Chaplains’ Corner: Listening to the cries of the world and of ourselves

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This essay is adapted from Rabbi Seth’s remarks at the start of Rosh Hashanah services on Friday, September 18, 2020, which marked the beginning of the Jewish new year.

A story is told of a king whose children go out for a hunt. After some time, the children become lost and begin to cry out thinking that maybe, just maybe their father will hear them. They cry out, but they are not answered. The children wander and wander. Hours become days, days become weeks, and then months, and then years. After all this time has passed, they say to themselves, “Maybe the problem is that we have forgotten our father’s language, and he can’t understand our cries. We need to cry out to our father, but without words.” They select the sister with the loudest voice to cry out and warn her, “Understand that we are all depending on you.” This sister climbs up to the top of the tallest building, takes a deep breath and cries out as loud as she can.

As in most tales like this, the king is supposed to represent God and the children represent human beings. In most versions, the story depicts the condition that Jewish tradition says we find ourselves in as we approach Rosh Hashanah. We were once with God, the source of life, the fundamental ground of reality – whichever term resonates most with you. But over time, we find that we have lost our way and become distant from that source. Like the children, on Rosh Hashanah we mouth words but fundamentally, they don’t work. So in an act of desperation and a deep desire to be connected to the fullness of reality, we cry out on Rosh Hashanah, not with words but with the sound of the shofar, the ram’s horn which we blow on this holiday.

The blast of the shofar is understood to be a primal scream. A deep cry, offered by the person blowing the shofar, who is supposed to put their soul into the sound that emerges from it.

I think that this year, perhaps more than other years, we are all in need of a good primal scream. But I think it’s also true that this year, we have been surrounded by screams. The scream of activists on the streets and in online spaces and on this campus, pointing to the violent legacy of anti-Black racism, the scream pointing to the alarming and painful rise in anti-Semitism, the scream of the earth, and especially right now the western part of the US, as we experience the reality of climate change, and the impact of COVID-19, in addition to all of the change and loss we have each individually and communally experienced this past year. These screams are necessary and vital, and point to all the ways in which things are not the way they are supposed to be. There is anger, rage and despair. This scream calls to wake us up, just as the shofar that we blow on this holiday is designed to wake us up to all the ways we need to repair our world and our lives, and to take action.

But I think that there is another scream, another cry that we would do well to attend to on this Rosh Hashanah, and that is the cry of the heart. Since January, with help from a grant from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, I’ve been training to become a spiritual director through the ALEPH Jewish renewal organization. Spiritual direction is about exploring your relationship with the divine (or God, or spirit, or however you choose to name it), and I’ve been learning how to accompany individuals in that process. This past summer, as part of that training, I was in a week-long virtual seminar, and the theme of the week was “Guidance from Spirit.” The whole week was devoted to exploring how we quiet our minds and pay attention to what is moving inside of us, and how we give space for others to do that work — to listen to our intuition and to expand our capacity to be receptive to what is around us and wants to come through us.

At a time when we spend so much time on our computers and on our devices, as we seek authentic connection with others, as we do work for our classes and consume social media, it can be too easy to forget to pay attention to that which is going on deep inside our hearts and souls. To hear the cry, the subtle scream, of our souls. To open ourselves up to what we yearn for deep down, for the ways we aspire to live in the world. Our tradition teaches that our souls, deeply connected to and hewn from the divine source of life, are always calling out to us, seeking to be nurtured. The question is, can we hear that call and respond to it?

So this Rosh Hashanah, I want to invite us to hear all of these calls, all of these screams. Of the world, of our friends, of our souls. So that when we listen to the sound of the shofar, it will turn our ears outward and inward. To invite us to attend to all the calls to be present, to take stock, and above all, to begin this year afresh and anew. Shanah tovah: We each of us enter a good new year.

Rabbi Seth Wax is the College’s Jewish Chaplain.