April 13, 2024 -

Lead Me Into The Mystery

This sermon, Lead me Into the Mystery, was shared by Rabbi Joshua Caruso on Rosh Hashanah Morning, September 16, 2023.

Back when I was in seminary, I got an invite to a much-anticipated public reading of a new translation of the Torah by the scholar, Everett Fox. This was a big deal because Fox was considered a legit translator, but perhaps, more importantly, the great James Earl Jones was tapped to read the very first verses of Genesis. This would be the James Earl Jones who voiced Darth Vader, the animated Mustafa from The Lion King, and the familiar sound behind CNN promos. The event occurred in a church, and I bet you can imagine what is what like to hear Jones’ iconic voice read the Creation story with his deep bass as we, the listeners, were surrounded by stunning stained glass windows.

Here are the words Jones read:
At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and earth,
when the earth was wild and waste,
darkness over the face of Ocean,
rushing spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters—
God said: Let there be light! And there was light.
God saw the light: that it was good.
God separated the light from the darkness.
God called the light: Day! and the darkness he called: Night!
There was setting, there was dawning: one day. (Genesis 1:1-5)

For Jewish professionals of every stripe, this was a Geek-Out moment. Here we were listening to the dulcet tones of Jones paired with the timeless cadence of the Creation story. There is something so satisfying about hearing these first verses of Genesis. A world which God found in chaos transformed into a place of order. The contentment of hearing these words, written thousands of years ago, is reflective of our need to find order in our own chaos. Change, disorder and the unexpected are a constant part of our lives. Our days are grounded in facing unforeseen developments – some good…some bad…and some we must untangle to discover what they were meant to reveal for us.

Earlier this summer I found the certificate from my oldest child’s Bris – more than 25 years ago. As first-time parents, Leah and I were feeling especially joyous that day in the courtyard of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, surrounded by friends and family.

We were bringing our boy into the Jewish covenant, participating in the ancient ritual of circumcision; a mysteriously resilient and holy rite that has survived thousands of years. This covenantal moment felt timeless, as if a cord were connected to the generations that preceded us. After all, Abraham performed the ritual on himself, and then did the same for his son. Ouch!

A Brit Milah (or “Bris”) is joined by other commandments, many of which are not discernible to human understanding – they are called Chukim. We can simply look to the Book of Numbers, where we read about a strange ritual involving the slaughter of the Parah Adumah (a red cow), whose ashes served as an ingredient in a mysterious elixir used for purification.

It is said that the meaning of the Parah Adumah was so distant from human understanding that even the wise King Solomon could not discern its meaning. We carry along many ancient stories and rituals; some we still practice (like the Bris) and some we have abandoned (like the purification ritual of the Red Cow).

This is all to say that the practice of Judaism, a faith filled with smart and rational adherents, is not always rational – and that is okay. We moderns so wish to understand the reasoning for each thing we do, but there are many parts of life that defy reason; they are simply impossible to explain.

And…there is comfort and satisfaction in adhering to the rites and rituals that have marked our faith for generations. A Jewish boy getting circumcised felt right; everything was in order, and as it should be…as if James Earl Jones would have said…on the eighth day he was circumcised, and it was good!

But…as we know, life never presents as a binary: order and chaos, darkness and light. Rather, we spend our days trying to maintain order as the sands constantly shift underneath us. While we may aspire to find order, chaos will predictably show up and test our assumptions. Change is actually the constant, and perhaps there is some wisdom to gain from leaning into that…into the mystery of our lives that is yet to unfold.

In Mishkan Tefila, our weekly Shabbat prayer book, one passage in particular calls me to commit my life to the pursuit of understanding what we do not know. It reads as follows:

As you taught Torah
To those whose names I bear,
Teach me Torah, too
Its mystery beckons,
Yet I struggle with its truth.
You meant Torah for me:
Did you mean the struggle for me, too?
Don’t let me struggle alone;
Help me
To understand,
To be wise, to listen, to know…
Lead me into the mystery.

When my oldest child came out as a transgender woman it was at first a mystery to me. I knew I loved her regardless of her gender, but I didn’t understand. I struggled with what it meant to have been present at her Bris when she was only eight days old, to have consciously raised her as a boy, and ultimately to reckon with the reality that I must have missed something, somewhere along the way.

As parents, Leah and I certainly believed that we were rearing our child in a context that was open and accepting, but I could not anticipate that my child would come to a deeper understanding that the sex assigned to her at birth was not how she would ultimately identify.

In the moment that my kid revealed her true self to me, I questioned everything about my parenting. Deep within the fiber of my being, I wanted to understand. I wrestled with my own preconceived notions of gender and identity, and a repositioning of how I understood the makeup of my family. The words, “Lead Me into the Mystery,” took on new meaning for me.

In time, I grew to understand how little I knew…and how little I was open to knowing – even though I thought I was. At this very moment, as I am speaking to you, I am keenly aware that my present assumptions, and expectations of how the days ahead will unfold, may very well turn out to be outdated.

I was raised as many in my generation were…in an era where “boys were boys and men were men”; in locker rooms where derogatory gay epithets were thrown around as much as towels; in a world where one male showing demonstrative affection for another might be interpreted as flirtatious. I unconsciously took note about the way a man was to behave and how he should appear.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s (and long before then) being transgender was deemed a disturbance in the order of things – even by those who identified as gay and lesbian. Popular culture did transgender people no favor, like in the Rocky Horror Picture Show’s song, “Sweet Transvestite,” sung by Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the “satanic mechanic.”

Back in the day, this song was entertaining and provocative– and many of us howled at Tim Curry’s entrancing performance in the 1975 movie, but there was a clear message that when an individual did not clearly appear as a gender of the binary, they were deemed dangerous and unsavory.

Demonized and demeaned, those who identified as Trans – or non- gender conforming – were regarded as living a life beyond the boundaries of acceptable behavior…likely because so many were threatened by what they didn’t understand. We never heeded what that prayer suggests, “…help me to understand, to be wise, to listen, to know…Lead me into the mystery.”

We can lean into the mystery by looking deeper into our textual tradition. The entire Book of Esther, the scriptural book we read at the festival of Purim, is missing one important element: God; the Holy One’s name is entirely absent. Nevertheless, most biblical commentators declare that God IS found in that book…hidden, in the spaces between the letters. In fact, Queen Esther’s name in Hebrew connotes hiddenness. In that incredible tale of resilience and power, where reality was turned on its head, God’s “rushing spirit” guided Esther.

In the Book of Genesis, Jacob wakes up from an incredible dream, only to declare, “God was in this place, and I…I did not know it”. Mystery is everywhere…if we let it in. Like when a fire renders our prayer space unusable, but opens up to us a different holy space, like Severance Hall, and we become like Jacob, uttering, “God was in this place, and I…I did not know it.”

Disorder, change, mystery…it all figures in to our days, but might it be possible to prepare ourselves for those moments…or to at least discern how we might respond to them?

Philosopher, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, captures this idea in his books, most notably, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder. In it, Taleb argues that people, systems, organizations, things and ideas can be captured in one of three ways: Fragile, Resilient, and Antifragile. Fragile systems, Taleb argues, seek out tranquility, and as a result find themselves ill-prepared for big moments of change. Resilient systems depend on remaining in the status quo, like a person just trying to keep their head above water. According to Taleb, Antifragile systems grow and strengthen from volatility, stress, and change. In his view, the turbulence we face in life strengthens us.

Friends, I’d like to be very clear here: Taleb is not a pastor, chaplain, social worker or therapist. If he were, he’d most probably refrain from judging people harshly for being “fragile.” In fact, fragility and vulnerability are human qualities that we hold up here at temple. To show fragility in the wake of a tragic loss, medical challenge, or when experiencing any kind of emotional distress is something that leads to healing. So let us set aside Taleb’s language, but recover the deeper meaning: there can be extraordinary growth following moments of volatility, stress and change.

How many of you have seen the movie, The Black Panther? The lead character, T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman, wears a suit made of Vibranium, a fictional metal, that not only repels bullets, but charges up his suit with the absorbed kinetic energy, making T’Challa stronger. He transforms the pain and challenge he faces into a superpower. The story of the Black Panther, and Wakanda, is an inspiring message for the Black community, another marginalized people viewed as a threat to the perceived order of things. The rise of the Black Panther serves as a point of inspiration for all of us.

Challenge. Disorder. Change. Over the past Jewish year we have all faced some form of disruption in our lives, the good, the bad, and the mysterious spasms of life moments that come without warning. Your clergy, including Rabbi Nosanchuk, Rabbi Muhlbaum, Cantor Lapin, and Cantor Laureate Sager have walked with you through seasons of joy and moments of challenge. We rescued preschoolers and Torahs when a fire struck our beautiful synagogue-home. And now, we walk with you once again…exploring the mystery of a burgeoning relationship with a sister congregation. Through it all we continue to find strength in one another…even as we grieve…our strength as a people is often born in the mysterious moments thrown at us.

I close with a story. My transgender daughter recently performed at a fundraiser for Playmakers Youth Theatre, the group where she discovered her talents in the world of musical theater. It was an emotional night for my wife and me, seeing her out and proud, a transcendent light performing a scene in a role written for a female-identified person to play. Following the program, a female-presenting girl of early elementary school age approached my daughter and told her how much it meant to see her in the show. The girl told my daughter, “You see, I’m transgender, too”.

God said: Let there be light! And there was light.
God saw the light: that it was good.

When I hold the bris certificate in my hands, I smile thinking about how much I didn’t know about my kid on that joyous day. I smile thinking about how much that little baby had to teach me. Today, I delight in the mystery that revealed itself to me.

As we move into 5784 may we all find the strength to face whatever moments come our way…and may we strengthen one another. Amen.

Rabbi Joshua Caruso