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Opening our Hearts to the Sacred - Erev Rosh Hashanah 2019

10/01/2019 10:23:54 AM


by Rabbi Carlie Daniels

I’m wondering: Why are you here this evening? Yes, I know it’s Erev Rosh Hashanah. I know that some of you are here because your parents made you come. And some are here because even though your parents or grandparents died many years ago, their voice still echoes loudly in your head, they instilled in you what some may call an obligation and others may call guilt. Some of you are here for the pure joy and wonder of celebrating the start of the New Year in community, or to hear the choir, or to reconnect with old friends. We all have our personal reasons for being here this evening. And communally, our tradition teaches that Rosh Hashanah is the time for cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul, an occasion to reflect back on the past year. We celebrate the high points and learn from
difficult times in order to begin our New Year refreshed and ready.

I’m going to do something a bit unconventional. I hope that you’ll humor me, and stay with me, even if the next few minutes seem a little far outside of your comfort zone. I want to take a moment, here in community, for each of us to reflect on the past year. Let’s call it a mental walk-through.(1)

Please, get comfortable in your seat, uncross your legs, lengthen your spine, you can even close your eyes if that is helpful. Now that you're in a relaxed position, take a deep breath in and out, start to think back through this past year. Let images enter and exit your mind—small moments, meaningful moments, smells, pictures, and faces.

Think back now to last Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the High Holy Day season, early fall: Where were you? What goals did you have for the coming year?

And to the beginning of winter, the festival of lights, the holiday of Chanukah. In what ways did you bring light into our dark world?

Think back to January, February, March, taking account of the high-points along the way. Times of important learning. Move from winter to the full blossom of spring. The time we celebrate Passover and think about renewal and newfound freedom. Were there issues or difficulties in your life that you were able to overcome?

When you’re ready, allow your mind to imagine this past summer. Summer is a time for closings and endings. What issues, relationships, situations came to a close during the past year? In the Hebrew calendar, these months are a time to think about history and loss; In what ways did you grieve?

And here we are again at Rosh Hashanah, the start of a new year. If you had your eyes closed, you may open them. Take a moment to offer gratitude for the past year, and open your heart and mind to the immense possibilities of a new year. And again, I ask, “Why are you here?” Something brought you here this evening. Was it a parent? A feeling of obligation? A desire for connection? A search for meaning?

I may be wrong in assuming that each of us hopes to experience something sacred or holy in this room tonight. The concept of a sacred moment may seem a bit lofty, even unachievable or out of reach. By sacred, I mean regarded with great respect and reverence, elevated, separated, or set apart. It comes from the Latin word holy. Therefore, a sacred moment is an instance that is set apart, a holy experience, an elevated occasion. A sacred moment is something that we must recognize, either in hindsight or even better, in the moment itself. Often the sacred moments that are most easy to identify are the overwhelming moments- like when we stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon or experience the birth of a new baby. But in reality, sacred moments occur daily - the chirping of birds on a sunny day or the pleasure of a great conversation with a friend or partner - we just have to notice them. Most of us don’t walk around in our everyday lives
closed off to the experience of a sacred moment.

So what might prevent us from experiencing a sacred moment here tonight? I have a hunch that more than a few of us find it difficult to pray or find the words of the High Holy Day prayer book challenging. While we don’t typically walk around with an attitude of doubt or skepticism, we often walk into this space with a heightened sense of disbelief. And if we hope to walk away this evening with something more than we walked in with, then we have to approach the experience of prayer the same way we approach the special experiences in our everyday lives.

The reality is that this evening you walked into what world-renowned liturgist, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman calls “the sacred drama of the centuries.”(2) Rabbi Hoffman teaches that the prayer book becomes our sacred script, which offers us our lines in the sacred story of the Jewish people. “If you suspend your disbelief,” as he says, “it comes alive for you.”(3) And for any of us who have attended an opera or a Broadway show, we typically don’t walk in saying “I believe in this story,” no, because in the end, we don’t really care about the story. It’s about the experience, the music and drama, we are moved to tears because something within us is touched. Hoffman surmises, “Prayer is an art form that touches the human condition. But you have to enter into it, and suspend your disbelief.”(4)

And so we ask ourselves, “what calls us to moments of holiness or sacredness?” The famous psychologist Abraham Maslow proclaimed,
"The great lesson from the true mystics {is that} the sacred is in the ordinary, that it is to be found in one's daily life, in one's neighbors, friends, and family, in one's backyard."(5) If the sacred is found in the ordinary then how do we access these sacred moments in our everyday lives? We suspend our disbelief, we become open to being curious about the world around us. We embrace wonder and amazement.

In the Torah, our forefather Jacob demonstrates this point. He discovers the sacred in the ordinary as he journeys from his homeland to Haran to find a wife. We read, “He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and the angels of God were going up and down on it” (Gen 28:11-12).

And God spoke to Jacob during his slumber and promised that very land to Jacob and his descendants. “Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Eternal is present in this place, and I did not know it!” (Gen 28:16). Our ancient and modern commentators have poured over these particular verses. The Medieval commentator Rashi suggests that if Jacob had known that it was a holy place he would not have slept there. But because he was blissfully unaware, he was essentially open to what would become a transformative encounter with the holy.

This summer, I went on my first ever rock climbing trip with a group of teenage campers from OSRUI, the Reform movement’s summer camp. Our group departed on a two-hour ride through the rural countryside of central Wisconsin to Devils Lake. We set up camp at a large tree-lined campsite. Every day our group ascended up the trail - a short but strenuous climb made up of thousands of natural rock stairs. About three-quarters of the way up to the bluff, we stopped for a short break and to take in the view. We looked out over the vast talus field, filled with gigantic pink and purple quartzite boulders with the green and blue lake in the distance.

Traditionally, on the last morning of the trip, the group wakes up early and climbs to the top of the bluff to watch the sunrise. Let’s just say, I was less than thrilled to be awake at 5 am that morning. But I summoned all of the energy I had left, as we made that steep climb one last time. At the top of the bluff, we sat in silence on the large boulders that jutted out from the side of the mountain… the sky was a warm pink, low lying clouds like fluffy cotton balls dotted the distant horizon, fog floated over the dark green trees in the valley. We sat in silence, taking in the beauty before us. After about 20 minutes of quiet gazing, there was a still a calm and serenity that captivated the often rambunctious group of teenagers. We were instructed that we could rest until our climbing guide arrived.

The cool morning breeze swept over the top of the bluff as I laid down on an ancient rock - formed over billions of years - and fell fast asleep. I woke up as the sun streamed down on my face, campers and staff still peacefully sleeping, and at that moment it dawned on me that I had experienced something special. I had a Jacob moment, just like Jacob I awoke on a rock in the middle of the wilderness and realized that I experienced something extraordinary. When he awoke Jacob proclaimed, “Surely, God was in this place, and I didn’t know it. Awestruck he said, ‘How awesome is this place!” I too woke up with a rock underneath my head, and I too, realized I had just experienced something special, something holy.

After some reflection, I felt a bit guilty about my internal struggle that morning. I had a million different excuses about why I didn’t need to go. Yet, even though we had climbed up to the bluff every day, it wasn’t until that last morning that I truly was aware of the transformative nature of that moment and that place. You see, we only experience sacred moments if we take the time and slow down and notice them. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel devoted his lifework to the philosophy of seeking the holy in the everyday. Heschel taught, “The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is
not a will to believe, but a will to wonder.

Modern science affirms the transformational impacts of awe and wonder on the human condition. Recent studies have shown that awe can make us healthier and happier in many significant ways. When we experience awe or wonder it also stimulates curiosity, expands creativity, engenders gratitude, promotes a purposeful life, and even reduces anxiety and depression. (7) One study discovered that awe leads to more kindness and generosity. Research uncovered that “Across all these different elicitors of awe, [they] found the same sorts of effects—people felt smaller, less self-important, and behaved in a more prosocial fashion.”(8)  What these scientists describe as awe and wonder translates directly to the concept of sacred moments. Finding the holy in the ordinary not only allows us to connect with something greater than ourselves, but it is also scientifically proven to make us better people. When we allow ourselves the opportunity
to experience the sacred, we open ourselves up to the new possibilities to view our world and other people with more compassion and love.

Like our forefather Jacob, I awoke on a rock with the realization that I experienced something holy. I noticed the beauty and felt the awe and wonder before I laid down to sleep, but it was upon awakening that the full experience came into focus. As Rashi taught, if Jacob had known the magnitude of what would happen there, he wouldn’t have allowed himself to be so vulnerable and sleep in such a place. But because he was blissfully unaware when he laid down, Jacob experienced the holy. We learn that to experience the sacred, we must pay attention and open our hearts and minds to the possibility of that experience. Rabbi Chaim Stern, reform rabbi and liturgist, beautifully captures this idea in a liturgical poem that some of you may recognize from our prayer book:

Days pass and the years vanish
and we walk sightless among miracles.
God, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing;
let there be moments when Your Presence,
like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.
Help us to see, wherever we gaze,
that the bush burns unconsumed.
And we, clay touched by God,
will reach out for holiness and exclaim in wonder:
"How filled with awe is this place and we did not know it!" (9)

So I challenge each of us this evening to suspend our disbelief, to embrace the sacred, to find one prayer, one melody, one word, one moment that elicits a sense of awe and wonder. If we embrace the sacred drama of the moment, suspending our disbelief to experience the sacred, we can welcome in the New Year with a newfound sense of joy, wonder, and awe.

Shanah Tovah!

The sermon Opening our Hearts to the Sacred is available for download. 


1) Adapted from Katske, Erika. “Guided Meditation for Tashlikh.” Ritualwell , 2000,

2) Mark, Jonathan. “Rabbi Hoffman And The Sacred Dramas.” Jewish Week , 23 Oct. 2018,

3) Hoffman, Lawrence. “Prayer Is an Art Form - HUC-JIR College Commons.” HUC ,

4) Mark, Jonathan. “Rabbi Hoffman And The Sacred Dramas.” Jewish Week , 23 Oct. 2018,

5) Maslow, Abraham H. Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences . Penguin Arkana, 1994.

6) Heschel, Abraham Joshua . God in Search of Man: a Philosophy of Judaism. Harper & Row, 1966 .

7) Schwartz, Sandi. “How Awe Transforms Us – and How to Create More of It for Your Kids.” Motherly, Motherly, 12 June 2018,

8) ibid.

9) Stern , Chaim. “Days Pass.” Mishkan T'fiilah: A Reform Siddur , edited by Elyse D. Frishman, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2007, p. 81.



Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784