Rabbi Cohen Rosh Hashannah 5775 Sermon – “The Languages We Know Ourselves By”

Rosh Hashana 5775
September 25, 2014
Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen

The Languages We Know Ourselves By

Rabbi Heidi Cohen

When I start working with our B’nei Mitzvah students on their divrei Torah, also known as their speeches, we begin with Torah. It’s a good place to start. One of the first lessons I teach is that we have is to read the Torah with a critical eye. There are no vowels, no periods, no commas. The only known ends of a sentence or even a book are the visible paragraph breaks and the definite five empty lines that signify the end of a book of Torah. With no punctuation and no vowels, we could be reading it all wrong and not even know it. The first lesson in Torah interpretation starts with three words that I write one on top of the other. They are, No—Swimming—Allowed. When I ask the student to explain what this means they almost always say, “you’re not allowed to swim.” And yes, that is in fact a good understanding of these three words. However, one can read these words another way and discover a completely different meaning. “No! Swimming allowed!” in other words, of course you’re allowed to swim here! Words on a sign, on the page and yes, even in conversation can have so many different meanings and let’s face it, language is tricky!

How we communicate is one of the most complicated tasks. Especially at the rate that we send emails and text messages, it is so important to recognize that what we say and how we say it can be interpreted or misinterpreted in so many ways. Each of us communicate and hear things differently. Even our liturgy for the High Holy Days is so complex and multifaceted. These Days of Awe are some of the most liturgically intense times of year. And for someone who this is their only moment in a prayer service all year, the language can be daunting and misunderstood even in the best of circumstances. Our liturgists take this opportunity to weave a tapestry of emotion and context into Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in order to not only touch on every emotion within the individual, but to also hope to touch each individual so that they may enter into a conversation with themselves and also with God. But not everyone hears the same thing and in the same way, even if the words are exactly the same on each page.

Consider for a moment the most recognized prayer, the Unetanetokef. We know the words, Who shall live and who shall die? Who by fire and who by water? But each individual has a different reaction to this prayer. One might be in awe and tremble at the idea that God is considering every individual and taking note of his and her actions over the past year. Then with a great pen, writes in the Book of Life, who shall live and who shall die. The words are direct and intense and may even be chilling as they are recited. The music is equally intense and reverent, creating an almost visual scene before us. It brings the words to life as the passion of the moment comes to a great crescendo and one is humbled before God and some are left weeping as we stand in judgment.

Yet, these words, the music, the emotions may not touch every single person. By the way, no judgment here. As we all know, not every prayer, not every piece of music, not every word spoken is going to touch every person. That’s an impossibility. However, there are so many various opportunities for us to connect in a way that we can truly “hear” and “understand” the meaning of the High Holy Days according to our own personal needs and desires. While the words might be written in English, the words in the machzor are also written and read in our own personal language.

This summer I read the book, the Five Languages of Love. Dr. Gary Chapman shares the idea that there are five ways to express love emotionally and that it’s important to learn what our own language is and what the languages of those who we are most close to and others in our lives if we want to effectively hear what they need, and be heard so we can have our own needs met. While Dr. Chapman may not be Jewish, his concept regarding developing successful communication strategies is right in line with trying to understand how to deal with a room of 3 Jews and 10 opinions. We all hear things differently and understand what is being said based on our own experiences and needs in that moment. And this right there can cause so much tension, misunderstanding and frustration between individuals and even our own internal wrestling with the evolution of our relationship with God.

Dr. Chapman presents the five languages as: Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service, Receiving Gifts, Quality Time and Physical Touch.

How do we feel when someone says thank you, even when we do a most mundane task? The dishes have to be cleared from the table at some point, and just saying thank you to your spouse, child, or friend for this simple act can make someone feel good. We all want to be appreciated and it makes us feel wonderful when someone says thank you or acknowledges something we do, whether it is after a huge project or a regular chore. When we feel appreciated, we want to do more and continue to feel valued.

How many times have we as parents said, or heard our parents say, “why can’t you just do something without my having to ask you?” This ranks up there with some of the top 10 things we always swore we would never say when we became parents. But then, in the wisdom of time we discover how good it feels when someone does do something for us without even asking. Acts of Service, those acts of doing something for someone without even having to be asked, can cause someone to feel loved and cared for. Think about how great it feels to come home and the dishes are done and the clothes are folded and put away, and you never had to even ask.

Gift giving is perceived as an act of love. When we go to someone’s home, especially for the first time, we don’t like to go empty handed. Birthdays, anniversaries, holidays are great times for gift giving, but there are those unexpected moments that can truly fill a persons heart. Flowers that end up on my desk from Matt and the kids ‘just because’ brings a huge smile and fills what Dr. Chapman calls, my love tank. Think about when someone gave you something ‘just because’ and how it filled your heart.

Time is one of the most precious gifts any of us can give. In our world we are running in a thousand directions with commitments for ourselves, our family, our co-workers, our community and it makes us wish we could just find a few more hours in a day or even an extra day to get everything done. I have a feeling even if we were given that extra time we still would want more. But when we set time aside for a friend, a family member and loved one, it can be the greatest gift we can give them. Putting down the phone, the computer, the remote control, and focus on the person before us could be all another needs to feel connected.

Finally, there is the language of Physical Touch. I’m a hugger, we’re a congregation of many huggers. The power of touch is intense and healing. We can make someone feel connected by putting a hand on the shoulder of someone in distress or a giving a high five in celebration. From the moment we’re born, human contact is a necessity on some level. I don’t know who it benefitted more, but when I did my hospital pastoral training, I loved to go to the Nic-U in the middle of the night when it was quiet, and hold new born babies. The nurses told us that personal touch with these most tiny beings would help them thrive. This is still true today as we get older. A personal touch can help someone to thrive and heal.

One of these five languages of love – Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service, Receiving Gifts, Quality Time and Physical Touch – is meaningful to each of us. One more so than others, not to say that we are not affected by all of these languages, but there is one of these five that will rise above all the others and when it is spoken to us, we respond and feel fulfilled and connected. But we have to take the time to understand what we need and what those closest to us need so that we can be more effective communicators, friends and family members.

And as we are working on building how we communicate with our family and friends we, as Liberal Jews can also rebuild or rediscover our relationship with God. Now, for those who question their belief in God, please don’t tune out. Remember, there are many aspects to God and what or who God is and even in great questioning moments we can still investigate what is our relationship with either a Divine Being or our relationship with the world in order that we can be partners to help repair both the world itself and those who dwell in it.

These Days of Awe are meant for us to set ourselves on a straight path, teshuvah, returning to the work of being better people in the future. It is a time to reflect on the relationships we have with others. Without any pressure, we have ten days to set ourselves straight! Last weekend, we began with selichot during which starts the process of asking for forgiveness and wanting to share appreciation for the gifts of our lives. Rosh Hashanah takes us back to the beginning, allows us the opportunity for a “do-over.” On Yom Kippur, we acknowledge that we are not perfect. We know that there are changes we can make in our lives including how to “do” without having to be asked and learn to share the gifts of ourselves. To know that the most important gifts are those of our hearts and minds. We feed our souls on Yom Kippur instead of our bodies and then realize that even as we might say, ‘the gates begin to close,’ we know that the gates are never fully closed. We want to spend more quality time discovering how we can take better care of ourselves so we can care for others and our world.

The numbers of ways in which we communicate and listen is as numerous as there are people. First, we have to discover for ourselves what is our own personal language. And then, we have to share that language with others in hopes of creating fewer misunderstandings, fewer opportunities of confusion and pain that can be associated by the mistranslation of what is being said or how it is being said. Think about how it feels when someone misunderstands us or misinterprets our email or text? If each of us strives to learn our language and the language of those around us, consider what a better world it would be. It’s hard enough to create peace through interpreters and understanding across language barriers, but that is a sermon for another day.

There is a beautiful prayer that closes our Amidahy’hi yu l’ratzon im rei fee, v’heg’yon libi l’fa’ah’ne’chah. ADONAI tzuri v’go a’li, ADONAI tzuri v’go a’li. Oh may the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable unto You, ADONAI my rock and my redeemer.

May the words of all of our mouths find meaning and understanding with those whom we love and may the meditations of our hearts become the foundational rock of our spiritual self as we seek to find our place in this great world and how it is we make a difference in this world for generations to come.

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