On this Rosh HaShanah, I want to offer us the opportunity to think about what it means to be open-hearted.
Throughout the month of Elul, I struggled with the idea of how I want to engage with the world in 5780. Then I thought about my three-year-old. How does he engage with the world? He has that special three year old quality, where he says hello with gusto and is genuinely excited to see you. He is unafraid of telling the world what is bothering him. His delighted with most experiences throughout the day, except of course before bedtime. He is completely open-hearted. That is what I want.
Being open-hearted is really hard to define. It’s not compassion.
Compassion is too much about how you feel about another person, giving something of yourself. It’s not courage because that is about strength or will. Being open-hearted is about being willing to really experience what is happening around you.
It’s about softening your interior and exterior. Being open-hearted is allowing for some vulnerability so you can be curious with other people. But it’s so hard. We live at a time when we have to protect ourselves from the news, from the pain of the world, and potential real danger. These holy days are about opening our hearts.
Jewish tradition is based on the idea that we can continually learn from our sacred texts. Today is no different. The Haftarah (1 Samuel 1:1-2:10) for Rosh HaShanah morning revolves around a woman named Hannah.
This is how I imagine the story playing out… It’s a cold and rainy day in Shiloh, a city 20 miles north of Jerusalem. While usually busy, the path leading up to the shrine is empty except for one woman. Her hair is covered and her are dresses long, she is kneeling at the shrine fervently praying to God. She just left a festive meal alongside her husband, Elkanah, and her co-wife, Peninah, who is fortunate to have many children. On what could have been a joyous occasion, Hannah was not joyous. Year after year she prayed for a child and year after year she remained without one.
At the entrance to the Temple she begs God to save her from this current version of her life, she is desperate to break the cycle of being the one-without-a-child.
In the middle of her prayers Eli, the priest, comes by. Looking around to see if she is with anyone, he approaches her. As he comes closer and closer he hears the pain in her voice, the words flowing out of her mouth, “Please give me a male child, I will make sure that he is in service to you his whole life, just give me a child,” until eventually “she was praying with her heart,” just her lips were moving.
Eli speaks to her saying, “How long will you make a drunken fool of yourself? Sober up, lady.” Startled from her deep meditation she says, “Oh no, I’m not drunk, I’m just so sad and heartbroken because I don’t have a child.”
Taken aback by her directness, Eli realizes that she is not drunk but in the depths of despair. He says, “Go in peace, the God of Israel will grant you what you have asked.”
Within this brief encounter, there are three ways that Hannah and Eli teach us about being open-hearted. First, Hannah had no expectations in that moment that God or Eli would give her what she wanted. She didn’t care who was watching or what anyone else thought about her, in her vulnerability. She just poured out her deepest desire.
Author, Storyteller, and Researcher, Brene Brown, writes about vulnerability and shame. In her Ted Talk about the Power of Vulnerability she highlights those who have the courage to be imperfect, who tell their stories with a whole-heart.(1)
How many times this year have we muffled a feeling because we were worried about seeming vulnerable? When we were worried about not being enough? I feel that way all the time. It is quite ironic that this feeling is magnified during the High Holy Days.
For the past 14 years, I tended to services and written sermons,
both as a student and as a rabbi. For the past 13 years, this process has brought out the worst in me.I ate too much, procrastinated too long, and was an all-around terror to the people that I love the most. I am not this way all the time. But under these pressures, I retreat out of the fear of not having the right words to say, with the right inflection, at the right time.
This year, I set the intention that I was not going to live my life under a rock, like a crab acting like a crab. Instead, I decided that these holy days are for everyone and my family and friends shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of my stress and my confidence failures. So, I made some changes. I reminded myself that I have been through this before. That I am enough, just the way I am. Although, there is always room for improvement. It worked, so far, we are only half-way through. This is not about bragging. This is about being open-hearted, recognizing my failure and putting my relationships ahead of my own insecurities. That is t’shuvah, that is return.
The second way that the story of Hannah teaches us about open-heartedness was how she reacted to Eli after he publicly challenged her. She didn’t back down. This past week, Greta Thunberg, the Swedish, sixteen year old, railed about climate change at the World Climate Summit. She demanded the world, not just world leaders, all of us, to open our hearts and listen to the dangers of climate change. Her generation will not forgive us for ruining her future. She commanded us not to shut down even though that is what we want to do. She stayed true to her message even in the face of adults who were not ready to listen.
When ideas challenge and scare us we cannot back down, rather we should remain open-hearted.
The third open-hearted wisdom from the Haftarah story is more shocking than the other two. When Eli confronts Hannah, when he thought she was drunk, he automatically judged her, as we all might, and then immediately saw her, believed her, and blessed her. If he hadn’t opened his heart in that moment, her torment might have continued. Instead he confirms that God will take notice of her and grant her a child.
The prophet Ezekiel wrote, “I will remove your heart of stone and I will give you a heart of flesh.” That is exactly what happened to Eli. His heart was stone and then it became flesh. Rabbi Naomi Levy, who has written a lot about this said, “Cutting through the heart of stone and arriving at the heart of flesh isn’t a one-time job. The stone heart isn’t gone forever. At every loss, every disappointment, every new challenge it’s there ready to return,
ready to take its familiar place inside you. And it takes so much courage to stay alive and soft and vulnerable.” (2) We only know about Eli in this interaction.
We don’t know if he went back to approaching others with a heart of stone but in that moment, he truly took into account the person across from him.
Living with that heart of stone is a safe. If we don’t like something, we block it, we retreat into our phones, or rant about it on Facebook. We are in an era where we have the ability to curate all of our experiences to see the things and read the things that we want to hear. This truly is a retreat, it is not living, it is not experiencing all of what life has to offer.
There is a story from the epic television show The West Wing by Aaron Sorkin; Leo tells Josh the following story: “This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. “A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. “Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer,
throws it down in the hole and moves on “Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before
and I know the way out.'”
The doctor and the priest used their professional and vocational prowess to offer their help. They obviously didn’t consider whether what they were offering would have an effect. The friend could have called for help or tried to find a way to get him out.
Instead, he used what he had in that moment, an instinct for open-heartedness. Even though he knew how to get the guy out that wasn’t important. He had was the capacity to be with the guy at that moment.
May we, this year, turn our hearts to flesh, take a beat before saying no, be open-hearted in the face of adversity and be willing to acknowledge someone else’s reality. In this new year, may we find ways to be more open-hearted, loving, caring, and closer to the vision of the people we desire.