Rosh Hashanah 5776
I’d like to start tonight by telling you a dream that I had. Not recent. I’ve been sitting on this one for a year and a half, not knowing quite what to do with it.
The dream came to me while I was performing in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. It was hot and I went to sleep with the balcony doors open, looking out over the dazzlingly blue Bay of Banderas. It was just a month after my mother’s death; in fact it was my first day out of shloshim, the 30-day mourning period. And in my dream, I walked into some old European sanitarium, and there was a doctor there and my mother too. And the doctor had figured out what was wrong with her and it was an easy fix and he'd just gone ahead and fixed it and she was instantly okay – younger and stronger than I’d ever seen her, and they said there was no longer a reason for her to be there. So I took her and we drove. But not home. We were now driving up a mountain in the middle of a Greek island; climbing, climbing as if up to Olympus itself, with the Mediterranean all around and views to the horizon in every direction.
As we drove, we sat side by side in the car, just as we had at the moment of her stroke. And at this point in the dream my waking memory began to seep in. I realized something was not right. I pulled over and told her that we’d already sat shiva for her and it had been so sad. And I fell on her shoulder and she held me while I cried.
Now that’s pretty much the entirety of the dream. It was beautiful and sad, and not particularly deep. It was clearly venting my grief, helping me let go of the weeks – and actually years – of worry about her health and wellbeing. It was my subconscious giving me a chance to feel some peace.
But it didn’t just feel like my subconscious, whatever that means. It felt messagey, like I know grieving people often experience. It felt like a hello. And a message that she was okay. And its feeling that way was, for me, a problem.
Because first off – and you might not know this – I am a terrible cynic. Despite this work of mine here on this bimah, despite the stories I tell here and the connections I draw between worlds, I feel like I am always holding some amount of it within quotation marks. I soar aloft here and then, thud, I land back in my flightless day-to-day. I’m not sure where I get such cynicism from. My family, on my mother’s side, are all Litvaks. And the Litvak, as you might know, always plays the role of the doubter in all the Chasidic stories, scoffing at the rebbe’s wonders, until he is won over in the end.
In my defense, I’m not alone in that cynicism. It resonates with much of our tradition. Talmud tells us our dreams are 1/60th part prophecy. (Some of you might remember that 60:1 ratio from Selichot – this is the Jewish dissolution level at which something becomes nullified.) “Don’t count on your dreams for guidance,” imply the rabbis of antiquity. “The prophecy in them is negligible.” But, tantalizingly, negligible is not the same as non-existent. One-sixtieth is tiny but quantifiable. It’s one minute of every hour you sleep. That’s 6, 7, 8 minutes of prophecy a night, which really isn’t so bad. But, frustratingly, Talmud gives no guidance as to how to identify which eight minutes.
There’s more to why I don’t just jump to believe all such mystical moments, and I confess that in rallying Talmud to my defense just now, I was being somewhat disingenuous. Because the truth is I want to believe in mystical experience. I want a world where we are in conversation with God and with angels and who knows how many non-corporeal realms. And I always fear that that desire is just escapism or magical thinking, or that others will think that about me. Or I’m afraid of being associated with preachers who exploit faith for profit.
So although I’m drawn to the mystical, I am quick, I fear, to pooh-pooh the woo-woo, as it were. If I experience something transcendent, I soon douse the experience in a bucket of cold water.
But there are times when the mystical is so pressing, that it’s really hard to explain it away. Which brings me back to the dream about my mother 19 months ago.
I woke up from the dream, and looked out to the blue Mexican water, feeling sad and feeling spoken to. I couldn’t shake that feeling. I got up, dressed, and walked to the market for fruit and vegetables. Coming back, I wandered through town wondering how anyone can ever tell if such an experience is anything more than the heart’s wishful thinking; the brain concocting medicine for a spirit in need of it. I posed this “how can you ever know for sure” question in my head as clearly as one might pose an inquiry to a Magic-8 Ball. And just as this request for a sign formed, I looked up and found myself staring at a sign. I was standing in front of Club Mañana, a former dance club and theatre where my group, the Kinsey Sicks, had performed for several seasons. Mañana was now for sale and I was staring at the En Venta – the For Sale sign. My eyes were drawn down to the large-lettered name of the realtor. Marilyn Newman. And that, as a few of you might know, was my mother’s maiden name.
If I’d seen it in a movie I would have snickered. But I stood there, feeling stupid. That because of my insistent grinchiness, this hello from my mother had to come endorsed with a signature before I would believe it.
So, was this a coincidence? Of course it was. Might I have noticed this gringa realtor’s name, this ersatz Marilyn Newman, on some other “For Sale” sign two years earlier? Of course, I might’ve. I might’ve noticed it and called my mother on the phone and said, “You’ll never guess what I saw today!” I might’ve, but I didn’t. I only saw it in the slightly altered consciousness produced by the dream.
Talmud says that the age of the prophets is over. No one talks to God face to face like Moses did. But does that mean that the whole inter-worldly communication grid is down? Some of us still pray in formal ways. We imagine ourselves on these Days of Awe to be standing in front of a gate, not a wall. More of us pray in unofficial ways. We mutter thanks or please to God or to the Universe or to angels as we go about our business, as we feel our longings, as we escape dangers. We tell ourselves these are figures of speech. But still we use language that suggests that on some level, we see ourselves as residing within a field that is perhaps not supernatural, but somehow infranatural. In other words, the divine courses through us and every corner of the world. And so everything that seems a simple matter of circumstance also carries with it a wink of the divine.
Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav taught that every blade of grass has a song of its own, a melody that comes from the sweetness of the water and the setting of the pasture. And the song of the grass informs the song of the sheep that eat it, and of the shepherd who spends days lying on it, watching the sheep. Every living thing – no, every thing – has a kind of music that we can hear if we open to it. Meanwhile, Talmud teaches us – and many of you have heard this – that no blade of grass grows without an angel standing there, encouraging it, saying, “Grow! Grow!”
If you imagine both these ideas as having a kind of truth, then everything is talking to everything. The Divine talks, and Creation talks back, in a great, gorgeous cacophony not dissimilar to a Jewish dinner table. And if we are in the right state of consciousness, we might hear some of this crosstalk that we otherwise never would tune into; the crosstalk that sometimes seems to respond to a question in our hearts. Or that calls us to action when we need it. Or calls us to attention at just the right moment. And maybe what we need to hear in the crosstalk of the universe comes to us in the language of coincidence, because it is abundant, and we all understand its grammar. Coincidence is the Esperanto of divine communication.
And sometimes we don’t even need coincidence as a mechanism. We just know. We know what we need to know. It comes to us not like the blast of shofar or the bombast of a “For Sale” sign in a foreign country. It comes to us through silence, through a still, small voice.
This phrase, “the still, small voice” comes to us by way of a story of Elijah the prophet, taking refuge in a cave. Elijah is having a crisis of faith, because things have gone terribly and God has not, at that moment, been proving Godself in the great blustery Hollywood ways Elijah desired. And so God causes a great wind to pass by the cave, and then an earthquake, and then a fire. And Elijah perceives that God is not in any of those things. And only after the cataclysms subside is Elijah able to perceive a kol d’mamah dakah, a “still, small voice,” the hush we will reference tomorrow in our Unetaneh Tokef prayer, the quiet reverberation that happens after the blast of the shofar. This is the place where communication happens. This is the quiet where the call lives.
Because a call doesn’t have to be loud to be heard. And because a loud voice can be ignored just as easily – maybe more easily – than a quiet one. And that describes in a nutshell the difficulty of my long-delayed, long-deferred calling to become a rabbi. My desire to be a rabbi was so old, since childhood, that it had become habit. Its constant racket had become white noise. And once relegated to the realm of irrelevance, it stopped being a call altogether, if in fact it had ever been one.
It was only over this last year that I finally began to hear it in the silence. It was the shmitah year, the fallow year. I had shed some of my busy-ness. I’d retired from the Kinsey Sicks. And I no longer had a mother to occupy the sizable psychic space that having – and worrying about – an aging parent thousands of miles away can take up. And so there was a new stillness that I wasn’t used to having. And in that stillness this longing began to murmur again. It came to me in the form of desire, in the form of repeated crazy, uncanny coincidences. It revealed to me that this calling now lived solidly within the realm of possibility. I had the open time that the Kinsey Sicks left in their wake. And I had a family that would make it doable and there was a program that could make it possible. I could study remotely and maintain my commitment to this community. I was so well poised; so lucky, so blessed. And I began to wonder what was left to hold me back? The still, small voice asked me, over and over, “Why not? Really. Why not?”
Until I saw that the impediment was no longer circumstance. It was me. What stopped me from saying hineini, from saying “yes” to being called, was, ultimately, my investment in a particular story. My long-rehearsed, well-polished, coulda-shoulda-woulda life story about wanting to be and not getting to be a rabbi. Of having been too out too early. Of having been distracted by an epidemic. Of having gotten swept into show business and family and a million other compelling things. I realized that this story was precious to me. This story kept me safe; kept me insulated from the risk of failing at actually being a rabbi. Plus it was a compelling story – tragic and quirky. And you know how much I love being a quirky story.
And over months, in the silence, I realized that I could, finally, let that story go. That life was too short to hang onto it. And when the decision finally made itself, I sat and cried – from relief. Because it is hard work refusing a call for so long.
It is hard work refusing a call. I think you know that’s true, because I think we’ve all done it. Many of us are doing it now, laboring to say “no” to something we feel called to do, or to change, or to be: more generous, more engaged, move loving, more learned. Even to repair a long broken relationship. I suspect that if right now I asked you to complete the sentence, “If I could, if there was nothing to hold me back, I would _____,” you would be able to answer instantly. And yet so often we don’t do it. Because of some “can’t” standing in the way. There might be financial barriers or physical barriers of course. But there might be something else too. Some story, some bad experience, some fear, some hurt, someone who told you not to quit your day job, or some deeply conditioned low expectation of yourself, that keeps you from saying hineini, “here I am” when the still small voice calls you. Maybe this year, maybe this season, maybe this day, will be your time to look at that obstacle, at the thing the keeps you from saying yes, and asking yourself why it is so precious to you. Why it is more precious than being who you are called to be. Maybe it is something you can now, finally, let go of.
What more is there to say? Maybe there is no call from the divine. Maybe there is no prophecy in dreams. Maybe coincidences are simply a question of the mathematics of the universe. Maybe all calls, or at least the good ones, come from deep inside, from a place of knowing that sits in our bones and in our kishkes. As they say in the old urban legends, “The call is coming from inside the house.” And that would be okay too. And its being locally sourced doesn’t prohibit us from holding it with the care and honor that we would if it were divine. In holding it that way, it becomes divine.
And if the call is hard to hear, we might be able to cultivate ways to hear it better. Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l said, “There are contemplative tools, such as prayer, meditation and so forth. The more you use those tools, the more attuned you’ll become to intuition.”
So let me bless you, and let me ask you to bless me back. May you be blessed to deepen into your intuitions. May you be blessed to be able to listen deeply. May you be blessed to remove obstacles in your path. May you be blesed to say, when the time is right, “Hineini, yes, here I am.”
Okay, so one final dream about my mother. But I didn’t dream this one. It was dreamt by an acquaintance and Kinsey Sicks fan, who called me urgently one day this spring because my mother had come to him in a dream asking him to warn me about something. I listened and felt the Litvak in me putting up a wall. Really? I thought. I should believe this why? Not to mention my injured vanity: the nerve of someone else to dream about my mother. In lawyerly fashion, I asked him why he thought my mother would’ve come to him with a message when she could’ve come to me directly. He said, “Funny, I asked her that. And she said that you were so busy, she didn’t want to bother you.”
Words my mother had, of course, said to me a million times.
Maybe it’s coincidence.
And maybe, like in the Chasidic stories, the cynical Litvak gets won over.
Thank you to Rabbi Eli Cohen and Reb Eli Herb (my "Go-Two") and Rabbi David Evan Markus for their support on this one. I was also moved by some timely things said by Rabbi Shohama Wiener, Jan Abramovitz and Charles May.
If my deciding to go to rabbinical school is news to you (and it might be) and you'd like to celebrate with me, consider a contribution to Congregation Ner Shalom.
If my deciding to go to rabbinical school is news to you (and it might be) and you'd like to celebrate with me, consider a contribution to Congregation Ner Shalom.
 BT Berachot 57b. Five things are a 60th part of something else: namely, fire, honey, Sabbath, sleep and a dream. Fire is one-sixtieth part of Gehinnom. Honey is one-sixtieth part of manna. Sabbath is one-sixtieth part of the world to come. Sleep is one-sixtieth part of death. A dream is one-sixtieth part of prophecy.
 BT Baba Batra 12a
 Deuteronomy 34:10
 Rabbi David Evan Markus coined this word in response to my request for one meaning just this.
 Likutei Moharan, Teaching 63.
 You can try this out by glancing outside the window right now, looking at a tree and imagining its song.
 Bereishit Rabba 10:6.
 Kings I 19:9-13
 Leviticus, the third book of Torah, is called in Hebrew Vayikra, meaning, “He called,” because that is the opening word of the book. Vayikra el-Moshe, “He – or it – called to Moses.” The sentence, fascinatingly, doesn’t actually make God the caller. But this word, vayikra, has a very special orthographic feature. Its final letter, aleph, is written half-size. In every Torah scroll in existence. And the reason is not clear. But some say that it is a way of communicating that when one receives a call, it is not necessarily through speech, through a great booming voice. But rather in silence. Aleph is our silent letter. And, at half size in this word, it is taken to represent the kol d’mamah dakah, the “still, small voice” that Elijah perceived.
 The December Project: An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life's Greatest Mystery, by Sara Davidson (2014 HarperOne).
 I’m so grateful to Eli Herb for offering me this formulation, which he learned from Maggid Yitzchak Buxbaum, who learned it from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.