To live a holy life
After four years of not being in this sacred Heritage Sanctuary for the Yamim Noraim, we begin our New Year here with gratitude – and hopefully with inspiration and faith. Our inspiration comes from our surroundings and what our community has accomplished; our faith is that by engaging in this sacred space, living in this sacred time, we can live more consistently in our daily lives with greater sacredness, holiness, kedushah.
Holiness, the presence of the infinite one we call God, imbues every aspect of life, every moment, every day. We just fail to see it. Or respond to it. It says in Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof; the world and all its inhabitants.” In the depth of our soul, we know the sacred nature of all that is. While in our daily lives we may pay lip service to that ideal, we do not affirm it in deed. How else can we explain the critical situation of our planet – from environmental degradation and climate change, to massive inequality and economic injustice, to racism, brutality, mendacity, moral bankruptcy and worse. All on our watch. Our prayers this day and every day are in the plural – to remind us of our collective responsibility; each is a part of the whole. All of us who were born in the 20th century are accountable for what will unfold in this 21st. Urgently, we must experience and express the holiness in life, the blessing of all being interconnected and interdependent. We have lost the practice, and that is what this dedicated holy space and this holy time can engender in us. The practice of holiness. Before it is too late for the children of this century.
We enter through a thriving garden courtyard to our places of worship; these beautiful, embracing spaces give us a sense of the sacred – that which is devoted to God and godly purpose. We create sacred space to focus our attention on the divine within all existence, and we have done so since ancient times. From the rock art of Uluru, to Gobekli Tepe in Turkey; from the Ziggurat of Ur from where our ancestors hailed, to Luxor in Egypt where they languished. We Jews have also constructed our sacred spaces – the mishkan of the
Torah; the First and Second Temples whose ruins one sees in Jerusalem; and now synagogues around the world. The point of a sacred space is that we can enter into it, we can enter here, and together experience something of the divine, especially in the way we come here to exchange our thoughts and share our feelings. We may go to the pub for a good time; we have the soccer pitch, the footy field, the basketball court for the thrill of competitive team sport and the joy of community; but we come to the synagogue in spiritual quest, to experience and explore life in all its creative richness and to engage in multi-generational conversations about life’s deeper meaning. Each day and every day. That is why we are here. Now.
We human beings need meaning in our lives. And meaning does not happen but magic but how we create our lives. Economic anthropologist Jason Hickel has written: “People feel they have meaningful lives when they have the opportunity to express compassion, co-operation, community and human connection. These are what psychologists refer to as ‘intrinsic values’. These values don’t have to do with external indicators like how much money you have, or how big your house is; they run much deeper than that. Intrinsic values are far more powerful, and more durable, than the fleeting rush we might get froM a boost in income or material consumption. We humans are evolved for sharing, co-operation and community. We flourish in contexts that enable us to express these values.” (Hickel: Less is More p. 183). We must create contexts for meaning to enable
us to live intentional, connected lives, lives of holiness, of kedushah. We need dedicated spaces like this synagogue we have created; we need dedicated times like this Shabbat and day of Rosh HaShanah. These spaces and times burnish that latent spark of holiness within us all and amongst us all, they enable us to shine light in a darkening world.
Albert Einstein reportedly said, “Space and time are not conditions in which we live, but modes by which we think. Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, determined by the external world. Time does not exist – we invented it.” Just as we create sacred spaces where we connect with each other to explore the meaning of life and how we can serve it together, so too we create sacred moments in time to do just that. The opening story of the Torah culminates with the teaching of Shabbat, the first thing to be designated as kadosh, holy. Our ancestors invented one of the greatest units of sacred time simply by counting to seven and declaring that seventh day kadosh, holy, designated for service to God. Every week
Shabbat reminds us of intrinsic holiness, and what it is to be part of and responsible for this extraordinary creation – this world and all its inhabitants.
What does this connection and responsibility mean in practical terms? A simple question whose answer is complex. That is why we come to synagogue, engaging in multi- generational, communal conversations about these crucial issues and inspiring us to continue those conversations in our homes. According to the tradition, our homes become mini-sanctuaries when we engage in words of Torah, words dealing with our deepest concerns. What does it mean to be truly part of creation? What does the Torah mean that we are to “watch over this planet and work it with holiness?” (Genesis 2:15). These are the conversations we should have here and in our homes. Have we not lost our sense of
connection and responsibility?
Over the last centuries, from the industrial age with its concomitant emphasis on
materialism and individuality, we have become more and more detached from the source of creation. We have become dependent on an extraction economy that is plundering resources from future generations and leading to the greatest extinction of life on this planet in human history. We have entered the age of information technology and artificial intelligence that threatens our ability to relate with each other in meaningful, interpersonal conversation. The major factors in this crucial phase in human history disconnect us from the ecology of the world of which we are one part. They undermine our potential for holiness. We must start talking and thinking about the implications of that. The synagogue is the sacred space devoted to that conversation. Shabbat is the day in which we celebrate our place within creation, the web of life itself. Shabbat is the dedicated time in which we are invited to be free from producing, acquiring, consuming and manipulating things, simply to be present in life. This is the transformative potential of kedushah, holiness, that resides within Shabbat. Our sages imagine that world peace and wholeness would come if all us could live by the intention of Shabbat, a holy time of simply being and celebrating our place in creation – but we don’t.
Thus, this seventh month of Tishrei is an annual opportunity to recalibrate, to dig deep and explore how we can re-engage in a life of holiness, one dedicated to God, a religious life in other words. On Rosh Hashanah, this first day of Tishrei, this day in which we celebrate creation itself, we begin an intensive ten-day journey of awe and repentance that peaks with Yom Kippur but actually concludes in three weeks’ time with Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret and their celebration of creation and life’s fragile balance. Awe for the miracle of life, the gift of life, this opportunity to make worthy our part of the whole is what these days are all about. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “The meaning of awe is to realise that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple…” These Yamim Noraim, these days of awe, re-kindle within us the possibility of living in connection with the eternal in all its manifestations, with kedushah, with holiness.
In these days of awe we reflect on what it means to be human, what it means to be alive, what it means to be connected with all that exists in this universe, all that lives on this planet. In these days of teshuvah we consider what it means to be accountable for our actions or lack thereof. We undertake a fearless moral accounting of ourselves, our relationships with our closest family and friends, but much further beyond as well. Albert Einstein says: “A human being experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” Teshuvah invites us to move forward, to be creative, to re-establish the connectivity for which we yearn, to give our lives meaning.
So now we get to the whole crux of the matter – just what does all this talk of holiness, kedushah, mean for us, living with religious purpose, a life dedicated to God? Some ancient voices understood God as all powerful over us, and we hear those voices in scripture and many of the prayers we recite these days. Too many people continue to read these words literally and as “God’s people” justify their values of separation, domination and triumphalism. As a consequence of this too many others turn their back on a life of holiness, “I’m not religious, I don’t believe in God.” We need to know our story better and be more imaginative. Our scripture and sages also have other understandings of God as singular, ineffable, infinite and ever-present, the one that connects the parts in
the whole. It is these images which we also see in the prayers of this day and upon these we should act. The choice, with all its consequences, is ours to make.
God is our word, our place-holder, for the source of all that is. From Torah to deep teachings of the sages and rabbis, we can understand God not as the power over us, but rather the empowerment within us and all of life itself. All that is, was and ever will be is an aspect of God’s holiness. We forget that. We get distracted. And we forget. Thus, this day of Yom HaZikaron – the day to remember. And this day of Yom HaDin – the day to be judged for our choices, our actions, their consequences. Our scepticism, our atheism, our materialism, our apathy and disengagement, neither serves us, nor our planet, nor the web of life that we call God of which we are part. U’nataneh tokef kedushat hayom, let us proclaim the sacred power of this day, the first of these days of awe, in which we stand in awe of the mystery of the universe, of life itself.
We have come here. This is the place. We have come now. This is the time. To be in awe and to be inspired. To live with faith. To live with kedushah, here and everywhere, this day and every day.
Maybe it’s not too late for our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren after all.
Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins