Erev Rosh Hashanah 5772

There is a strange and beautiful word in Hebrew, ga’aguim. It is the sound of a goose calling for its mate, the one it will keep for life, and it means longing. Its very sound speaks of the primordial desire that calls forth all creation, and all who hear it recognize it in themselves. It is the vibration that lives in human intuition and directs the movement of our lives.
You may first experience it in adolescence when you discover what love songs are about. You live to be swept away by passionate love, you’re on a hunt to find the one that answers the call of your longing.
The Ba’al Shem Tov describes it this way: “From every human being there rises a light that reaches straight to heaven. And when two souls, destined to be together, find each other, the streams of light flow together and a single brighter light goes forth from their united being.”
No matter how bright the light, however, it isn’t enough. We discover that this one whom we love still does not quiet this inchoate desire. Something is still calling, so the hunt continues. Maybe we’ll feel better if we move to Santa Fe, or maybe we’re doing the wrong work. If we were in the right place and doing the right thing, we wouldn’t still feel this hunger.
I chuckle when I remember my grandfather’s philosophy regarding change. “You want change? Change your underwear.” The wisdom is clear: chasing after people, places, or things won’t satisfy the longing. So what is it we long for?
The difficulty with answering the question is that we live in four worlds and each world has its own longing: the physical world of assiyah is sex, skiing, and all things sensual; the feeling world of the heart, yetsirah is where we long to belong, to be in empathic, collaborative relationship with this world and all within it; the intellectual world of the mind, briya, calls forth yearning to understand and to create; and finally, the intuitive world of heaven, atzilut, is where the greatest longing is, to be close to the still, small voice that is often drowned out by the other three worlds.
I’d like you to put on your pith helmets, and like Indiana Jones, do a little excavating within to discover your own longings. I’d like you to turn to the person next to you and ask, “What do you long for?”
Don’t think about your answer too much, just let the words come out. Maybe you long to have this service over already. Maybe you’re longing to eat. Whatever comes to you, just say it. For two minutes. When you stop, your partner will ask it again until the time is up. Then switch to the other person. This exercise comes from Reb Zalman and is very powerful in getting to one’s truth.
All fairy tales with magic lamps and genies with three wishes reveal how difficult it is to ask for which we most deeply yearn. One’s longings reveal oneself. Many a would-be hero fails in the quest because he asked only for a good meal when he was being offered heaven.
Retreats are useful for this exploration. When I go off to get quiet and I ask the question of my oldest, truest self, it comes in a picture, a movie, really. I imagine a world where everyone knows that we need one another as much as water. No one fears another and no one is hungry. We love our neighbors as ourselves. Wow. My soul salivates with longing for this place that we call G!d’s house.
I lock in this feeling so when I pray, I get this thirst going in me, because if I daven without longing, I’m not doing anything really. It’s just a habit. I want to offer my heart, soul, and everything to keep my longing for big love–love of all–alive. This is holy longing.
Prayer itself stokes the longing. As I melt into the melodies and words, and feel myself drawing near to what I was born to live, my yearning begins. If only I could feel like this in traffic or when I’m on the phone. If only I could remember to feel Your love all the time, if only I could remember what it’s like never to feel alone.
If you’ve been to a Shlomo Carlebach or Debbie Friedman concert, you know where prayer is supposed to take you. Surrounded by hundreds or thousands of people sharing interconnection, open-heartedness, and joy, you are no longer an “I”, but a “we.” The longing that begs to belong, to be part of something greater than one’s self, is answered at last. This is what Reb Zalman calls “virtuous reality.” Perhaps this is what the world to come will be. Rather than being sated from the concert, however, you’re hooked. Now that you’ve been to the promised land, the yearning is greater than ever. Your cosmic GPS will be set on that destination of connection and exaltation forevermore. Of all the headliners at Woodstock, no one mentions the biggest star, the Shechinah, whose sukkah of love changed a generation.
The standard dictionary definition for longing describes it as “a strong, persistent desire or craving, especially for something unattainable or distant: [for example] filled with longing for home.” We long for home, the place that takes us as we are, that waits for our return forever, where we know that we belong.
Three times a day we recite the Ashrei prayer that begins, “Happy are those that live in Your house (Hebrew).” During the month of Elul and the High Holidays, we recite the 27th psalm in which we hear David’s plea: “One thing I ask of You, God, that I may live in Your house forever.” David longs for God’s protection; after a life of war, he wants peace.
That you’re here tonight tells me that you and David have something in common. You too want to come in from the rain of a hurting world, a broken economy, a politicized country, and personal challenges. Whether it was a concert or an intuition, you are here because of your longing to feel connected, wanted, and most of all, to draw near to that which you long for.
In a Hasidic or neo-Hasidic Renewal community, there is a rebbe as the holy representative, and everyone wants to get as close to him as possible. He has spent his whole life studying, he knows what others don’t know. He’s not only smart, he’s got a fast line to God. It is comforting to know someone has the answers, especially when you’re standing on sand. How many of you feel the ground solid enough beneath your feet? How many of us know what we will have tomorrow?
The Rebbe is the earthly channel to the Rock that will never be moved. To show gratitude for what comes through this one, his students stand when he enters the room. It is acknowledgment and appreciation for the rebbe’s expenditure of energy to do the work of creating a container of love strength, and clarity for the community.
Rebbe longing is everywhere, not just in the yeshivas. Pema Chodron and Deepak Choprah are just two of the many gurus of the times who have created their own industries of easily digestible wisdom. Retreat centers, rigorous dietary and exercise regimens, and growing spiritual communities reveal longing for the one who will guide us with principles and rules for living.
“Avinu Malkenu” is our cry of longing in this season for the powerful, knowing One. I picture myself at five in the Atlantic Ocean in my father’s arms. He will take me where I cannot stand. The vast ocean doesn’t worry me at all. My father is greater than anything on earth; I am safe in the vast sea.
His recent death makes me keenly aware of my yearning not for a hierarchy where I pay blind respect to anyone older than I, but for an acknowledgment that there are those that know more than I. Without this, there is no flow of knowledge, only stagnation. Many of my teachers are younger than I, thank God, yet need those who have lived long enough to show me that there is wisdom born of time.
In times of trouble I long for someone who can offer the vision that I don’t have, a wisdom that can flow to me. I yearn for a relationship that will reassure me that there is one who can do what I cannot do.
The yearning for the father figure who seems to be a little closer to God is what has moved some of my generation into Orthodox Judaism. They suspected that there was more to the tradition than their pallid suburban experience gave them. Traditional Judaism, especially the Hasidic variety, still has strong appeal.
It was this yearning that moved my niece, enthusiastic about the Judaism she experienced in her Reform home, to exploring Chabad. She wanted a practice that was 24/7. Today she lives in Jerusalem with her husband who is a Yeshiva University ordained rabbi and their three children. She is living a life with meaning with a community that shares her ideals.
While it is good to have the humility and courage to allow a wise teacher into your life, there are drawbacks to everything. Besides the obvious risk of turning over the helm of discernment to an incompetent or evil person, it is too easy to become lazy and give over one’s responsibility to make choices to a frankly parental figure. More than that, it keeps us from hearing the Rebbe within ourselves.
We are born with the same longing that created the world. The Creation story starts with a literary flaw by describing an action without a motive. Why did God create heaven and earth? How does God know that it is not good to be alone when he makes a companion for Adam? Since we are in the Image, i.e. we are God, maybe, like us, God was lonely. God wants company. Judaism speaks to God’s yearning in the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah.
Exactly one moon ago, we entered the month of Elul, called Et Ratzon, the season of desire. Our efforts to begin the new year cleanly moves God to let us draw nearer than any other time of the year. We imagine a king who doesn’t stay in the palace but steps outside in the garden to be with us.
As the brief days of summer come to a close, I have extra appreciation for the remaining warmth that allows shorts and t-shirts, and for the light is abundant and long. Suddenly there is a chill in the morning air that presages fall. What happened to summer?
The change of seasons summons m to the reality that time passes. My teachers are aging and so am I. I want to learn all I can from them. The change of weather reminds us to draw near to the Highest while there is still time.
Rebbe longing is the wish for answers from an external source. Rabbis today are not an inherited dynasty but a company of brave souls willing to explore regions that normal consciousness doesn’t have access to, and to take others to that place.
Like my father who took me into the deep waters when I was a child, I trust my Rebbes, my teachers, to take me where I need to go, to know at once my smallness and vastness. I long for one who will show me how to find the Rebbe within, the part of me that has courage and humility to call out to God for help, and has faith that God will answer my longing with boundless love.
May we know our longings as God’s face, and may we embrace the path of yearning together.