There’s a wonderful story of a donkey that fell into a well. The donkey’s owner, finding his animal in such a situation, thought for a bit, and decided that the donkey was too old to bother saving - and besides – he need to fill in the well in any case.
He asked his friends to help him. They gathered around the well with their shovels and began tossing clump after clump of soil onto the poor donkey’s back.
As it realized what was happening, the donkey began braying horribly – each load of earth caused its cries to become even louder.
And then a funny thing happened. The donkey simply began to shake off each load of earth and would step around to get its footing on the increasingly high bottom of the well. With each load, the donkey was closer and closer to the surface and at last, he leapt right out of the well, gave one more shake - tossing a bit of earth on each of the farmers, and trotted off. Free.
There are several ways to think about this story. The one that speaks to me right now is the possibility of walking away clean from the loads of debris that could burden and even smother us. The 4-legged hero o our story managed to dodge all the burden being thrown his way and step free of it – to walk away clean and unburdened from a mountain of mess.
We all have new starts in our lives – the end of one job and the beginning of another; the start of a new relationship; a new school, a new congregation, a new home…
Such moments in our lives bring an amazing mix of feelings – a powerful combination of fear and excitement. For me, it has almost felt like an electric charge – both energizing and also very shaky. And such times have also been filled with another strong feeling: an amazing sense of freedom.
Starting new and fresh, there is no history to weigh us down. In the new job – the boss has never been disappointed with us, we’ve never missed a deadline, never forgot a meeting, and never yelled at a coworker for their annoying habits. The coworkers still seem nice, the boss is wise, the work is an interesting challenge.
Maybe it won’t change? Oh, but it does.
In the new relationship, there’s always the first fight – the first disillusionment – the first time you find dirty socks on the floor - the first time you realize your partner is not up to your standards or expectations in some way.
When Obama took office, he was perfect – for about 30 seconds. And then he was human and the dirt eventually starts to build up.
If you’ve ever played video games, one of the wonderful things is that you can always start over. Reset. Even delete your character altogether and be born brand new!
Of course, our lives don’t realistically offer the opportunity to live completely clean very much of the time. We have to make our way through the muck – that which we’ve created ourselves and the rest that has been thrown upon us. Life is very much about making the best of what we’re given.
And yet, this doesn’t mean that we have to just stand there as the mess around us piles up and begins to overtake and suffocate us. We can have the opportunity – I would say that we have the duty – to do what we can to get that stuff out of our way.
The week ahead is an interesting one. Thursday brings the celebration of the Jewish New Year: Rosh Hashanah. The month of Ramadan ends Friday with the celebration called Eid ul-Fitr. And Saturday – Saturday is the 9th anniversary of the attacks in Manhattan that we now know just as 9/11.
9/11 is an anniversary that has come to symbolize a conflict between cultures, and most especially the two kindred faiths whose holidays are celebrated this week – two faiths whose languages are so closely related, and whose stories are so intertwined.
There is so much burden – so many shovels of soil around us now. We can not see our way out of this particularly dark, deep, hole.
Rosh Hashanah is the time when, in Judaism, God is said to judge the people according to their acts. Those who – like most of us – are neither irredeemably wicked nor saintly in some sort of superhuman way, are given a chance over the following ten days to redeem ourselves.
We are given a chance – at least in God’s eyes – to begin a new year clean.
And Eid ul Fitr: Eid is an Arabic word meaning "festivity", while Fiṭr means "to purify". Festivity of purification. Remarkably, again, we come upon the notion of purification and cleansing. Eid ul Fitr symbolizes purification following 30 days of Ramadan fasting.
I don’t know about you, but there plenty of ways in which I’d like a fresh start.
First, there are people who are angry with me or who feel hurt by me. I feel those broken connections weighing upon me like so much earth holding me down.
And then, there are the things that I am carrying around myself – angers, hurts, and frustrations of my own. Some are directed toward others and many are directed to myself. I don’t want to go forward with all of this ‘stuff’ around me. I want to step to the top of the pile – shake it off - and walk away clean.
This is what I want to invite you to do with me right now. In the Jewish tradition, one of the customs for Rosh Hashanah is called tashlikh – Jews throw pebbles or bread into water as a symbolic casting off of sins.
We have water and we have stones. In a moment, I will invite you to come into the centre of this circle, one by one. Take a stone, hold it for a moment, and place it in the water imagining that you are cleansed as you put aside your burdens.
The next ten days are known in Judaism as the days of Awe. It is in this time, the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, that Jews are meant to make amends for their wrong-doings of the previous year. As you put down you burden, you may well recognize that you need to make amends with others to fully put aside your burdens. May we all know that this can be a time of amends and forgiveness. May we make it a time to repair what has been strained or broken and bring as much openness of heart to that process.
There is one more thing that I would like to ask each of you to do. As each person returns to their seat from placing a stone in the water, let us support and embrace them by saying “We forgive you and care for you. Begin again in love.”
Let us as individuals forgive ourselves. Let us allow ourselves to walk forward clean into a new day.
Let us as a community, recognize any hardness we have allowed to grow between us and strive to make it right – whether we feel aggrieved or guilty or both.
Let us take one more step into that new day.