Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon

A Most Difficult Year

There are two great bodies of water in the holy land of Israel.  They could not appear to be more different, and yet they are both nourished by the very same Jordan river.  When visiting the North of Israel, no trip is complete without visiting the Kinneret, also known as the Sea of Galilee.  The waters of the Kinneret support a bustling economy on all shores, the clear water teems with life below. The other we know as the Dead Sea.  Located at the lowest point on earth, this water is unable to support any life whatsoever.  The mud of its shores does contain minerals with health benefits, but the Sea itself is shallow and hot, the salt stings the eyes and fingertips.  Nothing survives in the Sea, even as it receives a steady stream of water from the Jordan.

How might we understand the difference between these two bodies?  Certainly climate, landscape, history, agriculture all play a part.  But the ancient sages saw something else.  The land of Israel is a spiritual place they say, not merely earth and water, but thought and feeling.  Each place tells a story, a lesson for all humanity, and these seas are no different.
Each sea takes what it needs from the Jordan, as it winds its way from North to South.  But one sea is thriving and alive.  The other is stagnant and still.

We arrive at the High Holy Days each year to ask a question of ourselves.  How might we use these days, the day of Rosh Hashanah and the ten days that follow, to learn to live more fully?  How might we make real progress in the movement of our lives?  How can we model the Kinneret, and not the Dead Sea. We all want to live with vibrancy and joy, to nurture the lives around our own.  We ask for God’s help in identifying what holds us back.  This year has been especially hard for many of us.  How might we emerge from this moment of struggle, become strong in the face of suffering, and live better, even while accepting challenge as a part of life?

How are you feeling now, as together we say goodbye to 5781?  Not so great? worn down, exhausted, angry, exasperated, disappointed, grieving? We all feel the heaviness of the past year.  Hope feels far away, maybe even farther for some of us than last year.  We are bitter and tired.  A colleague wrote recently, “We just ran a marathon.  We figured out online worship.  Maybe.  Kind of.  We felt the brunt of unprocessed grief in our communities.  We tried to continue as many [programs] as we could sustain.  We dreamed up new ones. We crashed and burned. We ached with isolation. We spoke hope and grace and possibility. We watched colleagues look like they had it all together  But we guessed they didn’t either.  Then we opened our doors to in-person worship again. We crossed the finish life!  We made it!  Then… instead of collapsing at the finish line in a heap something else happened. An official looking race organizer slapped another number on our back and pushed us toward another starting line.  A second marathon?  Right now?”  ( – The Second Marathon) Our fears of COVID, the trials of quarantine, anxieties large and small had just begun to recede only to roar back with the reality of the Delta variant. More of us are experiencing personal loss.  Perhaps you lost someone you love.  Perhaps you lost a job this year, or an opportunity, a connection?

Have you grown numb from exhaustion – debates over vaccinations and mask-wearing drowning out the stress of national political upheaval, forcing to the side important conversations we were just having as a society about race and privilege, gender gaps and school safety, our withdrawal from Afghanistan and the ever-growing specter of white supremacy.  This year we felt as if the worst traits of humanity were let loose.

We lived through an impeachment trial, a global recession, the trial of Harvey Weinstein in the awakening of the MeToo movement, bushfires in Australia, and the complete meltdown of the Iowa Democratic Caucus.  And that was just January. And just this past week, an oppressive abortion ban in Texas, not to mention a law granting the right for citizens of the state to open-carry with no permits or training. And to add to the litany of misery, the ravages of climate change as we watch our cities burn and flood all across this country.  We have been wrestling with so many issues at once. On this day of reflection we might not know where to begin.

Despite some hints of a return to life: gathering in our building for Shabbat, visiting restaurants, or sending our children back to school, we continue to live through what feels like one long drawn out trauma.  Last year IHC shut down our physical operation quickly, as did most of you in your professional work places and elsewhere.  But it took time to realize all that we would lose over the months to come: Loss of life, loss of school and work, income, loss of gathering in community, loss of simple pleasures – of a quick run to the grocery store, holding a hand, giving a hug. We lost critically important opportunities to visit family or friends in the hospital.  We were unable to sit together for shiva. We lost theaters, museums, art and culture, group exercise, hobbies. We lost Shabbat dinner gatherings, Passover seders, B’nai Mitzvah celebrations, weddings.

Our children lost crucial firsts and lasts that they will never recover: first days of college, graduations, proms, first kisses, first dates, first days away from parents at preschool, slumber parties, late night hangouts.  And there were emotional losses: loss of independence, loss of security, loss of predictability, loss of connection and companionship.  Our very sense of self has been shaken. We no longer know quite who we will be when we emerge after the pandemic. We continue to live with confusion about how to best protect ourselves and our loved ones, as public health has become a divisive and polarizing issue.   We have been angry.  We have been afraid.  We have dealt with anxiety and despair. We have barely grieved our losses. We’ve barely begun to figure out how to cope.

Of course, we know that we are the lucky ones.  Things could be so much worse, and in many parts of the world, and for some of us, things are worse.  We are fortunate to live in this country, even with its conflicts.  We are fortunate to have one another, here tonight, even through the screens. At difficult times, even during the darkest hours, Jews have worked very hard to hold on to optimism and hope.

Viktor Frankl was a young medical student in Vienna in the early 20th century, interested in psychiatry.  Sigmund Freud would eventually be a mentor to him, but the two had very different ideas about mental health.  As Frankl started his career, he began to notice something about the most depressed of his patients.  Freud believed that our behavior was motivated by needs which must be met in order to maintain a sense of equilibrium, or balance.  What Frankl saw in his depressed patients was not a lack of balance but rather a lack of meaning.  His patients desperately wanted, and could not find something to live for, something they could feel connected to that was larger than themselves.  They wanted life to be meaningful.  “With meaning,” he wrote, “human life is worth living.”  With meaning, a human being can endure any hardship.

As fate would have it, Frankl would explore this very subject in a way he could not have imagined.  When the Nazis came to power in Austria, he was sent to Auschwitz.  He attempted to bring many of his ideas and theories by sewing pages of his first manuscript into the lining of his coat.  When he arrived at Auschwitz, he begged to keep his coat. The guards tore it from him and threw it into the fire. Everything he had worked so hard on, the narrative which gave his own life meaning, was gone in a flash.

Frankl was handed a worn out old coat that had been taken off a Jew already sent to the gas chambers.  He recalled that as he put on this coat, he felt a single piece of paper in the pocket.  It was a page torn out of a prayer book, and on it were the words, ‘Shema Yisrael.’  “How else could I interpret this coincidence,” he wrote, “than as a challenge to live my thoughts instead of merely putting them down on paper?”  He determined then and there to attempt to understand the horrors he witnessed; to search for meaning through suffering. That small page stayed with him for all the days, weeks and years he was imprisoned by the Nazis, and gave him the strength he needed to survive.  He called this episode his “deepest lesson of the camps.” (Man’s Search for Meaning, 1985 p. 138)

There are two great bodies of water in the holy land of Israel.  One teems with life, the other hosts no life at all… And Moses said, “I set before you this day, life and blessing, or death and curses.  Choose life, that you and your children may live.”

Every year, every day, every moment, as we live a small part of our life, and at the same time, we move just a little closer to our death.  On Rosh Hashanah we are keenly aware of this.  We typically focus on one or the other, but it’s much harder to focus on both – the beauty of our life – the inevitability of our death. Some of us live with the death’s proximity every single day.  For those souls the days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur offer tremendous solace.  Others live in deep denial, and just once a year are confronted with the unfiltered truth, and then realize there are no insignificant moments in life.  Our goal on Rosh Hashanah is to integrate both: to live with full intentionality because of life’s fragility.  Being stuck in either extreme keeps us from the personal growth we have come to this service to find.

This year we more clearly feel and experience the blessing of life, because we are connected with suffering: our won and that of others.  In response to that suffering, so many people, all over the globe, banded together to lift us all up.  Do you remember the sights and sounds of people out on their balconies singing together across the distance?  Do you remember the global efforts to cheer on front line medical workers?

Our congregation’s first conversations in response to COVID were inspiring.  Board members and leadership called each and every one of our households to check in and see what was needed.  We delivered groceries to one another, left gifts on doorsteps, and made plans to send every congregant a mask with the IHC logo on it.  We unanimously decided to financially support our IHC staff and teachers, even those who couldn’t work, for as long as possible.  We sent food to local ER’s and ICU’s to thank doctors, nurses and staff for their courageous and lifesaving efforts. We held our breath waiting for the worst.  We heard from many of you who worked on the medical front lines – about the anxiety and exhaustion that had already taken hold.  I remember being so inspired by one nurse who knew her choice to return to work meant putting her youngest child at risk.  She agonized over her responsibility, and opportunity she had to help. She acknowledged her fear deeply, and decided to go in to work.

I remember a doctor who did get COVID, stayed away from his family until he was cleared, and then was back to work the very next day. We experienced these stories of heroism and bravery, kindness and compassion, while managing our own fears, anxieties, and stress.

We held blood drives.  We laughed and cried together as we met the technological and innovative challenges of keeping all of us connected – to keep our Jewish spark alive throughout quarantine.  Over zoom, our chat rooms lit up during services. We maintained and in some ways deepened connections as we observed one another praying at home. We looked forward to religious school online, as so many of us, especially our kids, needed to see one another, connect with one another, pray with one another, learn with one another.  Our families created beautiful online spaces.  We shared stories of pain and loss, we held each other up through the screen, sharing weddings and funerals, virtual b’nai mitzvah, and even welcoming new babies into our community online.  We studied together, gathering in some of the largest numbers for virtual classes on everything from historical women in the bible to the latest hit TV shows.   I remember feeling so proud of the way we came together to support each other.  This community held us all up, keeping us deeply connected to one another’s lives, even as our worlds shrank with every passing day.

Each of us experienced countless other moments of blessing during this past year.  For some of us, spending much more time with family led to conversations and activities together, which would not have happened otherwise. I heard from many of you that this time inspired you to reconnect with old friends; the technology made it easier than ever before to schedule informal reunions and distant coffee dates.  I remember moments of gratitude in which I thought about the last global pandemic, the flu of 1918, and how different it must have felt for millions who did not have such simple yet miraculous methods of staying in touch with… everyone!  We found countless ways to nurture our spirits and our souls, our friendships and our interests throughout COVID. Each one a blessing. Real blessings in the midst of real suffering.

It would have been so easy to succumb to fear and unease during those days.  We officiated funerals with much more frequency; we weren’t allowed to visit those who needed us most.  No one knew exactly how scared we should feel.  Eventually we were unable to visit anyone at all.  We shared a universal experience, and felt profoundly alone.  Some were home with kids too young to even manage their own screen time.  Some of us lived with others who needed our support in ways we did not know how to give.

Even in the early months of uncertainty, our choice was clear.  Hatred and anger bubbled over in politics, but we had a choice.  Anti-Semitic attacks doubled again this year, but we had a choice.  The world was shutting down, and we faced this choice over and over again.  Could we find a way to choose life, even in the face of all this anger, evil, and pain?  Could we use our righteous outrage to work for change; could we feel every disappointment deeply, and still count our blessings?  Would we make the most of Zoom, of online life cycle events and long distance Shabbat, or would we allow ourselves to sink into denial and depression?

For many generations, and until very recent innovations, all of Israel’s fresh water has come from the Sea of Galilee, the Kinneret.  More than just aquatic life has depended on the Kinneret to bring development and growth to Israel as a burgeoning democracy and Jewish state. The sages comment that while both seas are fed from the same source, the water which enters the Dead Sea has nowhere else to go.  It stagnates, not feeding other tributaries, not flowing freely, which might wash away built up deposits.  This sea takes and takes, and does not give. The Sea of Galilee, on the other hand, gives and receives.  There are many outlets fed from its fresh waters.  This keeps the water moving, the flow cleaning out deposits carried downstream. The rabbis understood that this ‘movement’ was the key to understanding the two Seas in Israel.  With our ability to “flow,” all things are possible – growth, vibrancy, verdancy, life.

Our lives need movement to thrive.  I don’t mean we need new homes, new friends, new careers or hobbies.  I mean that our ability to flourish is connected to our capacity for flexibility and resilience.  How well do we handle change, challenge and obstacles?  Can we “go with the flow”, through all of life’s twists and turns, accepting what we need to accept, resisting only where it serves us well.  If we believe our struggles stand for something, serve some greater cause, we find the strength to persevere.

Some will experience pain and understand with confidence that pain informs, and that pain may teach compassion, toward self and others, and that surviving pain opens a pathway to use that compassion to help others to learn. Judaism guides us gently towards this teaching.  It is a lesson only learned in time.  No matter how deep or wide or intense pain can become, we have strength within us to find meaning in it.  In our prayerbook we read:  “And in truth, grief is a great teacher, when it sends us back to serve and bless the living.” (GOP)

Mary Oliver writes two poems reflecting on life’s suffering.  One is called, A Bitterness.  “I believe you did not have a happy life.  I believe you were cheated.  I believe your best friends were loneliness and misery.  I believe your busiest enemies were anger and depression.  I believe joy was a game you could never play without stumbling…”. She speaks with such sadness of a life, perhaps her friend, a parent or a child.  We feel compassion for this pain that is real, and for her inability to find meaning in it.  But just because one stumbles in the search for joy, does not mean she shouldn’t strive to regain her footing, and continue searching.

In another poem, entitled Wild Geese, Mary Oliver writes: “You do not have to be good.  You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting… Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.  Meanwhile the world goes on… Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again.  Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination…”.

There is no pain to which human beings are immune.  We experience every moment of it, and we often imagine we are the only ones who do so.  But there is a greater truth, a bond we share which connects your suffering to mine and to everyone else too.  And that feeling of connection does bring solace, comfort, because we know we do not suffer alone.

While laboring in Auschwitz, Victor Frankl observed something that distinguished his fellow captives.  Some of them, he noted, managed to maintain inner strength, always certain that salvation would come, holding onto hope like a scrap of paper with the Shema stuffed into a pocket.  While others very quickly lost their will to live.  He realized that those who found some meaning in their suffering, some purpose to struggle for, were much more likely to survive.  Those who could not find some way to adapt to the cruelty of the Nazis quickly lost the spark of spirit from their eyes.  Frankl watched it happen again and again.  In his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, written right after the war, he argues that while we may not have control over the circumstances under which we live, we always have control over the choice to interpret, and bring meaning to our circumstances.

Of course there will always be moments when we crumble – each of us, all of us.  But there will also always be an open door to perseverance, gratitude, and hope.  Our responses are not automatic, they are freely chosen.  Even in a concentration camp, a human being makes a choice to share one stale crust of bread with another inmate, and by doing so transforms the bread from one more day of survival, into a symbol of freedom, of kindness, of the graciousness of humanity.

In an article in the Yiddish Forward in 1969 , Elie Wiesel recounted one Hanukkah in Auschwitz when one inmate became determined to light Hanukkah candles, somehow.  He argued that Hanukkah symbolized Jewish sacrifice, and that if they were going to die anyway, wouldn’t it be better to die kindling the Jewish people’s “flames of faith?”  Slowly other inmates were sold on the idea, and by the eighth night, the entire block sang the familiar melodies as scraps of raw potatoes were burned in a bit of oil for candles.  He wrote, “If Jews had the fortitude to believe in victory over the Greeks, then we could not now surrender our trust in defeating our enemy.”  The Nazis could steal everything from a human, except for this freedom to choose, to make something meaningful out of misery.

Whatever this next year brings, if we can find even small amounts of joy and gratitude – for a talk with a loved one which might not have happened in normal times, for the taste of morning coffee, the loving care of a friend checking in, the clear blue sky, or recognizing that right now, today, I am healthy.  If we can find meaning in helping another, checking in on someone isolated, sharing a smile or a listening ear – if we can appreciate just how meaningful this community is, just how much these relationships mean to us, we can survive, and thrive, even in the face of fear and struggle.

During these High Holy Days, and as we enter the New Year, may we find strength and desire to see the light, even as we live with the dark.  May our meaningful connections with one another help us weather the next storm, whatever and whenever that may be. There are two great bodies of water in the holy land of Israel, one rich and full of life, and the other unable to support any life at all.  This year, will we choose life?  Will we learn to flow like the Kinneret, brimming with life?  Or will we choose to stagnate in our curses?

The Book of Life is open, the choice is before us on this night.  I have set before you this day, life and blessing, or death and curses.  Therefore choose life, that you and your children might live.  G’mar Chatimah Tovah, may you inscribe yourself for blessing this year in the Book of Life.