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sermon: Rosh Hashanah (Nefesh Service) 5779

A New Year’s Soulfie

Rosh HaShanah and the Days of Awe urge us to focus, to check in with ourselves. It is not an app, or a distraction. It is the opposite, it is already within our system, waiting to be discovered. In the midst of our declining attention span, we are here to connect with our souls and our true selves.

How many of us in this room wear glasses or contacts? A large percentage of us have had the experience of going to the optometrist’s office because we weren’t seeing properly. We go through the motions of sitting forward with our chin in the little cup that still smells like the alcohol pad, and our eyes wide open. After a few clicks here and there, answering “is A or B clearer, C or D clearer, a little better this way? How about that?” When finally, just about when we think we can’t take it anymore, the eye doctor says “how about now?” Then, ahhh, we can see the letters C, Z, D, F, S, O perfectly, in complete focus.

If only the practice of having focus was as easy as sitting in one place with round plates of glass flipping before our eyes. The evidence is mounting that devices made of other plates of glass are diminishing our ability to focus altogether. In a recent New York Times article entitled, “Finding it Hard to Focus? Maybe it’s not your Fault,” opinion writer Casey Schwartz proposes that even the big tech companies, who have designed these addictive devices, realize that it is not healthy for our attention spans. Major League baseball players are getting busted for checking Instagram during games, screens are everywhere where they had not been before. One study, commissioned by Nokia, found that, as of 2013, we were checking our phones on average 150 times a day. Another study says that we touch our phones about 2,617 times. The irony is not lost on me that there are two huge screens behind my head. Even while writing this sermon, I had to fight the near-constant urge to check my email, Facebook, and text messages. In an interview about boredom, Krista Tippett, host of the NPR show, On Being, comments on our use of technology by saying,

It’s been fascinating — whether you’re four or 60 — it’s been fascinating to have these things at your fingertips that can take you anywhere, theoretically; teach you anything; connect you with anyone; or feed those desires to buy something or be entertained. I do feel like we’re waking up and starting to think about “So what have we lost?” And the technologies are not going away, but what do we want to recover? What do we want to not give over?

I imagine there are people in this room who reject the idea that technology does not reduce their focus for daily tasks or hinder creating a vision for the future. But as many as there might be, I also imagine there are far more people in this room who can relate.

Rosh HaShanah and the Days of Awe urge us to focus, to check in with ourselves. It is not an app, or a distraction. It is the opposite, it is already within our system, waiting to be discovered. In the midst of our declining attention span, we are here to connect with our souls and our true selves.

Our tradition teaches that our soul is breathed into us when we enter this world. It is perfect and whole, it is the essence of who we are. It is our connection to God. When we talk about being created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, this is the thing that resembles the Divine.

Even though our soul is an essential part of us, it is tricky to sense and know. When we do recognize it, how do we to listen to it and allow it to guide us throughout our lives? What a better day than today, the head of the new year, than to take a soul selfie – a soulfie? A soulfie is taking a personal accounting of our souls. This soulfie is not as easy as a quick selfie. There is no holding our phones out in front of us with our arms stretched as long as they can go. Chin down, no backlight, followed by our favorite hashtag. No. This soulfie is about looking within, checking out our souls, asking deep questions of ourselves that no one else could possibly know. Rabbi Naomi Levy coined the term soulfie in her book Einstein and the Rabbi. She says, “It is our daily attempt to meet our souls. It’s our desire to cut through the surface distractions to get to know our own true essence.”

Despite five years of Rabbinical school and nine more in congregations, I have never thought much about the idea of a soul before this year. Yay, growth. However, on a melancholy note, my grandmother died this past year. She was my favorite person. Her death invited these questions in my life in a way that I couldn’t reach before. The questions of if and how our spirit lives on after we are gone. These questions are challenging my rational yetzer or inclination. We are more than brain chemistry, organs, and genetics. This struggle to put aside my desire for rationality is what led me to this exploration of the soul. If Albert Einstein, a man of science, can write the following words, then I and we can give this soulfie thing a try, He said, “The ultimate goal of religion is to help us see and experience that greater whole we are all part of. We have the power to free ourselves from the delusion that we are separate entities, when in truth we are all interwoven strands in an elaborate and infinite web.” When we think about that which makes us connected to our deepest selves and to God, it is the idea of the soul, our light within.

Today we read about a woman and her son who are utterly shunned and separated from everything they know. Hagar is sent out into the wilderness. Tragically, she has been the victim of a whim of her powerful boss, Sarah, the wife of Abraham. For years, Sarah was barren and Abraham was called by God, blessed by God, to bear children to number the stars in the sky. Sarah eventually conceived and gave birth to Isaac. After this miraculous birth, Sarah’s jealous of Hagar’s relationship with Abraham got the better of her. Sarah lobbied Abraham that Hagar was getting in the way of her own happiness, and that she should go. After consulting God, Abraham did as Sarah asked and sent Hagar out into the wilderness with Ishmael, their son, with just a little water and some food. This story is shocking. Disconnectedness causes heartbreak in a myriad of ways. Fear and hurt in Sarah’s court, duty and dedication in Abraham’s, and lack of power and status are in Hagar’s.

In Hagar’s banishment, she weeps about the fact that she cannot bear to watch her one and only son suffer dehydration and hunger. She sends him a distance away from herself. When he is out of earshot she lifts her eyes and has a moment of clarity. Our text says, “ God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.” (Genesis 21:17) Hagar’s soul reached out to God, her inner voice knew the right words to say.

Master educator and activist, Parker Palmer, wrote “the soul speaks to us only in quiet moments.” One of the truths that we can draw from Hagar’s heartbreaking story is that in her quiet moment, our text tells us that then she is able to see clearly. When she quieted her anguish, fear, and desperation, then she was able to connect with the voice within. This is the text we read today, on the first day of the new year. Our tradition goes to great lengths to get us to see that with time and focus, even in the most dire situations, we have the capacity to seek clarity.

It’s funny though, these High Holy Days are filled with noise, between the sounding of the shofar and thousands of words of liturgy. We are not a quiet people, however, in order to truly take this soulfie we need to find quiet amidst the noise to connect with our voice within. Rabbi Levy writes about this moment that, “It’s not a scary moment or a dire moment. It’s a hopeful feeling, a time when you can sense a new possibility. When you are quiet enough to really hear your soul showing you the way.”

The questions that we might ask ourselves in these quiet moments of focus are intensely personal. They can range from:
“What has my soul been trying to say to me that I’ve been ignoring?
What activities and experiences nourish my soul that I don’t get enough of?
What does my soul want to repair that my ego is too stubborn or too fearful to repair?
What does my soul want me to reach for?”

Starting today and for the next ten days, we are placed in Hagar’s shoes. We are at this moment of choice, will we keep our heads down and our minds too busy to focus? Which will we choose? Thanks to a 4,000 year old tradition, we have the opportunity to check in with this unexplainable aspect to connect more deeply with ourselves and possibly even God.

May we each honor this aspect of ourselves this year. May it lead to personal growth and understanding. May it bring us closer to God and to a world fulfilled with peace.

Shana Tova