounded the walled city of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down. Others believe it is a symbol of the ram that stood in for Isaac in that difficult and troubling story from the book of Genesis which is always read on Rosh Hashanah. This is the story of when Abraham was about to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac supposedly to fulfill God’s commandment (though I believe Abraham was mistaken in his understanding of this) and God spared Isaac at the last moment by telling Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead. The interpretation of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides is my favorite. He believed the purpose of the strange, eerie and quite loud and unpleasant noise of the shofar during Rosh Hashanah services was to wake people up and keep them awake, to wake them up literally, as the synagogue services are long and the weather is often warm, but also to wake them up spiritually. Maimonides believed the purpose of the shofar is to startle people awake from our inner sleepiness; to remind us to pay attention to our lives. Rosh Hashanah is about the newness of the year, but intrinsic to the call to renewal is the reminder of death. None of us knows how much time we have left — life is precious — don’t go back to sleep.

In his book about healing from addictions, called Recovery: the Sacred Art, Rabbi Rami Shapiro writes about the healing of the world depending upon each person waking up to the truth of who we truly are. He writes:

The goal of human life, our ancestors said, is Tikkun Olam, the repairing of our seemingly fragmented world. Fragmentation arises when we fail to recognize ourselves as unique… expressions of God. In our mad struggle for separateness, permanence, and eternal life, we imagine ourselves to be free from the rest of rhythms of the universe and spend the rest of our lives frantically shoring up this illusion in the face of a totally indifferent reality. It is as if we were given the task of filling a bucket with sea water only to discover that the bucket’s bottom is poked through with holes. If we run swiftly enough we can maintain the illusion of a filling bucket by pouring water in at the top faster than it is running out the bottom.

But should we rest even a moment, the illusion is shattered and our labors are in vain. So we don’t rest, straining ourselves to the limit in a mad struggle to turn the Universe inside out. It can’t be done, but we die trying, heroes in a drama no one understands. Yet we’ve really been dead all along: maintaining a lie at the expense of living the truth. Tikkun in the restoration of truth, of Unity; the reclamation of shalom, Peace. Tikkun is the Wave awakening to the Ocean, the Piece awakening to the Puzzle, the Part awakening to the Whole and [to] Holiness. (from chapter two, “Restoration”)

I love these images: the wave awakening to the vast ocean, the piece of the puzzle awakening to the whole picture, the tiny fragment awakening to the whole, and each person awakening to his or her own holiness. We participate in renewal, in the repair and healing of the world when we wake up to the largeness of life and to its sacredness, when we wake up to the mystery that upholds and underlies even our most painful days, whether or not we are aware of it. The reminders are everywhere.

In her book Proverbs of Ashes, UU minister Rebecca Parker tells this story, an old one now, about how she was shown wonder in the midst of a terrible time in her life and how that changed everything:

Everything I most loved had slipped out of my hands. I felt there was nothing left to hold on to — I spiraled into grief and self-directed anger. One night I came to the end of my will to live. I just wanted the anguish to stop. It was a cold, clear night. I lived at the top of a hill above a lake and sometime after midnight I left my house and started walking down the hill. The water would be cold enough. I could walk into it, then swim, then let go, sink down into the darkness and go home to God. The thought was comforting. I had no second thoughts. I was set on my course.

At the bottom of the hill, I had only a small grassy rise to cross before I came to the water’s edge. I crested the familiar rise and began the descent to the welcoming water when I was caught short by a barrier that hadn’t been there before. It looked like a long line of oddly shaped sawhorses, laid out to the left and to the right, the width of the grassy field. In the dark I couldn’t see a way to get around either end, but it looked like I could climb over the middle. I quickened my pace, impelled by the grief that wouldn’t let go of me. As I got closer, the dark forms before my eyes seemed to be moving. I squinted to understand what I was seeing. The odd bunchy shapes were a line of human beings bundled up in parkas and hats. The stick shapes weren’t sawhorses. They were telescopes. It was the Seattle Astronomy Club. Before I could make my way through the line, one of them looked up from his eyeglass and, presuming me to be an astronomer, said with enthusiasm, “I’ve got it focused perfectly on Jupiter. Come, take a look.” I didn’t want to be rude or give away my reason for being there, so I bent down and looked through the telescope. There was Jupiter, banded red and glowing! “Isn’t it great?” he said. It was great. Jupiter was beautiful through the telescope.

I couldn’t kill myself in the presence of these people who had gotten up in the middle of a cold night, with their home-built Radio Shack telescopes, to look at the planets and the stars. The beauty of the night sky, the dew-wet grass at my feet, and the Seattle Astronomy Club kept me in this world. (from Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker)

Rumi writes: “Make me sweet again and fragrant and fresh and wild and thankful for any small gesture.” As this new season begins, as this new year begins, may we also turn toward wonder and find sweetness and thankfulness once again.

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Most recently updated 2011-10-15