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Rosh Hashanah 5778 – Breath. Light. Dance.

Have you ever found yourself in a dark, strange and frightening space (existential or physical) wondering/hoping that it is actually a dream from which you will wake up soon? This morning,  I keep hoping that the sound of the shofar might be that wake up call … waking me up from this bad dream I’ve been having since last November (November 8th to be exact).  I continually find myself in this dark, strange and frightening space.


Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl – whose life spanned the 20th century – studied, understood and taught others about finding ourselves in such spaces.  During World War II Dr. Frankl labored in four different concentration camps, including Auschwitz.  Based on his own experience and the experiences of others he treated later in his practice, Dr. Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning.  In it he addressed the experience of finding oneself in precarious and dangerous moments.


Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.


I want to explore what it means to inhabit this peculiar kind of space.   What do we do when find ourselves caught and feeling paralyzed by a threat (stimulus) beyond our making or control?  How do we ever hope to overcome (respond) to such a mercurial and pernicious threat?  


Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.


Within the anxiety and fear of the moment, lies power, growth and ultimately freedom.  How do we stay present in this moment and begin to access these implausible gifts?  How do we meaningfully dwell amongst forces that seem to conspire against our well being?  How do we inhabit this kind of space?


First, we BREATHE.


I know that we are already breathing.  There is breathing and then there is breathing.  About twenty years ago I attended a workshop at which I learned something magical about breathing.  The presenter, an expert on brain function, was teaching us about the power of breath.  “The next time you find yourself in a forgetful moment, of a name or detail, stop trying hard to remember and simply take a few deep breaths … and the detail will come to mind.”  Twenty years later this magic still works.    


Countless scientific studies confirm this relationship between intentional breathing and its impact on our bodies, minds and spirits.  In one such publication, “The Healing Power of the Breath.” Dr. Patricia Gerbarg (assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College) and Dr. Richard Brown (associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University) reported upon the physiological impact of intentional breathing.   Consciously changing the way you breathe appears to send a signal to the brain to adjust the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, which can slow heart rate and digestion and promote feelings of calm as well as the sympathetic system … what that all means is that: If you breathe correctly, your mind will calm down.  Dr. Brown testified,    “I have seen patients transformed by adopting regular breathing practices.”


Breathing not only impacts our physicality, but our spirituality, too.  Try an exercise with me.  Let us take the name our tradition gives to the Divine.  YHVH.  We do not know how to pronounce this name.  We have the consonants, but no vowels.  YHVH.  There have been countless guesses through the centuries — some you you know – Yahweh, Jehovah.  The exercise is to take just the consonants – YHVH and without trying to insert any vowels.  Just put those sounds together – YHVH.  For many or most of us what we uttered was the sound of breath or breeze.  Ruach … breath, spirit … the name of the Holy, the Sacred.  Rabbi Arthur Waskow calls this breath, this spirit “the interbreathing that connects all life”.  Our creation myth teaches is that it is the breath/ruach of the Divine that created the world.  When we take the time to intentionally breathe in a dark, strange and frightening space, we invoke the divine into that frightening moment/space.  We re-member ourselves as part of that which unites all life, that which is beyond us and within us.

We begin to purposefully inhabit the space between stimulus and response by finding calm and reminding ourselves of our ultimate connections. First, we BREATHE.


Next, we find or ignite the LIGHT.  


One of the darkest places I have ever been was in New Zealand.  In New Zealand there are underground caverns, carved out over the millennia by underground rivers.  We were in a boat with dozens of other people in one of these caverns to see the light.  For you see, parallel to the development of these caverns was the evolution of some of the creatures who dwelled in this dark space.  The worms developed the biological ability to create light in these dark spaces.  The glow worms even dwell in the ceiling of these caverns … giving the impression of not being in a dark, enclosed space … but looking up at bright, glowing stars in an endless, limitless sky.  


It may be fundamental to our wiring to be wary of the dark.  I believe it is also a fundamental drive within us to find or create light in that same darkness.  


When we find ourselves in a dark space, we may be confronted with both inclinations.  Former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt put it simply: “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”  


Viktor Frankl, shared a story of such dark space and finding the light in a grey, dark moment while laboring in a concentration camp   …

“We were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. “Et lux in tenebris lucet” — and the light shineth in the darkness.


As foreboding and frightening as the darkness may be … seeing, kindling or igniting some light in that darkness are the next steps in our surviving and ultimately creating a new reality.  We continue to purposefully inhabit the space between stimulus and response by igniting light in the darkness and uncovering the hope that is found in the light. First, we BREATHE. Next, we LIGHT.


Then, we DANCE.


For those that know me, you may be laughing at me.  Hearing me advocate dancing as an important component of a spiritual response to a dark, strange and frightening space may be more than slightly amusing.    I think, however, I can appreciate what happens when someone can and does let loose on the dance floor or bedroom carpet or kitchen tile.  There may be no more authentic moment when someone allows their body to move as it feels — without fear or awareness of judgment from any other source — fully trusting  oneself to ride the wave to where one’s gut or spirit may be taking them.  The experience of the literal dance, mirrors that of a more figurative dance.  What stronger more potent way can we inhabit a dark, strange and frightening space than to have the courage and resolve to be our true, dynamic selves.  The great sage, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav taught his students exactly this principle:   “By means of dance one can transform the evil forces and nullify decrees.”


Rabbi Lawrence Kushner thought that his synagogue’s Simchat Torah celebration was pretty special … especially the joyous, raucous dancing with the Torah scrolls.    One year at this fabulous Simchat Torah celebration, we met a man who had recently immigrated from the Soviet Union.  He asked the man what he thought of their Simchat Torah celebration. To his surprise, the man said that while it was very beautiful, in Leningrad, Simchat Torah was better. Kushner was curious and a little insulted by his response.


“How is it better?” Kushner asked.


“In Leningrad,” He explained, “If you dance in front of the synagogue on Simchat Torah, you must assume that the secret police will photograph everyone. This means that you will be identified and sooner or later your employer will be notified. And since such a dance is considered anti-Soviet, you must be prepared to lose your job! So you see, to dance on such an occasion, this is a different kind of dance.”


Once we have breathed and are calm and centered, and have lit the light that illuminates the dark space … we must have the courage to dance our dance.  No matter what the outside forces of the world may be dictating to us … we must have the spiritual courage to give ourselves over fully and honestly to our essential nature, our whole being and engage in a sacred dance in the world.


We fully purposefully inhabit the space between stimulus and response by courageously and creatively allow our authentic selves and spirits to flourish and flow.  First, we BREATHE. Next, we LIGHT.  Then, we DANCE.


And here we are, still inhabiting that same space.   What might it look like — to Breathe. Light. Dance.


On one hand it may be quite literally … breathing, lighting and dancing.  We might take a few moments to intentionally breathe when we experience the frustration, anxiety or fear of these times in which we live.  We make take those few moments to breathe before we respond to that post or email or statement.  We might make sure that the lights in our lives are not only the television or screen that delivers us the news or commentary of this historical space, but the lights of creation – sun, moon and stars that feed us, inspire and ground us.  We might confront the sadness with the joy of music,  movement and celebration with people who love us unconditionally – no matter the precision or fluidity of our dance moves.


To breathe, light and dance in this historical moment may also go beyond the literal.  Perhaps we might be more intentional and disciplined about creating times in our busy lives for the rituals and practices – privately or communally that like breathing – calm us and ground us.  Perhaps we endeavor to keep the lights on as much as possible … in our words and demeanor, with what we watch, read or listen to … in shining the light on who and what is most valuable and important to us.   Perhaps we dance our authentic dance and speak truth to power; spend our time and money in ways that mirror our values and ideals; and with joy and hope help uplift those who feel threatened, hurt or alone.  


Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.


The call of the shofar will not awaken us from this or any bad dream.  That does not diminish its power.  May the shofar’s piercing and agitating sound, call us to respond to the dark, strange and frightening spaces in which we find ourselves.    May the call of the shofar inspire us to Breathe … to Light … to Dance.


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