Rosh haShanah Sermon: The Deep Story

Rosh haShanah Sermon 2016
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

The Deep Story

Let me ask you an honest question: how has your year been?
How has it really been?

Are you angry?
Are you scared?
Are you hopeful?
Are you determined?

Any, all or none of the above ring true; it’s been quite the year, hasn’t it? Tumultuous, volatile, unpredictable. Many of us may feel disconnected and worried, disempowered and cynical. Like the prophet Jonah, we’re cast upon the waves, facing an uncertain destiny.
This year has been quite the year of headlines; here’s to name just a few:
The Paris, Brussels and Nice terrorist attacks, the continued devastation of Syria and Iraq, the refugee crisis, the Zika virus, the failed military coup in Turkey and of course, the impactful events on both sides of the Atlantic: the Brexit vote and one of the most contested American presidential elections. No wonder, then, that we find ourselves in a liminal space, waiting to exhale. (Even one of the great, visionary and wise stalwarts of the State of Israel, Shimon Peres has left us).

As we live in the shadows of so much violence and uncertainty, it can be comforting and meaningful for us to come together today, in this space of warmth and light, this arena of community and values, reflect on the moral trajectory of our lives and be nourished by the common bond that exists between us.

But the High Holy Days don’t only provide us with a sanctuary in the face of a storm. They provide us with a ‘deep story’.

What is a ‘deep story?’                                      

It’s a term invented by American sociologist Arlie Hochschild, who authored the book ‘Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right’, a study into the polarization of American society. In her book, Hochschild follows the life-story of Lee Sherman, an 82 year old retired blue collar worker who worked in chemical plants in Louisiana. Sherman was made complicit by his employers in dumping toxins into the natural environment and became jaded and disillusioned – as well as suffering ill-health due to toxin exposure. Through him, Hochschild tries to ethnographically explore what the different ‘deep stories’ of American citizens of all walks of life are. Her goal is to break down what she calls ‘empathy walls’ so that our fragmented culture may experience some healing.

I could imagine the sociologist writing a similar book on the narrative of Yorkshire miners, or any other disadvantaged group that feels disenfranchised in the face of momentous economic change.
Hochschild defines a deep story as an ‘allegorical, collectively shared, honour-focused, “feels-as-if” story.’

Each of us has a deep story.

This sermon is not about the partisan particularities of social upheaval. On the contrary, the High Holy Days are the time for us to look beyond that and to gaze deeper still; into the powerful maelstrom of emotions that shape our social reality and that shape our inner universe. Hochschild’s insists that a ‘deep story’ “feels as if it were true. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel. Such a story permits those on both sides of the political spectrum to stand back and explore the subjective prism through which the party on the other side sees the world. And I do not believe that we understand anyone’s politics, right or left, without it. For we all have a deep story.”

If you take out the political reference and focus on the emotional angle of her claim – where we perceive our reality through a subjective prism – then we can use this analogy to look deeper into ourselves and the narratives that shape our lives.

Hochschild goes on to explain what she considers the ‘deep stories’ of her respondents. The ‘deep stories’ she uncovers are raw and real, sometimes uplifting and sometimes tragic, sometimes generous and sometimes angry.

A deep story is a story that feels as if it were true. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel.’ 

The High Holidays allow us to come to terms with our own deep story. What do we feel keenly, deeply and passionately, so much so as if it were true? What are the risks and rewards of our deep stories? And, ultimately can we rewrite our own deep stories to be encouraging, inclusive, and kind – to help us break down walls—within ourselves and between others?

So let me share with you the abridged and non-political version of a deep story that Hochschild tells:

“You are patiently standing in a long line leading up a hill. You are situated in the middle of this line…
Just over the brow of the hill is… the goal of everyone waiting in line.
It is scary to look back – there are so many behind you, and in principle you wish them well. Still, you have waited a long time, worked hard, and the line is barely moving. You deserve to move forward a little faster. You are patient but weary.
The sun is hot and the line unmoving. In fact, is it moving backwards?
You are not a complainer. You count your blessings. But this line is not moving. And after all your intense effort, all your sacrifice, you are beginning to feel stuck.
It’s not fair.
Is there any point in this ‘deep story’ that you can relate to? Are there any emotions that you can recognise in your own life?

Do you feel ‘stuck’?
Do you fear looking back at those behind you, scared that you may share their lot?
Are you left bitter at all the efforts you’ve put into building an honest life for yourself but that seem to bear little fruit?
Are you resentful about opportunities that you feel you’ve missed?

When Arlie Hochschild recounts this framework of the ‘deep story’ to Lee Sherman, he nods and says, ‘it’s like you’ve read my mind’.

There is a certain criticism that’s sometimes leveled at the High Holy Day liturgy. Yes, it’s long – but that’s not the criticism I’m referring to. The criticism is that it’s too raw, too real, too honest, too triggering. The line ‘mi ba’eish u’mi ba’mayim’ -  ‘who perish by fire or by water’ in the Unetaneh Tokef is considered insensitive to those who’ve tragically lost loved ones. The sins of the Vidui (confessional) and ‘Al Chet’ are considered too extreme and inapplicable to our daily experience.
And do we really believe or accept that ‘teshuvah, tzedakah, tefillah’ – repentance, righteousness and prayer – can overturn the decree? But the very things about the High Holy Day liturgy that are triggering to us, that feel raw, that chafe are the same things that are real and honest and genuine.

We need that. We don’t just need a liturgy of pious obeisance but a liturgy of life; of the lived experience, including tragedy and anger, hatred and violence, suffering and death. It is no accident that the illustrious Jewish songwriter Leonard Cohen (of ‘Hallelujah’ renown) just released a song that will feature in a thousand High Holy Day sermons this year called ‘You want it darker.’ In it he sings:

‘If You are the dealer, let me out of the game

If You are the healer, I'm broken and lame
If Thine is the glory, mine must be the shame
You want it darker.’

This Machzor of ours, chock-full of complex, difficult and at times contradictory ideas is part of the ‘deep story’ of the High Holy Days.

Imagine if we could truly incorporate our grudges, our anger, our grief and sadness into our liturgy. If we could say prayers that acknowledge our loss, that recognizes the volatility of our world. Words that bring into focus this story of each of us shuffling along this long line with sun beating down on our heads.

Perhaps it’s our jealousy over a colleague who has made promotion or a neighbour who seems to prosper.
Our frustration over the allocation of our collective resources.
Our anger over an overstretched NHS, our nihilism in the face of political realities that seem beyond our control, our fear to be caught up in a terrorist attack. Our anxiety over job loss, how to pay the mortgage and whether we can support our kids through university.

All that is real. All that is our deep story. And all those emotions are held, implicitly, by the High Holy Day liturgy. As Leonard Cohen sings, ‘You want it darker’. There is a place for anger; even or especially towards God. Let us sit with our fears, our tears, our anger. Like the sacrificial knife that Abraham hovers over his beloved son Isaac, there is hurt, fear and brokenness that we must acknowledge. There is fanaticism and delusion. Like the belly of the great fish that swallows up Jonah and spits him back out, there is darkness to live through and a responsibility to take as we journey towards our own Nineveh: that great city of cruelty that surprised us with its mercy.

Thus, we gather here today, to hold this space of warmth and light, this arena of community and values, to connect to each other. Redemption comes when we rewrite our deep stories; through hope, compassion, forgiveness, spiritual growth, communal support and deep relationship with our fellow human beings and God. This is the collective Deep Story of Judaism.

Part of Hochschild’s analysis includes what she terms ‘empathy walls’. In her book, she writes, ‘an empathy wall is an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, that can make us indifferent or even hostile to those holding different beliefs or… different circumstances.’

These High Holy Days let us uncover and acknowledge our ‘deep story’—and rewrite it. Our Machzor gives us inspiration. Instead of imagining ourselves standing in a long line, sun beating down on us, frustrated and embittered with the lack of progress in our lives, there is a different image we can tap into, from the Shacharit Amidah:

U’v’chen ten pach’decha Adonai eloheinu al kol ma’asecha v’ eimat’cha al kol ma’shebarata. V’ira’ucha kol ha’ma’asim v’yishtachevu lefaneicha kol haberu’im. V’e’asu chulam agudah achat la’asot r’tzon’cha belevav shalem.’

Therefore, Eternal our God, set such fear on every human being and such dread on all Your creatures, that in awe of You, they can worship you with humility. Then they will be a brotherhood, formed to do Your will with all their heart.’

What is powerful about this line from liturgy is its gritty yet hopeful assessment of the human condition. Unlike the fatalism of deep stories Hochschild describes, our Deep Story challenges us. First and foremost, there is an acknowledgement: life is scary, and the notion of God is intimidating. The metaphor of God as Judge of the Universe is not to inspire despair but awe, love and a keen awareness of our role in the world. The God of the Machzor is not a bully. Rather, there is an important recognition that there are aspects of life beyond our control, that bring us to ‘pachad’ – fear – and ‘yirah’ – awe. Closing our eyes to these aspects of the human condition would be to propagate an inauthentic faith. The High Holy Days confront us with our mortality, as they should. But out of that existential encounter come not despair but hope – and love, wholeness and trust and awareness of our beautiful world. The prayer states that all of God’s creation shall bow down to the Source of all Life and that this awakening inspires us to be an ‘agudah achat’ – a united fellowship – who lives with a ‘lev shalem’ – ‘wholeheartedness’.

The answer to fatalism, loss and anger is not bitterness but perspective, love and grace. What mark many of our personal deep stories are the fissures that run deep in our souls. What our Jewish narrative calls us to do is to heal those and make us whole. Only then can we forge the links that bind all of humanity in a strong, redemptive hope for a better world. As the Machzor says:

Uv’chen tzadikim yir’u vayishmechu ya’alozu v’chasidim berinah yagilu. V’olatah tikpatz peiyah v’chol harishah kulah k’ashan tichleh ki ta’avir memshelet zadon min ha’aretz.

Therefore the just will see it [redemption] and be glad, the honest rejoice, and the faithful break into song, for the mouth of evil will be shut and wickedness vanish like smoke, when You sweep away the rule of arrogance from the earth.’

May we merit to see this day; in our world and in our inner lives. For now, may we be inspired by the ancient words of our Machzor and wisdom of our tradition to delve deeply into ourselves and our stories, be encouraged to feel what is real and forge light out of the darkness. May we merit giving birth to a grittier, truer and more abiding hope in 5777.

Shanah tovah.


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