Cantor Alicia Stillman

Light - Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5775






My uncle recounted a story to me of the death of his grandmother, Leah – my Great Grandmother, who I am named after. My uncle was 4 years old, and Grandma Leah who lived nearby came over for the evening; while lying on the couch, she passed away that night in her sleep. The following night, while my Uncle Barry was sleeping, he had a dream that his Grandma Leah was floating in the living room, seemingly suspended in space, in the warmest, most comforting way, and two angels with wings came down from above and carried her up and up and up. There was a warmth, a LIGHT, he said. And somehow, even though he was 4 years old, he knew that she was taken care of, safe, that she was ok wherever she was going. This dream had such an impact on him, that 50 years later he could tell me that very same story, with tears in his eyes, and without a doubt whatsoever, he knew that a great mystery of the universe had taken place and he had been part of its message.
We’ve read other accounts similar to this, of seeing light, being surrounded by light, and a sense of being close to warmth and love. We see images and
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intimations of what light can portray in movies, like the beautiful final scene from Ghost, -- is that light, or even the light at the end of the tunnel, God?
God is such a difficult word, so difficult we often abandon the conversation before it begins for lack of words. And if we try to talk about GOD - We find ourselves using so many words to describe our thoughts. We wrestle if we should call God him or her or it.
Call it whatever you like, call it your maker, call it nature, call it the profoundest of life changing experiences, or maybe realize that the answer was in front of us all along?
I want to offer you a different image – LIGHT!
God is light!
Don’t we use this metaphor whenever we are feeling something intensely or loving, or being filled with something that is greater and more powerful than any name we can think of.
Don’t we use it whenever we have a profound, life changing experience? -- when we call ourselves …. Englightened…..A child dances with excitement at something remarkable, a rainbow, snowflakes on their tongue, an ice cream cone…., and what do we say about their eyes? They light up with wonder, and joy….you fall in love –and they become the light of your life.
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Light travels at 186,000 miles per second. It’s speed and its mystery, and our total inability to stop it as it moves is so compelling because it is so illusory and fleeting. Stars send us their light in flashes and twinkles in the night, we are mesmerized and thus we make wishes on their stars. Light stretches across the sky by day in the form of a rainbow, and represents goodness and promise. But light is an illusion – it moves so fast that what we see is already past us, like the light from stars. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber said the same thing – about God. That you could feel God, but the minute you start to talk about God, it goes away, he called it an I-Thou moment. But just because we can’t touch it and wrap our hands around it, doesn’t mean it’s not real….there are many things that we cannot see, but know are real. Like truth, like love.
Light has been treated scientifically by physicists, visually by artists, holistically by astrologers, and what’s really interesting to me at this moment -- symbolically by religious thinkers and poets. What I’m telling you is not new, our Rabbis knew it, they understood light and they incorporated light into every aspect of our being.
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Light is an integral part of our holidays: lighting Shabbat candles is an act of touching light to light, soul to soul, people to God, and God to people. Just look at the candles tonight. In a few months the Chanukah candles that will bring light in the darkest months of the year and remind us of the possibilities of miracles, of freedom and pride.
We have amazing and endless examples of light in our own text, the Torah – look at the story of creation; the whole reason we are here today. Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of the world. Vay’hi or. And there was light, or rather, God said let there be light, and there was light. Light that came not out of darkness, but out of nothingness. So light IS God, light came from God. Creation is God’s light – and on some level, we all know this and feel this, because when we feel ‘filled with light’, it’s when we feel deep satisfaction, deep completion and fulfillment.
This language has real power, we mentioned holidays, we talked about Torah, it is woven throughout our siddur and our liturgy – tomorrow morning, just before we arrive at the Shema, we say “enlighten our eyes with Torah” V’HAEIR EINEINU, B’TORATECHA, V’DEBEIK LIBEINU B’MITZVOTECHA…., Englighten our eyes with Torah, so that we are filled with God’s wisdom, with the light of something unknowable in our minds, but we feel in our soul.
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And then OR ZARUA LATZADIK, ULYISHREI LEV SIMCHA, “Light is sown for the righteous, and to the upright of heart, happiness”. Psalm 97 --Our prayer that we sing at all liminal moments, moments of change and transformation, we sing this on Shabbat, and we’ll sing it next week at Kol Nidre as we take the Torahs out of the ark, as night falls – as light withdraws itself and releases us into darkness. What a moment of transformation.
God in the form of light. Consider that we are an Or L’goyim, a light unto the nations. Let your imagination take you into that imagery, that we are filled with light, a sense of God surrounds us on Yom Kippur -- what do we do with that light? You take the light and you become a beacon to the rest of the world.
This is our role, this is our calling, we can not escape it, there is no way to avoid it. Judaism introduced to the world the idea of monotheism, of the 10 commandments and of a day of rest, 30% of all Nobel Prize winners are Jewish. WE change the world all the time. We have to be a light unto the nations.
Think of the shame, the anger, the frustration and disappointment we all feel when Jews like Bernie Madoff or Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles
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Clippers, cause our light to not shine. When because of them we are all blamed for doing bad rather than good. And we do so much good.
I see in my mind the unforgettable picture of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in 1963, marching side by side with Martin Luther King in 1963, saying “I’m praying with my feet”. THAT’S what it means to be a light unto other nations, an Or l’goyim. Think about in 2011-- Israel's heart and soul quickly responded to the massive earthquake that slammed Japan. How much pride did you feel when Israel was one of the first foreign countries to send Doctors and medical supplies... Every time you see a Jewish child do a mitzvah project, we’re doing it here today in our own community when our kids, like Mia Weingart spend a summer in Costa Rica with Mitzvah Corp. When you see a Jewish organization do something extraordinary for the world – it’s your Judaism that drives it.
It’s that light inside you that drives it, an inner light that shows a clear direction that drives it, and that light will not dim because the light is driven be Judaism and by God!
Take the light and become what we are supposed to be as Jews – every act you do shines on others. Think about Chanukah, be the Shamash, the servant light that ignites all the other candles, think about the chanukia, you might be surrounded by souls that are dark or dry, like an unlit wick -- it’s now your responsibility, no, your blessing to light the wicks of the candles around you. So light the world. That is an Or l’goyim, a light unto the nations.
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You may be doubting, you may not feel it, all this talk about light and God, and filling the world with light – you may not feel it, especially now when you’re sitting in shul reading so much ‘god language’, but remember the cycle of the moon. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. It starts out invisible to the eye, like tonight, a new moon, than soon you will see a sliver, just a tiny bit of shining crescent, than it continues to grow.
A beautiful poem written on a prison cell wall during the Shoah:
"I believe in the sun even when it is not shining, I believe in love even when I cannot feel it, I believe in God even when He is silent" – Please remember that we all have the light. The question is, how do YOU connect to that light within you.
Think about why you are here tonight. You have a role in this world, you have an opportunity, if you haven’t yet fulfilled it, this is when you can start. YOU are the moon, just a sliver than grows and grows. YOU are a spark and can light others, you have it in you – even if you doubt it, it may be hidden, like the sliver of moon, you have a spark, a light inside you. If you are breathing, you have a light, you have a soul. In fact, Proverbs teaches the very same thing: “The soul of man is the candle of God”. The light is always inside us flickering, illuminating, enlightening.
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That is your light. Allow it to glow, allow it to grow, breathe on it gently, like a person in the forest gently blows on the embers of his coals, trying to ignite a fire that will keep him warm and alive through the night.
My Uncle, still doesn’t know how he feels about Judaism, or religion. But he admits that his stories about that amazing light have been enough to sustain him for a lifetime. His experience affirms that there is meaning beyond what we know or see, that there is something bigger than what we can prove through science. He knows that we are limited by language to truly express what we experience.
May you find your light, and may you recognize the light within you to be sacred.
May your actions nurture the light and allow it to grow within you.
May that glow continue to radiate to others and inspire you to share your unique gifts.
---- SHANA TOVA!







5776 Year in Review


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