Shanah tovah, Happy New Year, and bruchim habaim, welcome. As always, as we stand together on the edge of this new year, I want to welcome everyone and remind you that whether you have been coming to High Holy Day Services your whole life, or have never come before, or are returning after time away from a synagogue, you are welcome here. You have found your place. You are in your right seat. Before we begin I want to make a couple of logistical announcements. First, if you brought your cell phone with you, please take a moment now and turn it off… unless you are a doctor or a first responder where your response is a matter of life and death. Otherwise, enjoy a couple of hours unplugged. Second, if you are joining us on Zoom please remember to be muted at all times, unless I ask you to unmute. Third, the golden book in your hands is called a mahzor in Hebrew. It contains all the prayers and Torah readings we will be engaging with together tonight and tomorrow. It is your guide. Use it as much, or as little as you wish. Also, please remember if you don’t know what’s going on (which is quite possible) feel free to turn to the person next to you and ask them. Also, this is not a performance. It is communal and personal prayer. In the Jewish world we sing most of our prayers. Please, please join in. If you can’t sing, don’t worry, you’re in good company here. Just belt it out. Finally, if you see kids running around and making noise, do not be annoyed, they are not a distraction, they are our collective Jewish future. Enjoy.
As always, on Erev Rosh Hashanah I like to set a tone for these Days of Awe. And each year I begin by wondering, why do we come here, why do we continue to participate in these ancient rituals and prayers? And this year I thought further, why do we continue to bother to be Jewish at all? Do we have a reason, beyond familiarity, or family loyalty, or historical identification with our people? All of which are good reasons by the way. And let’s not forget another essential one, because some of us believe in God or some Jewish sense of a God to whom we owe something for this inimitable and precious gift of being alive. I say this knowing that many who sit here tonight do not believe in God and also know that that is ok too, belief is not a prerequisite for being a Jew.
I ask these questions, why are we here and why be Jewish, because I think they are essential questions. And the Days of Awe are the time for essential questions. It is a time for self-examination, and rebuilding self-awareness.
If you have a highly developed sense of Jewish identity and live it out in an authentic manner daily, please come see me after services, I want to get some of what you have. But, if you are like most of the rest of us then I’m guessing, you know you are Jewish, but you’re not sure why, or what that really means in your life, or you have doubts, or don’t think about it much except this time of year and maybe Pesach or maybe when you lie awake, alone in the dark hours of the night. If that sounds like you, then you are like most of us, groping your way, trying to find meaning.
Maybe that is one of the reasons you are here. If that is so, I want to suggest you read a series of four essays that have been published periodically in the New York Times over the last couple of years by Sarah Wildman, about coping with her daughter Orli’s cancer and, recently, her death, this past May, at age 14.
I can’t think of anything worse than the death of your child. There may be, but I can’t think of it. Ms. Wildman’s essays, each one breathtakingly beautiful and heartbreaking, are her attempts to find some kind of meaning in the midst of life’s chaos, or learning to be present for what life is, not we wish it had been or what it might be, but for what it is at this moment.
In one essay she wrote, “Of the many, many hours of prayers offered during the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy (the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement) perhaps the most resonant text of all is the Unetaneh Tokef. In it Jews ask how each of us will receive God’s judgment this year, who will be allowed to see another year at all, and what we can do to alter our fate… I was drawn to the sentences that enjoy less notoriety than the others: “Who shall be at rest and who shall wander,” the poem asks… It goes on: “Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued? Who will be calm and who will be tormented?” To be forced to wander another week, another month, another year is physical and also spiritual, literal and also emotional. In almost three years of cancer and pandemic, I have wondered how my family can find rest as we wander. It has been, and continues to be, I think, in these small in-between moments, in the noticing.”
In another essay, written a year later, about continuing complications from her daughter’s cancer, she wrote this: “It is not the first time we have been in what rabbis call the meitzar, the biblical narrow place — a place of compression. The meitzar is an expression of all the things that can make life impossibly hard. It appears in Psalm 118: From the narrow place I called to God, the psalm says; I was answered, it continues, from expansiveness. We are constantly seeking moments of that expansiveness, to take a deeper breath.”
And this, in August: “In Jewish tradition, a child who loses a parent is required to say Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, every day for 11 months, and the community recognizes you as an avel, a mourner, all that year… But as a parent who has lost a child, as I did this spring, when my 14-year-old daughter, Orli, died, you are on your own.
She concludes that essay with these words, “The pain is always there for us. It will be waiting at the apartment when we return tonight, it will be lying next to us in bed or come to us when we wake; we always have it. But we have to let this beauty in, too. That will be the work of all the rest of our days: to hold this pain and this beauty side by side, without letting the one crush or crowd out the other. We have to let this beauty in, too.”
I know this is a heavy subject. But this is Rosh Hashanah after all, when we are supposed to consider our lives, how we have lived in the past year, what we are pleased with and what we regret, how we might live better, knowing that we and everyone we love is mortal and must die. The death of a child is an extreme tragedy, but all of us have been in the narrow place, the meitzar, as she puts it, “all the things that can make life impossibly hard,” at some point in our lives. Some of us are in it now. We are sick, or someone we love is sick, or in distress. Or someone we love has died. If we are not there now, we have been before and know we will be in it again and we must find a way to get through it, to the place of expansiveness, to the place where we can breathe again.
Last year we spent the year studying the Jewish view and response to suffering and evil. I can tell you with great confidence after a year of study, the answers are unsatisfactory. Childhood cancer, or a tsunami, or an earthquake that kills tens-of-thousands? The Jewish answer is that this is just the way God made the world. It is beyond our comprehension. We just have to cope with it as best we can.
Human caused suffering is easier to explain, even if we don’t like the answer. God gives us freewill, that is one of the things that makes us human, the ability to make moral choices. If God interferes in human affairs then we have no freewill. Why didn’t God stop the Holocaust? Why doesn’t God stop a baby from dying in a locked car on a hot day? We all want the sea to part, like it did in Egypt, but it won’t anymore, if it ever did. Those days are over. Making the world a better place is up to us now. Pretty thin soup, if you think the way things are isn’t fair. But, this is the way things are.
Our Torah begins with God creating the world out of chaos. Then God destroys the world because of unrestrained human evil. God is not so sure about this freewill thing at first, because unrestrained evil is what happens when people are left to their own devices. God swears to never destroy the world again, perhaps because God tires at the thought of having to destroy and repopulate the world, over and over again for all eternity. So, recognizing the human capacity to do harm, and our seeming inability to make better choices, God gave us Torah (revelation), a way to live, a way to control our impulses and be decent human beings.
Decency, in short, is compassion and empathy. In our tradition this is not theoretical but comes down to very practical behaviors. Like not harvesting all your crops, so the poor and landless can eat and live. Like paying an employee on the day they worked, so they can feed themselves and their children. Like not taking a poor person’s coat as collateral for a loan, so they won’t be cold. Like not cutting down fruit bearing trees when besieging an enemy city, because long after the war is over, people, enemy and friend alike, will need to eat and, in any case, the trees are innocent; they did not cause the war. Like requiring each of us to give at least 5 percent, but no more than 10 percent, of our income each year to the needy. Not if we want to, but because we must, because the poor must be able to eat and live. Like understanding that whatever success in life we achieve is not the result of our own individual merit and effort, but comes from the help of others, our parents, our community, and God (or nature, or the universe, if that suits you better) so we are obligated to demonstrate gratitude and humility in how we live. The entire Jewish religious system is designed to turn us away from selfishness and egotism, from doing harm, toward decency and community, and doing good.
That is why we are obligated to visit the sick, to comfort the mourner, to provide the poor family with an interest free loan, or give them the money they need to bury their loved ones and marry off their children. That is why we are commanded not to shame others but to comfort and help them. To return to Sarah Wildman for a moment, I think what she is getting at is that we cope with life through the simple but difficult acts of being present: for the beauty of life as well as the pain, for each other, in this way and through our daily behaviors we build community. Our Jewish tradition gives us a framework through which we can live it out, because it is not a religion of individual fulfillment or salvation, but a collective effort to build communities that help us sanctify our lives. I can’t think of a better practical explanation of why living within the Jewish tradition has value and can help us cope with life. It can, maybe, make the space for us to hold the pain and the beauty side-by-side.
I must confess that I am not very good at holding the pain and the beauty side-by-side. I focus more on the bad than the good, the painful, more than the joyous. Probably because my parents are Holocaust survivors. Probably because my father died when I was young. It doesn’t really matter. I created a strong emotional suit of self-protection. That self-protection is familiar, it feels safe, but it is not joy. In my desire to keep out the pain, I also keep out the joy. In doing this I short change my own life and I hurt others who love me. I want to take it off, but I haven’t yet, I haven’t done enough, yet. And I know I don’t have unlimited time. I share this because some of you might be in the same situation, or one that is different but also hard
Being present for others and for life is difficult. That is why we fall short, consistently. It is in the nature of being human. We fail. But Jewish religion teaches us that we have to keep trying. We are not perfect, but we can keep trying. That is why we have these Days of Atonement each year. If we wish to use them, to help us reorient ourselves and get back on the right path. To find balance. That is what Sarah Wildman has been writing about, from the depths of her pain, finding life’s balance.
So as these High Holy Days begin, perhaps this can be a focus of our hesbon ha nefesh, our accounting of our souls. I know it will be mine. To be decent. To do the simple and hard things that make life good, for us and for others. To support our friends and fellow congregants in their times of need. To visit them if they are lonely. To comfort them when they are mourning. To make sure those who live in our broader community, who we don’t know, have enough to eat and a safe place to sleep. To extend kindness and grace to others, especially those who we feel have wronged us, because we really don’t know what they are going through or their suffering. To see each other and be present for each other.
Maybe if we do that, starting tonight, our lives will be richer, our community will be stronger, and we will find a way to get through life together, from the meitzar, the place of compression, to the merchav, the place of expansion. To be able to hold both the pain and the joy of life in balance.
G’mar Chatima tovah.