Psalm 102

Rosh Hashana Drasha by Melanie Landau

Psalm 102: My days are like a lengthening shadow; and I, like grass that will wither. But You, YHVH, sit enthroned forever; and your memory from generation to generation.

Shana tova. These awesome days cast our attention to our mortality and invite us to use this awareness to propel us forth to express our truths, show ourselves, live the lives that we want to live, and recommit ourselves to our visions for ourselves and for a redeemed world. Relationship is the heart of our life's purpose and the key motif of RH — the question of who we are and what are we doing in the world and with whom we are doing it? RH addresses us on an individual level. This drasha is both an advertisement for our glorious imperfection and an invitation to mediate dangerously in our lives — the danger that comes from being present in our relationships and taking the risk in engaging honestly, showing ourselves, not knowing where it will take us, knowing we haven't been there before, letting go of all that is familiar.

On Rosh Hashanah, we each crown the divine, we each undergo judgement. Who are we to crown God and what is the meaning of this judgement? By crowning God we take responsibility, take ourselves out of the victim role, despite our severe limitations, and we remind ourselves that we can make a difference. Crowning God — putting our attention on something utterly non-human, is a way of seeing ourselves in our human imperfection. RH is about our smallness and our significance — the intensely personal and the resoundingly cosmic.

How should we relate to the judgement of today? Sometimes spiritual practices reinforce the habits and patterns that we have and get moulded to fit in to everything that we already know. We take them and we whip ourselves like we've been whipped as long as we can remember — and when it's not someone else who's criticising us, we've got a whole cacophony on the inside doing it to. We're not to blame for taking on these habits. But the good news is God's judgement is not about being guilty or innocent. They are the wrong categories. No one is innocent — we're human, we're imperfect. Our holy ancestors started out with great examples of these imperfections and that was truly very generous of them. And we could possibly spend our lifetimes accepting our human imperfections with grace and delight.

The judgement that I'm advocating today is an examination, getting to have a good look, a look at ourselves, having the opportunity to take stock, acknowledging and praising us for what we've done and how we've done it. Let's allow our life to flash by this RH. We all truly have much to be praised for. (Think of something you did which you're pleased about.) We can determine if the judgement has been successful, if after it we walk away with anticipation and gratitude, with an increased capacity to delight in our selves and in others and be of service to the world. Naturally any sadness would be a result of our own heartbreak at where we have struggled and where we couldn't act as the good people we really are. I know that no one is an exception to this.

I've participated in a few Vipassana meditation retreats, where you sit for 10 days in meditation. Most of the pain that I felt was the judgement and the harshness meted out by the self to the self. And every so often after it built up it would crack and dissolve with some tears. The very last session they give you a tool called “metta”, that's their version of the 13 midot of hessed, lovingkindness — but why wait till the end! We don't need to wait to Neilah to be swept up in the glorious abundance of lovingkindness, we need it now and always! We're not going to be able to look at ourselves very well if we don't activate this compassion and lovingkindness.

I just participated in a transformative weekend workshop on Ending White Racism led by the great granddaughter of Sir Edmund Barton, the first Prime Minister of Australia and the Father of Federation. Some of you may recall that the Barton government's first piece of legislation was the Immigration Restriction Act, which put the White Australia policy into law that restricted non-white immigration to Australia. She has big plans for Australia and for the role she can play in transforming racism here. She has visions of treaties with Indigenous landowners, of the re-possession of crown land and of the valuing of Indigenous culture and language through the educational and health systems. Interestingly though, she is not coming at this challenge from a position of guilt. Her perspective is that we can't do this work and undo our oppressor patterns unless we are totally delighted with ourselves. Most of the weekend we got to see what stands in the way of us being totally delighted with ourselves and with others. Racism gets to stay in place because it makes everyone feel bad about themselves. It also divides the beneficiaries of white privilege between the “good” whites and the “bad” whites. It was a very early when we got the hurt of no longer being delighted in ourselves. It's not our fault and it's not even our parents' fault. But we no longer need to suffer from the hurt of it. Crowning God, and recognising the relative insignificance of ourselves and our lives in terms of eternity, can be a way to reclaim the full potential of that human limit.

Let's come back to what I've called the heart of this process — the centrality of relationships, its relationship to the story of Hagar we just read and its application as the crucible of our life journeys in personal and collective ways. Our security is based on our relationships. We can and do learn the most fundamental lessons of our lives through relationships. They're not the side dish — they're the main course. We just read about Hagar and Ishmael's banishment from the House of Abraham through Sarah's instigation. What is that doing here on the first day of RH? Well for one, RH links us back through Jewish motifs but back to universal humanity (where Pesach is birth of Jewish nation). To reinforce this we bring to the heart of our service, our collective memory of our oppressive actions. I say our, because we're not going to use this story to blame Sarah, we're going to use this to thank her for opening up the possibilities and the freedom of what it means to acknowledge that we too have that oppressor part — and that even that — as part of us can be acknowledged and transformed. When have we been too scared to act in a way we know is right in the face of someone else's feelings and pressure? When have we transferred our feeling bad to blaming another person, or making them feel bad? We can do it in overt ways and we can do it in more subtle energetic ways. I bump up next to someone, they're bounding energy and beaming light and I need to cut them down because somehow they evoke terrible feelings in me, their light shines on how bad I feel about myself. Other times I may be able to recognise their light and their vitality as a reflection and extension of my own. There's lots of levels we need to forgive our self on and lots of levels and degrees — more and less subtle — in which we can grow.

Let's have another look at the narrative more closely: It seems to me that Sarah's feeling of shame and feeling like a victim was at the root of her sending out Hagar and transferring that shame. It started with her saying that Hashem has made her a “tzhok” (could be laugh or laughing stock) and then Sarah saw Ishmael “playing” or “mocking” and she reacted by asking Avraham to chase him and his mother out of the household. Everything can be read in different ways. God tells Abraham not to worry about the boy and his mother and to listen to Sarah's voice. Maybe that could have meant that he didn't need to do what she said, he just needed to listen to the pain that she was expressing through her words. Her desire for banishment of Hagar and Ishmael came from a place of pain within her. We are called to bring compassion to the one who has acted as an oppressor. It has to begin with ourselves but has to extend to those to whom we don't want it to extend. No one is left out of the circle. We are called to reconciliation. Hagar calls to God and is answered, and God also promises to make a great nation from her son Ishmael. It is only at the time of Abraham's death that the two brothers are finally reconciled to each other, set free from the divisive narrative into which they were born, without choice. US poet Edwin Markham in “Outwitted" could have been describing this reconciliation from Ishmael's perspective, at least at the end of Avraham's life. He writes: He drew a circle that shut me out – Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But Love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle that took him in!

Last week I had a great privilege at Monash, to teach overseas students in a seminar on "Interfaith Relations in the 21st Century". There were students from Brunei, Malaysia, Pakistan and China, several of whom had never met a Jew. Of course, this was no obstacle to them having lots of ideas about Jews. I started the class with some basic introductions and then I got them to go in pairs and share with each other their earliest memories of hearing about Jews and/or meeting them. After they shared with each other I invited them to report back to the class. People covered their hands with their mouths because they felt bad about the thoughts they had had, the sentiments they had heard and shared. I told them I was delighted — the more they would say to me, the happier I'd be. It makes it safer to have all of that baggage upfront. Someone I met described this encounter as “mediating dangerously” in the good sense. This is so because we push ourselves to the limits with others where it would be dangerous, because we have no map, no idea where we are going but it is in those places that we effect transformation. We open ourselves in the face of negativity coming our way, staying in our knowledge of our own power despite the scrumptious pull to identify in the position of victim.

This Shabbes Shuva marks the 9th anniversary of 9/11 and there are planned demonstrations against the building of Cordoba mosque and cultural centre near ground zero. Part of the controversy around the building of the mosque is the fear of it being interpreted as some kind of triumphalism. On the other hand, people who support its building see it as a chance for Muslims to be able to express their commitment to promoting interfaith dialogue and for recasting the dynamics of Muslim-non-Muslim relationships in the US since 9/11. Not all Muslims are supportive of the proposal. I don't wish to advocate for an outcome in this forum, but I do want to express my concern about the demonstration that will be taking place on Shabbat Shuva that I fear will provoke hatred of Islam and Muslims, failing to distinguish between those responsible for 9/11 and the vast majority of other people. Our community is also in danger of falling in to this undiscerning hatred – fear mongering now spreads like wildfire on the internet — I pray that we use the wisdom of this day to strengthen ourselves to avoid all the ways that we can turn humans, any human — into “others” — thus avoiding the interpersonal wounds we create through demonization and stereotype.

Once we commit to being delighted in ourselves and also deeply understanding when we fall short, it's not a big ask for us to decide to end all family “broigas” and disputes. What do we have to overcome in ourselves to reconcile with every single person in our lives. What feelings of rage and resentment, hurt, humiliation, and betrayal will we need to (feel and then) put down? And if we can do this with ourselves, what is possible on a communal level? I've got great hopes. On a small scale I'm planning an intra-community closed dialogue on Israel making space for the expression of diversity of opinion that blossoms from this community. What becomes possible on a national, international level? With our imperfect humanity and open heartedness let's mediate dangerously in our own lives, and make space for our relationships to grow and transform taking us to new places, one's we didn't know existed. Let's use our insignificance to our advantage by not letting ideas of who we think we are come in the way of what we need to do.

There is nothing better I know than the groan of the shofar; the cry; the breath; to reflect back to us the power and goodness of humanity in our imperfection.

Psalm 102: My days are like a lengthening shadow; and I, like grass that will wither. But You, YHVH, sit enthroned forever; and your memory from generation to generation.

Posted on September 20, 2010 .