The Push and the Pull: A Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775


Like most Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah goes by many names. We refer to the Jewish New Year as Yom HaDin, “The Day of Judgment;” we call it Yom Teruah “The Day of the Sounding of the Shofar;” or Yom Hazikaron “The Day of Remembrance.” I’d like to suggest another possible name to this list: Yom Yetziat Beiteinu – “The Day of our Leaving Home.”

Just think about it. In its way, Rosh Hashanah is a kind of spiritual farewell. On Rosh Hashanah, we take our leave. We say goodbye to the familiarity of a year that’s past, a year still resonant with memories, and prepare ourselves to head out into the unknown – a year yet to unfold. Indeed, the predominant emotions of this season are consonant with spiritual leave taking. It is a season of hope, of anticipation, of trepidation, of remembrance, of introspection.

You probably know where I’m going with this. This Rosh Hashanah, our JRC family is experiencing these emotions in a very real and immediate way. Tonight I am acutely aware that this is my final Rosh Hashanah with JRC – and that Hallie and I will soon be leaving the community that has been our spiritual home for the past 17 years. I’m also mindful that a new chapter will soon be beginning for JRC.

I’ll have more to say about the latter tomorrow – for tonight, I’d like to try and express a little bit about what this moment means for me – to share some of the spiritual lessons I’ve learned through this process of leave-taking. I offer these remarks with the hope that they might be of some help to us during this transitional season – one that is doubly transitional for our JRC family.

It actually occurs to me that Jewish tradition has a great deal to say about the spiritual practice of “leaving home.” If you stop to think of it, just about every classic story in the Torah involves individuals leaving home. And as a result, they are transformed in important and fundamental ways.

The first example, of course, occurs when Adam and Eve depart from the Garden of Eden. As I read this story, I’m struck that Adam and Eve experience their exit from Eden as the result of both a push and a pull. Yes, they are sent out of the Garden by God as a consequence of their actions, but the story makes it clear that they were compelled to eat from the Tree of Knowledge because they saw the fruit as beautiful and desirable, and they knew that once they ate of it, their eyes would be opened to the world.

So although it is traditional to view their departure in terms of punishment, I prefer to view their exit from the Garden as a moment of transformation. Their leave-taking is borne, yes, out of turmoil and struggle, but these are inevitable and perhaps necessary aspects of their transformation.

In a sense, we might read the Adam and Eve story as a spiritual allegory about leaving childhood behind. In Eden, they lived in the comfort of a naive and childlike existence, a Garden in which they wanted for nothing. Yes, when they ate of the fruit, they experienced pain in leaving the only home they had ever known – but at the same time they also became more fully human. They left Eden, a place where each day was essentially like the one before, for a more dynamic world: a place of potential; where transformation, growth and change are always around the corner.

Another paradigmatic “leaving-home story” occurs when God comes to Abraham and Sarah and tells them to leave their native land and head out to a place that God will show them. And in this instance as well, they experience both a push as well as a pull. According to a collection of well-known midrashim, when Abraham leaves his native home of Ur Kasdin, he is fleeing from an angry father and a murderous king who, shall we say, don’t exactly appreciate his way of viewing the world.

At the same time, we read in the Torah how Abraham and Sarah receive an invitation from God, how they were compelled to leave the comforts of their home for a land they do not yet know. And in truth, their final destination isn’t really all that important. It’s the act of leave-taking itself, the painful moment they leave behind the known for nothing more than a promise – this is the moment that defines their spiritual transformation.

The most dramatic and epic leave-taking moment in the Torah of course, occurs when the Israelites leave Egypt. Yet again, they experience both a push and a pull, both the oppression of their enslavement as well as the promise of their liberation. Just like Adam and Eve and Abraham and Sarah before them, the Israelites leave-taking involves great struggle and turmoil. It is, as we know, story with many casualties. Indeed, we recall them in great detail around the seder table every year: the terror of the 12 Plagues, the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the waters of the Red Sea. Once again, we learn, leaving home is not an easy or painless experience.

And yet again, the Israelites leave behind the known for the unknown. They escape into the wilderness, where most of the action of the Torah takes place. Yes, the wilderness is wild and uncharted, but, notably, it is also the place where God is encountered. Interestingly, the word for “wilderness,” “midbar” and the Hebrew verb “to speak,” “l’daber” share a common root. The Torah may be suggesting here an important connection between the wilderness and speech – more precisely divine speech.

In other words, when we leave the comfort and familiarity of home and head into the elemental terrain of the wilderness, the voice of God is that much more accessible to us.  In this regard, I think the wilderness represents an existential place far from the surface noise of artifice and self. The journey into the wilderness is not only geographic, but experiential: it leads both to the outermost reaches of terrain and the innermost reaches of the human soul. This is the place, in short, where the Divine Presence dwells.

In a very real way, I believe our tradition is teaching us that we must continually leave home if we are to truly live. While we may well yearn for the comforts of home and hearth, home can too often become a place where comfort turns to complacency – a place we use to escape reality rather than truly experience it.

So in a sense, our lives are filled with moments of “home-leavings.” Sooner or later, we all reach a point in which we find we really have no choice. Yes, it’s usually not a particularly pleasurable experience; it generally involves some measure of push and pull, of struggle and turmoil. But when we find the strength and the courage to take a step beyond our front door, when we embrace the unknown terrain outside, when we truly encounter the world – these are the moments in which we come face to face with our most authentic selves.

Whether we prefer to call this “spiritual experience,” “inner growth,” or “personal transformation,” we leave home whenever we listen to a voice from deep within that tells us to depart from our comfort zones, to leave the familiar and the known behind, to head out with no guarantees. To struggle into our future with nothing but a promise beckoning to us from far away. And often, it seems to me, we’re so busy with the struggle we don’t even recognize that we’ve been involved in the process of leaving home for quite some time.

I’m sure you have all had these moments. I’d like to share one of my own with you now.

As many of you know, several years ago my relationship to Israel changed in a very profound and public way. As look back, I realize now that it was not a one-time event, but rather the culmination of a process that I had been experiencing consciously and unconsciously for many years. But when it finally occurred, it was a moment of leave-taking for me. To put it more specifically, I was taking a step out of a comfortable home that had been my Jewish identity for so many years of my life. And while this step came with no small measure of personal struggle and anguish, I knew – and I still know – that it was a step that I had to take.

The politics of all this are really not all that important to my point right now. Whether or not you happen agree with my politics, I think we can all recall those times we experienced a significant ideological transition, usually involving some element of turmoil and struggle, a push and a pull, a process by which we eventually took a step out of the comforts of conventional assumptions into the wilderness of the unknown.

At the time, it did indeed feel like I was entering a wilderness. And as liberating as it was to be able to speak my truth out loud, I was also terrified. I wasn’t sure I remain a rabbi and say these things. In some very deep place I wondered if I could even be a Jew and say such things. However, I soon found that the waters parted, if you will. I discovered that I could indeed find my way through this radically new terrain – due in no small part to this remarkable congregation.

I have no doubt whatsoever that if I had done and said these things in any other synagogue, I would have been given my walking papers immediately. JRC, however, is not any other synagogue. Our congregation has a long history of heading courageously into areas not typically embraced by the Jewish communal mainstream and together, finding its way through. And in this case, that meant that our leadership continually supported their rabbi’s right to follow his conscience on this most volatile of issues, even when it elicited strong criticism from inside and outside our congregation.

I will be forever grateful that JRC has been willing to accompany me through this difficult and often treacherous wilderness for the past several years. I’ve never underestimated the stress it put on us all, but as we’ve made our way, I’ve consistently heartened by the knowledge that I could continue to do this work as a congregational rabbi – and in particular, as JRC’s rabbi.

Indeed, for the duration of my entire rabbinical career, I’ve fervently believed that the mission of a congregational rabbi is “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” In other words, I’ve always viewed both the “pastoral” and the “prophetic” as two essential poles of a rabbi’s job description. That’s not to say that these two poles do not cause tension at times, but I’ve always believed that a good rabbi was one who could combine them to create a creative tension and not a destructive one.

When I started down this new road, I think it was clear to most at JRC that I was not the rabbi they had hired ten years earlier. But it was profoundly heartening for me to know that JRC was able to adjust to the reality of their “new rabbi.” I was immensely proud that the response of our congregation was not to panic or to order me to cease and desist or else – but rather to create a method for true congregational conversation; our “Sicha Process” – a framework of civil discourse that would allow our congregation to create a safe space where all points of view could be heard and respected.

I regret deeply that in more recent years, our Sicha Process broke down. There is more to say about what happened, particularly the painful upheaval that has occurred at our congregation over the past year over my ongoing activism. Our board has already provided some opportunities for members to share their thoughts with one another over what has occurred and I know there will be more such opportunities in the future.

For now, I will only say this: I know my activism caused great pain to some of our members. The resulting turmoil was immensely painful and at times, ugly. The resulting upheaval has caused me great anguish as well. And as I’ve written to our members, my decision to leave JRC was in large part a decision I made for my own personal well-being.

However, if I’m going to be fully honest, I must also be ready to admit that my decision to leave JRC is being motivated by both a push and a pull. I must also be ready to admit that for some years now I’ve been going down a path that has slowly been pulling me toward a rabbinate more directly defined by social justice activism.

Now that I’ve made this decision, I can more clearly see how powerful this pull has been for me – and how the tensions it has caused at JRC were inevitable in so many ways. I’ve also come to understand how our recent congregational turmoil, painful though it has been, may well represent the birth pangs of a necessary new chapter for me and for our congregational family.

It is enormously challenging and even frightening for me to acknowledge that my activism might somehow pull me away from the congregation that I have cherished for so many years. But I’m ready to admit now that my journey has been leading me in a new direction. I’m ready to leave home. With hope, and admittedly with no small measure of trepidation, I am looking to this moment as an opportunity for new beginnings and possibilities I might never have imagined for myself. I genuinely wish the same for our JRC family – and know in my heart that this will invariably be the case.

As I said earlier, I will have more to say tomorrow about my hopes and dreams for our congregation as it begins this new chapter, but for now, I’d like to take my cue from the sacred season we’ve just begun. For tonight, I want to address you as individuals and present you with this challenge: How will you leave the familiarity of your home in the coming year? What pushes and pulls are you experiencing in this particular moment in your life? In what ways will you challenge your sense of comfort and complacency and find the strength to venture into unknown territory? To a place that holds out a promise, but no guarantees?

For some of you, this coming year might be a time of a significant life transition. How might you mark this experience so that it offers you real potential for transformation and growth? For others, this year might be not all that different from the last. How will you challenge that comfortable sameness? What might you do to, in a sense, build the doorway that leads you outward?

Now I am well aware – perhaps now more than ever – that going forth is no easy matter. I’d never dare say to someone who has to leave all she’s ever known, “Don’t worry, you’re actually gaining an opportunity for a deeper spiritual life.” I’m also aware that it’s all well and good for me to rhapsodize about the spiritual importance of leaving home when the homelessness is such a very real issue for us around the world and in our own country. Believe me, I know it’s all too easy for those of us who actually have actual homes to wax romantic about the experience of leaving home.

It’s not a simple matter at all to leave that which we know for that which we don’t.  Living as we do in a middle class culture that venerates comfort and security, it might seem like a radical suggestion that we should leave it all behind.  But what is our alternative?  Think about it. At the end of the day, we all have to leave home. Sooner or later, we all will have to leave what it is that we’ve come to know, cross over that threshold and greet the unknown.

After all, the most two basic aspects of life itself – namely, birth and death – are both essentially forms of leave taking.  In both cases – when we’re born and when we die – we leave the familiar comfort of the present for the uncomfortable unknown of the future.  In both cases, we resist leaving the comfort of our current “home” with everything in our being. But in both cases, staying home is simply not an option.

Our liturgy and rituals over the next ten days will offer us an incredibly precious spiritual gift: the opportunity to wrestle with the deepest, most element truths of our lives and our world. In the coming year we will face a myriad of transitions, large and small. For me and for JRC, this will be a year of significant transition and change, some of it known, most of it unknown. How can we enter a new year with such radical uncertainty?

For now, at least, we will come together. We will offer up prayers that express our most honest confessions and deepest longings. We will pray for a year of blessing. We will look to the future with optimism and hope. Ready and willing to embrace whatever blessings may come.

Baruch atah b’voecha, Baruch atah b’tzeitecha – in our coming home, in our leaving home, may we always travel in God’s presence, and in that presence may we find abundant health, wholeness, peace and Shalom.


18 thoughts on “The Push and the Pull: A Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775

  1. rabbibrian

    What a beautiful, moving and honest sermon!

    May we all be able to go in and out in our lives with as much grace and honesty.

    Rav Todot

  2. Nina Raskin

    Dear Brant, Thank you for your words of personal struggle and spiritual guidance and understanding. They will resonate throughout the coming year.

    B’Shalom, Nina

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. uhclem48

    Deeply moving and touching: your leaving will be a great loss to your congregation. Those of us who follow you from the other side of the screen are blessed that we can travel with you, through our various wildernesses.

  4. Pauline Coffman

    I couldn’t stop reading this, Rabbi! Thank you for this deeply moving essay on leaving home. You have offered lessons to so many of us…now I’m thinking of the Syrian and Iraqi refugees, as well as so many others both here and abroad. As a pastor’s wife, our family has moved several times. I have always taken comfort in the assurance that God remains with us in this journey, wherever we go. Blessings.

  5. jewishconscience

    Thank you Brant, I felt I was sitting in the congregation with you — in fact I have been in the close to 8 years I’ve known you. It’s tempting to say that the entire congregation — I’m talking about klal Yisrael — is looking at a leavetaking. In fact — and you know that this is true — we are being driven out — must in fact take leave — of our national homeland project. Unlike the Eden story, we are not about to be physically driven out (despite the shrieks of those who want to keep the bombs flowing to Israel). It is a more profound change, a taking leave of the myth and the fantasy that our yearning for security has spawned, and which now, todah la’el, we are learning we must take leave of and find a new vision for the Jewish future and for the survival of what is essential and good about our tradition and our identities as Jews. So I say, baruch ata b’tzetecha, baruch ata b’voecha — you are blessed and you bless us with your courageous coming in to what is waiting for you and for what you create. And I know that JRC has been and always will be blessed by the years you served and were part of that community. Your congregants will still occupy the pews on Shabbat and chagim, still pay their membership dues — but I hope they don’t make the mistake of thinking that things will return to “normal” synagogue life after your departure. Jewish life is changing — Gaza, the checkpoints, Bibi, the prisons, the wall, all of it — are the flaming sword that blocks re-entry to the mythical Eden of the “desert we made bloom,” they are God’s command to “get out of here, get out of your “Aretz” to the place I will show you. My Rosh Hashanah prayer: open our eyes to that place.

    In friendship and solidarity,

    Mark Braverman

  6. Barbara L. Silverman


    Your sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah was especially meaningful to me on a congregational level as well as a personal level. I’ve been looking forward to reading it once more. Many thanks for sharing these thoughts.

    Barb Silverman

  7. 2skipper

    Although I was unable t attend I will be there for YomKippur. brian my son Nate and grandaughter Yeva were there to hear your last Rosh Hashannah. as usual my family finds incredible depth and spirituality in your sermons. As a membe who has been their for over 19 years I have watched your evolution to being a more meaningful Rabbi to many of us including my own family. As you were evolving so were the carsons into a much more human rights stance on the issue of palestine and Israel. how could one as a jew who believes in the human rights of others not follow at least part of the path you have walked through. If you had left as a natural order much as achild leaves home I would not feel the lack again of my connection to where I belong as a jew. i support your work your words as they represent the words and action of my family. I do not know hwat or if my relationship to JRC will continue. that is something we as a family will have to decide after you are gone. Your sermons were always a reason to come and be part of this Jewish community that i ahd thought embraced the values of myself and my own family. I look forward to one more last time to hear you agin take the pulpit unafraid and deeply committed as a Jew and a Rabbi. so once again we willcome and be part of the JRC community. I hope to have some time to actually sit down and talk since for myself and my husband are at a crisis point on where we will find the connnection between our love of the Jewish being and our goals as supporters of Human Rights.

  8. Margaret Holub

    Brant, I am incredibly moved by your words, and the context in which you spoke them. I wept when I read them the first time this morning (while waiting to meet a rabbi friend much to my right, with whom I then had a frank and heartfelt conversation…) How can we move into the New Year with anything BUT radical uncertainty? Among so many other things about your sermon and your leave-taking, I am reminded not to act more certain than I am — with love and admiration always.

  9. Laurie Goldstein

    In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
    Where your thoughts never think to wander,
    This beginning has been quietly forming,
    Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

    For a long time it has watched your desire,
    Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
    Noticing how you willed yourself on,
    Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

    It watched you play with the seduction of safety
    And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
    Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
    Wondered would you always live like this.

    Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
    And out you stepped onto new ground,
    Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
    A path of plenitude opening before you.

    Though your destination is not yet clear
    You can trust the promise of this opening;
    Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
    That is at one with your life’s desire.

    Awaken your spirit to adventure;
    Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
    Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
    For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

    – John O’Donohue

  10. shlomo nessim

    Dear Brant,

    It’s been some time since I have received an email from you, and although I have to admit that I skipped reading many of them (due purely to lack of time, and not anything personal or political differences), I did notice the long period of silence on your part… I’m glad I chose to read this one, especially since it’s marking an important milestone for you and your family on many levels. I want to wish you, Hallie, Gabriel and Jonah a Shanah Tovah, a Hatimah Tovah, and a wonderful and successful journey into your new “wilderness”.

    Although I understand your politics and share many of your political feelings re the Middle East, there is clearly a political gap between us. When reading your posts I had often been stirred by (what feels to me like) one-sidedness and obliteration of nuances of the facts/realities/shades-of-gray on your part, and a painting of reality in black-and-white (Israel being all black and Palestinians being all white), which painfully caused me to view your statements as having diminished credibility. Perhaps the most symbolic (and possibly deliberate on your part) of our differences, as exhibited in this sermon, is the fact that wrt Israel leaving Egypt, the only casualties/sacrifice mentioned by you, were those of the Egyptians. No mention at all of the turmoil, sufferings and the hundreds of thousands of Israelite casualties in many incidents (Korach and his party, the plague after Israelites strayed toward the Moabite women and gods, the killing of many Israelites by Amalek, etc.). This is (in my view) consistent of your writings about Israel-Palestine issues, which again, feels like a one-sided view of “reality”.

    Regardless of the above differences between us, the main reason I am writing you today (beside wishing you a good year and a good “exodus”) is to express a deep and genuine respect toward you. Not only do I feel that you have an honorable place at the “table” of Rabbinate and the Jewish heritage and people, but I also see your journey and your path (thus far and going forward) as a courageous one, and I applaud and respect you for it.

    With warm regards to you and your family, and Shanah Tovah, Shlomo


  11. Heidi Wilson

    Dear Rabbi Brant,

    You have been an inspiration to me since I first heard you speak at Harvard. I wish you every good thing on the course your life will now take. There is no doubt that you will continue to be a light unto the nations. Wherever your path leads, I hope you will be able to continue your blog.

    Heidi Wilson

  12. theglauber

    Thank you for this beautiful and true sermon. I hope you will allow us to continue to follow your journey, through your blogs. Maybe our paths will cross someday. Shalom

  13. velveteenrabbi

    This is a tremendous sermon. Kol hakavod. Thank you for writing it. You’ve walked the line perfectly between speaking the words you most needed to say, and speaking the words I (and surely others) most needed to hear.

    G’mar chatimah tovah.

  14. debbie

    your themes here, most intensely personal, yet so globally, spiritually universal, struck close again and then again as i read. as someone who has worked professionally in both the worlds of birthing and dying, I have always seen the 2 experiences as inextricably parallel…….adding the thought of leave taking…….push and pull………….renders it even more transcendent.
    i am so honoured to be your friend.
    leck lecha haver

  15. Peg Lee

    As i read your moving words, I was reminded of lines from Rilke’s Eighth Elegy which seem to me to echo what you have spoken from your heart:

    Who’s turned us round like this, so that we always,
    do what we may, retain the attitude
    of someone who’s departing? Just as he,
    on the last hill, that shows him all his valley
    for the last time, will turn and stop and linger
    We live our lives, for ever taking leave.

    Godspeed and shalom


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