Rabbi Stillman’s 2017 Rosh Hashanah Sermon

September 2017

Shanah Tova!  Happy New Year.

It’s such an honor to be with all of you on my first High Holidays here at Middlebury, and to be able to speak to you about the themes of the holidays that have been on my mind.

I think it’s a fair guess that most of the people sitting in this room have moved once in their lives.  And whether it involved packing up your house of 13 years and moving to a new state, as my family just did, or packing up enough of your possessions to begin your first year of college, moving is hard.  I don’t know if it was helpful or not, but people kept reminding me: “It’s one of the top most stressful life events. You know, like divorce, or the death of a loved one.”

For a while I thought that was a bit too extreme.  After all, my loved ones were coming with me to Vermont!  I made sure to do a lot of conscious transition and ritual around our move as well—from Shabbat dinners with close friends to a huge, neighborhood goodbye party.  And yet, just about a week ago, at a stressful moment trying to prepare for High Holidays, the deep loss of those long-term friends and the support of my community reached up and dragged me down into it.  I felt utterly alone, in a house that I’m just renting for a year, at work in a place that is completely new to me, and without my usual people to lean on. All the potential negative consequences of the move began filling my head.  So maybe it is a little more like divorce or death than I was first willing to acknowledge.  And maybe that is the case with any major transition or change.

I had a dream a few weeks ago, one of those clear ones that happens right before you wake up and so you remember it really well.  My partner Matt and I were walking through an old house, looking for ways to get down to the basement—and it was clear to me that our intention was to bring ourselves closer to the ground, because we were about to die.  There was no fear or even sadness here—we just knew it was our time.  Eventually we found a place and lay down there together, but then I realized it wasn’t working for me and I left and began searching again for my own place.  I pretty much fell through a trap door or rotten floorboard into another part of the basement, where I landed on a big pile of harvest vegetables—winter squashes and carrots and apples, in all of their bright colors, yet soft and welcoming and decomposing at the same time.  “This is it,” I thought, and I sank down into all those composting storage vegetables, and fell asleep.

When I woke up, for real, I knew this immediately as a metaphor.  Matt and I and our whole family are in the process of dying to an old way of life, and we initiated that process willingly.  We don’t know where it will lead us yet.  We are just at the very beginning, the part where we put the old to rest, and wait for the new to emerge.  A friend who I told the dream to observed that the compost metaphor stood out for her.  Composting is about taking what is old and no longer being used, but rather than discarding it into a landfill, we repurpose it to become fertile soil for new growth.  She was also struck by the harvest imagery.  When we do something new or come to a new place, we bring our harvest with us—all the tools and skills and passions of our old life remain with us, even as certain new parts of ourselves may be emerging.  All of it—the harvest and the compost—lay the ground for the new.

And so, we are here, on the eve of the Jewish year of 5778.  Whether or not you have changed your physical location this year, you are in a new place.  I know that because life is all about change, about resisting it and getting used to it and even seeking it out and relishing it, which is what we are being asked to do at Rosh Hashanah each year.  First year students, you may be looking at your elders—the sophomores and juniors and seniors on campus—and thinking, they really have it all figured out.  I wonder though, do students at a four-year college ever really feel that they’ve “arrived”?  First year is all new, junior year many of you will go abroad and start that new thing all over again, senior year is another dislocation as you try to figure out how to prepare to graduate.  Sophomores, you are the only ones who really know what you are doing—and some of you are Febs, just experiencing the fall semester now!  The rest of us are also going through changes—growing children, ageing parents, changing bodies, career changes, or just an intentional seeking out of new ways to be in and interact with the world.  Not to mention the huge changes our country and world are confronting—climate change, political change, renewed awareness of how racism is embedded in the social systems and consciousness of Americans, renewed awareness of how anti-Semitism lurks there too.

Rosh Hashanah teaches us to embrace change and to seek it out.  Tomorrow we will blow the shofar, joyously heralding in the new year and a new start.  We will sing “Hayom harat olam,” “today is the birthday of the world.” Not only are we ourselves trying to make something new of this year, but we are also invited to see the world itself as something new, fresh, just born. Our morning prayer service tells us that this is actually the case of each day, each moment.  We read in the morning service that God renews creation each day, every day—the moment is always new.  This start is intentional—the tradition demands that we take the time to prepare ourselves by reflecting on the old that we are ready to let go (or compost) and by choosing the direction of the new.  That is the work of our gathering over the next day or two, on into the Yamim Noraim—the days of awe—that continue between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and on Yom Kippur itself.  Teshuvah, translated as turning, or sometimes repentance, is about this work of taking stock of our inner lives and turning them in the direction they need to go.

Yet as humans, we seek stability and resist change.  We love and even thrive on routines, familiarity and comfort.  There is nothing better than the listening ear of an old friend or the return to a favorite place—without these touchstones of our lives we would be lost. At the same time, we also know that there is no constant but change, that we can never go back to what was, and that the natural world itself is always in a state of flux and transition—the seasons and the weather here in Middlebury are one of the greatest teachers of that.

So how do we embrace change rather than resist it?  And how do we discern what direction we want to go in anyway?

This is what I try to remind myself.

Be patient.  Change is slow.  Wait for the new to emerge.  It might take a while.  You may not know the right direction immediately.  This holiday season is about laying the right conditions for change, not completing the change itself in ten days. We have a whole year for that.

Listen to yourself.  Make the space for time and reflection so that you can actually discern—am I ready for a change?  What do I want to let go of?  What do I want to take with me?  As I learned while I was packing up my things and papers this past summer, these weeding out processes are best done in quiet, with time. The same is true for our inner life. If we make the time and space for reflection, the right direction will emerge.  Compost is slow.

Don’t be afraid to discard what is no longer serving you, and to take with you what is working. The harvest metaphor. We are all equal to the task of becoming more and more our own selves.  Always, this will involve changing.  We have what it takes, already.

With this in mind, change is a cause for hope and optimism.  We can change the direction that the world is going in if we don’t like it, slowly, one step and interaction at a time.  We have the tools to do it—often what we lack is patience and faith.  We need to trust that we are equal to it.

I have found that one of the best supports for this kind of inner or outer change can come from our communities—our friends, our families, our classmates, our communities of practice—and yes, our Jewish community!  That is what we are doing together right now—supporting each other to take the time to contemplate changing in the new year.  The very tradition and prayer liturgy support this too, of course, but it takes people to bring it to life.  You are those people.  Personally, I don’t know if I could have moved to a new place if I had not had faith that there would be Jewish community there to support me.  That I would automatically have a group of people, even if I didn’t really know them yet, to celebrate with and to be there if something hard happened.  That is what Jewish community is about.

That is why I believe so much in the communal exercise of gathering for the High Holidays.  Believe me, there have been may times when I have wondered if my spiritual life would be better fed by spending all of the High Holidays in the wilderness.  And there is a place for that.  But it is also important that we are all here now, so that we can support each other and so that we know that we are doing this together.

Hayom harat olam. Today the world was born.  And birth is never easy.  But it is real, and change is real, and our ability to change ourselves inwardly and to step up to outward change is real.  I bless you this evening with the strength and courage it takes to meet change, with the ability to recognize and retain the joy of the new, and with the support of community as you go into this new year.

L’Shana tova tikatevu.  May you be written, this year, in the Book of Life.

Statement In Favor of Full Inclusion and Celebration

August 19, 2017

We are a community with a firm belief in human dignity. We respect one another’s full identities. We celebrate diversity as a strength from which we learn and grow together.

In light of recent events in Charlottesville and around the world, we at the Scott Center believe our campus can be a place where people commit to full inclusion and denounce that which seeks to demean, subjugate or silence others. When we do not live up to these values, we betray members of our community. We hold ourselves and others to the highest ideals of compassionate care and thoughtful advocacy.

We commit to full inclusion of all religions, races, genders, sexual orientations and abilities. We commit to speak up against hateful and discriminatory speech or actions. Xenophobic blame-mongering and scapegoating has no place at Middlebury College.

We stand together for a radically inclusive world that fosters peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all.

Staff of the Scott Center for Spiritual and Religious Life:
Laurie Jordan, Chaplain of the College
Ellen McKay, Program Coordinator
Mark R. Orten, Dean of Spiritual and Religious Life
Danielle Stillman, Associate Chaplain/Rabbi