Inviting the Presence: A Drasha for Rosh HaShanah 5781

By Reb Daniel Lev

The cover of the ZoharIn Deuteronomy 30:11-14 it says: “For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us hear it, that we may do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, and make us hear it, that we may do it? But the word is very close to you, it’s in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.” If the word of G-d is so close, how come I can’t usually hear it or feel it? First, let me ask: Who or what is G-d?…..What a question!. I want to point to one way of understanding spirituality. Some of you know that we’ve had many Jewish views of what G-d is. Since I’m going to be talking about G-d, who is and is not a He or a She, I will avoid the binary by referring to G-d as both He and She, so don’t get confused – I also will at times refer to G-d by the traditional Hebrew name, HaShem – which means “the

The symbol of Kabbalah, the Tree of Life, is nested here in sacred geometry, the ancient Flower of Life matrix.

name. Let’s briefly look at how the Zohar, a powerful mystical commentary on the Torah, interprets the first line in Genesis. Traditionally, the first line is translated as: breisheet bara elohim, “in the beginning G-d created.” However, in creative rabbinic fashion, the Zohar reads this differently: “With beginning He created G-d.” I have to ask: “Who is the He that created G-d?” The word bara can mean “he created or it created.” The Kabbalists, Jewish mystics, would answer that it was the eyn sof who created G-d. Eyn Sof means the “Never-ending One,” referring to the Source of the Universe…a neutral name beyond words and images. To the mystics, this is what G-d is all about. Since this teaching from the Jewish mystical tradition – the Kabbala – calls into question our usual understandings of G-d I’ve had to consider another definition.

Here it is: HaShem, G-d, is our capacity to bring sacred Presence into the world, or at least to develop our awareness of the Presence. To illustrate this, I want to take an example from paganism. My blessed, departed teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (alav ve-shalom), told a story of about the great 19th-century Hindu saint, Ramakrishna. One day he was standing before a statue of the goddess Kali and he knew that he was only standing before a stone statue – the goddess was not there. Then Ramakrishna began to pray to Kali and open up his heart to her as the god-essence he wished to be close to – and in no time the statue filled with the spirit of Kali. Now I know that’s a hell-of-a thing for a Jewish rabbi on Rosh HaShanah to talk about! However, there is a deep truth in it.  From a Jewish spiritual perspective, one can say that HaShem is everywhere and in everything. But we are not always on the level to be aware of Her Presence that stands before us. For that to happen, we must invite HaShem to fill our life in each moment. As it says in Psalm 16:8, “Shviti HaShem lenegdi tamid,” “I will place HaShem before me always.” We must use our natural capacity to bring up into our awareness the sacred Presence. We can do this at home, or in nature, or even here in our service with a zoom screen in front of us, like we’re watching “Temple TV” or we just turned to the “Rosh HaShanah Channel.” Even here we can bring our attention to focus on our intention that the Eyn Sof, the Infinite Presence is before us: Right here, right now. Like the Hindu saint, we can invite the Spirit of the Holy One into this prayer moment, filling everything with His presence. And, as Jews, we don’t need a statue to do that.

Recently I was very ill with a non-Covid flu. That didn’t make it any less miserable to endure the month it lasted. On the one hand, I could have just rolled around and felt sorry for myself, which I did on occasion, and then eventually it would be over and I’d say “glad that’s over” and “let me get back to life, damn it! “ On the other hand, being kind of a religious guy, I directed my prayer toward HaShem and invited Her to join me in the middle of my pain and suffering. In time, just like the statue of Kali filling with her spirit, my body started to fill with a feeling of The Presence of HaShem. I’m bringing this up today because we are all afflicted by the pandemic and its negative outcomes. It is hitting us in our kishkas – in our guts. So the question is: “How do we get through this?” What can we do beyond following all the safety measures? Well, speaking as a spiritual kind of guy I’d encourage all of us to take a chance and open ourselves to the Presence of HaShem – however you may think of her: maybe as a classic Deity, or Lover and Friend, or Nature, or the Eyn Sof, or the Force, or even as the fabled Cosmic Muffin. Invite Him in, however you conceive of Him. Because as you do this, you can receive the healing and renewal you need during these challenging times. Times that challenge our health, our politics, our livelihoods and our loved ones.

As you invite in the Presence today, now, in any way you choose, you’ll eventually feel lifted up during the service and this, among other experiences, can help you enter the New Year in a new strong way of your own. By opening up to something larger than our daily ego we can enter the Holy, raising our consciousness to a higher level than it was last year. In part that’s what Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are all about. So I want to bless you – and please bless me back – that this Rosh Hashanah, during any of the Marathon services, while the Hebrew prayers are flying fast and furious, that you take a moment, with your eyes open or closed, to stop from time to time and allow yourself to open up to the Source of the Universe, for even 5-minutes, to invite her to fill you up, or to bless you with a deep awareness of Her Presence. I bless you that you allow yourself become mindful of of the Presence….and even if you think your just imagining things, that you act “as if” it’s real, if that gets you through. And I bless you that as you do this, you’ll become pleasantly surprised at what beautiful things you can discover on this Rosh HaShanah.

Shanah Tovah!

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