We Are Called To Surrender

Rosh haShanah sermon Agudas Achim 2017
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

We are Called to Surrender

Perhaps you will have a similar childhood memory to mine: I have a memory of standing at the edge of a cliff. My family was on holiday and we were exploring some beautiful rugged coastline. Having always been been a strong swimmer, I saw people leap off the cliff into the sea below and I felt compelled to do the same. My bare feet inched closer to the edge, toes grappling the rough, irregular rock. I peered down below where the waves lapped hungrily. How deep was the plunge: 10 yards? 20? Perhaps 15?
There was the distinct feeling of both excitement and discomfort. It wasn’t fear exactly – I wasn’t heroic or foolish, I knew I would be OK. It was something else; consciously overriding my internal mechanisms of self-preservation. I wanted to experience this; the brief weightlessness of the drop, the deep immersion into the waters and the sense of giving myself over to something far bigger and far more primordial than myself. I jumped. I surrendered.

*          *          *          *

What does it mean to embody our spirituality? To physically give voice to the tenets of our tradition, or to react against them?

The High Holidays are many things to many people, of course, but most of our associations with the liturgical themes and practices of the High Holidays tend to be cerebral. We consider our texts and relate to them, either positively or negatively. We engage our cognitive and intellectual faculties as we study Torah or contemplate our mortality through the Unetaneh Tokef. Still, we can dig deeper into our emotions through music and memory. Avinu Malkeinu and Kol Nidrey stir something deep in us; something that weaves our personal histories into the story of our People and community. If we dig deeper still and engage the senses, we feel primary responses to the more earthy and sensual aspects of this season: the taste of apples and honey, tart, sweet, crisp and sticky all at once. A family’s favorite brisket recipe, a certain dress you may wear for the Holidays, or a special tallit.

However, the High Holidays are also more than this. The High Holidays are ‘sacred drama’. Not only do we contemplate and experience, we also re-enact. There is an intentionally theatrical component to our services: some of us wear white, we stand and sit, open and close the ark, beat our chest. Most of these ritualized actions are scripted for weekday and Shabbat worship too, including a brief knock on the chest during the sixth blessing of the Weekday Amidah.

There is, however, one aspect to High Holiday liturgy that is sui generis and this is the act of prostration. Prostration is performed during the Great Aleinu on both days of Rosh haShanah (during Musaf in a Conservative service and during the main Amidah in the Reform service) and during the Avodah (‘Temple Service’) part of the Yom Kippur service. Many of us may, however, never have seen this ritual enacted, much less performed it ourselves. In traditional Ashkenazi communities, it is traditional for either the shaliach tzibbur (the prayer leader) or the entire congregation to prostrate.

The Aleinu itself is a prayer with a quirky history. We recognize the prayer from our Shabbat (and daily) liturgy. We recite it at the end of services, wedged in between Ein Keloheinu and Mourner’s Kaddish and more often than not, our thoughts might be on Kiddush. In fact, we might not associate the Aleinu prayer with the High Holidays at all. Yet, it originates from the Musaf service on Rosh haShanah, during the liturgical section known as Malchuyot, where a different, majestic melody is used and prostration is practiced. Although there seem to be some manuscript evidence that parts of the prayer were already in existence during the Second Temple period, the version we know today is ascribed to Rav, an early Amoraic (Talmudic) Rabbi from the 3rd century CE.

What is it about the Aleinu that makes it so compelling, or perhaps, difficult? When we distill the Aleinu to its purest essence, we get a sense of its strong-willed, idealistic and uncompromising nature. The Aleinu prayer is not meant to be ‘parve’. You’ll either love it or hate it. It is supposed to grab you, shake you upand force your gaze upon Eternity. It challenges our ideas about pluralism and tolerance, about the world we live in and the one we dream of, about our mission in the world as Jews and our relationship to non-Jews. It’s hard-hitting and high-stakes, but so is our world. In the Aleinu prayer, redemption is a laser beam.

Please turn to page 202 in your machzorim. I will purposely unveil before you a literal translation, not filtered through the pleasantries of contemporary poetic interpretative translations.

Aleinu leshabeach la’Adon hakol.’ – ‘it is upon us to praise the Master of all.’
Latet g’dulah l’yotzer b’reishit.’ – ‘to give glory to the Maker of Creation.’
Now it’s going to get interesting:
Shelo asanu k’goyei ha’aratzot, v’lo samanu k’mishp’chot ha’adamah. Shelo sam chelkeinu kahem, v’goraleinu k’chol hamonam.’
The machzor gently and lovingly translates this as follows: ‘Who has made us unique in the human family, with a destiny all our own.’
The literal translation, however, is purposely abrasive: ‘Who has not made us as the nations of the world, Who has not placed us with the families of the earth, Who has not given us a lot like theirs, or a destiny like the many others.’

Up to the Middle Ages, there was even an extra line that was even more disparaging. Some scholars say that this was excised under the pressure of the Church who took offense at it.
Shahem mishtachavim l’hevel varik, u’mitpalelim al el lo yoshia’ – ‘That they [followers of other religions] prostrate before vanity and emptiness and pray to a god who does not save.’

Then we get the well-known line at which, during normal services, we bend our knee and bow lightly from the waist. ‘V’anachnu korim u’mishtachavim u’modim lifnei Melech Mal’chei ham’lachim haKadosh Baruch Hu.’ ‘ – And we bend the knee and we bow before the King of the Kings of Kings, the Holy One Blessed be He’.
Yes, this translation is intentionally gendered and hierarchical. Mishkan haNefesh translates it as ‘For this we bend our knees and bow with gratitude before the Sovereign Almighty – Monarch of All – the Wellspring of holiness and blessing.’

The rest of the prayer doesn’t let us off the hook yet; it speaks of the power, glory and might of the One God Who created All. ‘Hu Eloheinu, ein od’ – ‘This is our God, there is no other’.
The second passage, which Mishkan haNefesh omits in the machzor but which we read in the Conservative service as well as during Shabbat and daily services continues its strident theme, talking of the destruction of idolatry, the repentance of evil-doers and the universal acceptance of the God of Israel by all humanity. Ultimately, the Aleinu dreams, all shall bend the knee and swear fealty to our God for one that day, God will be truly One. 

I think we can take a breath now.

How does this prayer make you feel? The Great Aleinu is high-octane liturgy and it seems fitting that we recite it in our volatile, high-octane world. There is no denying that unrelenting monotheism can be toxic and destructive; no religion is immune to this moral corruption.
Yet, the Great Aleinu is not only a prayer of great force and moral grandeur; but also hopeful, brimming with dreams and dare I say tender as paradoxically, its lofty words invite us into the intimacy of surrender. The Aleinu invites us to take the plunge.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro, a well-known Jewish author and spiritual teacher noted in the stellar ‘Judaism Unbound’ podcast series that ‘Jews are bad at surrendering.’ What does it mean for Jews today – for those of us here right now – to surrender?

We like being in control and we live in a society that fosters, nurtures and rewards our impulses for control. Through the Internet, we have information and convenience at our fingertips. Modern transport allows us to traverse our globe in hours. Although awareness of our inevitable mortality dwells on the edges of our consciousness, we expect to live healthy and long lives. We expect to be able to heal most illness. We even expect to exert control over global events, be they challenges of a political or environmental nature. From micro- to macro-level, we like to imagine ourselves in charge.

But then the miniature catastrophes of our lives unfold, or we discover obstacles that are less surmountable than assumed. There is a fork in the road and things do not go as planned and we are forced to reckon with liminality and vulnerability. Our mutual rabbinic-congregational relationship was tested by the challenges of acquiring my visa. For 18 months we waited, dwelling in uncertainty, being forced to exercise forbearance with an unresolved outcome.

Surrender is hard. Surrender how and to what?

There are many complex messages to the Aleinu, many of them can be plotted along the axis between the universalist and the particular. In fact, an entire volume of essays edited by famous Reform liturgist Rabbi Larry Hoffman have been dedicated to this topic. The volume is called ‘All the World – Universalism, Particularism and the High Holy Days’ and I heartily recommend it. Yet at the heart of this tension – is Judaism just for us or the whole world? How do we avoid the traps of stifling particularism and arrogant universalism? How do we profess openness and love for all of humanity without committing spiritual imperialism? – is the deeper, more personal, more intimate question of surrender.

V’anachnu korim u’mishtachim u’modim lifnei Melech Malei ha’M’lachim’ – ‘And we bend the knee and prostrate and praise before the King of King of Kings’.
That ‘connective vav’, the letter binding the previous clause with the following clause can be read in two ways: as ‘and’ or as ‘but’. Do we resist or do we surrender? Do we defy the expectations of our society or give into them? Do we dare plunge ourselves into the physicality and emotionality of an experience of which which we’ve lost our ancient vocabulary? What does it mean to re-enact this sacred drama, literally on one’s knees? How do we balance the dignity of the individual with the humility of professing that there is One so much greater than us? To abandon our pride in the face of an awe-inspiring, infinite Universe on which we project or in which we invest our redemptive hopes?

Loss of control is frightening but can also be liberating. We can give ourselves permission, in the context of this safe space, this ritualized and sanctified point in time to experiment with new modes of being and experience. To embody our hopes and fears, to open a crack in our hearts to the Divine – whether we believe or not, whether we intuit transcendence or not. To excavate the chambers of our inner Temple, ‘letaken ha’olam b’malchut Shaddai’ – ‘to repair our worlds – our inner worlds – under the Sovereignty of the Almighty.’ The Aleinu, as the heart of the Rosh haShanah liturgy also encapsulates all its important themes. How can we relate to this fractal of Rosh haShanah? Dare we take up the Rosh haShanah challenge of sacred and safe surrender? And how does the vertical experience of affirming Divine Sovereignty affirm the horizontal experience of the dignity of sacred community?

I invite you to find points of entry in our liturgy – in music, silence or text, through standing, sitting or bowing – that allow you to do that inner work. It may be soothing or it may be uncomfortable. Just as the shofar rouses us from the complacent sleep of set routine, these ancient words can invite us to explore the meeting of the soul and Eternity. Do you chafe at the notion of monotheist universalism? Or does it offer you hope in a fractious, divided world? Can you affirm the underlying Unity of all Being or do you feel the painful tension of sitting through an experience drenched in theological language that means very little to you? In a world battered by violence both natural and man-made, do you dare acknowledge how destabilized and vulnerable things can feel as we hope for the Redemption of the entire human race?

These are our prayers. The prayers of the non-believer and the devout. The prayers of the regular shul-goer to the newcomer. The prayers of the fearful and the brave, the Jewishly connected and the Jewishly disconnected. Those who are hurt and those who have healed. Aleinu – it is upon us all to take responsibility for our inner lives and their outer manifestations. To sit with our discomfort, our embarrassment, our boredom, our questions and anger as a community – an ‘agudah achat’, a united fellowship – who have all made a conscious choice to be here today, to listen to these words and to surrender to the unique experience of the High Holidays.

Rosh haShanah calls us to override over internal mechanism of self-preservation. Instead we dive into those things which have become unloved in our age: humility, contrition, repentance, service, prayer, hope, kindness, love, righteousness, charity and dreams of a world repaired and restored. Take the emotional risk to open yourself up truly to all these and to the infinite possibilities of transcendence. The reward for surrender is transformation. ‘Nekaveh lecha’ – in the Holy Blessing One we hope, as the Jew always dares dream. 


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