I'm Jon Spira-Savett, rabbi at Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire. This website and blog is a resource for Jewish learning and Jewish action. It is a way to share my thoughts beyond my classes and weekly Divrei Torah. You'll find blog posts, standing resource pages with links and things to read, and podcasts as well.
These are to me the best of my Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons from years past. I'm collecting them here because you find them useful to read and think about in Elul. They aren't in chronological or any particular order.
Still Small Voices (5778/2017) We are a community where many people have prayers they don't reveal out loud about the difficult things happening in our lives and families. How to be there even when we don't reveal or don't know what those prayers are.
Lost and Found (5779/2018) When the pieces of life's puzzle aren't gone, but someone else has yours to give you back, or vice versa.
V.O.R. -- Vision-Opinion Ratio (5779/2018) Fewer superficial reactions to public things, more visions -- how to find and speak about the things you are truly committed to, and quieting down about the rest.
Holy Impatience (5775/2014) Some impatience is selfish, unfair expectations. Holy impatience is rooted in love, a concern for someone else who doesn't have the life or peace they deserve.
Helping Someone Else Change (5771/2010) No one can change someone else -- but sometimes we can support other people in their changes. Starring a mitzvah in Leviticus and some social psychology research.
Busy (5776/2015) Why "Busy" has become the answer to "How are you?" and what we can do about it.
Moral Adventure (5776/2015) Adventure isn't just for heroes and myths. Our own lives are different when we recognize them as moral adventures, and the people we go through life with as our fellow students and sidekicks.
Long Tables, Shabbat Meals (5772/2011) Why long tables are better than round, long meals are magical, and Shabbat creates relationships different from friendship but no less powerful.
Back to Better Than Normal (5782/2021) As we transition from the Covid-19 pandemic, the old normal is certainly not what what we want to go back to.
This is based on what I said on Shabbat morning, August 27, 2022 at the start of the month of Elul. It was the day of a Bar Mitzvah and an aufruf (blessing to a couple about to get married)!
Usually I think of Elul as a time of introspection before we get together in a big way on Rosh Hashanah. But the past few years I’ve been thinking that it would be great to start the month leading to the ten particularly intense days with a dance party, a disco party! First we should celebrate that we’ve gotten here -- we should look at each other and who’s in this together with us and going to help us look back and look ahead. And wow, this past year having been what it’s been and the year before that, we ABSOLUTELY should start it with a party. And my dream came true and I didn’t even realize it when we scheduled Jonah’s Bar Mitzvah celebration and when Rachel and Joel told me the date of their wedding. So this is how it should be. A new month, that little sliver of moonlight that says to the shade: You are going away, we’re going to make our own energy here and we’re going to gather our powers together so we can make a new year.
It's been quite a year, and we need more than the three days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to do our reflecting and our redirecting and our rebooting – our teshuvah, our returning. The spiritual recalculating on the GPS of our hearts. I don’t even know if a month is enough.
The point isn’t to come to services on the holidays. The point is to figure out what we each need from the next 40 days (really it’s more like 52!) – and what of the many offerings of spirituality and learning can support each of us:
What do we need from parties like this when services are like a party
What do we need from the retreats we might do in services around other people
What do we need from the time ourselves thinking and writing and talking with loved ones and friends and mentors and therapists
What do we need from the things we’re going to read or the music and the silence
I’ll send you daily e-mails with thoughts and ways to gather for conversation or learning or spiritual practice. But the point isn’t to read the e-mails! It’s to use them. It’s really simple: Use this month and the next for you, for the better life you’ve been thinking about having or creating. Use it to figure out your piece of making the world better -- boy do we need that.
Say thank you as many times as possible, in a world that doesn’t do that enough and where there’s plenty you’re not happy about. You don’t have to decide if the world is more bad than good, or maybe you have decided there is more bad now -- but just find gratitude every day and express it, out loud, to someone or to your own ears. That will ripple out. No one can change only out of sadness and anger. Not unless you can connect it to someone you love whose suffering is what powers your anger, your sadness. Not unless you can find a lighthouse ahead for hope, powered by someone you deeply appreciate.
This time of year is serious, but it doesn’t have to be solemn. That’s why it needs a party today, and at the end of the season on Simchat Torah we have another one! I am so happy we’re together, and thank you for listening to my prayers this first hour and saying Amen, even if you don’t know what all my prayers were. Thank you, even if you didn’t know that’s what you were doing.
So I hope you’ll tap into the energy of today, not just the energy of joy but of words of Torah in many forms, to help you launch into Elul and a month of individual reflection that’s good for you and good for us all when you do it.
Also, I have been logging in at 12:36pm Eastern time each weekday this Elul to teach and talk about some classic teaching about teshuvah, mostly Maimonides but other things maybe too. You can join here, or you can listen to the ones I've taped:
One of my favorite anecdotes about morning davvening (praying) comes from the Babylonian Talmud. Rabbi Chanina went to shul one day. This was some 1700 years ago, give or take, and at the time there were no siddurim (written prayerbooks). People who led knew the outline of the service, and the theme for each short section and the specific language of the blessing to end each section – Creator of lights, Yotzer hame’orot; Redeemer of Israel, Ga’al Yisrael, etc. A few prayers had been written and were well-known but the leader, the shliach tzibbur, could compose or make up his own prayer on the section’s theme to get to the very few fixed words.
So Rabbi Chanina is in shul and this guy stands up to recite the Amidah, and he starts chanting: Ha’el ha’gadol ha’gibbor v’hanora, v’ha’adir v’ha’izuz v’ha’yarui he-chazak v’ha’amitz v’ha’vadai v’hanichbad. Now you don’t need to know what all the words mean to know that what this prayer leader is doing is adding on top of the familiar prayer more praise adjectives for God. Strong, and courageous, and certain, and honored, and and and….
Anyway, the leader finishes the Amidah and Rabbi Chanina says to him: “Nu, did you get them all? I mean did you use enough words to describe the Divine, you know, better than Moshe Rabbeinu did? Because we’re using Moshe’s own words when we say Ha’el ha’gadol etc. , and some words that other prophetic figures did, and if it weren’t for these ancestors we couldn’t use any words at all to talk about the Divine. But you, you kept on going, but what did you really do? It’s like if there were a king who was known for having so much gold, and a person praised him for how much silver he had.”
So first of all I love that in shul in the Babylonian Talmud, everyone’s a critic and everyone has an evaluation of services while they’re still happening.
But I think about this teaching anytime we get into discussions like last week’s Kiddush program about theology and the Divine. It was really wonderful and thoughtful, and I appreciated everyone’s honesty in the questions you have and the views you expressed. And it did not go unnoticed by your rabbi that the ways our siddur talks about God really do not land for the vast majority of you who were there – the big metaphors of “King” and “Lord”, the importance of praising the Divine as though this was needed on high somewhere.
I just want to say a few things to open this crack more, because a lot of the ideas that you reject about the Divine and that I do not hold either — we feel like we’re breaking something when we say it out loud. And I am really working ahead about the High Holy Days, to make sure that the metaphors we are using to aid us are indeed helpful and true in the moments we need them, and I am concerned that the liturgy as it is will not help us at all unless we do some pre-thinking about it before the holy days. I’m going to say a few things today, and I have started reaching out to the people in our congregation who have been our spiritual teachers because I think we should hear many voices the coming weeks — different voices about what the Divine means to us, what it means to stand in the presence of the Divine with kavvanah, with purpose. There are people here who teach this better and more clear than I do, and you should have a chance to learn from them on Shabbat and other times. If we just walk into Rosh Hashanah without thinking about them, the words of the machzor (prayerbook) will not have depth and will not open a door for us.
So for me, one of the biggest things is maybe a paradox. I do not think of the Divine as a being in some one place, a personality of some kind whom I can address who is completely separate from myself or from us. And at the same time, I find the experience of imagining myself in the presence of a power I had no say in choosing to be very important. Visualizing that, which I do not literally believe, does something important that I won’t give up.
So to the first part of that: I wonder a bit how all of this got started and created, but not knowing doesn’t really affect my day. I take now as a given; we are here and so is the universe. It is permeated with Divinity, and just as every atom and every charge in the universe is affected somehow by every other, so too every spiritual atom and spiritual electron is linked. The totality of it is the Divine; each part of it is; and also each thing made up of it – me and you, the tent and the concrete, the trees and the engines in our cars. We are all spiritual receivers and transmitters. We have that capacity whether we use it or not, and the invisible Divinity is everywhere just as much as the gravitational force we don’t see or the radio waves that are hitting us and going through us whether we choose to tune to them or not, to produce or amplify or play for someone else. That’s my operating picture. That’s where God is for me. And in a way I can’t tell you very well I think that these Divine sparks – atoms and charges – they carry goodness and wisdom and Torah. Like a circuit that can be completed or broken by us, we can tap this goodness, which is a renewable energy and is never consumed, like the burning bush. I and we didn’t create it, but it doesn’t travel unless we extend or complete the circuit.
So I don’t think God sends floods or plagues, or heals from cancer or doesn’t, or decides on 400 years of slavery in Egypt and then its end. I don’t think God is judging or decreeing. There isn’t someone else out there doing those things. Some of the evil and suffering that happens is the fault of humans, and some just a product of nature. That’s the world as created.
Part 2 is that for me it’s good to focus on a particular cluster or manifestation of that everywhere-Divinity, on a regular basis. The metaphor of malchut, of melech or “king”, is made up for me of power and lawgiving and a selection I had no part it. And I need a reminder that there are things outside of me and that won’t disappear when I can’t hold them up, with my incomplete goodness or my incomplete spiritual focus.
Sometimes I look up at the top of the Aron Kodesh (ark) or I look up toward the Ner Tamid (eternal light) or the open sky, because I want to feel smaller than I usually do, humbler, but still present, and aware that this small person is still at the center of my horizons.
Sometimes I talk intimately to the Divine I imagine gathered up that way, atoms and charges concentrated palpably in front of me, and I like to say exactly the words in the book, and to find myself in them. To connect to the thoughts of the many, many people who put them together and sounded them out initially, and the ones who have said them before for important reasons and occasions. I like to say their words, to run them through me, because just as the Divine was not made by me — I had no say in that but I am made up of Divine stuff — so too these words change and recreate me. They make me able to say certain things and they make me into the person who can make those words more real.
I never experience my words as praise of a God “out there”, watching from afar to see what I am saying. I experience my words helping to connect the circuit, making the universe worthy of these praises, reminding me that my intentions help make the words in the siddur true when they don’t seem true in the daily news. Sometimes I’m consciously reconnecting myself to the grid, completing the circuit running through me. Sometimes I’m just noticing that there is more spiritual energy flowing than I remembered since yesterday. Sometimes it’s just cathartic to ask for things, in a chant out loud, speaking directly to the “king” who graces me with an interview. Sometimes it’s good to hear myself say the hopes and yearnings and thank-you’s out loud that I don’t otherwise say to people (but ought to more). Sometimes it’s helpful to let myself ask for things — for help for me, for a better world for you.
It helps me to approach my praying this way, with this kind of cinematography. It doesn’t bother me that I don’t believe my picture is actually there. At least, I do not anymore experience it as any contradiction. In the Kabbalah, the idea of “king” is split in two. If you look at the diagram of the ten sefirot, the ten phase-states of divine energy flowing toward our spiritual consciousness, the farthest away is called Keter, the crown; and the closest is called Malchut or royalty, sovereignty, and is identified with us, with the people of Israel. I like that the Kabbalists are messing with the king metaphor, to make it both so far away and so close by simultaneously.
That’s where I will leave it today. We are in the period leading toward Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the two ancient Temples, and then toward Yom Kippur which recalls when we all were united with each other and the Divine name at the Temple in its glory. This is a time of year to experience the breaking of the circuit, the incompleteness of the Divine name, the breaking of ideas that have led us to inner destructions – the Jewish calendar wants us to do that, to see what’s not whole in our theology and to break what needs to be broken. As Rabbi Chanina reminded us in the Talmud, we don’t have to use words about God that don’t do the job, just to look good to others.
If the teachings you think you have heard from Judaism about the Divine cannot hold, let them break. Break them yourself. You will not hurt God; you will not hurt the shul or me, and you will not destroy Judaism or the world. Some of our old names and ideas for God, they are like building materials that are obsolete, or wires frayed from a lot of good use. But we have better stuff with which to understand and imagine and connect to the Divine. Some of it is brand new and some of it has been in spiritual storage for whatever reason. I’m grateful for the many teachers in our community who will help us find it all and take it out and learn how to use it, so we can build sturdy and electric for the new year.