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A World of Imagination

Rabbi Denise L. Eger

Given Rosh HaShanah Morning 5779 * Monday, September 10, 2018


Shana Tova Happy New Year to you all. Welcome home to the annual meeting of the Jewish people.  There are no proxies accepted! Showing up matters here. The High Holy days is the time we Jews around the world gather together to connect to our past and our history, to feel the connection to one another in our present time and to imagine the future together.  Our collective future and our individual futures. On Rosh Hashanah we imagine the world we want. We begin to imagine who we want to be and work toward becoming the person we want to be. We even write that vision down in Sefer HaChayim, the Book of Life!
Imagination is a wonderful thing. It can provide inspiration for us, help us dream big dreams and unlock the mysteries of our minds.  When we use our imagination, we free ourselves from the strictures that keep us imprisoned in the same old routine. The same old habits. Albert Einstein even said “I’m enough of an artist to draw freely on my imagination, which I think is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
For it is our imagination that unleashes a power of creativity and insight in our minds.  And often allows and opens us up to invention!  And that is what we do here, today. This holy season. We are to open ourselves through the process of teshuva to re-invent yourself, the way you do things. We are to re-invent the world through our imagination. Rosh Hashanah marks the birth of the world, Yom Harat Olam—but in truth, the Rebirth of your world!
When we use our imagination, we see in our minds eye-the possibilities.  Imagination as Einstein meant it isn’t fantasizing or mindless day dreaming.  Imagination is literally visualizing what we hope to see, feel, and be.  When we use our imagination, we can visualize in our mind what is yet to happen in reality.  An original virtual reality if you will. 
Some may call this day dreaming but there is a difference in imagination and day dreaming.  Too often day dreams are used as an escape from our problems or come from our woundedness.  Dreams of course are symbolic in nature. Dreams are a way to vent our anxieties or fears and our desires that often come from our deep sub conscious minds.  We have no control of our dreams. And our day dreams are typically about the feelings and often are stimulated from within seemingly without cause. But imagination is a conscious effort to encounter new ideas, a method of experimentation and to visualize the world or ourselves as we hope to become.  Daydreaming allows your mind to wander at will, but when you visualize and focus on something specific you are putting intention behind the idea or entity.  Visualization is about seeing yourself in the new situation or new place.
And using our imagination to visualize new places and people help us prepare our mind and our being for new experiences in real life.
Another great scientist, Nikola Tesla, like Einstein, understood the power and importance of using his power of imagination.  He used visualization to help him imagine new things, new places and new people.  Tesla writes in his autobiography “My Inventions”:
“Every night (and sometimes during the day), when alone, I would start out on my journeys - see new places, cities and countries - live there, meet people and make friendships and acquaintances and, however unbelievable, it is a fact that they were just as dear to me as those in actual life and not a bit less intense in their manifestations.
“This I did constantly until I was about seventeen when my thoughts turned seriously to invention. Then I observed to my delight that I could visualize with the greatest facility. I needed no models, drawings or experiments. I could picture them all as real in my mind.”
Tesla was a prolific and unparalleled genius, giving us AC electricity and the electric car. He developed the underlying technology for wireless communication over long distances. He spoke eight languages and held over 300 patents.
 Now we all aren’t scientific geniuses like Einstein and Tesla.  But we each are born with this capacity to imagine. As Gloria Steinman said: Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities.
It’s part of what makes us human. Our capacity to see a different world, a different alternative, to use our creativity, to be excited to build new inventions, hear and compose new music, paint new vistas; all of this comes from our ability to use our complex human brains and imagination.
Dr. Naomi Lavelle writes about this brain development in relationship to using our imagination:
Our early ancestors, the hominids, showed basic levels of imagination in their tool making abilities, cooperative hunting skills and social interaction and colonization.
As modern humans evolved, scientists have reported an increase in brain size, advances in technical skills and creativity, and a development in social complexities. Farming, sophisticated tool making, complex language development, the performance of rituals and the development of art and crafting all required a complex development of thought and mental interaction… Imagination!
A more developed neural network within the brain, connecting the different areas of brain function, must have had some part to play in all this. In other words, our beautiful big brains, and the way the right side and left side talk to each other, builds our imaginative skills.
For many years scientist thought the right side of the brain was the creative side, and the left side of the brain the base of logic. But now in several studies our imagination and creativity have been shown to come from multiple parts of our brains working together in harmony. 
As Christopher Bergland shared in Psychology Today:
Researchers at Dartmouth’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences were curious to discover “what makes humans able to create art, invent tools, think scientifically and perform other incredibly diverse behaviors?” They found that imagination stems from a widespread network of brain areas that collectively manipulate ideas, images and symbols. This (is called the) "mental workspace."
Creativity and imagination requires a widespread neural network in the brain.
Working with amazing symmetry, 11 different brain areas within the four hemispheres are able to consciously manipulate images, deconstruct symbols, come up with new ideas and theories and give humans the laser-like mental focus needed to solve complex problems.     
The imagination-uses our whole brain.  Not just some small part of it. And what we are learning is that in the whole brain is a whole world! The limitless world of creativity, invention, artistry, expression, wonder, and awe. Our imagination has the power –the brain power to transform our lives.
One dramatic example of the power of vivid imagination is that of  Air Force Colonel George Hall. He was a POW locked in the dark box of a North Vietnamese prison for seven grueling years. Every day Hall played a full game of golf in his imagination. One week after he was released from his POW camp he entered the Greater New Orleans Open and shot a 76.
He visualized his game. Everything from getting dressed, to the course, wind conditions and each hole.  He imagined himself playing on his imagined course that he called Pebble Beach. Yes, it provided structure, discipline and an escape from the grueling and horrifying circumstances he was in at the Hanoi Hilton.   But it also strengthened his mind and heart and soul.
Colonel Hall trapped in that small horrid cell of limited space and cruel conditions, through his imagination, escaped the boundaries of his prison.  Our imaginations can help us escape the limitations that we have placed upon ourselves. Our imagination that we use today on Rosh Hashanah and through Yom Kippur and atonement we can transform our errors, sins, and transgressions that have limited our lives and relationships and help us begin to imagine a different way of being in the world.
On Rosh Hashanah we begin the process of imagining our new selves for the New Year.  But to do that we have to honestly look at who we have become since last we gathered together.  We must examine our hearts and mine our souls for the ways in which we censored our hopes and dreams, foiled our attempts at self-healing, and sometimes really screwed up. Rosh Hashanah invites us, in this time of examination and reflection, to a use our imagination—to imagine our best selves.  The self we strive to be.   
Today on Rosh Hashana let us begin to visualize, to use our imagination to imagine the world we want to live in.  Today let us begin to visualize and use our imagination to imagine the person we can yet be.  That is what our prayers help us do.  
Jewish prayer is a form of meditation, and visualization.  When we pray for a world at peace—we are imagining the world at peace.  When we pray for health of body and spirit for those who are ill, we are imagining their wellbeing and health. When we pray to atone for our sins and alleviate our guilt for the damage we may have caused in relationships, we are confessing and confronting the errors and sins we have committed as a way to imagine a new reality-free from those situations that trapped us.  If you can say I am sorry then you can imagine that you can be different, relieved from the burden of the negativity you help create. And our prayers lift our imagination higher that we might become and stand fully open to receiving love.  Imagination helps us diminish and eliminate the perception of obstacles. That is what we are doing here together.
At Rosh Hashanah we are trying to diminish the obstacles to become a better a you. At Rosh Hashanah we are trying to diminish the obstacle to create a better, more whole, and peaceful world.  This is the power that God endowed us with.  The spirit of the Holy One that moves inside of you. 
In the words of that great wizard, JK Rowling… “Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and, therefore, the foundation of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”   That empathy is the connective tissue that binds us together as the human family.
That is why on this holy Day of Rosh Hashanah when we recite the Avinu Malkeinu Prayer- it begins with a plea to God to hear our voice—Shma Koleinu… To be heard, to be acknowledged, and in truth we use our imagination as we stand before the Holy One to imagine and give voice to a world filled with compassion for us and our family.  We use our prayers and our voice and our imagination to the see the end of sickness, war, famine and anguish.  We use our imagination to see the world and the new year as one of goodness!  You see that is what our prayers really our—visualization of how we hope the world to be—and how we hope ourselves to be. The best self we can be.  Not a perfect self.  We recognize our imperfection—but a becoming self.  And we admit to our errors, in confession, so we can start afresh and become the person you visualize. Today we begin this process of imagining a new you, becoming a better you!       
One such story is that of Vera Fryling, M.D.  She was a Jewish teenager on the run from the Gestapo, she lived undercover in Berlin during the Holocaust. During this time, she imagined that she was a doctor, a psychiatrist in a free land.  She used her imagination to keep her hope alive which in turn helped her stay alive. Overcoming the Nazis, the Soviet army and a bout with cancer, Fryling ended up on the faculty of the San Francisco Medical School.
“Imagination,” she said, “can help one transcend the insults life has dealt us."
Imagination in Jewish tradition had a rich legacy.  The Rabbis of the Talmud utilized their imagination on every single page.  They lived long after the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.  Most lived far from the land of Israel. Nor had never set foot in the land of Israel and had no idea what the temple, the Beit HaMikdash looked like other than a few meager descriptions in the Tanakh, the bible or in the Mishnah.  But they used their imaginations to travel to the lands of our ancestors. They used their imaginations to develop the stories of our people.  The visualized the ancient temple and saw themselves there. They saw a rebuilt Temple and the priests practicing the ancient rituals.  Why did they do this? They did so because they wanted it to rise again from the ashes.  They imagined the Temple rebuilt and renewed.  A land of the Jewish people.  And that longing, that imagining fueled our people.
So much so that we never gave up imaging and visualizing and praying:  Next year in Jerusalem.  We could see ourselves there whether in our shtetl in Poland or Brooklyn or right here in Los Angeles.  Pure imagination. 
But yet that imagination, those visualizations gave way to building a new Zionism that led to the creation of the State of Israel 70 years ago.
Our Sages used Midrash to imagine all kinds of things, what God believes and feels and thinks. They used Midrash to explain Moses actions and motivations. They use Midrash and aggadah, story, to fill in the blanks when the Torah is silent. They used imagination and visualization to write a different outcome than what the Torah says.   
As the great modern Talmud Teacher and former MK (Ruth at podium) Ruth Calderon writes in the introduction to her amazing book A Bride for One Night:
The aggadic landscape at first seems very different from the world we know. It is wild and topsy-turvy, frightening and funny. It is a world in which the impossible happens: God asks to be blessed by a human being; the head of a talmudic academy marries a woman for one night in a strange city; a mortal steals the knife of the Angel of Death; the wife of a Torah scholar dresses up as the most famous prostitute in Babylonia; and a kindergarten teacher causes rain to fall. These stories are the Arabian Nights of the Jewish people. The reader is drawn from story to story by the promise of pleasure and the lure of longing. From image to image and from vista to vista, the view becomes increasingly familiar. It soon becomes apparent that for many of us this wonderland is in fact the homeland we never knew. (intro xiv)
The Rabbis of the Talmud weren’t afraid of imagining a different Judaism for different circumstances. They weren’t afraid of imagining God asking for a blessing from us.  They used their imaginations to change their worlds.
Why am I talking to you about imagination this year?  It is because I want you to imagine a new way of being. I want you today to visualize a new world. A new way for our world.  Part of resisting the Violence, racism, misogyny hatred and bigotry of our day is to imagine a different reality.  Oh make no mistake, we have to work for it.  It isn’t just going to be handed to us on a silver platter. But the world we want to see with the values we articulate is possible.  A world of equality; a world of liberty and freedom and justice. Whether in Israel or here at home –we have to imagine it first. Visualize it.  See it in your mind’s eye. People living in peace. Loving their neighbor. Even if that is not the reality around us. YET! 
The first step to resist the irrational, sicknesses of our time, the first step to resisting the bullying that is coming at us from politics.The first step to resisting the moral decay that infects our world, the first step to stemming the corruption around us is to imagine the world we want.  Imagine the world and the people in it. People who listen to one another, respect one another.  We have to visualize THAT world.  And then…. We have to let that vision, that imagination inspire us to create it in reality.  And we have to do it together.  It is not something that can be done alone.   It must be done collectively. 
Because the vision is so big. And the forces of evil so strong—because you see they are imagining too—a world of hate. A world where the rich get richer and the poor and the brown and black folks, and the Jew-and the lesbian, and trans and gay person and the immigrant, the Muslim, the Buddhist, anyone who isn’t like them…. They are imagining a world with a different set of values.  A world built on fear.
And so we come together on the Rosh Hashanah to imagine the world we want. And to assert it in our prayers and our actions.  Through our civic engagement efforts---there is a table in the foyer—register to vote… Did you move recently? Not voted in a while? Let Kol Ami’s Tzedek Council, our justice team help you register to vote. Are you going to be sure to vote in November or are you simply saying well it doesn’t matter we live in California?  Fill out a pledge card that you will vote this year.  And help our team by phone banking and canvassing with us to create the world of our imagination.  I am looking for a minyan of people-ten more volunteers that will help the efforts of our Justice Council and the Religious Action Center through our phone banking, canvassing and lobbying to get our neighbors to register. Won’t you consider being part of of this effort?
We imagine the world we want by strengthening and protecting our Jewish heritage—a noble heritage of valuing life against the forces that promote death.  We imagine the world we want by deepening our engagement as a Jewish community.  As a temple family.
Now more than ever is the time for us to imagine the strength of our Jewish people, and yes, our very own synagogue. Now is the time to imagine for yourself and your family and friends, the world we want. And now with the call of the Shofar, let its sounds help us visualize the world we want, and then stir us into action as we bring about this new you, this new world, in this the New Year. A new Year of peace for all the world.
Ken Yehi Ratzon. 
Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyar 5784