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Delivered at Kol Sasson Congregation.

(You can view all of the sources cited in this sermon here.)

That day I saw beneath dark clouds

the passing light over the water

and I heard the voice of the world speak out,

I knew then, as I had before

life is no passing memory of what has been

nor the remaining pages in a great book

waiting to be read.

It is the opening of eyes long closed.

It is the vision of far off things

seen for the silence they hold.

It is the heart after years

of secret conversing

speaking out loud in the clear air.

It is Moses in the desert

fallen to his knees before the lit bush.

It is the man throwing away his shoes

as if to enter heaven

and finding himself astonished,

opened at last,

fallen in love with solid ground.

(David Whyte, “The Opening of Eyes,” From Songs for Coming Home. © Many Rivers Press, 1984.)

This is going to be a different kind of drasha.

Because the pain and heartbreak of the world are too overwhelming today.

The pain and the heartbreak are too overwhelming, when we see Syrian babies floating in the water.

“When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.”

The pain and the heartbreak are too overwhelming, when we see black men and women and children beaten and murdered by police, day after day after day.

In all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.

The pain and the heartbreak are too overwhelming, when hear how debased our political discourse has become, when the leaders of our state allow the hungry and the ill to suffer because they can’t agree on a budget, when our leaders cannot speak to us honestly about the sacrifices we will have to make for our future and our children’s future.

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.

Our heart breaks at the condition of our world today. Our heart breaks. God’s heart breaks. It is too overwhelming, and our heart, God’s heart, breaks.

Our instinct at this moment is to hide, to cloister ourselves away on what feels like safer ground—with higher walls, soundproofed barriers, moats and baffles and turrets to defend our hearts from those sights and sounds that would break it apart. We defriend our nasty friends, we stop looking at the images we don’t want to see, we change the station when the news comes on. All in an effort to keep our hearts from breaking.

But the heart is made to be broken. “The hope is to live without it and to have as little as possible,” writes David Whyte. “But all evidence is to the contrary of these child-like hopes; heartbreak is as inescapable and inevitable as breathing, a part and parcel of every path, asking for its due in every sincere course an individual takes. It may be that there is no real life without the raw revelation of heartbreak; no single path we can take within a life that will allow us to escape without having that imaginative organ we call the heart broken by what it holds and then has to let go.”

Heartbreak is horrible. Heartbreak is also inevitable. We yearn for love, for goodness, for caring, for justice. We long for these things so deeply—God longs for these things so deeply. And while it may be more acute today, the truth we all know is that our hearts are broken all the time: from the moment as infants when the milk we crave isn’t there, to the moment as a teen when the love we feel is unrequited, to the moments as parents when our children turn out—of course—to be something different than the image we had in our mind.

Our hearts are broken all the time. From the moment we first see another child being bullied, to the moment when we realize that billions of people go hungry and thirsty every day, to the moment when we see our own political systems debased and abused and mocked by demagogues with harder hearts.

Our hearts break all the time. And the feeling is awful, and it can lead to a deep, deep sadness and withdrawal from the world. It can lead to withdrawing from relationships, to retreating from community, to giving up on our rights and responsibilities as citizens in a democracy. Heartbreak can lead us to cold, dark places.

But, if we can summon the courage, heartbreak can also lead us forward. The difference, as Parker Palmer writes in Healing the Heart of Democracy, lies in whether our hearts break apart, or break open. If our hearts can break open, if we can hold ourselves and one another through the suffering of the breaking heart, and if we can listen to each other’s stories of heartbreak, then our broken hearts can lead us to re-creation, revelation, and redemption.

When Solomon became king over Israel, God appeared to him in a dream, and told him to ask for anything he wished—power, riches, whatever he wanted. And what did Solomon ask for? “Now, Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a lev shomeah, a listening heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.”

Solomon asks for a lev shomeah, a listening heart, a discerning heart, a heart that can break open but not become broken. What Solomon asks for is what all of us need: a supple, expandable, resilient heart that cannot only endure, but grow, from heartbreak.

That lev shomeah becomes the seat of Solomon’s chochma, his wisdom. “The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. So God said to him, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a lev chacham v’navon, a wise and listening heart.” With a listening heart, with a heart that can break open but not apart, comes wisdom. And that is what we need to cultivate today.

The story of Shlomo is a direct commentary on the story of Pharaoh—Pharaoh whose heart is not a lev shomeah, a listening heart, but rather a lev kaved, a heavy heart, a hard heart, an impenetrable heart. That hard heart leads him to distort wisdom into its photonegative, usually translated as shrewdness. Hava nitchakma lo, he says to his people, “Let us deal shrewdly with the Israelites, or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.” A heavy heart, rather than a listening heart, leads Pharoah away from wisdom to shrewdness, and ultimately to the oppression that emerges in the very next sentence: “So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Ramses as store cities for Pharaoh.” Where Shlomo uses his kingly power to set taskmasters and build a home for God, Pharaoh’s heart leads him to use his power in a project of self-aggrandizement.

These stories of the heart and its relationships to power are not far from us. For the amazing thing about democracy is that we are all, each of us, sovereigns. Each of us can be Pharaoh, and each of us can be Shlomo. Our hearts can break apart, or they can break open. Our hearts can become tools of shrewdness and oppression, or can they lead us to acts of wisdom and peace. And today, today on Rosh Hashanah, we can direct our hearts—we can direct our hearts to break open, rather than apart; we can ask for God’s help for our hearts to break open toward redemption; and we can offer our listening, open hearts to one another and to God—kol nediv libo—to rebuild God’s home on earth.

The shofar is both an invitation and a demand to break open our hearts. As the Mishnah teaches us, if we are walking by a beit kenesset and we hear the shofar, we only fulfill the mitzvah im kiven libo—if we direct our hearts, if we open our hearts, if we allow the shofar to break our hearts open towards hesed and rachamim. If the shofar does not penetrate our hearts, if we remain closed and hardened, then we are more Pharaoh than Solomon, more rasha than chacham. And listening to the shofar is a mitzvah for all of us—it is a demand and an invitation.

You remember the story of the Baal Shem Tov, that he said to Rabbi Ze’ev Kitzes, one of his senior disciples: “You will blow the shofar for us this Rosh Hashanah. I want you to study all the kavanot of blowing the shofar, so that you will meditate upon them when you do the blowing.”

Reb Ze’ev studied, and he wrote down the kavanot on a sheet of paper, and put the paper near his breast. But when the moment came, Reb Ze’ev reached into his pocket, and the paper was gone. Tears filled his eyes. Now he would have to blow the shofar like a simple horn, without any kavanot. With a despairing heart, Rabbi Ze’ev blew the shofar, then went to his seat and sobbed.

But the Besht came to him to explain that, in fact, he had performed a magnificent shofar-blowing. “In the king’s palace,” he said, “there are many gates and doors, leading to many halls and chambers. The palace-keepers have great rings holding many keys, each of which opens a different door. But there is one key that fits all the locks, a master key that opens all the doors.

“The kavanot are keys, each unlocking another door in our souls, each accessing another chamber in the supernal worlds. But there is one key that unlocks all doors, that opens up for us the innermost chambers of the divine palace. That master key is a broken heart.”

On this day of malchuyot, on this day when we sovereigns re-coronate the divine as our sovereign, our listening becomes God’s listening—the shofar breaks open our hearts, and it breaks open the heart of the divine. The depth of our hesed is matched and exceeded by the depth of divine hesed; the measure of our rachamim is multiplied and expanded by the measure of divine rachamim. And through the breaking open of our hearts, the heart of the world is broken open to the heart of the divine.

Listen. Listen to the voice of the shofar. Listen to the voice of the little refugee boy dead on the shore. Listen to the voice of the mother crying for her son—in Hungary, in Syria, in Engelwood. Listen to the voice of your neighbor. Listen to the voice deep inside you, the voice of a thousand unrequited loves and a thousand unfulfilled yearnings. Listen to those voices in the voice of the shofar. And allow them to break your heart—to break it open to the wells of hesed and rachamim deep within.

life is no passing memory of what has been

nor the remaining pages in a great book

waiting to be read.

It is the opening of eyes long closed.

It is the vision of far off things

seen for the silence they hold.

It is the heart after years

of secret conversing

speaking out loud in the clear air.

That is the mitzvah of the shofar. That is its demand and its invitation.

A listening heart.

A broken heart.

A compassionate heart.

Ketiva v’chatima tova.

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