Rabbi Stillman’s 2018 Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Shana Tova—

Happy New Year!

Welcome to new students, to returning students, to Havurah members, faculty, staff, and special guests.  I am delighted to have you all here, to see you all gathered at the very beginning of Rosh Hodesh Tishrei, the new moon of the month of Tishrei, the new Jewish year of 5779.

But what does it mean that we are all gathered here, and who am I to be welcoming all of you?  What, exactly, are we doing here tonight?  It is an auspicious time, to be sure, the date set out in the Hebrew Bible as we will read tomorrow in the maftir aliyah, Numbers 29: “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations.  You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded.”  And I am a rabbi, trained, if imperfectly, to lead services for these holidays, although it is really Aaron, our cantor who is doing all the work here as you will see as we move through services over the next couple of days and Yom Kippur.

But what is my real work, what is our work, and how are we to do it?

I believe we are here together on Rosh Hashanah for a purpose, and the purpose goes beyond showing up because your parents want you to, or because you think you will somehow be judged badly if you didn’t go to services—by your family, by your friends or others in your community, even by the Divine mystery that in Judaism we name Adonai, or God.  All that may be true, but I believe that we wouldn’t be here together if we didn’t truly want to acknowledge the new year on a deeper level.  This is not a performance. It may have some trappings of a performance—microphones, people in front of you reading and singing, a certain choreography and certain props—but that is not the true nature of this holiday, or these services. My job is not to entertain, but rather to remind you of the larger purpose of why we are here.

We are here, because this is our chance to start again.  This is our chance to reflect on how we have been doing, and to set new intentions. This is our chance to figure out who we need to seek forgiveness from and then seek it in the next ten days before Yom Kippur. This is our chance to support each other in becoming more of who we already are.  We need this holiday, the date set and the horn blown, in order to help us set aside time and to remind us all of the need we have to reflect and change.  Otherwise, we are just too busy—and it may be just too uncomfortable—to make time for this inner and relational work.

Our tradition offers us a multitude of tools for doing this kind of work of return and renewal.  One of the tools is prayer, and that is what I want to speak about here tonight.

You’ve noticed, if you are returning, that we have a new High Holiday prayer book this year.  In Hebrew the High Holiday book has a special name—it is called a machzor, from the root Chet- Zayin- Resh, which means to return, or review. This book is a tool to help us review our past year, to do Cheshbon HaNefesh, an accounting of the soul.  For those of you who yourselves are new at the college or in town, everything, including the prayer book may seem new just to you.  You may assume that we have been using this one since it was first published in 2010.  Rest assured that everyone here will be as lost as everyone else this year, as we all get used to this new book.

The liturgy, though, is not new. It is very old.  And one of the reasons we chose this prayer book was because it did honor to the traditional liturgy. There are some important differences to our old machzor, for instance the Hebrew of the Amidah or standing prayer did not acknowledge the founding mothers alongside the founding fathers in its text, even though we always chanted them into it anyway.  This book puts them down on paper.  But mostly the liturgy is the same, it is the one that has been passed down throughout the generations.  The liturgy itself is not static—it has been embellished over centuries with special High Holiday poems called piyyutim, and it has been updated to reflect the times of each generation—we see this most in the section we will experience on Yom Kippur when we remember those who lost their lives because they dared to express their Judaism—sadly, there is no shortage of stories there to bring us through to contemporary times. And, like every year, we will update the liturgy with our own poetic choices, our own poetry, our own tunes and chants and styles of prayer—even as we recite some of the oldest melodies and words and poems that have been passed down.  This machzor, Lev Shalem, which means a “whole heart,” does a good job of keeping the liturgy central while adding in commentary and poetry from throughout the ages.  And I believe there is good reason to keep the liturgy central.  There is immense value in knowing that our ancestors who authored this prayer book had the same concerns, fears, mistakes, moments of gratitude and needs for connection as we do.  They prayed for the same things that we do—a good life, a year of joy and health, safety and love.  We are not so unusual in this age, even though it feels like this is one of the strangest periods on earth yet, and that is an important perspective.  People have been through strange times before, and prayer—these prayers–is one of the tools they have used to help get them through.

The side notes explore the origins and structure of the prayers, and they offer commentary or additional material.  I invite you to explore those side notes as you feel moved to.  It’s a great thing to do if you feel bored, or you are not following the Hebrew, or you need something to wake you up or remind you why you are here.  I also invite you, if you would like, to ignore the side notes and focus on the prayers.  The majority of us here, including myself at times, don’t understand every word of the Hebrew prayers.  Some of us don’t read the Hebrew alphabet.  For those people, it can be hard to even follow along on the page, and the one major flaw of this machzor is that it contains very little transliteration of Hebrew into the English alphabet.  The committee of people: students, faculty, staff and Havurah members, who helped choose this book were aware and concerned about that.  There are some prayers that are transliterated, and you can find those in the red ink on the left pages of the machzor.

Whatever your facility with Hebrew may be, here are some suggestions for how to enter into the prayer service. These suggestions also point to what makes all prayer an effective tool for looking into ourselves in order to return to the truth of who we are, and for connecting to something larger than ourselves.

  • The efficacy of Hebrew: You can let the music and cadence of the Hebrew take you into a different zone. One way that prayer can work is by bringing you out of your habitual, discursive thinking. Hebrew itself is a sacred language, and many people believe that the words themselves are efficacious—by chanting them or listening to them we are able to connect to the mysterious world of the divine in a different way than we do in a vernacular language. So whether you yourself can join in by reading the Hebrew or the parts that are transliterated, or whether you are just listening to Aaron and those around you, you can open to the possibility that something is happening by being surrounded by these ancient words.
  • The meaning of the words: If you don’t understand all the Hebrew, you can use the beautiful and accurate English translation that is side by side with the Hebrew. Other schools of thought about prayer, including the great Rebbe Nachman, one of the great teachers of Hasidism, a devotional school of Judaism, encouraged his students to pray in their own language—the language they spoke in their homes on a daily basis (which for most of them was Yiddish) and the language of their hearts. When I pray as a congregant in a service, I switch pretty seamlessly between reading the Hebrew and the English on the page, and adding my own thoughts and prayers that are particular to me at that moment.
  • Space to become present/transcendent: You can use the moments of contemplative time that are provided throughout the service in the form of Silence, Chanting, Reflective prompts and Poetry to listen for what is true for you in this moment, and for this new year.
  • Praying the words in order to know ourselves: Often the rhythm of the prayers acts as its own meditation, allowing our minds more freedom to gain insights into the truth of our lives. Allow me to quote Rabbi Alan Lew at length, who writes in his book about the High Holidays entitled “This is Real and you are Completely Unprepared”

 “It is the case that there is something about the mechanics of prayer that causes us to know ourselves.  Like all spiritual activities, Jewish communal prayer has a point of focus; in this case, the words of the prayer book.  We tyr to concentrate on these words, but inevitably our mind wanders and we lose our focus. When we realize that this happened, we bring our focus back to the words of the prayer book, and as we do, we catch a glimpse of what it is that has carried us away.  This is an important thing to see.  The thoughts that carry our attention away are never insignificant thoughts, and they never arise at random.  We lose our focus precisely because these thoughts need our attention and we refuse to give it to them.  This is why they keep sneaking up on our attention and stealing it away.  This is how it is that we come to know ourselves as we settle deeply into the act of prayer.  Most likely we are utterly unaware of all this.  After all, it operates well below the level of consciousness.  Nevertheless, sitting there with the prayer book in our lap, we begin to become aware of the things we have been trying to avoid; we begin to see things from which we have been averting our gaze; unconscious material begins to make its way toward the surface of our consciousness.” p

Those are some ideas about how to approach prayer in general.  I like to think of it like the walking labyrinth up at the Knoll.  About a year ago students and others built that labyrinth by laying large stones that delineate a prescribed container—one that sets a circular path toward the center and then out again.  The discipline of the path is exactly what allows the mind to relax.  For those moments of walking, the mind does not have to choose which way to go.  This in turn allows it to connect more readily to what is: whether that be a deeper truth about our own selves, about the world we live in, or a greater connection to something that is bigger than just what we see before us.  A prescribed liturgy of prayer can function in a similar way.  You may notice a lot of repetition in the High Holiday services.  Trust me, there is.  You will be saying the Amidah, the standing prayer, 3 times between this evening and tomorrow morning’s services: silently tonight, and out loud together tomorrow at two different points.  And this is actually less than in some more traditional followings of the liturgy.  There are some differences between those three instances, but many of the words are exactly the same.  And there are many more prayers we repeat—Avinu Malkenu on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Vidui: a list of our sins that we say multiple times on Yom Kippur, the prayers that open our time together and the ones that close it.  While this repetition of the form could bore you, or could just go right by you if you aren’t familiar enough with the service to realize you are repeating things, please know that this is the container.  These words are the delineated path, the rhythm, the mantra that allows the mind to relax.  The words and the forms are guiding us toward something, and depending on one’s world view, they could be guiding us toward God, toward a truer understanding of self, or both.  The language that the tradition uses is the language of God, and the metaphor is of a King and a parent, but those are just some of the rocks that reveal the path along the way.  The stones showing us this path are thankfulness and gratitude, praise for the thing that connects us all, humility and the words to help us acknowledge that we all make mistakes, and the desire to be given a chance to keep trying—to be written again for another year in the big, messy, unpredictable Book of Life.

Use whatever metaphor you wish—this machzor contains a map to the wilderness, the stones that show us the way in the labyrinth, the mantras that invite us into reflection and meditation, the ancient Hebrew words of our ancestors’ deepest prayers and stories.  What it does not contain are dead words that only belonged to an older generation who we cannot relate to.  The prayers in here are alive and well because we make them that way, year after year.  Aaron and I are deeply humbled and honored to be your guides in this.  May these holidays be the container to hold you this year, and for many years to come.

Seven Tips for Centering Yourself and Reducing Stress

Seven Tips for Centering Yourself and Reducing Stress
From the staff of the Charles P. Scott Center for Spiritual and Religious Life

1. Utilize one of the four great meditation spaces around campus for a 5-minute “sit” to settle your mind, or try some yoga stretches!
• The Meditation Room at the Scott Center in Hathaway House, 135 South Main St.
• The Sanctuary Room at the Anderson Freeman Resource Center
• The McCullough Reflection space – 3rd floor, up the staircase opposite the Grille
• The Unplug and Recharge room at the Davis Library: http://sites.middlebury.edu/lis/2016/10/10/this-way-to-the-unplug-and-recharge-room

2. Keep a small bell around your study area. Before you begin studying, pause to ring the bell, gently, and simply wait until the sound dissipates entirely. The sound of a bell is known to have a physiological effect that reduces stress. Periodically throughout your study time, or whenever you feel tension rising or tiredness setting in, pause again to ring the bell, wait for the length of the sound, and return to your work a little bit more refreshed and re-centered. Here is a useful link if you’d like to learn more: http://www.delamora.life/sound-therapy/the-gong-instrument

3. Grounding: begin by feeling your feet connected to the earth/floor. Next, feel your body’s weight being fully supported by your chair. Lastly, take deep slow breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth.

4. Take a Walk on the TAM (Trail Around Middlebury)! Here’s the trail map:  http://www.maltvt.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/TAMMAP20131.pdf

5. Visit the The Knoll, sit on the stone bench blessed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama during his 2012 visit, walk the labyrinth, and contemplate the blessings we have just by living in such a beautiful place.

6. Try some meditative movement practices. When we are busy studying, we often get tense muscles in our necks and shoulder. Or we start to feel problems from so much typing and mousing that can lead to repetitive stress syndrome.  Watch Ten Mindful Movements by Thich Nhat Hahn here:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tqiM39HlexQ

7. Designate one walking route a day, between your residence hall and a class, for instance, as a mindful walk. Do not text, talk on the phone, or even listen to music during that walk. Instead, try to pay full attention to everything around you–from the temperature of the air, to the sound of the birds, to the pressure of your feet hitting the ground.

It So Happened

A poem from our friend Gary Margolis, Executive Director Emeritus of College Mental Health Services, looking back at the 2012 visit of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

It So Happened

the Dalai Lama was stepping
from his limousine.
And I happened to be
there. As you happen

to be here. And he was
as happy as a September
bee farming a field
of goldenrod. His
Holiness reaching out

to my hand. Which could
be yours. Simply
by reading the palm
of this poem’s memory.
He was wearing his usual

maroon visor. To help us
feel more comfortable.
And was more one of us
than us. And let it seem
he could have been

in a twosome with me,
stepping onto a first tee.
Anywhere in the world
there’s a fairway, a view
to the mountains

and clouds. Like there is
here. Across the way.
I thought I didn’t think
it would take too much
to ask my hand-holding

partner, Tenzin Gyatso,
if he wanted to ride
in a golf cart. Or walk
eighteen. Clasping his
hands, smiling at the trees

and all the Tibetan refugees
who heard he was
in Middlebury. To be
among us again
and the leaves.

Suggesting we think of them
as no more than ourselves
and the breeze.
And take any hand
as an offering.

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