Writing the World into Being (Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5779)

“On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.”

It may look like we are sitting in a ballroom. But on a deeper level, we’re sitting at the threshold between the year that took place and all the possibilities this next year will open for us. Today, we come to the end of one year, and begin the next. We recall goals met, dreams fulfilled — but also regrets, what was left undone and unspoken. For many of us, last year was fraught with personal challenge and loss, as well as immense uncertainty and alarm about our nation and the world.

Rosh Hashanah celebrates the birthday of the world, yom harat olam. The moment the universe shimmered with possibility. That is why we say, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written”: the ink is still fresh. We imagine what words might fill the pages of the year ahead. But it’s so hard to stay focused on the white space of this new chapter when our vision is cluttered with headlines.

When we look at the front page of the newspaper instead of the front page of our lives, we feel helpless to do anything to fix our broken world. We lose perspective. Our sense of hope shrinks. That is why Rosh Hashanah comes along each year: to help us remember harat olam — the world that is possible. Rosh Hashanah says to us, “Okay, that’s the story that was written — but what is the story you want to write? What is the story you all can write together, to create the world you want to live in — and pass on to your children, and your children’s children?

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I’ve learned so much in my first year at Orchard Cove. Last spring, I began facilitating a monthly discussion about “finding hope in challenging times.” I did this because we’re all prone to something called “negativity bias”. Negativity bias is an evolutionary mechanism that helped our species survive by making us more sensitive to negative events than to positive ones. Thanks to negativity bias, our ancestors escaped dangerous predators and fled natural disasters. But these days, we’re relatively safe. So it’s often in the moments we see a scary headline that our negativity bias kicks in and amplifies it to try to keep us safe.

If we don’t make an effort to focus on what is positive in our lives, our capacity for hope literally atrophies. Just as you go to your exercise classes to work on your physical muscles, this is a spiritual exercise class to work on your hope muscles. One powerful idea that’s emerged from our discussions is best captured in the words of Indian author, Arundhati Roy: “Another world is not only possible,” she says, “she is on her way.”

If what she says is true, how can we make the future that is on its way a future we actually want?

We might take inspiration from the people who saw the world that was on its way, and used their visions to build the society we live in. We take a lot of our day to day reality for granted. But if we look back at history, we see the world we have inherited was not always destined to be the way it is. In fact, so much has changed for the better, that would have once sounded inconceivable.

These changes came about because of the people who challenged established mores in order to reshape our destiny, keeping alive the spark of their convictions through periods of ridicule and persecution. Thanks to their determination, their visions are now normal parts of our reality: women have the vote in nearly every country in the world; an African American can become US president; apartheid came to an end in South Africa.

These realities were once impossible to picture. Author and activist Joanna Macy writes of the determination it took to shape the society we live in now,

Lucy Stone organized the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1850. She never lived to see women finally get the vote in the United States in 1920, but that didn’t stop her from working her whole life to make that happen. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for more than twenty-five years before eventually becoming South Africa’s first black president in 1994…. Rather than seeing frustration and failure as evidence that we’re pursuing a hopeless cause, we [like these individuals] can reframe them as [necessary in the journey of change].

The major turning points in history came about through hard work — not just reacting to each day's headlines. Today, like these shapers of history, we remember the world doesn’t need to be the way it is. We begin to move out of what we know, what we assume will always be true...into harat olam — the world that is on its way, the society we want to help build.

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“On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.”

As we sit here in the space between one year and the next, we step into the unknown. We recall the ways our lives and our world have changed, and will change. We move out of last year’s disappointments and breaking stories — into our hopes for ourselves, our nation, and our world this year. Over the next ten days, we strengthen each other as we reflect on what we can do to build a different future — how we can not just let our story be written, but instead become the authors of the coming year.

As we begin this journey together, I want to share Mary Oliver’s poem about finding hope in the world, called “The World I Live In.” She writes:

I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
   reasons and proofs.
The world I live in and believe in
is wider than that. And anyway,
   what's wrong with Maybe?

You wouldn't believe what once or
twice I have seen. I'll just
 tell you this:
only if there are angels in your head will
   you ever, possibly, see one.

C’tiva tova. As we cross the threshold from one year to the next, may we enter the wider world of “Maybe”, of the wonderful possibilities this year contains. May we believe so deeply in the angels in our heads — our visions of a world filled with peace, abundance and equity — that our dreams of redemption become real for us and for our planet. May the words before us and between us guide us towards fellowship, love and good will for each other, our society and our planet.

And let us say: Amen.