by Rabbi Josh
Originally shared for Rosh HaShanah 5777, 10/3/16
I grew up going to a very boring Reform temple in suburban St. Louis. Recently, I finally saw the Coen brothers movie A Serious Man (which is a fantastic movie by the way--maybe the most interesting deeply Jewish American movie I’ve ever seen). The Coen brothers marvelously evoke the spiritual wasteland of American Judaism in suburban Minnesota in the late 1960s. And so if you simply fast forwarded the banality twenty years to the late 1980s, and changed the costumes and decor, you’d have some significant elements of my own synagogue experience.
I never learned anything about Jewish spirituality growing up, and if someone had tried to teach me, the reality is I probably wouldn’t have been receptive. I was too busy torturing my teachers in Sunday school--where there were very few real consequences to acting out--unlike in real school. I had to come back to Judaism through a somewhat circuitous route.
On that path of return, one I am still walking almost twenty years later, one of the simplest teachings, and one with the most lasting power that has come to me is the power of yearning.
I think that is the essence of what this season is about. One way of framing our work at this time, this zman, is to tap into, discern, and clarify our holy yearning.
I reengaged Judaism through Soto Zen Buddhism. In the spring of 1998, I spent several months living as a guest student at the San Francisco Zen Center in the city, followed by a couple of weeks at Tassajara. Yearning is not big in traditional Zen practice. Zen is a rather austere, very direct, and stripped down practice. Instead of yearning, the focus is on non-attachment. To speak of something like yearning in a Zen context was usually to suggest you were just trapped in egoic clinging. Judaism, especially the mystical tradition, does have a strong push for nonattachment and equanimity, but it’s dialectical and it's not the most obvious thing. The yearning piece is the core devotional nature of Judaism, something we share with the bhakti and sufi paths; it’s a yearning to become a servant of HaShem, an eved HaShem.
So what is this holy yearning I’m talking about?
Yearning comes in with the life of prayer, and holy yearning becomes discernible with time. The most important thing about prayer, in my understanding, is that we need to take on faith or on direct experience that we are not separate from God, from the Totality; we are a connected part of It, whether we are actively feeling that connection or not. If we can start there, something powerful happens when we speak, from our hearts, from a place of deep sincerity, to that Totality of which we are a part. That is the simple essence of prayer. The external version of prayer seems like you’re making requests, please grant this or that. When this is just coming from the everyday, discursive mind, it can often feel kind of silly, whiny, like it’s just an extension of our egos.
But our tradition teaches that in prayer we need to shift ourselves into the place of the heart. To inhabit that place, to dwell there, to let Divinity into there. To knock on the door of the door of the heart, until the holy yearning begins to make itself felt. Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door, as the good book says, or in this case, on the heart’s door.
Let me clarify this yearning more through story. The great Hassidic master Reb Nachman of Breslov gave over one of the greatest stories of yearning ever told in Jewish tradition, maybe the greatest. This favorite part of his greatest story is in The Seven Beggars Tale.
Here’s how it goes:
“At the edge of the world there is a mountain, and on this mountain there is a stone and from this stone flows a Spring. And at the opposite edge of the world, beats the Great Heart of the world, which gazes all day long at the mountain. Now the Great Heart filled with love yearning for the Spring. And it stands there, waiting to move to the Spring, but it cannot move. One move and the Great Heart would lose sight of the mountain and in that instant, the Heart would die. And if the Heart died, then the entire world would cease to exist. Heart is the life-force of all things, and nothing can exist without a heart. For this reason, the Heart can’t go to the Spring, so it stands facing it, yearning and crying out. The Spring also yearns for the Heart.
Time does not exist for the Spring. The Spring is not inside time at all. It is very much higher than the time of the world. The Spring only has time because the Heart gives it as a gift for one day.
However, when the time comes for the day to come to a close, at the end of the day, the Spring will not have any more time, and it will therefore die. This in turn would cause the Heart to die. The entire world would then cease to exist.
So every evening, when the sun goes down, the Heart and the Spring begin to take leave of each other, then they sing and speak to each other with great love and tremendous desire, in wonderful parables and songs.
Now there is a True Man of Kindness who walks the earth every evening and gathers all of these numberless threads of song and weaves them together into time. And it is just enough time to make up another day. The True Man of Kindness gives this to the Great Heart, which then sings again next evening to the Spring. And in this way, out of love, out of song, out of yearning, out of longing, out of beauty, the world continues to exist. Time is created every day so that every day, all hearts can beat, including the Great Heart of the world.”
In Reb Nachman’s story, yearning enables the world to continually exist. To hang out in the place of yearning and longing is so powerful, so beautiful. It’s also hard in this story. But clearly the story is telling us, along with its other messages, that yearning is something immense and powerful.
This is the season of yearning, yearning to shift, yearning to repair what was hurt, yearning to be guided. That yearning of the Great Heart is so strong; it’s reflected and yearns to be fully expressed in each of our hearts. This season invites us to tune that yearning in. We tune it in, clarify it, magnify it with the holy yearning of all the other God wrestlers doing this work on this planet at this time.
For myself, the way this yearning manifests most strongly is in a desire to become an eved Hashem, a servant of God. I have come to love this root ideal of becoming an eved Hashem in our tradition. I love that I've been forced to grapple with this difficult ideal, to struggle with it, until I can feel the regular welling up in my heart of the purity of a desire to serve the deepest good that I can know with my mind. Another way to say this is that it is an expression of deep love, a love that seeks to be expressed in the world as service.
This is where I connect to declaring God’s sovereignty/malchut--such a big theme of Rosh Hashanah, which we will enter into explicitly in a few minutes with the Great Aleynu. Declaring God’s sovereignty, taking on the ol malchut shamayim (the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven) for me means to live this aspiration to become an eved Hashem. How our service manifests will of course look different depending on what lifestage we are at, how many children or elderly parents we have, what our health is, etc.
I find that when I tap into this holy yearning to serve, it is remarkably effective in cutting through the crap, cutting through all the ways I get distracted from serving the highest purpose I can serve from moment to moment, cutting through all the ways I get confused and take as real and important things which really aren’t.
If we were all in touch with our holiest yearnings, where would the world be then?
So, to close this teaching, I invite you actually explore that yearning for a couple minutes. To close your eyes if you’re comfortable, and to tune in to the heart. Something amazing I learned recently is that “the heart has a complex neural network that is sufficiently extensive to be characterized as a brain on the heart.”
As you rest in the heartspace, what do you yearn for? What do you yearn to bring into the world in this coming year for yourself, your close family, your community?
It doesn't have to be a big thing. Often times, my greatest yearning on a daily basis is remaining calm and caring, and not shutting down my heart, in the face of tantrums and willfulness from one of my children.
If something came through for you in this moment, offer a prayer of thanks and acknowledgment. If it didn't come through right now, that's fine, but I’d ask you to just hold this intention for these 10 days heading into Yom Kippur- to ask what is it like to rest in that place of the yearning heart, to offer prayer from there, to seek guidance from there?
Particularly at this season of the Jewish year, but indeed throughout the entire year, may we invite in yearning - not from the place of the discursive “me, me, me” mind, but from the depths of our own Great Heart, yearning so intensely for the mountain Spring. Amen.