Rosh Hashanah Day 2, Sermon – Knowing Before Whom You Stand

Shaliach Tzibbur Lily Lucey’s sermon for Rosh Hashanah Day 2, 2023/5784 

After Selichot services last week, I was talking with Morah Lilly– no, not me, although I do talk to myself sometimes!  No– the Morah Lilly who is one of the amazing and loving teachers that we are so fortunate to have working in our preschool here at Shomrei.  During our conversation, Lilly happened to tell a story about our equally wonderful custodian, Carlos, who was at home with the children at the time while she was running the babysitting room here at Shomrei.  (Yes, I did ask their permission to tell this story, although as it’s secondhand I’m paraphrasing their exact words.)  Lilly told me that Carlos, while at home, had just sent her a photo of a lightbulb.  She was baffled as to why he would send her a picture of a lightbulb and somewhat annoyed as she was hoping he might be doing something useful at home during his time off.   He replied: But this is the lightbulb that has been out in the pantry at home for three years!  I thought you would be happy to see that I changed it!  

I have to tell you, this story fascinated me.  Carlos!  Carlos.  Shomrei’s Carlos, who gets anything done at a moment’s notice, who says, in essence, “Hineini!” to holding this building together, who, if any one of us in this room said, “There’s a lightbulb out over there,” I’m sure would have it changed before we could even blink.  Yes, this same Carlos had a lightbulb out in his own home… FOR THREE YEARS.  

Of course, knowing this anecdote about Carlos, although I’m sure highly annoying to Lilly, didn’t for one second make me question his ability to be there for his family or his capacity to be one of the best custodians we could imagine here at Shomrei, continuing to hold this building together with strength and kindness.  He always shows up at work with friendliness, attentiveness, and capability.  (And as a side note, if you haven’t thought to thank either Carlos or Javier lately, please do so.)  No, what this anecdote did spark for me, though,  was compassion and curiosity about other people’s lives.  It reminded me to ask, what are we each carrying with us when we say “yes” to any commitment?  What are we too tired to do?  What are we sacrificing in one area of our lives to be fully present in another?  And how often are we not recognizing what others are going through?  This story made me feel like this person who does such a warm, wonderful job at work, was fully human, just like me.   Just like all of us.  I felt more thankful than ever for the work that each person– staff and volunteer and community member– brings to this congregation, and more realization that at the same time, we all have some unchanged lightbulbs elsewhere in our lives that we’ve forgotten to attend. 

Clearly, we can’t be everything to everyone all the time, as our Torah reading demonstrates today.  It is interesting that we read the Akedah on Rosh Hashanah, a time for new beginnings, in conjunction with so much liturgy about our personal failures.  Abraham is asked to do the impossible.  He can be protective of his son, or he can do as God tells him.  But we continue to find ourselves facing impossible positions all the time.  I’ve often seen and appreciated a Facebook meme that says, “Just because someone carries it well doesn’t mean it isn’t heavy.”  Take a look around this room for a moment.  Who in this room has shown up today with nothing on your mind?  Who here is completely free of unchanged lightbulbs in your life?   Who has come here with nothing weighing on you?  A physical pain, a worry, a decision to be made, an unfinished responsibility?  Anyone?

So, what could happen if we cultivated compassionate curiosity for one another?  What if we knew about each other’s unchanged lightbulbs just a little bit more?  I’d like to call our attention to an aspect of the High Holiday liturgy that I propose we use as a framework for approaching our interactions with other people.

You may know that the Musaf service for Rosh Hashanah, which we will daven together in a few minutes, contains three special sections: Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot.  These terms refer to three themes of the holiday: Malchuyot refers to God’s sovereignty, Zichronot refers to God’s remembrance of us, and Shofarot refers to the powerful call of the shofar, awakening our spirits to revelation.   

I realize there’s a decent chance that this particular type of language (God as King, etcetera) doesn’t resonate with the personal theology of many people in the room today.  But let’s look at Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot from a more expansive viewpoint: how we could bring this framework to every interaction we have with another person.

Imagine approaching someone with this framework in mind:

  1. Malchuyot- Sovereignty
  2. Zichronot- Remembrance
  3. Shofarot- Revelation
  1. Malchuyot- Sovereignty –

Imagine approaching an interaction recognizing that the person before you is subject to the forces of the universe that are outside of their control.   We are governed by the natural world, often far beyond the realm of our limited human understanding.  Therefore, in any interaction, it behooves us to recall that the person in front of us could be carrying all kinds of potential personal concerns that have been thrown their way at birth, throughout their lives, yesterday, or even just a moment ago.  Physical health needs.  Pain.  Addiction.  Mental health needs such as depression and anxiety.  Neurological differences.  Differing natural aptitudes and abilities to perform various tasks.  Different amounts of time needed for healing from trauma.  The pain of all kinds of loss in our lives, whether expected or unexpected.  And, the many events that just happen in our lives, beyond that which we could fathom.   We know from our High Holiday liturgy that we’re contending with our vulnerability to universal forces.  The person standing before you is subject to all of this, and therefore, there’s a good chance that they’re dealing with something big or small in their lives at this moment.

  1. Zichronot- Remembrance –

Imagine approaching an interaction recognizing that all of the things that this person has done, the words that they have said, and everything that has happened to them have all become a part of them.  These things live ingrained in us.  They leave memories on our physical bodies, our brains, our hearts and souls.  At times, we may be more aware of them than other times.  And at times, we may be terrified about others finding out what memories are carried in our bodies and minds, for fear of stigma.  The person standing before you is made up of all of the physical and emotional complexity of everything they were born with, everything they’ve done, and the things that have happened to them.  

  1. Shofarot- Revelation –

What is revealed to us when we are attentive to the person who stands before us– truly, actively, mindfully, paying attention?  When we are awakened to new insight about them?  Noticing the patterns that the universe is revealing to you, as you listen.  Being mindful and open, maintaining compassionate curiosity.  Understanding things in new ways.  Getting to know the person standing before you.  Allowing them to tell you things about themselves when they’re ready, demonstrating that you are open to being privy to both their words and their silences.  Because paying attention is a caring act.  Recognizing that someone is listening to you is an amazing feeling.  Allowing someone to be known and feel known, allowing someone to reveal themselves to you, is an act of caring.  

There may be nothing quite like the feeling of being Known.  It’s vulnerable, yes, but think of walking into that one room, that one space, with that one person or group of people, or even a pet, who knows what you are thinking, needing, or feeling at that moment.  We have the ability to make this world a better place by offering this to one person at a time.

So I invite us to try to remember this framework to bring to each of our interactions:

Malchuyot- Sovereignty.
Zichronot- Remembrance.
Shofarot- Revelation.

It’s a new year, literally starting now.  A new chance to decide how we want to interact with those who stand before us, and that includes standing before our own reflection in the mirror.

Like many synagogues, above the ark in our sanctuary we have these words in large letters: 

דע לפני מי אתה עומד (Da lifnei mi atah omed)

Know before whom you stand.

KNOW before whom you stand.

Know that, 1: malchuyot: this person is a subject of universal forces beyond their control.

Know that, 2: zichronot: all that this person carries is remembered in their bones

And

Know that, 3: shofarot: paying attention allows them to reveal the secrets of their universe.

Da lifnei mi atah omed.  Know before whom you stand.  Because, while people like to say that “knowledge is power,” more importantly, knowledge is Love.

L’shanah tovah.

What do you think?