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Rosh Hashanah 2021/5782

09/07/2021 09:06:09 AM

Sep7

Rabbi Howard L. Jaffe

Shanah tovah.

This is the 22nd year that I appear before you as your rabbi at Rosh Hashanah.

And as you know, it shall be my last.

It has been indescribably moving, fulfilling, meaningful, if at times challenging, and thankfully, only occasionally maddening.

There is still much for us to share in the months ahead, and if you want to hear my valedictory words, you will, I am afraid, have to wait until spring.

But I am keenly aware, and to be honest, painfully aware, that this is the last Rosh Hashanah sermon I will give as rabbi of Temple Isaiah.

What makes it painful is not being able to see your faces, the faces of those with whom I have been privileged and blessed to share this journey for more than two decades, the faces of those who have touched my life and my family’s life so deeply throughout these years. 

It is especially painful not to be able to see up close, and to give a hug, to those who have lost loved ones during the past 18 months, painful that we all have barely been able to physically connect with one another.  I am especially mindful, of course, of the too many members of our congregation, and the too many extended family members who lost their lives to Covid -19.  May all of their memories be abiding blessings.

Yes, I thought about and imagined these high holidays many times, how bittersweet an experience it would be, and especially how meaningful it would be.  I knew that I would find myself experiencing a flood of memories and expected that it might be challenging to get through these holidays without becoming overly emotional.

And over the past few days, I have found myself becoming quite emotional, but I am not certain how much is attributable to this being my last Rosh Hashanah with you, and how much is my profound disappointment at not being with you in person.

I am grateful for the technology that allows you to see my face, and allows us to connect this way, but I would be less than honest if I said that I was not sad and disappointed to be holding our last high holidays together this way.

But right now, I need to be in this moment.  We all need to be in this moment.

It is without question a more difficult and challenging moment than we expected even just a few months ago.

And yes, it is indeed one of those maddening times.

It is maddening because just weeks ago, we had every reason to imagine that the worst was behind us, and that we were sailing towards life at least largely as we had once known it, different as we knew it would have to be post-pandemic.

And that is the key term, the place we had every reason to imagine we would be right now: post-pandemic.

I know that you are as disappointed as I am that we are where we are.

And I know that there are those who would still have preferred for all who desired to gather in the sanctuary. Unlike last year, when there was no decision to be made, the complexity that we faced this year led to agonizing throughout the Jewish community around the world.  How wonderful that the weather seems to have held, and that those who wished to worship in person outdoors this morning, and who will gather for our tot and family shabbat this afternoon, as well as for Tashlich, were and will be able to do so!

But it is exactly the need for that kind of decision-making that is weighing so heavily on all of us right now.

The fewer decisions we have to make, the less stress we experience, even if we do not love the outcomes. For the most part, human beings are pretty resilient – we know how to accept disappointment and move on. But uncertainty is a lot more challenging for us.

It is probably not surprising that there been studies which indicate that uncertainty is more stressful than predictable and known negative consequences.  Wondering whether you are about to experience something undesirable is often measurably more stressful than experiencing the undesirable event itself. 

When you factor in all of the uncertainty that we are facing in the world today, not only from the pandemic, but from the obvious impact of the climate crisis, to efforts at vote suppression, to the breathtaking attacks on reproductive rights and women’s rights to make decisions about their own bodies, to the pain of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, let alone the deep tear in our social fabric that makes the culture wars of yesteryear seem like minor disagreements, it is no wonder that so many of us are as stressed as we have ever been.  Rarely in our lifetimes has so much been so uncertain.

If it feels as if we are being tested… Well, perhaps it is because we are. 

Maybe not quite the way Abraham was tested…

Or maybe very much as he was.

Now I trust that you know that I do not take the stories of the Torah literally, including this one.  I am not suggesting for a moment that God is testing us, intentionally sending us challenges to see how we respond.  What matters, though, is not the source of the test, but our response to it! Abraham’s response to his test offers us a framework for drawing meaning and facing the future that speaks to exactly where we are today.

Yes, the narrative of the Akedah provides an explicit image of a conscious, intentional test. We know that is not the case for the most significant tests we face in our lives.  There are times, however they may come about, when we find ourselves tested by situations and circumstances that determine the truth of who we are.  And goodness knows, we are in such a place right now.

In his Torah commentary, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the towering figure of 19th century Jewish life, teaches that the Hebrew word for test, nisayon, is related to the word nassa, meaning to raise or to elevate, as well as the word nisiya, which means to travel or move forward.  Building on that teaching, Rabbi Simon Jacobson posits that “every test, every challenge, is an opportunity to move forward, to grow, to become stronger and more elevated, through exercising the latent powers within our soul. Not only do challenges uncover hidden reserves, they can also be the impetus for creating new strengths, new reserves.”

“Not only do challenges uncover hidden reserves, they can also be the impetus for creating new strengths, new reserves.” Reminiscent of Nietzsche, no? “What does not kill me, makes me stronger.” 

Maybe. Tests can, indeed, have positive consequences.

I would add that that same word, nisayon, test, came to mean experience in modern Hebrew.

We have the power to transform our tests into opportunities for new understandings and growth.

Yes, I know, we could all do with a little bit less growth and a little bit less experience right about now.

I imagine Abraham would have said the very same thing.

I wonder, though, if Abraham would have said “What does not kill me, makes me stronger.” 

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson offers a different possibility, suggesting that Abraham would have said  “ ‘What does not kill me, can make me more compassionate.’ Abraham passes the test because he faces the challenge. Rather than fleeing, rather than cowering and allowing the struggle to cripple him, Abraham moves forward, to go wherever it is that his path in life will lead?

Abraham’s trial becomes a source of personal growth and spiritual depth. The Zohar recognizes a hint of that when, at the moment Isaac is bound to the altar and Abraham raises the knife in the air, an angel of Adonai calls out: ‘Abraham! Abraham!’ Why does the angel say Abraham’s name twice?  Rabbi Hiyya says that the angel repeats ‘Abraham! to animate him with a new spirit and to spur him to new activity with a new heart. Indeed, the Zohar claims that the angels shouted ‘Abraham! Abraham!’ to show that ‘the latter Abraham was not like the former Abraham; the latter was the perfected Abraham while the former was still incomplete.’”

Abraham was indeed stronger – and more elevated and perhaps, as the Zohar suggests, more complete.

But, boy, look what he had to go through to get there!

And getting there took something we cannot take for granted.

Getting to that place, for him, as for us, requires faith.

Not belief, faith.

Now I know that faith and belief are often conflated, but they are different, if related concepts.

Allow me to share illustration that I shared exactly 20 years ago, on Rosh Hashanah 5762.

It has likely not escaped your attention that this coming Saturday will be the 20th anniversary of the event simply known by its date- 9/11.  None of us who are old enough to remember hearing the news of that day will ever forget its impact.  That Friday night, just a few days later, our sanctuary was as full as it typically gets on Rosh Hashanah.  We were, as a society, thoroughly disoriented.  What took place was previously unimaginable, and it rocked our world.

This is the story I told at Rosh Hashanah services that year, exactly one week later, on September 18.

It is about a man who was making his way through an infrequently traveled, but charted path through a wilderness area.  There was one point where, according to his map, a footbridge crossed a deep chasm that needed to be crossed, but when he got to that point, the footbridge was not there.  He stood for a few moments, pondering what he might do, when he heard a voice shouting from the far side of the chasm.  Another man stood there, asking if he wanted to get across.  He acknowledged that he did, but had no way of knowing how he was going to do that.  With that, the second man shouted “catch”, and displaying extraordinary strength and skill, tossed a rope across the space so that the first man could easily grab it.  The second man instructed him to turn around and tie it as tight as possible to a large boulder behind him.  Once the rope was secured at that end, the man who threw the rope did the same at his end, tying it as taught as a tight rope.  He then walked around behind the large boulder, and pulled out a wheelbarrow.  To the astonishment of the first man, the second man walked across the rope with the wheelbarrow without missing a beat.

The first man looked at the second man in amazement and proclaimed, “if I had not seen that with my own eyes, I would not have believed it.”  The second man replied, “but you did see it, and you do believe it.” 

“Yes, I did and I do.”

That is belief.

The second man asked the first man, “do you think I could do it again?”. 

The first man said, “yes, I do think so.” 

“Okay,” said the second man, pointing to the wheelbarrow.  “Get in.”

That is faith.

Belief is a matter of what we accept as being true in the world.  Faith is a matter of how we act on what we believe.

Faith provides no guarantees, only possibilities. But when standing at the edge of a cliff, looking out onto a deep chasm, the absence of faith provides only paralysis.

The first man had a choice.  In order to move forward, he had to have faith in the only means of doing so.

That was exactly the position we found ourselves in 20 years ago, as we stared at the chasm before us, wondering how we would get to the other side.

And it is the same position we find ourselves in today.

Once again, we stand on the precipice of a deep chasm.

In order to move forward, we have no choice but to put our faith in the only means of making it across, even though here are no guarantees.

The only way to move forward is to act on what we believe and what we cherish and value.

We got used to quite a bit of change after 9/11.  And we will likely have to get used to a fair amount of change once we have reached a different place from where we are.

I remember the first time that I flew after 9/11, about six weeks later, to attend an out-of-town Bat Mitzvah celebration.  I was astonished at the amount of security we had to go through.  The lines were long, and the amount of time it took was breathtaking.  But we understood it was the price we had to pay in order to move forward. And we understood that we had entered a new normal.

There, I said it.

A new normal.

But there were other ways that we had changed that stayed with us, some of which were not as apparent for some time.

I also remember flying home from Europe at the end of January, 2017, and standing by the gate at the airport watching in horror and helplessness as a young woman, a student at a Boston area university, was told she could not get on a plane and return to her studies in the United States because her passport was issued by a certain Muslim majority country.  That was more than 15 years later. And that, too, was for a time our new normal.

There it is again, that phrase: the new normal.  I would like to submit that phrase, along with the word pivot, as the words of the year, or years, of the pandemic. Well actually, I would like to erase them from our vocabulary altogether, or at least not hear them again for a very long time.  The truth is, though, we do not yet have any idea what our new normal will look like, because we are still moving towards it, and the one thing that is certain is that the world will be different in ways that are yet to unfold.

This much is clear: we are being tested not only as individuals, but as a society.  How we emerge from this time will be determined in large measure by how we are determined to live and to be, how we will emerge as individuals and as a society.  We will likely prove Nietzsche correct, and come away stronger. But will we also be B’nai Avraham, the children of Abraham? Will we be more thoughtful, more sensitive, more caring and more compassionate, or more jaded and guarded and bitter?

Dr. Kate Bowler, author of the bestseller, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved (yes, there are multiple sermons in that title alone), in that book, shares this prayer for living with uncertainty, “God, I am walking to the edge of a cliff. Build me a bridge. I need to get to the other side.”

I wonder if she knew the story of the man in the wheelbarrow.

I like her suggestion a lot better.  Living in a time of uncertainty, we need a bridge, not a tight rope.  And our tradition teaches that God has no hands but ours – so it is up to us to build it, through faith and commitment to our vision for what awaits on the other side.

We will, at some point, find ourselves on that other side.  And when we do, the perspective we bring will be critical. Whether we will have grown – whether our nisayon is a meaningless test or it becomes a more beautiful part of the fabric of the individual souls that we are and of the society we are, will depend entirely on what we take with us and how, if at all, we have grown from what we have been through.

Winston Churchill famously said, “never let a good crisis go to waste.”  And I must say that over the years, I have learned much from those who faced significant life challenges, mostly, but not exclusively, serious health challenges, and came away with new perspective.  There is, after all, nothing like having your world turned upside down to force you to look at life differently.  Perhaps, then, the greatest test of whether we will have grown, and if so, how, will be the perspective we bring.  That can be hard to measure.  But I suspect that we will most readily know that we have not only changed, but grown, when we pause to recognize what we will no longer take for granted.  

My friend, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, who some will recall from her visit as our scholar in residence a number of years ago, asked her congregation in Toronto what they will never take for granted again, and composed this prayer for the new year:

“May we never again take for granted—

The offered handshake from a stranger new to our congregation,

A quick catch-up conversation with the people in the row behind us,

A crowded Kol Nidre.

Singing together in harmony

Having a slice of challah for Shabbat,

The taste of a small cup of Kiddush grape juice,

Being in shul.

May we never again take for granted—

Breathing deeply without a mask

Making plans for the future,

Crossing a border,

Ease of travel,

A busy airport

A birthday party with hugs

Having loved ones hold your children,

Hugging

Sharing a sandwich

Human contact

Coffee with a friend

Physical touch

Family

Our belief in science

Fact-based public discourse

The sacredness of connection

Life itseIf.

This year, may we become the people we wanted to be last year.

May this coming year be better than the one which has past— because of the one which has past.

May we stay strong for each other

because we have experienced weakness.

May we stay bound to each other

because we have experienced isolation.

May we stay close to each other

because we have experienced distance.

May our new normal be better than the one we think we will return to.”

And if you are so inclined, I invite you to say

Amen

Sun, October 24 2021 18 Cheshvan 5782