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Rosh Hashana Day 1

12/03/2019 03:29:40 PM


Rabbi Marcia Plumb

I like doing jigsaw puzzles. Does anyone else?   I have a method to doing them. I start with the corners.  The corners frame the whole puzzle, and give it shape and solidity.  Then I group the rest of the pieces into colours or into general parts of the puzzle.  Then I start with one corner and work my way out. I get great satisfaction from finding the piece that fits perfectly and forms a complete part of the picture.  I am also appreciative of the pieces that look like they will fit, or that almost fit, but don’t, because I know they will fit in somehow, even if I don’t see where yet.  
I learned something about puzzles a long time ago from my teacher Rabbi Larry Kushner.  He wrote: .  
 Each lifetime is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. For some there are more pieces.  For others the puzzle is more difficult to assemble. And so it goes. Souls going this way and that, trying to assemble the myriad parts. 
But know this. No one has within themselves all the pieces to their puzzle.  Like the days before they used to seal jigsaw puzzles in cellophane. Insuring that all the pieces were there.  Everyone carries with them at least one and probably many pieces to someone else’s puzzle.  
Sometimes they know it.
Sometimes they dont. 

And when you present your piece,which is worthless to you,
To another, whether you know it or not,
Whether they know it or not 
You are a messenger from the Most High.   
Each of us is like a jigsaw puzzle.  We are made up of various pieces. Our puzzle pieces are our memories, experiences, the people in our lives.  Every person’s puzzle is shaped differently, with different size pieces. At Rosh Hashanah, we start a new puzzle.  Today, we open the box, and examine the pieces within. Which pieces are still at the center of our puzzle, which pieces have fallen out, which pieces have faded.   Which people are still important to us, which ones have our eternal gratitude for how they shaped us, and which ones have we hurt or ignored.  

On Rosh Hashanah, we explore how we have treated the people in our lives.  One of my favourite Mussar middot/traits focusses on this--B’tzelem elohim.  This is the fact that every person is a child of God. But do we treat each other as if there is godliness within?  Do we believe that about ourselves? 
Today, we wonder--who matters in our lives,   and how do we treat those who shape us in big and small ways.  How do we practice b’tzelem elohim?  
I am dating myself, but when I was young, I kept a white leather address book.  I would regularly add people’s names and details, but I never took anyone out. I never erased anyone’s name or address, even if they had died or were no longer someone I was in contact with.  I didn’t want any of my puzzle pieces to drop out. I didn’t want change. I didn’t want to lose anyone. 
Merle Feld writes about her fading address book in this poem:

The cover of my old address book
Fell off, the pages are tearing.
I bought the new book this morning-
Small, brown, fake leather cover, Woolworths.
People move so often nowadays
I really should do the whole thing
In pencil, just keep erasing.
That’s not the real problem though,
The problem is, what to do with the people. 
Sometimes there are dead people
In my old worn-out address book.
I can’t write them into the new one
But it hurts to leave them behind yet another time.
There are distant relatives,
People I haven’t seen in years,
And I transfer them
From book to book to book.
I have no intention of contacting them
But my mother would be disappointed 
If she knew I had omitted them
On purpose.
Here’s a family that settled in Israel
More than a year ago,
They never sent me their new address,
In my old book
They still live in Los Angeles
And we’re still friends.
There’s a man I liked a lot,
Met him in therapy group.
I just have the phone number, no address.
It’s hard to let go of people who’ve seen you without a mask.
If I recopy the number
Maybe sometime I will call.
Here’s a boy I thought I loved
In 1967. We lost touch
And when he turned up again
He was religious
With a wife and three kids.
We kept promising to get together.
They left the country years ago
But I keep recopying his name 
with an address in the Bronx.
Really, in my mind’s eye,
He’s still a Harvard undergraduate.

You probably think I’m crazy
But I save
All my tattered, 
Address books.
They’re in the top center drawer of my dresser.  

Just like each person in my old address book, each of the pieces of our puzzles matter.  Each person, memory, experience, all continue to shape who we are and our life story. Even our sins are important to us.   They too shape us.  
In preparing for this sermon, and thinking about the pieces of our lives, I remembered the time Moses was surrounded by small pieces.  Do you remember which story I mean?  
It is the story of Moses’s sin of breaking the tablets when he saw the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf.  Moses broke the first set of tablets into small pieces, just like puzzle pieces.  
The word in Hebrew for what Moses did to those tablets is sh-v-r, the same root used when the shofar blasts a wailing, broken sound, the shevarim.   One reason we blow shofar on Rosh Hashanah is to beg God to forgive us for our mistakes, and to continue to love us, as God forgave Moses and the Israelites over the Golden Calf.   God saw Moses turn the sacred tablets into small pieces and still forgave him. As we try to fit the pieces of our lives together for another year, we ask God to forgive and help us too.  
The rabbis asked, what did Moses do with the pieces of the first set of holy tablets?  The answer is that the Israelites carried those pieces in the ark with them through the wilderness.  

We too carry many sacred pieces with us throughout our lives. 
What do the sacred pieces of my life consist of?  What do I carry with me?  
My father is one of the biggest pieces, right in the center of my puzzle.  He spread his influence over my puzzle in countless ways. He taught me that ethics, truth, fairness, social justice, are essential fundamentals of living.   He is in the centre, but he is also in every corner, keeping my foundational principles and values secure.  

My mother taught me how to listen and to pay attention when I did.  My mother’s piece also used to be front and center in my puzzle. For years after her death, it continued to be.  But now, as the years have gone on, her piece has broken up into little bits and is now scattered among all the pieces of my puzzle. One day, my father’s will do the same. But not just yet.  His piece feels like it has suddenly dropped out and my puzzle has a gaping hole that has left the puzzle of my life unsteady and empty. A puzzle with big holes in the middle is incomplete.  
My strong minded political, brave grandmother’s vibrant piece remains large and always in the corner, securing me with her example. 
Last week, another favourite piece dropped out suddenly and left a hole—that of our beloved congregant Selma Cooperband.  Her piece was a warm earth tone, with splashes of jeweled vibrancy.  

I know many of you have lost pieces of your puzzle this past year.  
Some pieces shift, and take a different place in our lives. Perhaps you have found that this past year.  People’s importance in our lives change. They move from the centre of the puzzle to the outer edges. It doesn’t mean they have been lost.   It just means that the make up of what is important to us changes and shifts year to year. 
Some pieces, some friends or family, used to fit in our jigsaw, but don’t really do so anymore.  We want them to, we wish they would, we keep them in the jigsaw box, but no matter how hard we try to press, they just don’t seem to have that  perfect place anymore.    

Some have rough edges, so we have pushed them out rather than try to work on and smooth the roughness.   Perhaps this year, we can bring them back into our puzzle through teshuvah, forgiveness.   

Sometimes we get pushed out because of our bad behavior.  Perhaps this year, we can ask to be brought back in through repentance.   
Recently I caused hurt to a friend.  I apologised but I could see that she was in the process of pushing me out of her jigsaw box.  The hurt on her face, the sadness and pain, has now been etched into the puzzle piece that belonged to her in my box.   I wish I had not hurt her. But by doing so, I had to face an aspect of me that needs to change in the coming year. I cannot, nor should not, paint over that piece that is hers.  I need to see it regularly, until I am able to change in me, what caused her hurt in the first place. My teshuvah with her will not end with the High Holy Days. I will need to work on changing well past Yom Kippur.  

Some pieces are important to us, but they begin to fade, and slip to the sides or even out of the puzzle entirely, simply because we haven’t paid attention to them.  We know they matter--they are central to the picture as a whole. But we overlook them, or assume they will always be there. I have a very good friend in Texas. She is very important to me.  But I am beginning to suspect that we take each other for granted. We don’t speak very often any more. I know we are both important to each other, but we aren’t taking care of each other in the way we should.   This year, I need to give some attention to this relationship--I don’t want her piece to fade or slip under the table unnoticed.  

Other times we’re handed a piece we don’t particularly like, causing disappointment because it wasn’t what we were expecting and we’re not quite sure how it could be made beautiful.  Sometimes, pieces are introduced that cause pain and trauma. We can’t expel these no matter how hard we try because they are part of our life jigsaw. Perhaps you have experienced that trauma this past year.  Our goal is to manage their significance in our life, so their piece does not take centre stage or takes over the puzzle entirely. Our spiritual and psychological work, over time, is to make them smaller and smaller. 
Who makes up your jigsaw?  Who is in the center, and who has slid to the side, and who is in your corners?  Who are the pieces in the background, those who shaped who you are?  Those who sacrificed, who curtailed their puzzle so yours could grow and develop?
Which puzzle pieces do we need to tend to a bit more, to make sure we don’t lose them?  
 There are times when new people and experiences add to our puzzle, and it is as if they were there all along.   As Rabbi Kushner pointed out in the poem I read earlier they bring a piece to our puzzle that we didn’t know we needed, but that completes or enlarges us.  

So, according to Judaism, how do we add new pieces to our puzzle?  This is where Mussar comes in. As many of you know, Mussar is the medieval system that helps us understand ourselves better, and develop traits, called middot, to help us be our best selves.   At Mishkan Tefila, we have chosen six Mussar traits to guide us and shape our community. They are savlanut/patience, simcha/joy, zerizut/enthusiasm and dedication, kavod/honour, hakarat hatov/seeing the good , and btzelem Elohim/everyone is a child of God.  

Every one of us is btzelem Elohim, created in the image of God, created on purpose, with strengths and ways we need to improve. Every one of us has pieces to offer that are just what someone else needs.   B’tzelem Elohim is the reason our sanctuary is in the round. We wanted to be able to see the godliness in each person, so we wanted to look at each other’s faces, rather than at the back of each other’s heads.  

 We add new people to our lives through the middah of  B’tzelem Elohim.  
The person, that child of God, sitting next to you, or behind you, that you haven’t met, may hold a puzzle piece that you need. You may have one to complete them. But if we don’t meet, don’t share names or a story about each other, we’ll never exchange our pieces.  We will never grow because of them. They will never be enriched because of us. We will be incomplete, so will they, and we won’t even know it.  
Each person has the potential to change us, for the good or for the ill.  As do we, them. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur help us decide how we want to influence others, how we want to shape the puzzle of another.  Will we bring goodness or pain to another? Will we contribute or harm? How will we practice Btzelem elohim--seeing each person as precious?  How will we express the spark of divinity within us? What kind of puzzle piece will we be for someone else?  

In the end, no matter how hard I may try to finish my jigsaw, I often find that there is one piece missing, or one extra piece that doesn’t seem to fit.  Again, this matches life. As hard as we may try, we cannot always control how our puzzle will turn out. Which pieces we will suddenly lose, which will cause us pain, and which new ones will complete us.  

Ultimately, God sees the whole picture.  God sees the image on the front and knows the end result. God knows and has access to the exact pieces needed for completion. Sometimes it’s difficult to imagine how certain pieces will fit together. When something happens that disturbs us or worries us, we only see that one problematic piece, the piece that doesn’t fit, or seems to disrupt the whole puzzle.  This is when we need to trust that there is a bigger picture at play.   
 God can see what we cannot.  God can see how all the elements of our lives fit together, even when we can’t.  
At times of uncertainty, we draw on savlanut, patience, and bitchon, trust, to find hope as our future unfolds.  We trust that God will hold us as new puzzle pieces are introduced into the picture of our lives.  
Under your chairs, each of you have a puzzle piece, with the word, You are B’tzelem Elohim, You are a Child of God.  The piece is yours to take home. I invite you to keep it, as a reminder of how precious you are, how important your puzzle piece, your contribution, your presence, is to others, to the world and to God.     As Rabbi Kushner said, in the poem at the beginning of this sermon, May we each remember that We are a messenger of the Most High. May God bless the connections we make this year, and keep all those in our lives safe from harm.  May blessings and joy fill our lives this year and may all our pieces fit together. Amen.  

Sun, July 12 2020 20 Tammuz 5780