“Trust, Release, Ask” – Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781 / 2020 Sermon

Rabbi Maurice Harris

String of Pearls / Princeton Reconstructionist Congregation

Shana Tova. It’s an honor to be with the String of Pearls community this year for the High Holidays. Though we are connecting online and not in person, we are connected by many invisible lines extending across distance and time. 

Tonight I’d like to talk a little bit about coping. Coping with fear, with uncertainty, with loss, and with the stresses of living in some of the hardest times we’ve shared as a society. I’d like to offer up an exercise, especially for when the craziness of life feels like it’s just too hard. It’s a practice that I call “Trust, Release, Ask.”  

Trust. A lot of what goes on in the world of religion attempts to instill fear in people. Fear that God is going to judge them and punish them. Fear that people will be hurt or tortured, if not in this life, than in an afterlife. We don’t have as much of this kind of thinking and teaching in modern Judaism as in some other religions, but we have our versions of it. The everyday world we live in also gives us plenty of opportunities to be fearful – I don’t think I need to list out what the past months have brought all of us in terms of shock, anxiety, disillusionment, outrage, and despair. It’s been rough.

It was already rough for so many people who tend to get overlooked or diminished in this world, no doubt, and at the same time there’s no question that the past year has been intense in its particular combination of terrible things. Our fears are understandable, and yet at the same time, our tradition teaches that fear is not a foundation to build a life upon. We ultimately have to decide whether we want to fear the Universe we are a part of, or whether we want to try our best to trust it – trust that whatever suffering may come and go as part of life and death, that the Universe holds us and that we belong to it.  

What I wish all of us would do, whether as part of our religious teachings or our general social values – is to help children from the youngest age develop a deep, abiding sense of inner trust that they are part of something greater – something creative, wonderful, and alive. That they are part of the Life of the Universe itself, which many of us call God – and that even though this life includes joy and pain, birth and death, it is something eternal and good that they are a part of that they can fully and entirely trust with all their being. Imagine if you had been told this every day of your life from the moment you could first understand the words, and others around you over and over again reinforced the message that you are part of something greater, the mysterious force of Life itself, and that you are loved and held by that power in a way that will never end. 

In Judaism we have these teachings in the form of the essential verse in the Torah that says that every human being is created in the Divine image. We are all star stuff, God stuff, at our essence. And we also find this idea in the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav – the whole world is just a narrow bridge, just a narrow bridge, and the essential thing is not to be afraid. Translation: it’s scary to be alive, but don’t worry, it’s okay. We are all part of something greater than our individual selves, something that is loving, good, eternal, something that can’t be harmed. Trust. With a capital T.  Existential security. It’s safe to live; it’s safe to experience joy; it’s safe to experience pain; it’s safe to die. We don’t have to understand everything about the universe in order to teach ourselves to trust it. To trust our place in it, trust that we belong to it, trust that we are in it and it is in us and all of it is somehow One, and, as God describes all of creation in Genesis:

God saw all of creation and found it to be exceedingly good

* * *

Release. This one is a little trickier, or at least it has been for me personally. When I talk about release, I mean accepting that I’m overwhelmed, and that I don’t think I can bear things alone. For me, it’s comfortable to say, “God, I need your help. I need to release this fear to you. It’s more than I can bear by myself.” Or, “Compassionate One, I release these feelings to you and ask for your help with them. They’re overwhelming me.” 

I’m guessing that for some of you this sounds just fine, and for others you can’t imagine yourself using this kind of language to talk to God. If the God language is a hindrance, my advice is to use other language. It’s not the G word that matters. Judaism has literally dozens of different names for the Unnamable One – the pulsing Mystery at the heart of existence. The early rabbis often called God “ha-makom” – which means “The Place.” Which place? Nobody knows. Maybe the Ground of Being. Our sacred texts sometimes call God ha-rachaman, Merciful One. The Hasidic masters write about Khiyyut – which literally means the Life Force. The Kabbalists called God Ein Sof, which simply means “without end,” or Infinite One. 

Judaism’s main assertion – some might say its only assertion – about what or who God is is that God is One. Any words we assign to talk about the Unifying Force that Connects us all will miss the mark, so the words aren’t what’s important. What matters is that we find the words that we can work with so that we can ask for help carrying the loads that feel heavier than we can bear. So that we can release some of what hurts, some of what feels scary to a Higher Power. So we can ask for help.

This, too, is very Jewish. We see it in many of David’s Psalms – “I feel surrounded, God, and I’ve lost my strength – help me, rescue me, lift me up in your embrace even when it feels like all is lost.” We see it in the Torah, when an exhausted and exasperated Moses asks God not to abandon him to lead the Hebrews by himself through the wilderness. Help me, be with me, I can’t do this by myself. 

Just pour it out, connect, and release your hardest feelings to a Higher Power and ask for He, She, or It to carry some of it for you. 

* * *

Ask to be of service. In the third part of this practice, I ask the Universe, God, Hashem, or whatever you want to call the Creative Living Force, to help me to be of service – and specifically, to be of service to the best in others and in myself. The way I’ve been practicing this, I direct my thoughts towards God, and I simply say, “I need help. And I want to help. Help me get help, and help me help others.” 

This, too, is deeply Jewish. It’s a reformulating of part of the great sage, Hillel’s, famous saying: if I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? Hillel’s questions point us to a life of meaning in which we create goodness in the world by simultaneously learning how to advocate for ourselves while also advocating for others unselfishly. We see that we deserve dignity and lovingkindness, and so we embrace the truth that it is right for each of us to seek out the good for ourselves. We value self-esteem because we are all children of the Divine One. The brilliance of Hillel’s teaching is that it attaches this kind of self-love to love of all others in the same breath, in the same thought. All of us – even our enemies – are children of the Divine One. We must also be of service to them, to others, for our lives to hold meaning. 

So in keeping with this ideal, I ask the Source of All to help me be of highest service to myself and to the world, understanding that these two things are intertwined. I don’t always know what course of action will be of highest service, so I ask the Universe to help guide me in that direction. 

Is this how God really works – does God think thoughts like our thoughts and respond to our prayers and requests for help? I honestly don’t know. I don’t know how the Universe is wired together. I don’t know what the mysterious layers of consciousness beyond our human minds look like. But I try, I try to trust that there is a Force in the universe that somehow hears, somehow sees, somehow understands, and somehow holds all of the many parts of us, including our thoughts and our hearts’ yearnings. And I choose to ask that Force to help me be of service, to help me fight for the rights of others who suffer injustice and cruelty, here in this country, here at our borders, and anywhere around the world. Martin Luther King taught, “I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose and that in the struggle for righteousness humanity has cosmic companionship.”

This has been, and continues to be, an incredibly hard year, in this land and around the globe. I don’t need to list all the crises we’re still pushing through – you know what they are. What I hope is that as we close the book on a very painful Jewish calendar year and open the book on a new year whose stories have yet to unfold, that we can gather some strength and resilience by taking these three steps: trust the Universe – you’re its child and it has your back; release your fears and burdens to a Loving Higher Power – just try saying “this is too much please hold some of it for me or with me;” and ask the Source of Being to help you be of highest service to yourself and to others. Trust, release, and ask.

* * *

Thank you truly for listening, and may the Holy One bless all of us with a year of growing trust, a year of release from suffering, and a year in which we can all be of service. Good yom tov, and may we all be written for a sweet New Year.  

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