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Artwork: Rabbi Steven Saltzman

Rabbi Steven Saltzman left behind a wealth of sermons, his legacy to the world. We will upload them all, one Read More
  • Joined May 2017
  • Published Books 1

LOVE IS EVERLASTING

The same fate is in store for all: for the righteous, and for the wicked; for the good and pure, and for the impure; for him who sacrifices, and for him who does not; for him who is pleasing, and for him who is displeasing; and for him who swears, and for him who shuns oaths. That is the sad thing about all that goes on under the sun: that the same fate is in store for all. {Kohelet 9: 1-3}

Kohelet decries what each of us already knows: that all life, human or animal, perfect or imperfect, must end in death. But we say that love is stronger than death and love gives meaning to life. We say that even if life is limited, love is everlasting. But as we repeat these words, we must ponder their truth and wonder deep within the silence of our hearts and souls whether love really is stronger than death. Is the love we have for those special people in our life everlasting? Will it survive not only the ravages of time and space but survive our own death as well?

There are answers to these questions, answers proffered by a very strange Midrash. But to understand the Midrash, you must understand why the Midrash is so bizarre. This then is our

point of departure.

The family life of our Patriarchs is well chronicled by the Torah in which no details are spared concerning even their most intimate moments. In marked contrast, Moses’ family life is shrouded in almost total obscurity. We are told that he marries Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, the High Priest of Midian and has two sons Gershom and Eliezer. Beyond this resume-like information, we know nothing–nothing of his life with Zipporah and nothing about his sons and their lives.

The following Midrash is all the more unusual because it not only gives us a glimpse into Moses’ personal life but gives it to us from Zipporah’s point of view.

In the Book of Numbers we are told that God empowers Moses to appoint seventy men to help administer the affairs of state. He is to gather these elders of the tribes and bring them to the Tent of Meeting where they may take their place of honour. There God will draw from the spirit which is on Moses and put it upon them as well so that they may share the burdens of governing the people of Israel and bear the responsibility along with Moses who need no longer carry it alone.

The Midrash tells us that when the seventy elders were appointed and the spirit of the Lord came upon them, their wives lit candles of joy to celebrate. Zipporah, Moses’ wife, saw the illumination and asked Miriam to explain it. Miriam told her the reason and added: “Blessed are the women who behold with their eyes how their husbands are raised to dignity.” Zipporah retorted: “Oy Lahen.” No Miriam, it would be more proper to pity the wives of those men who must now abstain from all intimacy with them. “How do you know this Zipporah?” asked Miriam. “I judge so from the conduct of your brother, my husband, Moses. For ever since he chose to receive Divine revelations, he was no longer interested in loving me.”

No wonder the Torah is silent about Moses’ personal life, he has none. His relationship with God allows no room for human love. Moses, so we are told, has risen to a spiritual level which denies the need for other people and which shuts out the experience of being truly human. He has chosen a way to God, which shuts out love and denies its efficacy. How can love be stronger than death, how can love be at all meaningful if Moses is telling us that loving another person is fundamentally incompatible with loving God? That you have to give up either your family or your pursuit of God, but that

you cann’t have both? Does this not contradict everything that we hold sacred, values set down from the very dawn of our recorded history?

In the beginning, there was only God and man. They had only each other and yet when God looked at his creation, he realized that man still felt very much alone even in the presence of God. “Lo tov heyot adam levado. It isn’t good for man to be alone. God created woman because even God cannot be a substitute for a human being. Every Patriarch, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, was close both to God and family. Aaron and Miriam, Moses’ siblings, and prophets in their own right were never compelled to divorce themselves from human intimacy. The richness of being involved with human beings and the mystery of encountering God are not mutually exclusive. In fact one way to reach God is by sharing with another person those experiences that make us truly human; by sharing love and joy and sometimes even sharing in someone elses suffering we encounter God.

The first of the Ten Commandments is: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” Focusing on the text, we may wonder why the creator of heaven and earth neglects to mention these accomplishments,

choosing instead to be identified only as God who liberated the people from Egypt. The answer lies in the circumstances of the events at Mount Sinai. The Ten Commandments were addressed to those people who had just come out of Egypt a few weeks earlier as is depicted by our Parashah this morning. God says to them, in effect, I am the One you have met in your experience of liberation from bondage. I am the One you met when your first child was born; I am the One who comforted you when you thought life could never again be meaningful; I am the One who made it possible for you to love. You see God is not met in some philosophy book, or in some theological lecture. This morning we read: YHWH Holech Lifnaychem yomam Be’amud ‘Anan, The lord went before them in a pillar cloud by day to guide them along the way; VeLayalah Be’amud Aysh, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light. God is the God met in the midst of life. God is found in our experience. We needn’t sit like a recluse in a cave contemplating ultimate issues, all we have to do is to pay attention to the seeming trifles of routine existence. We don’t have to be heroes to find God. We will find Him in the unheroic, in the inconspicuous pattern of our lives. Only by living our lives and finding God in life can we respond to the command: Ve-ahavta et Adonai elohekha bechol levavecha uvechol nafshekha uvechol mo’odecha. You shall love the Lord your God with all

your heart and with all your might and with all your being.

Moses thought that he could find God by rejecting God’s world and people in that world. He thought that he could find God somewhere in the clouds on top of a mountain removed from daily life. He thought that he could come to God by being only in a relationship with God Himself and with nothing and no one else. But his way is not ours. We find God by loving other people and the love exchanged never dies even when we do because it is sustained by the presence of God in this world. For when we love someone, we are also finding our way to God and to a love of God. Because God keeps that love alive within His own being, love is stronger than death; it is truly everlasting.

And so the first lesson we learn is that the love of God comes out of a sustained encounter with the details of life. To love God is to love his creation, to love his world and to find love in that world. For then love is truly everlasting, because ultimately that love rests in the eternal presence of God.

Do you remember the last scene in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables? Jean Valjean is on his deathbed with Cossette,

his adopted daughter by his side. He utters his last confession saying:

Forgive me all my trespasses and take me to your glory. Take my hand and lead me to salvation. Take my love for love is everlasting. And remember the truth that once was spoken. To love another person is to see the face of God.

Moses always wanted to know God’s glory; to see God’s face and really understand the intimate workings of His plan for us. But he was looking for that revelation in a place far away and high above when all along it was there to be had in the eyes of his once beloved Zipporah.

The eternal quality of our love teaches us a second very important lesson. Because love exchanged between people partakes of the Divine Presence it will never bog us down in the past. The everlasting quality of love carries us out ahead into our future. We can put behind us the rickrack bid-chirp town and countryside, for something new because we can never betray the past by embracing the future. Love is the beginning of the end of the beginning, of things looking different, tasting new, a quality of sound, all this and more

because we loved and were loved in return.

When those memories hold us back from life; when the love we carry prevents us from living then there is something wrong with that love.

Do you remember the old Spencer Tracy movie entitled A Guy Named Joe? Tracy plays the part of Pete Sandich, a pilot killed in action who comes back as a ghost to deal with all of the unfinished personal issues between himself and Dorinda, the woman who is devastated by his tragic death. In a final statement to Dorinda, Sandich says:

I can tell you now Dorinda. You’re going back and you’re going to have a swell life. You’re going to have a wonderful life. Everything is going to seem prettier than it was. Rain is going to seem to have a little more smell to it. Trees are going to seem a little bit greener. And the nights are going to be chock full of stars. When you go to sleep, you’re not going to have any bad dreams. And when that morning sunlight hit you in the face, you’re going to wake up laughing. What’s more, you’re going out with people and you’re going to have all

the things they have including love. The only decent thing I did in my life was love you, Dorinda. But if the memory of that love is going to make you unhappy all the rest of your life, there must have been something wrong with it. It should have been the kind that filled your heart so full of love that you had to go out and find someone to give it to. That’s the only real kind, Dorinda, the only kind that really lives.

You know, I find myself wondering what kind of kids you are going to have. I’d like to talk to those kids some day. I think I could tell them something–something about life and how good it is and how good it can be, and how the decent things in life never die. And how the only kind of love worth having is the kind that goes on living, laughing and fighting and loving.

On this day, let us remember the strength of love and its potential for conquering even death itself. In loving we share the beauty of God’s creation not only with our beloved but with God, Himself.

Let us remember the words of the anonymous poet who wrote:

When you love, give it everything you’ve got, and when you have reached your limit, give it more, and forget the pain of it because as you face your death it is only the love you have given and received which will count, and all the rest, the achievements, the struggles, the fights, will be forgotten in your reflection; and if you have loved well then it will have been worth it, and the joy of it will last you through the end.

I have had the sacred privilege of sharing in your love at weddings, bar and bat mitzvah celebrations and other life cycle events. Thank you all for sharing in my love on this shabbat. I have copied a small poem for Fran (thank you John Denver) and want to share it with you.

Perhaps love is like a resting place

A shelter from the storm.

It exists to give you comfort

It is there to keep you warm.

And in those times of trouble

When you are most alone

The memories of love will see you through

Perhaps love is like a window

Perhaps an open door

It invites you to come closer

It wants to show you more.

And even if you lose yourself and

Don’t know what to do.

The memory of love will always see you through.

Oh love to some is like a cloud

To some as strong as steel

For some a way of living

For some a way to feel

And some say love is holding on

And some say letting go

And some say love is everything

And some say they don’t know.

Perhaps love is like the ocean

Full of conflict, full of pain.

Like a fire when it’s cold outside

Thunder when it rains.

If I should live forever

And all my dreams come true

My memories of love will always be of you.

May these words bring some courage to all us and let us all

remember that to love another person is to see the face of God.

AMEN!!

1

2

WHERE TO FIND HAPPINESS

I begin my sermon this morning with some hesitation because I want to talk about where to find happiness, and what constitutes happiness.

 

I am sure that most of the people in this room probably think that they already know. Happiness is winning the lottery. Happiness is your horse or your team or your child coming in first in a contest. Happiness is finding just the dress you want and at a bargain price. Everyone already has their own definition of happiness, so who needs a sermon on the subject? Yet, this is the holiday, which the tradition calls, “Ziman simchateynu,” ”The season of our joy,” and so I want to explore with you the meaning of happiness.

 

My thesis is that the answer to the question of what constitutes happiness changes during the different stages of our lives. My thesis is that what makes us happy when we are five is not the same as what makes us happy when we are fifteen, and what makes us happy when we are fifteen is not what makes us happy when we are fifty, and what makes us happy when we are fifty is not the same as what makes us happy when we are seventy-five. My thesis is that just as there are different stages in life, so there are different stages in what constitutes happiness.

 

I want to bring as witnesses for my thesis today two people, for whose writings I have great respect. One is Judith Viorst, the essayist and author of books of poetry for adults and for children. The other is Kohelet, the wise old man whose book we read on this holiday. These two writers lived thousands of years apart. They lived in different cultures and on different continents and yet, I think the two of them understood what constitutes happiness in precisely the same way. So let me bring them to you today as my witnesses, as I try to find with you a workable definition of what constitutes happiness.

 

Judth Viorst wrote an essay in which she begins by saying that her five-year-old granddaughter, Miranda, came for a visit from out of town, and that the high point of the visit was when she gave her a bath. She didn’t do it in the usual way. Instead, Miranda asked her to climb into the bathtub with her; and so she did. Pretty soon, they were splashing around, scrubbing each other’s backs, pouring cups of water on each other’s heads, and making a total mess in the bathroom.

 

At one point, Miranda leaned into her, sighed a happy sigh as she wriggled her toes in the sloppy, soapy bath tub, and said, in a voice of utter contentment, “Grandma, don’t you LOVE our bath?”

 

Judith Viorst writes, “I did indeed.” And then she says, “I can’t begin to tell you how much I loved that bath. When I was a young mother and had three kids to bathe, and a job to get to, and lots of housework to do, I did not love bathing my kids. I did it rush-rush, and finished. And while I did it, my mind was on other things on my list that I had to do as soon as I finished this task. But this time, my mind wasn’t anywhere else. I was there, right there, completely there, reveling in this experience. And I knew, at that moment, that I was happy.

 

Think of that. When Judith Viorst was a young mother with three small kids and a house to manage and a job to go to, bathing her children was a necessary chore, but it sure wasn’t a joyous experience. But when she was a grandmother, with a grandchild visiting from our of town, and she had no schedule and no deadline and nothing else to do but relish the moment, bathing with her grandchild, the very same act, was now a moment of incredible joy.

 

This incident set her to thinking about what constitutes happiness and her answer is, it depends on when you ask her. In redefining happiness in the third of her life, she says, she finds herself de-emphasizing intensity. Young happiness, she recalls, came with blazing primary colors, with states of rapture and moments of ecstasy. She remembers experiences back then that made her feel, “I’m so happy I could die!” But happiness in the senior section of our lives is different.

 

“We older-marrieds,” she says, “can count the simple pleasure of reading the Sunday newspaper together in the silent, sustaining intimacy that flows between long-term partners who deeply know and are deeply known by each other. Such pleasure is light years away from the heart-pounding excitement of young love, but still, quiet, unflamboyant, un-heart-pounding happiness is also happiness.”

 

And so is watching your children grow up to become each other’s good friends. So is watching the mid-morning sun hit your tulips. So is passing your annual physical check-up. And so is sharing a bathtub with your grandchild.

 

Did any of these things; reading the newspaper together? Passing your annual physical? Watching the sun on your tulips? Did any of these appear on your list of “What Makes Me Happy” when you were young? Of course not! Who even thought about such things back then? But they are on our list of “What Makes Me Happy” now. And some of the things that used to be on my list of “What Makes Me Happy” back then, I have had to cross out over the years. With the passing of time, some of those things that used to be on the list no longer are. For whatever reason, some of those things are no longer on the list, but that does not mean that we cannot still be happy, even without those things.

 

In setting the terms of our happiness, we cannot keep going back to the old list. Instead, we must suit our definition to our circumstances, revising the list to reflect the realities of our life, and our age.

 

The middle-aged woman whose greatest moment of glory was when she was named Homecoming Queen in college is looking for joy in the wrong place if she is still living off that memory. The middle-aged man who found his self-definition and his status in the days when he was in the army is living in a false world if he still focuses and revels on that stage. The older man, for whom the summit of existence was the time he shot the winning basket in the last second of his high school basketball game, needs to find a new focus. That was good, very good then, but if they or we continue to crave the same kind of happiness for the rest of our lives, we are not going to be very happy.

 

There are other people whom we know who try to find their happiness, not so much in living and reliving and reliving the great moments of the past, but in anticipating the great moments of the future. These are the ones who say to themselves, “I will be happy IF” or “I will be happy WHEN something or other happens tomorrow.” For these people, happiness will be elusive. For they are in such a hurry to get where they are going that they forget to take notice of where they are. We need to pay close attention, especially as we grow older, to what’s good now, and allow that to make us happy.

 

If we will only redefine what we mean by happiness, if we will only redefine it to match later-life’s necessary limits and later-life’s rich possibilities, we can discover sources of joy that were unimaginable, unimaginable when we were young.

 

Who would have thought that taking a bath with your grandchild, just that could bring you so much joy? Who would have thought that splashing, scrubbing, hugging and making a mess together all over the bathroom floor, could give you so happiness? If anyone had told us about this when we were younger, we would not have understood, but now we do.

 

She finishes her article by saying, “Now, please excuse me, I have to go clean up the bathroom floor.”

 

I share that vignette with you because I think it makes the point. What constitutes happiness; changes. It is not the same when you are sixteen as it is when you are thirty-six, and it is not the same when you are thirty-six as it is when you are seventy-six. But at any age, and at any stage, there are opportunities for happiness, different ones but real ones, if only we will notice them.

 

Now my second witness, Kohelet. Kohelet was the wise old man of the Bible, whose words are traditionally read on the holiday of Sukkot. He said much the same thing in his way, more than two thousand, five hundred years ago. There is a bracha that you are supposed to say when you say something that you think is original and then find out that it has been said before you. The bracha is “Baruch shekivanti lidaat gidolim – Blessed be the Lord who has enabled me to intuit that which the Sages said before me.” Perhaps Judith Viorst ought to say that bracha today, because much of what she said in her way, Kohelet said in his way, centuries before her.

 

He said in chapter two, “There is nothing worthwhile for a person but to eat and drink and afford himself enjoyment with his means.” And he said in chapter three, “There is a time for everything under heaven. And: then I realized that the only worthwhile thing there is for human beings is to enjoy themselves and do what is good in their lifetimes. Whenever a man does eat and drink and get enjoyment out of his wealth, that is a gift of God.”

 

In chapter five, it says, “Only this have I found is really good; that a person should eat and drink and get pleasure out of all the gains he makes under the sun, during the numbered days of life that God has given him, for this is his portion.”

 

One wrote in Hebrew, and one in English. One lived long, long ago; the other writes today. And yet, somehow I feel that Kohelet and Judith Viorst would get along very well if they were to meet. They would find that they have much in common and they would find delight and even happiness in talking to each other. And so should we.

 

We should find our happiness in little things. Things that are really not so little, like being able to talk and listen to each other and things like learning from and with each other. Things like being able to walk, talk and breathe in the fresh air, drink in the sunshine, and play with our grandchildren. Things like going to shul and singing, even if off-key, the songs of our people, should bring us joy. Things like davening, studying and making kiddush can all bring us joy, depending on how we view them in different stages of our lives.

 

According to the tradition, Ziman Simchateynu is the season of our rejoicing. Perhaps the lesson that we should learn today is that every season, every stage of life, is or can be a season of rejocing. The only difference is that what it is brings us joy and changes with every season and with every stage. What brings us joy when we are six is not what brings us joy when we are sixty, but joy is always there, always available, always to be found, if only we have eyes that are open, and a heart that is open, with which to find it.

 

Judith Viorst is right. Giving a child a bath can be a chore and a bore when you are twenty-five and busy, but giving a grandchild a bath when you are seventy-five and still able to do it is a joy, a privilege and a simcha. So let us learn from both of these wise people, from Kohelet and from Judith Viorst, to find our happiness in each stage of our lives, from whatever it is that we can still do, from whatever it is that is a privilege to do, from whatever it is that God enables us to do. Amen.

3

WHAT IF WE DID NOT DIE?

We are a remarkable people, are we not? On the one hand, we are a people that values and celebrates life. We are a people that sing over and over and over again on the High Holy Days: “Zochreynu lichayim, melech chafetz bichayim, vichatveynu bisefer hachaim, limaancha, Elohim chayim—remember us for life, O king who delights in life, and write us in the book of life, for Your sake, O God of life.” And every time we take a drink, we toast each other with the word: “Lichayim” which means ‘to life’.

 

And yet, we are a people that are constantly conscious of death. Do you know another people that come to services four times a year in order to say Yizkor? Do you know another people that observe the anniversary of the death of a loved one the way we do by coming to the synagogue to pray and by lighting a candle at home?

 

And on the High Holy Days we do two contradictory things: we ask God for another year of life and we recite prayers, the martyrology, the Yizkor, the Unitane Tokef that make us aware of both the preciousness and the precariousness of life. Part of me on the Days of Awe thinks about what I should do in this new year to make this a better world, and part of me thinks on the Days of Awe about how I have one year less to live, and when will my days come to their end.

 

So which are we, a people that celebrates life or a people that lives with the consciousness of the ever-presentness of death?

Before I try to answer that question, let me confess that I read the newspapers a little bit differently than the way that I used to read the newspapers. I used to read the papers to see whom I knew who was getting married. I don’t do that any more, because most of the people whom I know are married already and even their children are married already. I used to read the papers to see who was having babies. I don’t do that anymore because most of the people whom I know are long past the stage of having babies, and so are their children. Now I read the obituary pages. And when I do, I have two reactions. One is if I read that someone who is younger than I am has died, I say to myself; how come this person died so young? And if I read that someone who is older than I am has died, I do the math and figure out how many years I still have to go before I will get to be his or her age.

 

And when I come to Yizkor, there are two thoughts that struggle for supremacy within my soul. One is: to remember those for whom I have come to say Yizkor. And the other is: to wonder when will it be my turn? And who will say Yizkor for me, and starting when? The first thought is conscious, but the second one, when will it be my turn to join the list, is there. It is there in my subconscious, but I feel it struggling to emerge every single time that I say Yizkor for I know, each time I come here to say Yizkor, that I am one year further away from my beginning and that I am one year closer to my end.

 

There is one more series of questions that dwells in my mind and in my heart every time I say Yizkor. And that is: why did my loved ones have to die? And why will I someday have to die? And why must anyone and why must everyone someday have to die? If life is so good here on this earth, then why must all of us someday leave it? Why can’t we live forever? And what do we need death for?

 

The Israeli writer, Liat Ben-David, wrote something this year that speaks to these questions. Let me share it with you. She writes: “A man desired to live forever. “My Lord,” he prayed, “Why must my time on earth be so short? If only I could live forever, how much good I could accomplish! How much I could achieve! But instead, I am nothing, born to die so soon. I cannot do all the wonders and all the good that I want to.”

 

That night, an angel came to him and said: “You want to live for eternity? Come and I will show you what you are asking for. They went to a garden, where the man saw people, or at least that is what he thought they were. Their faces were expressionless, blank, with no sadness and no joy on them. One sat underneath a tree, yawning; another was flat on his back, his eyes closed; a third was just staring into the distance. “What is this place?” the man asked each of these people in turn. They answered: “This is the garden of eternal life”. “And what are you doing here?” the man asked. “Nothing. Nothing at all,” the three figures answered. “Why?” the man demanded. “Why not?, the figure said. “After all, we can do whatever we want to tomorrow, or else the day after, or if not then, then a hundred years from now. Time has no meaning here, so what’s the rush?”

 

The man understood what the angel was showing him. When he awoke, he prayed: “Blessed be the Lord, who sets boundaries to time.”   That is a wise bracha, though it takes a long time before we are able to understand it and appreciate it.

 

I can identify with the man in this story who wanted to know: what do we need death for, for I have felt that way more than once in my life. I remember a daydream that I once had, years ago. I had just lost my sister in law, who was like a sister to me, and who was a very good person. And I was angry. And so I said to God in my dream: “Why did such a good person have to die? And while I’m at it, God, why did my brother, who was such a good person, have to die years before her? And why did my parents, who were such good people, have to die too?”

 

This is what I said to God, with all the pent-up anger in my heart. And God said to me: “Do you not understand the place of death in the divine economy? Would you rather that there be no death?” And I said, impetuously: Yes!”

 

So God granted my request. And for a while, it was wonderful. I ran and skipped and danced with pleasure at what I had persuaded God to do. But only for a while. Summer came and went, fall came and went and I could not tell the difference. They were exactly the same. Not a single leaf withered. Not a single flower faded. And soon the flowers and the leaves that looked so beautiful began to look boring. And the tree that looked so beautiful when I first saw it began to look dull. And everything on earth, everything began to seem vapid, boring, and stale. No one died, but no one was born either.

 

And eventually I came back to God in my dream and said: You’re right, and I was wrong. And I said the blessing that you are supposed to say when you have a loss, the blessing that acknowledges that God is the True Judge.

 

There is a strange passage in the Talmud. The Torah says that when God completed the work of creation, God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. Says Rabbi Meir: what does ‘very good’ mean? It means ‘including death’. What does that mean? I think it means that, precious as life is, lovely as life it, it would not be complete if it did not contain death.

 

There is a wonderful children’s story called Tuck Everlasting, which was written by a woman named Natalie Babbitt. Like all children’s stories, it contains wisdom that adults should pay attention to too.

 

It is a story about a girl named Winnie, who accidentally discovers the secret of the Tuck family. It seems that many years before, they drank from a certain hidden spring that gave them eternal life. As a result, they never age. And they never die, not from injury, not from accident, and not from old age.

 

The two sons, Jesse and Miles, will always be seventeen and twenty-two. The father, who is called Tuck, explains to Winnie why this is not so great as she thinks it is at first. They are floating down stream in a rowboat, and he says to her: “Do you know what this is all around us, Winnie? It is life, moving, growing, and changing, never the same two minutes in a row. This water? You look at it every morning and it seems to be the same, but it’s not. All night long it has been moving, coming in here from the west and moving slowly towards the east, always quiet, always moving, always new, until, after a long while, it finally makes its way to the ocean.”

 

“D’ya know what happens then to the water?” says Tuck. “The sun sucks it right up out of the ocean and carries it back to the clouds, and then it rains, and the rain falls into the stream, and the stream keeps moving on, taking it all back again. It’s a wheel, Winnie, everything’s a wheel, turning and turning, never stopping. The frogs are part of it, and the bugs are too, and so are the fish, and the people too—but never the same ones. That’s the way it is supposed to be, Winnie, and that’s the way it is.”

 

The rowboat bumps into the branches of a fallen tree and stops. Tuck continues: “It goes to the ocean, but this rowboat now, it’s stuck. If we don’t move it on ourselves, it’ll stay stuck here forever, trying to get loose but stuck. And that is what we Tucks are, Winnie. We’re stuck and we can’t move on. We ain’t part of the wheel no more. We’re dropped off, Winnie, we’re left behind. And everywhere around us things is moving, and growing and changing. You, for instance, a child now, but soon a woman, and then after that, moving on to make room for the new children.”

Winnie is overwhelmed by these words, and she blurts out: “But I don’t want to die!” “No,” says Tuck calmly, “not now. Your time’s not now. But dying is a part of the wheel, Winnie, just like being born is. You can’t pick out the part you like and leave the rest. Being part of the whole thing, that’s the blessing. But it’s passing by us Tucks. Living’s heavy work but being on the side, the way we are, is useless. It don’t make sense. If I knew how to climb back on the wheel, I’d do it in a minute. You can’t have living without dying. So you can’t call it living, what we got. We just are, we just are, like rocks on the side of the road.”

 

The story is saying that without death, you don’t really have life. It is only the fact that life has an end that makes each day precious. And that is what Rabbi Meir must have meant when he said: “Very good, that includes death”.

 

There is one family in this congregation who taught me this lesson. They got a death notice and the doctor told them that their father had only six more months to live. His children decided to pack those six months with as much living as they possibly could. And so they came to visit him frequently, one from California, and one from Virginia. They brought him to visit them. They took him to Israel to celebrate his eighty-second birthday, And they managed to take him to all the places there that he wanted to see.

 

The six months turned out to be ten, and then twelve and finally fifteen. And they were each filled to the brim with all kinds of wonderful experiences. And when the father died, the children said to me: “if we had thought that we had an endless amount of time to be with him, I am sure that we would have never gotten around to doing all these things that we did with him. We would have put them off, and said to ourselves; ‘we’ll do them one of these days’. But precisely because we knew that we had a deadline, precisely because we knew that we would not have him much longer, we put him first on our list and we made him our priority. We filled each and every day of his life, and of our lives, with precious shared experiences that we will never forget. And we are so grateful that we did.”

 

The children were saying in their way what Rabbi Meir said in his: “God saw everything that He had made in this world, and He said it was very good—including death.”

 

This is the choice that each one of us faces in this world. If you put your trust in things, and those things wear out, as they inevitably will, what do you have? If you put your trust in your body and it wears out, as it inevitably will, then who are you? But if you see yourself as part of a great, never-ending cycle, as Tuck did, if you see yourself as part of a family and part of a people that will not end, then you can let go of your life with confidence, with trust, with faith, and with a sense of joy that you are turning your place over to someone who will continue your character and who will stand for what you stood for.

 

And so the answer to the question that we bring along with us, inside us, when we come for Yizkor is: if there were no death, how pointless our lives would be. But because there is death, how pressured and how precious, how challenging and how sacred, how brief and how beautiful our lives can be. The Psalmist had it right: “Teach us to number our days, O God—and teach us how to appreciate our lives and use them well, precisely because they are so few and so brief, for if we do, then we will thereby acquire a heart of wisdom.

 

Vichen yihi ratson. And so may it be, O God. So may it be.

4

ROSH HASHANA 

Yesterday, I spoke to you about the two phrases that I would add if I could to the third chapter of Kohelet, that speaks of how there is a time for everything under heaven. Yesterday, I suggested that if I had been on the committee that edited the Bible, I would have proposed that a time to lie and a time to tell the truth should have been added to the list. Today, I want to propose another couplet that I wish could be added to the list. And I ask you to listen to my argument, and see if you agree with my proposal: But first, I want to begin my sermon today by asking two questions; First, who is this woman, Hagar, whom we read about in the Torah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah? And second, why on earth is she the central character in the Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah? I learned to understand Hagar from a beautiful essay about her by Erica Brown, who is the scholar in residence at the Washington Jewish Federation, and who is a teacher from whom I have learned much torah.

Erica Brown says that Hagar’s name reveals her character. Hagar means the stranger. Ha—ger. And a stranger she is. She comes out of Egypt, and after her stay in the house of Abraham and Sarah she goes back to Egypt. We know nothing at all about her background. We know that she is the slave or the handmaid of Sarah, but how did they acquire her? Did they buy her at a slave market? Or did she answer a want ad? We don’t know. All we know is that she appears twice in the Torah, first in chapter 16, and then in chapter 21, which is read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. And then she goes off stage, never to be heard from again. But she must have been someone very special, because angels speak to her twice. And she speaks to God once. In fact, she is the first woman in the Bible to whom God speaks, and she is the only woman in the Bible who gives God a name. And so, I want to study the strange story of life of Hagar with you today, first as it appears in chapter 16, and then as it appears in chapter 21.

 

In chapter 16, Sarah comes up with an idea. She knows that God has promised Abraham that he will be the father of a great people, and that his children will be as many as the stars in the sky. And she knows that, so far, she has been unable to give him even a single child. And so she says: “Why don’t you have relations with my servant, with Hagar. And then, if a child is born of this relationship, I will adopt this child and make it mine. This is the first example of surrogate parenting that we have in the Torah. Abraham agrees. And sure enough, Hagar becomes pregnant, almost at once. From that moment on, Sarah cannot stand the sight of this woman. She claims that Hagar has become arrogant towards her, but the truth is that the very sight of Hagar pregnant so quickly, when she has been unable to have a child for so long, is enough to drive Sarah crazy. And so she mistreats Hagar until the poor woman cannot stand it any longer. . And so Hagar runs away. She runs off into the wilderness. She doesn’t know where she is going, and she does not care where she is going. She only wants to get away from Sarah.

 

But in the wilderness, she has an awesome experience. God appears to Hagar, and promises her two things. The first is: you will have a child, and this child will be very strong. To a woman who feels so helpless, and so unprotected, that must have been a great blessing. She is going to have a child who will be strong enough and brave enough to protect her. And the second promise that God makes to Hagar is: “Habey arbeh et t zaraych, ylsafer meyrovlo yisafer meyrav. I will greatly increase your offspring; they shall be too numerous to count. And armed with these two blessings, Hagar goes back to the house of Abraham and Sarah, to have her child. But while she is making her way back through the wilderness; let us pause for a moment. Does that blessing that God gave Hagar sound familiar to you? Where else have you heard these words? Who knows? This very same blessing—word for word—was given by God to Abraham! He too was told that God will greatly increase his offspring; and that they will be as many as the stars in the sky.

 

Two people are given the identical promise by God. The difference will be in how they respond to this promise. What does Hagar do? Near as we can tell—nothing. When Abraham sends her away, she does not protest. She does not remind him of the Divine Promise. He sends her away—so she goes. And now, look with me at what happens when she gets lost in the wilderness and runs out of water. She puts her child down and moves some distance away so that she will not have to listen to the child’s crying—and that’s all. Why doesn’t she cry out to God? Why doesn’t she protest? Why doesn’t she remind God of the promise He made? Instead, all she does is move away from the child’s tears, and cry. And when the angel comes, notice what he says to her: He says: ma lach, Hagar? That is usually translated as: What troubles you, Hagar? But that is not really what it means. If it were, it would be a silly question. A woman and her child are dying of thirst—and the angel asks her: what’s bothering you? What does he think is bothering her?

 

But the Hebrew does not say that. Ma lach, Hagar? means: what is the matter with you, Hagar? Why are you sitting here doing nothing, just crying? Do you think that crying is going to solve your problems? And then the angel opens up her eyes, and she sees the fountain of water which is just up ahead. Notice that the angel does not create the fountain. It is there all the time. All that the angel does is open Hagar’s eyes so that she can see it. She has been so busy crying, her eyes have been so covered over by tears, that she simply did not see what was in front of her eyes! This is the key to understanding Hagar. Even though God had given her such a grand promise—a promise equal to Abraham’s—a promise that she would have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky— Hagar gave up hope. She chose to wallow in self-pity, instead of protesting to God, or staggering on a little bit further until she found a well. Hagar, as Erica Brown puts it, is an ordinary woman in an extraordinary situation. And so she does what any ordinary person would do: she gives up hope.

 

Compare what she did with what Abraham does. Abraham seems to behave much like Hagar does. But if you look closely, you will find one word in the story that shows that he is different. God tells Abraham to offer up his child, and he sets out to do so. He does not protest. He does not picket. He does not say to God: How can You ask me to do this, when you have promised me that my children will be as many as the stars in the sky, and Isaac is my only child? Abraham seems to be as docile and as meek as Hagar is. That is how I always understood the story. God commands—and Abraham obeys. No questions, no argument, no protest, no appeal. But then I noticed one word in the story that I had never really appreciated before: When they get to the mountain where the sacrifice is to take place, Abraham bids farewell to his servants, and he and Isaac go on alone. And notice what he says to them: “You stay here, and I and the boy will go up and sacrifice, AND WE will come back to you. Ani v’hanaar neylcha ad po, VINASHUVA ALEYCHEM.

 

Was Abraham lying to his servants? That is what I used to think. I used to think that he did not want them to stop him from carrying out the awesome and dreadful command he had been given, and so he told them this lie: WE will come back to you, in order to keep them from realizing what he was going to do. But now, I understand this phrase differently. Now I think that Abraham went the three long days that led to this moment, hoping, hoping, hoping that it would not end in death. Deep down in his heart, Abraham was convinced that God would stop it from happening. Deep down in his heart, he kept on believing that the God who saved Lot from Sodom would save Isaac on Mount Moriah. Even when he tied his son, and put him on the altar, even when he took the knife in his hand, even then, I believe that Abraham believed that God would intervene. And the proof? The proof is that he says to his servants: WE will come back to you. Not I—but we!

 

If I am right in understanding this phrase this way, then compare the responses of Hagar and Abraham when they faced a bewildering, undeserved, unjustified, but seemingly certain death. Hagar accepts it, and simply cries. Abraham grits his teeth, and holds on to the faith that it will not happen! And that is the difference between the two! Hagar was given the same promise that Abraham was, to be the progenitor of a great nation, but when she saw that promise about to be voided, all she could do was cry. Whereas Abraham held on to his faith even till the very last moment, even when reality seemed about to crush the dream by which he lived. Why do I talk about these two people today? I do so, because I believe that the two choices that faced them back then face many of us today. And the character of our lives depends on whether we go the way of Hagar or whether we go the way of Abraham. If we give up, if we give in to despair, as Hagar did, we will surely be defeated.

 

If we hang in, and if we hold on, if we continue to believe up to the very last moment, there is some hope that we may prevail, as Abraham did. Give up? And you will surely be proven right to have given up. Stand firm? And you just might be proven to be right to have stood firm. Jews have always chosen the way of Abraham. Even in the darkest days of the Shoah, what were the songs that we created? One was: Zog nisht keyn mol az du geyst dem letsten veyg—don’t ever say that you are going down the last road. No matter how bad things may be, don’t give up your hope. And the other song that came out of the Shoah was: Ani Ma-amin. I believe, I still believe, in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he may delay, I still believe. What is the song of Rabbi Nachman of Bratislav, that he sang two centuries ago, and that we still sing today? The whole world is a narrow bridge, a very narrow bridge, but the main thing in life is not to be afraid.

 

And what is the song that became the national anthem of Israel and that expresses who we are in one word? It is Hatikvah—which means; The hope. When that song was written, the idea that there could be a Jewish state seemed mad. And yet Jews sang this song, and then they made it happen. They lived by hope, and that hope kept them going, until it was fulfilled.

 

And so, to all of you who are sitting here today, who are weighed down with despair, whose hearts are heavy, and who see no way out of your problems, I say: follow the way of Abraham, and not the way of Hagar. Some people say: “Bishert”—what will be is fated, and therefore, there is nothing I can do about it. But Jews only say “Bishert” about the past, never about the present, and surely, never about the future. Let me close with one of my favorite stories. There was a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary named Avraham Holtz. He is now retired, but he tells the story of how he went to Israel to study there for a year, back in the fifties, back in the early days of the state, when food was scarce, and life was difficult. The first thing he did when he moved into his apartment was order a telephone. A week went by, two weeks went by, a month went by, and no one came to install a telephone. So he went downtown to the office of the telephone company, and asked for an explanation. How come he had not yet received a telephone? He asked: Did you lose my records? They clerk said: No, we have your records right here. He said: So what’s the problem? When will I get my telephone? The clerk checked the records, and said: You will probably get your telephone in about a year or so. A year? Avraham said in shock. Do you mean to tell me that there is no hope of getting one sooner than that? Ain tikvah? The clerk said: “Asur liyihdi lomar eyn tikvah. Tikvah yesh. Efsharut eyn!” A Jew is never allowed to say: there is no hope. Hope there is. A possibility there isn’t. That is the way a child of Abraham should talk. Even when there is no hope, there is still hope. Even when there is no possibility, there is still a possibility. Only about the past does a Jew say: This can’t be changed. About the present and the future, you must never give up hope. Hagar had a well right up a few feet in front of her. She could not see it, only because her eyes were full of tears, and her heart was full of despair. If we follow in her footsteps, we will always find someone to blame for our troubles, and some reason to give up. It is easy to sit down and cry, and to become so entangled in a problem that we don’t even think about how to change it.

 

Faith, as Erica Brown puts it, requires patience in the face of a future that we cannot predict, and the determination to make good things happen, and the trust that God will help us if we try. Faith demands, she says, that we engage in a delicate dance between relinquishing control to a power above us, and acting within our full capacity to realize our dreams. On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate God’s kingship, and acknowledge that God is the Supreme Authority, and we are His faithful servants. But a faithful servant does not sit back and wait for his Master to manage his life. A faithful servant works in partnership with his Master to create a better life.

 

So this is the couplet that I would add to the list in Kohelet, if I could: I would say: there is a time to put your fate in the Hands of God and to trust, And there is a time to fight with God—on the side of God—in partnership with God—- to make the good life that you dream of come into reality.

 

I hope and I pray that you and I, and all those whom we love, will live by this couplet in all the days of this new year that now begins. Amen.

 

 

5

WHAT SHOULD WE DO WHEN WE’RE DROWNING IN TROUBLES?

A man came to see me last week.  He is not a member of this congregation, but he came to see me to ask for help.  And he asked me two questions.

He said to me:  “Rabbi, what do you do when you are drowning in troubles?”

And he said to me:  “Rabbi, why is God picking on me?”

Those are not the 64,000-dollar questions.  For, believe me, I would gladly pay ten times 64,000 dollars if I could have the answer to those two questions.  But those are the questions that he asked me.  And then he went on to explain.

He said: “I am going through a divorce.  And it is not a very nice one.   And it looks as if my business is going to go down the tubes.  And last week I found out that my mother is seriously ill.  And yesterday I found out that my child is ill too.

“If these things happened to me one at a time, perhaps I could handle them.  But when they come on me all at the same time, I feel that I am drowning.  And so I have come here to ask you:  What do you do when you’re drowning?  And why is God picking on me this way?”

I answered this man as best I could.  But he and his two questions have been on my mind and on my heart ever since.  And so these are the questions that I want to talk to you about today:  What should we do when we are drowning?  What should we do when life’s problems come upon us all at the same time and seem to overwhelm us?

Is there anyone sitting here today who can honestly say that he or she has never had this experience at some time in his or her life, this experience of feeling that life is simply too much for us, and that we are drowning in a deluge of troubles?  You cannot live to be eighteen years of age in this world without having that experience at least once.  I have had that experience more than once in my life and you probably have had it too.  Isn’t that so?
You have heard it said that life is a journey, a journey that goes from life to death.  It is, but I am sure that you know by now, as well as I do, that the journey is not the same for all people.

For some people–I don’t know why–the journey is smooth.
For others–I don’t know why–the journey is rough.
For some–I don’t know why–the journey is long.
For others–I don’t know why–the journey is short.

I had a funeral last year for a young man who died in his twenties.  And the very next day I had a funeral for a woman who was one week short of her ninety-fifth birthday when she died.  So the journey of life is not the same–not in length, not in light,  not in beauty.  WHAT IS THE SAME for all of us is that at some point along the road of life we all – with no exceptions – encounter a storm of troubles.  We are all buffeted by a wind that shows us no mercy.  And when that happens, we feel overwhelmed.

Perhaps if our troubles came upon us one at a time we might be able to handle them.  But when they come upon us in droves, all at the same time, when they come upon us one after another after another after another without any let-up in between, we feel as if we are floundering and drowning.
When that happens, the first thing that we need to know is:
that being good,
that being nice,
that being ‘frum’ (religious),
that being just,
that going to ‘shul’ (synagogue),
that doing good deeds,

that helping Israel,
that ‘davening’ (praying) every day or keeping kosher,
that donating to the synagogue’s building campaign, —
that all of these things are good and praiseworthy and should be done,
but none of these things is any guarantee that catastrophe and calamity won’t happen to you.
Do you want proof that this is so?
Look at the lives of the patriarchs.
Abraham was pious. You can’t get much more pious than he was.  And yet look at all the troubles he had. He had a business – and it broke up.  He had children – and they fought bitterly.  And then in his old age, he lost the wife who was the foundation on which he based his life.
Isaac was pious.  And yet he nearly died as a youth.  And his children fought over his blessing in his old age.  And he lost his eyesight.  That’s real trouble, isn’t it?

 

Jacob was pious.  And yet his whole life, from before he was born until after he died, was one unending story of heartache and trouble and sorrow and distress.

And so it is clear that God is not just picking on you or on me when we have troubles.  We are not being singled out and we are not the only ones.  And it is clear that you can be nice, and you can be just and you can be ‘frum’ (religious) and you can be good, and you can be close to God and you can still have troubles.  That is not the purpose of religion.  Religion is not an umbrella and it is not a guarantee against distress.  If it were, we would all be religious – not out of piety, but out of prudence.

And so, these problems come to all of us as we walk along the road of life, and when they do, we find ourselves in great distress.

Let me offer you these four suggestions for your consideration of what we should do when we are drowning in troubles:

The first thing we ought to do is look at our problems WITH CLEAR AND OPEN EYES and see if there is anything at all that we can do about them.  For there is nothing at all that can take the place of one’s own rolled-up sleeves.  God does not do for us what we can and ought to do for ourselves.

You have heard this over and over again, but still We have to learn it for ourself, not from others, but out of our own experience:

One of the things that we all have to learn if we are to become grown-ups is this:  That God does not do for us what we can do by and for ourselves.  If He did, we would be ruined!  What happens to the child who is given everything he wants without effort all through his childhood?  How do such children usually end up?  Either as spoiled rotten or as delinquents. Just look at what happened to the children of Israel after God took them out of Egypt, protected them from the Egyptian Army, fed them in the desert…

And so the first thing we need to do when we are drowning in troubles is to look at them and see if there is anything at all that we ourselves can do about them.

The second thing that I would suggest that we can do when we are drowning in troubles is:  We can turn to someone else, someone who will listen patiently and caringly to our problems, someone who will hear us out.

For who knows?  That person may have a suggestion to offer.  Or that person may be able to lead us to someone who can help. And even if he or she can’t, just being listened to will do some good.

What good is a friend if you can’t share your troubles with him or her?  Good time friends we don’t need.  With good time friends, “bin ich shoin farzorkt.”(I’ve got plenty of those.)  We need the kind of friends that we can talk to when we are drowning in “tsores”(troubles).  We need the kind who will listen to us when we are hurting.  For it does some good sometimes just to be able to pour out what is inside your heart.  Even if they don’t do anything more than just listen sympathetically – that’s helpful too.

The third thing that I would suggest is:  That if you feel overwhelmed by a problem, or by a host of problems, that you remember that you can always hold on a little bit longer than you think you can.  YOU CAN ALWAYS HOLD ON A LITTLE BIT LONGER THAN YOU THINK YOU CAN.  And if you do, you never can tell when the winds will shift and the sun will come out and things will get better.
Two examples:
At the end of her career, Bette Davis was honoured at Lincoln Center in NYC.  They honored her for a distinguished career as an actress.  And the story in the newspaper about the honors began with a great paragraph.  It read:
“She looks good, not great, not terrific, but she looks good.    And considering that she has had two serious heart attacks,  three strokes, and that she lived through the deaths of two husbands and a divorce from a third one and she has endured a few other blows besides – she looks good – not great, not terrific, but she looks good.”

That’s the way to describe a woman who was in her eighties but who was still holding on, a woman who had every right and reason to quit, but who still held on a little bit longer.

My parents had a wonderful expression that I think fits Bette Davis.  Did your parents say this too?  They used to say:  “Mir zol nisht divisen vifil mer ken delayden”- that no one should ever find out how much he or she can take.  And it is true.  There have been times in my life when, if anyone had asked me in advance:  “Could you survive this and that?” I would have said, “No.”  But now, when I look back, I see that I did survive, so I know that they were right.  No one should ever find out how much they can take.

The fourth thing you can do —- and I hesitate to say this, for fear that you will think that I am naive —- the fourth thing that we can do when we are drowning in troubles — is pray.

Prayer is not magic. Prayer is not a cure-all.  But when you and I pray, we somehow seem, at least sometimes, to collect our thoughts and to calm our spirits, and we are somehow sometimes better able to see things a little bit more clearly.  And sometimes a little bit more brightly.

And sometimes we begin to think better.  And new ideas come into our minds.  And we may be able to see our way out of the woods while we are talking it over with God.

And in that quietness, when we finish, it may be, it may be, that God will speak to us.  It MAY be that God will say to you:  “I wish that there were a simple solution to all this that you are going through, but there isn’t.  It is going to take time.  But hang in there, and we will work together and we will see it through.”

God has said that to me several times in my life, and perhaps He has said it to you: “There is no easy way out, but hang in there and we will see it through.”

These, then, are the four things we can do when we are drowning in troubles:  We can look at our problems and see if there is anything we can do about them.  We can turn to a friend for help.  We can hang in a little bit longer.  And we can pray.

Let me pull all the strands of this sermon together, if I can, with a story, a story, actually a play that is one of my favorites.  I’ve shared it with you before, but good stories bear retelling. The story is called: “TONIGHT IN SAN McKAN.”

 

And in that play, there is one scene where he plays the master of a great estate, who sends his servant to town to buy some things. And on the way, the servant ran into a lady with blond hair, and a trench coat and a red kerchief–and she is Death.

The servant took one look at her and ran home as fast as he could go.  He burst into the house, panting for breath, his eyes filled with terror.  He said to the lord of the manor:  “I have encountered DEATH in the village!  Please, give me your fastest horse, so that I may flee.”

The request was granted.  The servant rushed offstage to get the horse.  And as he did, the lord of the manor asked him:  “To what place will you flee?”  And he answered:  “To San McKan.”

Later that day, the lord of the manor went into the village himself.  On the way he met the lady with blond hair, with a trench coat, with a red kerchief,  who was Death.  He walked up to her and he said:  “What did you mean by frightening my servant?  He came home terrified!”
And she said:  “I was shocked myself at seeing him —– because I have a date with him tonight — at San McKan.”

THERE ARE SOME THINGS IN LIFE THAT YOU CAN’T RUN AWAY FROM.  AND PROBLEMS ARE ONE OF THEM. THAT’S THE BAD NEWS.

BUT THE GOOD NEWS IS THAT GOD HAS MADE US TOUGH!!!!

TOUGH AND STRONG AND RESILIENT.  AND WE CAN TAKE IT.  AND WE CAN SURVIVE AND WE CAN PREVAIL.

AMEN.

6

THE GREATNESS IN SMALL THINGS

There is a painting at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that compels my attention whenever I see it.  It’s by Winslow Homer and it’s called “The Fog Warning.”  It could be a cover illustration for Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.  It shows a lonely man in a rowboat with a large fish that he has caught, trying to make it to shore before a storm catches up with him.  To me, it speaks of the heroism of ordinary people trying to do what life demands of them in a world that doesn’t always make it easy, sometimes unable to do it but never failing to make the effort.

 

Ordinary people showing extraordinary courage, extraordinary devotion, extraordinary generosity, extraordinary willingness to forgive.  For me, that is the proof that there is a God.  I believe in God, not because of any of those arguments we learned in college, the First Cause, the Unmoved Mover.  Those are word games.  I believe in God because I am constantly seeing people asked to do things that they fear are too hard for them to do, asked to come up with qualities of soul that they are not sure they are capable of.  And from some source beyond themselves, in a way they will never be able to understand or explain, they do it.

 

You taught me that.  I’ve seen you over the years asked to deal with illness, your own or that of someone you love.  I’ve seen you compelled to deal with loss, — bereavement, betrayal, diminished income. You said to me, “I don’t know if I can handle this,” and I said to you, “Sure you can. Try it; don’t be afraid.” And you tried it because you really had no other choice, and you found out that you could do more than you ever thought you could.

 

Greatness in small things, ordinary people doing difficult things that the moment demands of them, showing a depth of character one might not have expected from them.  I want to focus this morning on one biblical character who exemplifies that miraculous quality, the ability of an ordinary person to do great things in small ways. It’s hard to imagine a major biblical figure remaining nearly anonymous, to the point where we don’t really know much about him, but that seems to be the case with the person I have in mind. He is the central character of our Rosh HaShanah Torah readings, but nobody ever talks about him.  I don’t think I’ve ever given a sermon about him before.  I’m speaking of Abraham’s son Isaac.  This morning’s reading was all about his birth, but the Torah narrative keeps talking about everybody else except him.  It keeps talking about Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael.  Tomorrow’s reading is about how he almost got killed. The story is referred to as Akedat Yitzhak, the Binding and Near Sacrifice of Isaac, but when we talk about the story, we never talk about Isaac.  We talk about Abraham, should he have obeyed God’s command?  Should he have protested?  What was he feeling?  We talk about God, how could He have demanded such a thing?  Or maybe we talk about Sarah, who isn’t even mentioned in the story.  How did she respond when she found about it?  Was that what precipitated her death in the very next chapter?  The one person we never talk about is the person whose life was at stake, Isaac the anonymous patriarch.

 

 

 

When it’s time for him to get married, he doesn’t take a wife for himself the way every other man in the Bible does.  His father finds him a wife.  In the space of just a few verses, he goes from being the son of Abraham to being the father of Jacob and Esau, with hardly a thought given to who he is.

 

And yet Isaac does some remarkable things, things in which he can be more of a role model for us than either his father Abraham or his son Jacob.  There are at least three occasions in his life when he shows greatness in small things. There is a verse in the Torah, at a time when Isaac and his wife Rebecca are house guests of the king of Gerar. At one point, the king looks out the window V’HINEI YITZHAK M’TZAHEK ET RIVKA (Gen. 26:8).  Now that verse is subject to a number of interpretations, some of them R-rated, but the simplest, most literal translation is “he saw Isaac making his wife Rebecca laugh.”  Nobody else in the Bible does that.  There is nowhere else in the Bible where somebody tries to make somebody else feel good by making her laugh.  Obviously we can’t tell at a distance of four thousand years what they were laughing about, whether they were sharing something funny or whether she was feeling sad and he was trying to cheer her up.  There is not a whole lot of laughter in the Bible, and when it’s there, it is usually mocking laughter.  But Isaac seems to care about how Rebecca feels.

 

Isaac is that rare person who appreciates the holiness of laughter, its magical healing quality, its ability to change the air and to connect people who had been separate until then.

 

And that’s not the only place.  You recall that infertility is an ongoing theme in these patriarchal narratives.  You can understand what a cruel sentence it was for a woman in an age when being a wife and mother was the only respectable role available.  Every one of the patriarchal generations had to contend with it, but look at how they handled it.

 

When Abraham and Sarah realize they are getting older and haven’t had a child to carry on their legacy, Sarah says to Abraham, “You know, it would really add a lot to our family life if we had children.  Would you maybe, possibly consider using our maid Hagar as a surrogate?  Any children you have with her, we could adopt and raise them as our own.”  How does Abraham respond?  He says, “Hey, that’s a great idea,” and goes off to impregnate the maid, provoking resentment and jealousy on Sarah’s part to the point where she forgets it was her idea to begin with.

 

Two generations later, Jacob, you remember, is married to two sisters.  Leah, whom he was manipulated into marrying, keeps having one child after another, while Rachel, the one he really loves, is frustrated by her inability to bear a child. At one point, she says to him, HAVA LI BANIM, KI IM AYIN, METAH ANOCHI.  Help me have children; otherwise, what’s the point of my being alive? How does Jacob respond to the woman we are repeatedly told he loves? VAYICHAR AF YAAKOV B’RACHEL VAYOMER, HA-TACHAT ELOHIM ANOCHI? (Gen. 30:1-2). Jacob gets angry with her and says, in effect, “What do you want from me?  I’m not God!”  Why do I suspect she did not find that helpful?

 

Again, in the Haftarah we read earlier this morning, Hannah the wife of Elkanah is depressed over her childlessness.  Elkanah her husband says to her, HALO ANOCHI TOV LACH ME-ASARAH BANIM?  Am I not better to you than ten sons?  Now this is fascinating.  If you read the commentaries on that story, most male commentators praise Elkanah for trying to comfort his wife.  Every female commentator without exception criticizes him, saying in effect, “what a jerk, telling her that if she has him, what else could she possibly want in her life?”

 

But listen to what happens when Isaac and Rebecca find themselves childless. VAYE’ETAR YITZHAK LADONAI L’NOCHACH ISHTO KI AKARAH HI (Gen. 25:21), “Rebecca was childless and Isaac (without being asked) prayed for her, and she conceived.”  That’s Isaac, the anonymous, unappreciated patriarch, the one nobody talks about, the one nobody gives sermons about, but he was the man who cared about making his wife laugh, he was the man who really listened to his wife and heard even the words she wasn’t speaking, the only biblical figure for whom his wife’s feelings were as important as his own.

 

It’s a very special thing to be able to put another person’s feelings, another person’s needs ahead of your own, to think of them first. Lots of great people in history and literature couldn’t do it.  If you were ever lucky enough to be on the receiving end of such a gesture, you know how super-good it felt.  If you’ve ever succeeded in doing it,

 

 

you know how supremely affirmed you felt after doing it. And Isaac, the unappreciated, the overlooked patriarch, turns out to be the person who does it best.

 

But Isaac has a lot more to teach us beyond the importance of taking other people’s feelings as seriously as we take our own.  He does two things that most of us, when we are called on to do them, find hard to do and they both qualify as great miracles in small things.  For one thing, he is able to forgive his father for all the things his father got wrong when he was raising him. And we’re not talking about small things here, his father missing a ball game or a play he was in in high school.  His father tried to kill him.  But Isaac was able to forgive him for that.  We read that when Abraham died, both his sons, Isaac whom he almost killed and Ishmael whom he virtually disowned, came together to bring him to his final rest with honor.  There is even a midrash suggesting that it was Isaac who persuaded Abraham to re-marry after Sarah died.

 

That is no small thing, to forgive your parents for their mistakes.  There is a species of heroism in that, like the heroism of Winslow Homer’s fisherman rowing against the tide.  It is so human, so perversely satisfying at some level to hold on to a grudge and so hard to let go of it.

 

Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the story when many years ago, a young woman came up to him after Friday night services.  She told him that she had just gotten a phone call a few hours earlier that her father had died.  He assumed she was going to ask me about sitting

 

shiva and questions like that, but that was not her agenda.  She told him, “I never loved my father.  He abused my mother and me when I was a child.  He left the family when I was young and never sent us the money he was legally supposed to.  My life would have been a lot better if I had had a real father when I was growing up. I can’t think of a single reason why I should go to his funeral or say Kaddish for him.”

 

He told her, “You can’t think of a single reason?  Let me try to give you one or two.  First, in your case, when you say Kaddish, you won’t be mourning the man who died because you miss him.  You’ll be saying Kaddish for the father you always wanted and never had, the relationship you yearned for and never had, and now it’s too late ever to have it.  That’s the absence in your life that you’ll be grieving over.  If and when your mother says Kaddish, she’ll be mourning the marriage she committed herself to and never got to enjoy, the dreams of a happy life together that never came true.  And as far as the funeral goes, let me put it this way, Rabbi Kushner said: If you attend and later feel that it was a mistake to go, you’ll feel bad for two or three days maximum and then you’ll get over it.  If you stay away and later decide you should have gone, you’ll feel bad for the rest of your life.  You do the math.”

 

My friends, in a congregation of this size, the probability is that there are a number of families where grown children are estranged from their parents.  They could probably make a good case for why the parents deserve it.  But for your sake and for theirs if they are still alive, it would mean so much to them and to you if you did what Isaac was able

 

to do and bridge that gap.  I can’t imagine your grievance is more serious than his.  All it would take is a phone call wishing them a Good New Year. If you’re embarrassed to call, tell them the Rabbi told you to do it. And if they don’t appreciate it, that’s their problem.  At least you’ll know you did the right thing.

 

And then there is one last act of quiet heroism that Isaac, this very ordinary, uncelebrated, unappreciated man, did.  He was able to forgive his children when they disappointed him.  There is a passage in the Midrash, the rabbinic commentary on the Torah, that when I read it, I loved it so much that I made a point of including it in the Etz Hayyim commentary.  It says that, on the Day of Judgment when all of us stand before God to answer for the things we did wrong, Isaac will be asked to plead Israel’s case as our defense attorney.   Why Isaac of all people?  Because he will be able to say, “Master of the Universe, I had two children, Jacob and Esau.  One turned out to be a liar and one was a scoundrel, but they were my children and I was able to love them despite their faults.  Can’t You do the same for your less-than-perfect children?”

 

We give our children life.  We feed them and nurture them and worry about them.  And then we send them out into the world. But where is it written that, in exchange for what we’ve done, they have to spend their lives making our dreams come true?  Why can’t they have their own dreams?  Where is it written that they have to fill in the gaps in our lives, living out our unfinished agenda instead of their own, and passing their frustrations on to our grandchildren, like Cain becoming a tiller of the soil to make up to his parents

 

Adam and Eve for the garden they had once had and lost, like Esau trying to gain his father’s love by being the hunter, the physically strong man his father yearned to be and never was?

 

Can we accept the hard truth that they will be what they need to be, not what we need them to be?   Can we accept the painful truth that our children will inevitably make the mistakes of youth, and when they do, our most helpful response should be Isaac’s response, to show them love rather than disappointment?  And at this time of the year when we crowd our synagogues to admit before God that we have done some things this past year that we should not have done and we pray for that cleansing sense of acceptance despite our faults, how can we withhold from our own children the blessing we ask for ourselves?

 

My friends, there have been times in our people’s history when Jews were called on to perform extraordinary acts of heroism, to endure martyrdom because they were Jewish, to remain faithful in the face of discrimination and resourceful in a time of exile.  Happily, we live at a time where none of that is forced on us. Ours is a time that calls on us to show a very different form of heroism, the heroism of achieving greatness in small things that are not really that small.

 

Today’s heroism would include the parent dealing with a child with mental or physical problems, and doing it without self-pity.  It would include the young person resolute

 

enough to withstand the temptations that mess up so many young lives, or the young person resolutely maintaining a strong Jewish identity in a world that so often mocks and devalues it.

 

Today’s world asks of us the small-scale heroism of generosity, of kindness, of cheerfulness, of dependability, little things that change the world for the better.  It asks of us that we exemplify the quiet greatness of Isaac, the willingness to see other people’s needs and other people’s feelings as being as important to us as our own, the readiness to forgive, to listen and not to judge, and sometime even to hear words that were not spoken.  There is greatness in being able to do that, the greatness that can be found in small things, and it is a greatness of which we are all capable.

 

The page in our calendar that reads 5774 by the Hebrew reckoning is till clean and new.  Nothing is yet written on it.  Nothing will be written on it until we write it.  May it be God’s will that we fill that page with words and deeds that will increase the happiness of people around us, and in the process augment our happiness as well.  SHANAH TOVAH.

7

WHO IS HAGAR?

First, who is this woman, Hagar, whom we read about in the Torah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah? And second, why on earth is she the central character in the Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah?

I learned to understand Hagar from a beautiful essay about her by Erica Brown, who is the scholar in residence at the Washington Jewish Federation, and who is a teacher from whom I have learned much torah.

Erica Brown says that Hagar’s name reveals her character. Hagar means the stranger. Ha—ger.

And a stranger she is. She comes out of Egypt, and after her stay in the house of Abraham and Sarah she goes back to Egypt. We know nothing at all about her background. We know that she is the slave or the handmaid of Sarah, but how did they acquire her? Did they buy her at a slave market? Or did she answer a want ad? We don’t know.

All we know is that she appears twice in the Torah, first in chapter 16, and then in chapter 21, which is read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. And then she goes off stage, never to be heard from again.

But she must have been someone very special, because angels speak to her twice. And she speaks to God once. In fact, she is the first woman in the Bible to whom God speaks, and she is the only woman in the Bible who gives God a name.

And so, I want to study the strange story of life of Hagar with you today, first as it appears in chapter 16, and then as it appears in chapter 21.

In chapter 16, Sarah comes up with an idea. She knows that God has promised Abraham that he will be the father of a great people, and that his children will be as many as the stars in the sky. And she knows that, so far, she has been unable to give him even a single child. And so she says: “Why don’t you have relations with my servant, with Hagar. And then, if a child is born of this relationship, I will adopt this child and make it mine. This is the first example of surrogate parenting that we have in the Torah.

Abraham agrees. And sure enough, Hagar becomes pregnant, almost at once. From that moment on, Sarah cannot stand the sight of this woman. She claims that Hagar has become arrogant towards her, but the truth is that the very sight of Hagar pregnant so quickly, when she has been unable to have a child for so long, is enough to drive Sarah crazy. And so she mistreats Hagar until the poor woman cannot stand it any longer. .

And so Hagar runs away. She runs off into the wilderness. She doesn’t know where she is going, and she does not care where she is going. She only wants to get away from Sarah.

But in the wilderness, she has an awesome experience. God appears to Hagar, and promises her two things. The first is: you will have a child, and this child will be very

strong. To a woman who feels so helpless, and so unprotected, that must have been a great blessing. She is going to have a child who will be strong enough and brave enough to protect her.

And the second promise that God makes to Hagar is: “Habey arbeh et t zaraych, ylsafer meyrovlo yisafer meyrav. I will greatly increase your offspring; they shall be too numerous to count.

And armed with these two blessings, Hagar goes back to the house of Abraham and Sarah, to have her child. But while she is making her way back through the wilderness; let us pause for a moment.

Does that blessing that God gave Hagar sound familiar to you? Where else have you heard these words? Who knows?

This very same blessing—word for word—was given by God to Abraham! He too was told that God will greatly increase his offspring; and that they will be as many as the stars in the sky.

Two people are given the identical promise by God. The difference will be in how they respond to this promise.

What does Hagar do? Near as we can tell—nothing.

When Abraham sends her away, she does not protest. She does not remind him of the Divine Promise. He sends her away—so she goes.

And now, look with me at what happens when she gets lost in the wilderness and runs out of water. She puts her child down and moves some distance away so that she will not have to listen to the child’s crying—and that’s all. Why doesn’t she cry out to God? Why doesn’t she protest? Why doesn’t she remind God of the promise He made? Instead, all she does is move away from the child’s tears, and cry.

And when the angel comes, notice what he says to her: He says: ma lach, Hagar? That is usually translated as: What troubles you, Hagar? But that is not really what it means. If it were, it would be a silly question. A woman and her child are dying of thirst—and the angel asks her: what’s bothering you? What does he think is bothering her?

But the Hebrew does not say that. Ma lach, Hagar? means: what is the matter with you, Hagar? Why are you sitting here doing nothing, just crying? Do you think that crying is going to solve your problems?

And then the angel opens up her eyes, and she sees the fountain of water which is just up ahead. Notice that the angel does not create the fountain. It is there all the time. All that the angel does is open Hagar’s eyes so that she can see it. She has been so busy crying, her eyes have been so covered over by tears, that she simply did not see what was in front of her eyes!

This is the key to understanding Hagar. Even though God had given her such a grand promise—a promise equal to Abraham’s—a promise that she would have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky—Hagar gave up hope. She chose to wallow in self-pity, instead of protesting to God, or staggering on a little bit further until she found a well. Hagar, as Erica Brown puts it, is an ordinary woman in an extraordinary situation. And so she does what any ordinary person would do: she gives up hope.

Compare what she did with what Abraham does. Abraham seems to behave much like Hagar does. But if you look closely, you will find one word in the story that shows that he is different.

God tells Abraham to offer up his child, and he sets out to do so. He does not protest. He does not picket. He does not say to God: How can You ask me to do this, when you have promised me that my children will be as many as the stars in the sky, and Isaac is my only child? Abraham seems to be as docile and as meek as Hagar is.

That is how I always understood the story. God commands—and Abraham obeys. No questions, no argument, no protest, no appeal.

But then I noticed one word in the story that I had never really appreciated before: When they get to the mountain where the sacrifice is to take place, Abraham bids farewell to his servants, and he and Isaac go on alone. And notice what he says to them: “You stay here, and I and the boy will go up and sacrifice, AND WE will come back to you. Ani v’hanaar neylcha ad po, VINASHUVA ALEYCHEM.

Was Abraham lying to his servants? That is what I used to think. I used to think that he did not want them to stop him from carrying out the awesome and dreadful command he had been given, and so he told them this lie: WE will come back to you, in order to keep them from realizing what he was going to do.

But now, I understand this phrase differently. Now I think that Abraham went the three long days that led to this moment, hoping, hoping, hoping that it would not end in death. Deep down in his heart, Abraham was convinced that God would stop it from happening. Deep down in his heart, he kept on believing that the God who saved Lot from Sodom would save Isaac on Mount Moriah. Even when he tied his son, and put him on the altar, even when he took the knife in his hand, even then, I believe that Abraham believed that God would intervene.

And the proof? The proof is that he says to his servants: WE will come back to you. Not I—but we!

If I am right in understanding this phrase this way, then compare the responses of Hagar and Abraham when they faced a bewildering, undeserved, unjustified, but seemingly certain death.

Hagar accepts it, and simply cries. Abraham grits his teeth, and holds on to the faith that it will not happen! And that is the difference between the two!

Hagar was given the same promise that Abraham was, to be the progenitor of a great nation, but when she saw that promise about to be voided, all she could do was cry. Whereas Abraham held on to his faith even till the very last moment, even when reality seemed about to crush the dream by which he lived.

Why do I talk about these two people today?

I do so, because I believe that the two choices that faced them back then face many of us today. And the character of our lives depends on whether we go the way of Hagar or whether we go the way of Abraham.

If we give up, if we give in to despair, as Hagar did, we will surely be defeated. If we hang in, and if we hold on, if we continue to believe up to the very last moment, there is some hope that we may prevail, as Abraham did.

Give up? And you will surely be proven right to have given up.

Stand firm? And you just might be proven to be right to have stood firm.

Jews have always chosen the way of Abraham. Even in the darkest days of the Shoah, what were the songs that we created?

One was: Zog nisht keyn mol az du geyst dem letsten veyg—don’t ever say that you are going down the last road. No matter how bad things may be, don’t give up your hope.

And the other song that came out of the Shoah was: Ani Ma-amin. I believe, I still believe, in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he may delay, I still believe.

What is the song of Rabbi Nachman of Bratislav, that he sang two centuries ago, and that we still sing today?

The whole world is a narrow bridge, a very narrow bridge, but the main thing in life is not to be afraid.

And what is the song that became the national anthem of Israel and that expresses who we are in one word?

It is Hatikvah—which means; The hope. When that song was written, the idea that there could be a Jewish state seemed mad. And yet Jews sang this song, and then they made it happen. They lived by hope, and that hope kept them going, until it was fulfilled. .

And so, to all of you who are sitting here today, who are weighed down with despair, whose hearts are heavy, and who see no way out of your problems, I say: follow the way of Abraham, and not the way of Hagar.

Some people say: “Bishert”—what will be is fated, and therefore, there is nothing I can do about it.

But Jews only say “biishert” about the past, never about the present, and surely, never about the future.

Let me close with one of my favorite stories.

There was a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary named Avraham Holtz. He is now retired, but he tells the story of how he went to Israel to study there for a year, back in the fifties, back in the early days of the state, when food was scarce, and life was difficult.

The first thing he did when he moved into his apartment was order a telephone.

A week went by, two weeks went by, a month went by, and no one came to install a telephone. So he went downtown to the office of the telephone company, and asked for an explanation. How come he had not yet received a telephone?

He asked: Did you lose my records?

They clerk said: No, we have your records right here.

He said: So what’s the problem? When will I get my telephone?

The clerk checked the records, and said: You will probably get your telephone in about a year or so.

A year? Avraham said in shock. Do you mean to tell me that there is no hope of getting one sooner than that? Ain tikvah?

The clerk said: “Asur liyihdi lomar eyn tikvah. Tikvah yesh. Efsharut eyn!”

A Jew is never allowed to say: there is no hope.

Hope there is. A possibility there isn’t.

That is the way a child of Abraham should talk. Even when there is no hope, there is still hope. Even when there is no possibility, there is still a possibility.

Only about the past does a Jew say: This can’t be changed. About the present and the future, you must never give up hope.

Hagar had a well right up a few feet in front of her. She could not see it, only because her eyes were full of tears, and her heart was full of despair.

If we follow in her footsteps, we will always find someone to bale for our troubles, and some reason to give up. It is easy to sit down and cry, and to become so entangled in a problem that we don’t even think about how to change it. Faith, as Erica Brown puts it, requires patience in the face of a future that we cannot predict, and the determination to make good things happen, and the trust that God will help us if we try.

Faith demands, she says, that we engage in a delicate dance between relinquishing control to a power above us, and acting within our full capacity to realize our dreams. On Rosh Hashanh we celebrate God’s kingship, and acknowledge that God is the Supreme Authority, and we are His faithful servants. But a faithful servant does not sit back and wait for his Master to manage his life. A faithful servant works in partnership with his Master to create a better life.

So this is the couplet that I would add to the list in Kohelet, if I could:

I would say: there is a time to put your fate in the Hands of God and to trust, And there is a time to fight with God—on the side of God—in partnership with God—- to make the good life that you dream of come into reality.

Do you agree?

I hope that you do.

And I hope and I pray that you and I, and all those whom we love, will live by this couplet in all the days of this New Year that now begins.

8

PORTRAIT OF A MOURNER

Let me begin by showing you one passage in the Torah that I think is strange and bears on my topic this morning.

Bemidbar, chapter l9, the Law of the Red Heifer. “The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron saying, ‘This is the ritual law that the Lord has commanded. Instruct the people of Israel to bring you a red cow, without blemish, in which there is no defect, and on which no yoke has been laid. You shall give it to ELAZAR, THE KOHEN. It shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in HIS PRESENCE. ELAZAR THE KOHEN SHALL TAKE SOME OF ITS BLOOD WITH HIS FINGER and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the Tent of Meeting.’”

What is strange about this passage? Aaron is still the High Priest and yet, the Torah instructs ELAZAR, his son, to officiate at the service for the Red Heifer. Why? Why does Elazar and not Aaron officiate at this rite?

Aaron is still alive. As far as we know, he is in good health although by now he may be up in years. And yet not just here but at least three times the Torah recounts that Elazar, his son, is in charge.

Let me offer a possible explanation for your consideration. Aaron witnessed the sudden death of his eldest children Nadav and Avihu, and I have a sense that perhaps Aaron never sufficiently recovered from the loss of his two sons to resume his work in the Temple. After all, it was a grievous blow. It is a terrible tragedy whenever a parent loses a child. It is a double tragedy when a parent loses two children in one day. And it is a triple tragedy when it happens in the midst of a

simcha. This loss occurred on the day of Aaron’s greatest glory. After many months of hard work and great anticipation, the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary had finally, finally, been erected. And there was a dedication ceremony in which Aaron and his sons were officially installed as the Kohanim in charge of the worship in the Mishkan. There was a grand parade, in which he and his sons marched down the aisle to assume their new duties, in the sight of all Israel. And then, on the day of his greatest glory-on the day of his coronation, out of nowhere, with no advance warning, with no lingering illness that could have prepared him for the loss, the two sons of Aaron suddenly died! And when that happened, all of Aaron’s glory suddenly turned to ashes.

And how did he respond to this incredible loss? The Torah records his reaction in two words: Vayidom Aharon, And Aaron kept silent. I picture him holding back his tears and gritting his teeth, and resisting the temptation to scream and to wail and to shake his fist at heaven. I imagine that Aaron may have felt in his heart that he was the Kohen Gadol, the spiritual leader of the people, and that therefore it would be unbecoming for him to scream and wail. He may have felt that it was his duty as the spiritual head of the people to grit his teeth and bear his loss in silence, for the sake of the people.

Maybe that is why Aaron kept silent. Surely, if anyone was ever entitled to be angry at God, if anyone was ever entitled to be broken hearted, it was him. But, Aaron kept silent and withdrew into himself saying nothing.

I think of Jackie Kennedy, who was sitting in the limo beside her husband, talking and laughing with him on a bright clear Texas day when suddenly, out of nowhere, there came the bullets that ended her husband’s life. One minute they were chatting and the next minute his blood was

streaming down her dress and he was gone. Can you imagine the shock, the bewilderment, the anguish that she must have felt?

And yet, a few days later, she walked behind the carriage that carried his coffin, bravely holding the hands of her two small children, without a tear. If she wept, we could not see for she wore a black veil that covered her face. And when I watched reruns of that scene on television, when I watched her walk so resolutely, holding the hands of her two small children, with no tears on her face, with no scream on her lips, I wondered why. Was this woman, whose life had been turned upside down in a millisecond, who had gone in a flash from being a wife to being a widow, was she not entitled to scream? Was she not entitled to wail? And yet, she didn’t. She walked with a quiet, stoic, silent dignity. Like Aaron, on the day he lost two of his children, Jackie Kennedy too kept silent when her husband was taken from her.

Were they right to be silent? Were they not entitled to the right to mourn, and to scream and to wail, even though they were public figures?

I think of some of the funerals that I have attended in which the wife who has lost her partner of fifty or sixty years is heavily sedated so that she will not spoil the dignity of the service by weeping. And then I go to pay a shivah call to the house a day or two later and she asks me: rabbi, was I there? And when I see that, I wonder: who ever said that we Jews have to be stoics? Who ever said that we Jews are not allowed to weep and scream when our hearts are breaking?

Where did that idea come from that mourners are supposed to be composed? Perhaps from Aaron, because Aaron kept silent. AND THAT may be the key to all the questions that we have

raised today about why Elazar had to take over and do much of the work of Aaron, even during Aaron’s lifetime!

I think that Aaron paid a great emotional price, for not having screamed that day, for having kept his feelings bottled up inside.

Although no one ever fully recovers from a grievous loss, most of us get on the road to recovery. For if you don’t grieve adequately and openly, then you never begin working out your grief.

And if this is true, then this is the lesson that you and I and all who mourn need to learn from his example. Grief hurts. There is no denying that. But the only way to recover or begin to recover from grief is to go through it. If we deny it, if we keep it inside, if we do not give vent to our feelings, they fester inside us and they do much harm.

I must tell you that I fear for those who go the way of Aaron in our time. There was a time, not so very long ago when mourners who stood at the graveside would rip a garment, and wear that torn garment for all of Shivah. Do you remember? Now, we tear a black ribbon instead. The reason people ripped a garment is because they were angry and they were entitled to be angry and tearing the garment was a way of expressing that anger. And when they tore the ribbon they would cry the words: Baruch Dayyan Emet. Blessed art thou O Lord righteous King. This was not a blessing, but rather a crie de couer, cry from the heart, a cry of righteous anger and indignation against the unfairness of it all. We only tear a ribbon and not a garment today so as not to embarrass those who stand around us, or those who come to visit us during shivah, by our strange garb or by our anger. We go the way of Aaron, and the way of Jackie Kennedy, and I am not sure that that is such a healthy way to go.

There is a wise custom that many of you know. The custom is that when the week of Shivah is over, the mourners are supposed to go outside and go for a walk around the block in order to make the transition back to the real world. In order that they may know that there is a time to mourn-a time that cannot be shortened or denied or ignored-but when that time is over, there is a need to move on to the next stage of life.

I must tell you that I worry about those people who tell me that they don’t have time to sit shivah who deceive themselves about death, its meaning and its deep impact on life. Take for example my favorite nihilist Woody Allen. Last week, the National Post published an interview with Woody on the occasion of the Cannes Film Festival debut of his new movie You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. This title refers to a young woman who will meet a tall dark stranger or the title can also refer to Death, the tall, dark stranger whom we all eventually meet. Talking about death in the interview, Woody Allen said: “I have a very grim, pessimistic view of death. I always have since I was a little boy. I do feel that it’s a grim, painful, nightmarish, meaningless experience, and the only way you can be happy is if you … deceive yourself.”

How do you deceive yourself about death? By keeping your emotions bottled up? By refusing to rail against the injustice of it all? How do you convince yourself that death is, as Woody Allen puts it “a meaningless experience”? I have sat with people who were dying and I have comforted the survivors of death and I have never found death to be meaningless either to the one who dies or to the survivors who witness it. Just look to the third blessing of the Silent Devotion, the Shemonah Esrei, with its intimations of the world to come. Every day, three times a day we say the words: Mechayei Maytim Berachamim Rabbim, God resurrects the dead with a great love. Concluding the Pesah seder, we sing the Chad Gadyah song and at the end of it we sing: VeAta HaKadosh Baruch Hu VeShachat LeMalach HaMavet God, himself came and slew the angel of

death signaling the death of death and the end of death’s dominion. In the eschaton, the end of days God is stronger than death.

But even more important is the idea that if death itself is meaningless, then like death, life, itself, is meaningless because life is always lived towards our death, life is always lived on the horizon of death. Death makes life precious and important. Because Woody Allen devalues death he also devalues life. He said: “I find life to be a lousy deal,” he said. “There is no advantage in getting older. I’m 74 now. You don’t get smarter, you don’t get wiser, you don’t get more mellow, you don’t get more kindly, nothing good happens. Your back hurts more, you get indigestion, your eyesight isn’t as good and you need a hearing aid. It’s a bad business getting older and I would advise you not to do it if you can.” He’s right. Getting older is not for the feint of heart, but to deny it, to deceive yourself about it, to make believe it is something else, empties life of its preciousness and its goodness.

With all my heart, I believe that we can get smarter, wiser and kinder as we age, if only we look beyond the failures of our body to the accomplishments of a life well lived and to the goodness that we leave in this world for others to enjoy. Woody Allen wrote, directed and acted in 44 movies and, yet, the only thing he thinks about is how to avoid death, how to escape the ineluctable. In his own words: “I want to achieve immortality not through my work but by not dying.” He says it and we laugh but he lives life afraid of death whereas we live understanding that death is what gives life its urgency. We live towards death but knowing that death will not be the end of us.

My friends, we must walk through the valley of the shadow of death. There is no avoiding that journey. There are no shortcuts on that journey. If you try to deny it and repress it, you become like Aaron, a mourner who never recovers, who remains a mourner for all the rest of your life. If

you deny it, then you become a nihilist like Woody Allen who demeans death and empties life of any meaning. What we need to do is go through it, all the way through it, to go through it with all its pain. We who survive the death of a loved one will always live with the pain of loss, but we can live meaningfully and even happily knowing that death is not the end of our life.

My friends, there are lots of ways of understanding Aaron. We can see him as the older brother, who served his younger brother, Moses, for so many years, so faithfully and with so little resentment. We can see him as the great peacemaker, who strove to keep harmony within the Jewish people, even at the cost of letting them make the Golden Calf. But today, I ask you to understand Aaron as the man who never stopped mourning for the loss of his sons, as the man who kept silent and as the man who kept his anger and his sorrow inside when he had every right and every reason to scream and to weep and to wail. And I ask you to see him as the man who was forever afterwards crushed by the weight of the grief that he did not let himself express, and who therefore had to be cared for and substituted for by his son, because he never fully recovered from his loss. And I ask you to learn from him that there is a time to weep and there is a time to scream and there is a time to wail and yet, even in death there is much room for hope.

Yizkor time is not an easy time. There is a measure of pain in the heart of every single person in this sanctuary right now. I can see it on your faces right now when I look out, just as I can feel it within myself when I look in. It is there every time we come for Yizkor or for Yahrtseit. And that is why some people choose not to come. They think that if they do not come, that if they ignore the day, they will be spared the pain. I think they are wrong. I think that they do not escape the pain; they only repress it and make it harder to bear. Therefore I ask you today to admit the pain, to express it, to let it come out, and then, and only then, to rise and glorify the name of God by reciting the Kaddish and by promising to live well in memory of those we have

lost. I ask you to cry, if that is what you need to do, for you are allowed, you are surely allowed. And then, and only then, I ask you to wipe your tears, and to go back to living, go back to a purposeful and meaningful life, as those whom we loved so much and who loved us so much would want us to. Amen.

9

ROSH HASHANA 5773

Those of us who are here early enough on these two mornings of Rosh HaShanah are treated to stories from the Torah that parallel each other in some interesting ways. The reading this morning tells of how Hagar, Abraham’s concubine, was sent away with her young son Ishmael because Abraham and Sarah were afraid that Ishmael was having a bad influence on Isaac. They lose their way in the desert, they are out of food and water and the boy is about to die of thirst when an angel appears and points Hagar to a nearby well. Their lives are saved and Hagar names the well Be’er L’Hai Ro’I, the well of the living God who sees me, or as I would interpret it, “at the bottom of the well, at the lowest point of my life, when I felt helpless and abandoned, I met God and learned that God cares about me.”

Then tomorrow we read that story that defies all understanding: God commands Abraham to take his beloved son Isaac, born to him after years of yearning, and offer him as a sacrifice on a nearby mountain. Abraham is about to comply when, at the last moment, an angel intervenes and tells him to stop and not harm the child. God tells Abraham that because he has shown such faith, he and his descendants will play an important role in the religious history of the world. Abraham calls the place where that happened Bahar

Adonai Yera’eh, the mountain where God is seen, or as I would interpret it, “at the high point of my life, the day when my child was returned to me safe and unharmed and I learned that I would be successful in my dream of changing the world, I felt I had seen the face of God.”

Why did the Sages of two thousand years ago ordain those particular stories to be read year after year on Rosh HaShanah? Maybe they did it because they understood something about why people come to today’s service.

Why do we come? Why are these the services for which we set out six hundred extra seats and set up a tent in the parking lot? Some of us come, I’m sure, because these prayers mean a lot to us. The words, the music, the memories, the experience of being in a large throng of Jews gathered for worship, — that reaches us at a deep part of our souls.

Some of us come out of a lingering sense of obligation, a feeling that this is something we ought to do whether we enjoy it or not, what Mordecai Kaplan described as “observing the yahrzeit of our parents’ religion.”

Some people, I suspect, come because they are afraid that something bad will happen to them if they don’t come. Let me explain that I mean by that. I would hope that no member of this congregation literally thinks that if you

are marked absent on Rosh HaShanah, you won’t be inscribed in the Book of Life and as a result, something terrible will befall you during the year. I hope you don’t believe that

But for some people, being Jewish is a marginal part of their daily identity. It doesn’t really flavor their lives that much, but they understand that if they went to the office on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, they would be making a statement to themselves and to the people around them about the utter insignificance of being Jewish, that they are not prepared to make. So they come.

But all those reasons cover only a part of the congregation. There is another reason why many of us come year after year. We come because we are hoping to meet God here. We want to meet God the way Hagar and Abraham met God. We want something to happen during these hours that will convince us that God is real beyond any doubt and that God cares about us.

Sometimes, every now and then, it happens and we walk out inspired. But most of the time we go home kind of disappointed. The service was fine, the rabbi and cantor did their tasks well, but where was God? I met my

neighbors, I met the leaders of the congregation, but I’m not sure I met God. Why not? For one thing, Hagar and Abraham met God at the high points and low points of their lives, days when their children were in danger, days when their most desperate prayers were suddenly answered. At times like that, it’s not hard to believe that God is real and cares about you. In much the same way, it’s not that hard to sense the holiness, the religious dimension of a wedding, a birth, even of a funeral when religion works to heal even people who are not religious. But most of us don’t live on mountaintops or at the bottom of wells in the desert. Most of us live most of our days at sea level, and our lives are marked by few triumphs and few dangers. We never seem to run into God there, and so we come to shul on these High Holy Days hoping something extraordinary will happen and we’ll be able to walk out of the synagogue seeing the world differently than we did when we walked in.

It’s not a new story. People have always longed to come face to face with God, to banish all doubts that God was real and not just something the authorities made up, like Santa Claus or the tooth fairy, to make us behave. Four months after the Israelites left Egypt and crossed the Red Sea, forty days after God gave our ancestors the Ten Commandments, the Israelites felt a desperate need to see God, to have tangible proof that God was still with

them and had not abandoned them after leading them into the desert. Remember, these were people who had spent every day of their lives in Egypt, a highly visual, highly materialistic culture, with its pyramids and treasure houses. In Egypt, if something was real, you could see it. Dead people weren’t simply remembered; they were kept around as mummies. The branch of mathematics in which Egypt excelled was not algebra or calculus or quadratic equations but geometry, the measurement of real things. No wonder the Israelites had trouble absorbing the idea that something can be real but you can’t see it.

As long as Moses was around, they could look at Moses as an embodiment, an incarnation of God. For them, Moses was God in human form. He told them what God expected of them. He worked miracles, the Ten Plagues, splitting the Sea. But Moses was gone. He was on Mt. Sinai getting the details of the Torah beyond the Ten Commandments. So you remember what the Israelites did. They fashioned a Golden Calf to represent the power and the glory of God. God was no longer an intellectual abstraction. Now they could see the God they were praying to. They could see that God was present in their midst.

God gets angry at them for turning Him into a thing, an idol. Moses is so upset that he breaks the tablets of the Law. These people don’t deserve the revelation, one of whose commandments was not to fashion an image of God. And Moses has to plead with God to give them a second chance, reminding God that they had been raised in Egypt where representations of the gods were all around.

About twelve hundred years after that, there was another case of people feeling they needed to see God in order to believe that God was real and that God cared. When I was about eleven years old, I asked my Hebrew teacher at the Brooklyn Jewish Center “If our religion is true, how come there are so many more Christians in the world than Jews?” He answered, “Because it’s a lot easier to be a Christian. You don’t have to keep kosher, you don’t have to keep Shabbos, you don’t have to eat matzo on Pesach. And people like to take the easy way.” Only years later did I realize what a bad answer that was. First, I think it’s a mistake to describe Judaism primarily in terms of how hard it is, how much you have to give up. Secondly, I’m not sure that when it comes to religion, people want to take the easy way. Often people are attracted by a religion that takes itself seriously enough to make demands on them. But mostly, I can appreciate that, as an orthodox Jew, he didn’t

understand the appeal of Christianity. He could only see it in Jewish terms. Christianity is spiritually attractive to a lot of people because it lets you see God. Christianity began at a time of great turmoil, a time when hope and faith were in short supply. Like the Jews enslaved in Egypt, people of the first century suffered the cruelties of the Roman Empire at its worst. It was hard for them to believe that God was anywhere in their world. So Christianity offered to show them God in human form. You’re not sure that God exists? Here is God come down to earth in the form of this young man. You want to know what this God looks like that you’re praying to? Here’s what He looks like.

The trouble is, that approach solves some problems but raises others. I once heard a lecture by a Roman Catholic nun who was a psychotherapist, about the spiritual problems of religious women. One thing she said was that, if you picture God as a man, as Christianity does, it becomes nearly impossible for a woman to pray without bringing into her prayer life all the baggage of her relationships with powerful men. Trying to pray, she will be suspicious, flirtatious, resentful, anything but reverent.

Picture if you will a fifty-year-old man, a Roman Catholic computer programmer, who has just lost his job. His company has let him go and

replaced him with a thirty-year-old Jewish man, wearing jeans and sporting a beard, who can do his job better and cheaper. The man is distraught. How will he pay his bills? How will he send his kids to college? On the way home, he stops off at his church looking for solace. He tries to pray, looks up at the altar and there he sees God portrayed as a thirty year old Jewish man with a beard. How can he believe that God is on his side?

So, if God is not a thing, if God has no form or shape, not male or female, not young or old, not white or black or yellow, how can we see God? And if we can’t see God, how can we know that God is real? Right after the incident of the Golden Calf, Moses confronts God with that problem. He says to God, in effect: I’ve got a bunch of people down there who are having trouble believing that You are real because they can’t see You and they don’t know how to believe in something they can’t see. If it would prevent future Golden Calf incidents, could we just have a tiny peek at what You look like?

God answers, “You don’t get it. The reason you can’t see Me is not that I’m hiding, and it’s not that you’re obtuse. You can’t see Me because I have no form or shape. I’m not a thing.” But then, rather than send Moses away empty-handed, God utters what may be the strangest, most puzzling verse in

the entire Torah. He says, “Wait here in this cave while I pass by, and then look. You won’t be able to see My face, but you’ll see My back.”

How can that be? God has just insisted that He has no form or shape. God has just severely punished the Israelites for portraying Him in physical form. And now He tells Moses “You can see My back!”

Let me suggest that what it means is this: we can’t see God but we can see God’s after-effects. That’s what the reference to seeing His back implies. All we can see of God is the difference that God makes as He passes through our lives, just as you can’t see wind; you can only see things being blown around by the wind. Hagar didn’t see God. She saw a well that saved her life, she found the world sustaining her when everyone else had rejected her, and that was enough to persuade her that God was real. Abraham didn’t see anything on that mountaintop. He got the message that it was wrong to sacrifice his child on the altar of his beliefs, and he understood, the way a person will say “Oh, I see”, – he understood what it meant to follow God’s ways. And the Israelites in Egypt didn’t see God either. They saw God’s impact. They saw the gates of freedom swing open, and they knew that God was at work.

In a way, we ought to be able to understand this concept better than previous generations could, because of advances that have been made in subatomic

particle physics. No scientist has ever seen an electron. No physicist has ever actually seen a quark. But they are absolutely convinced that quarks and electrons exist, because when they look through their microscopes, they see things happening that could only happen if quarks and electrons were real. And that’s what I’m saying, and that’s what the Torah is saying, about God. You and I can’t see God, but we see things happening that could only be happening because God is at work.

When a doctor saves a life through surgery or cures an illness with antibiotics, he is entitled to feel that he has seen the hand of God at work. When a person is ashamed of herself for something she has done and is afraid that people will shun her but she discovers that there is forgiveness in the world, or when she finds the power within herself to love people close to her who have disappointed her, she can feel that she has met God in her life, not God’s face but God’s back. Working invisibly, imperceptibly, God has made something happen, because forgiveness doesn’t come naturally to people. We can forgive and we can love only when God stirs our souls. When a person finds himself alone, through bereavement or through rejection, and feels utterly abandoned,

the w

s God in action, God making things happen.

Seven years ago, some of you may remember that I went to Oklahoma City to conduct a workshop for clergy and psychologists who were dealing with families who had lost loved ones in the bombing of the Federal Building. After the workshop, I met the bereaved families. I said to them, “It’s been a month since that tragedy. What one thing more than anything else has helped you deal with your loss?” And remarkably they all gave me the same answer, using the same word: community. Neighbors, strangers coming up to them to hug them, to express sympathy, to bring them food to fill the emptiness inside them. And I realized that they were giving me a profoundly religious answer. A 19th Century Hassidic rabbi, Menahem Mendel of Rymanov, once said “human beings are God’s language.” That is, when you cry out to God, God responds to your cry by sending you people. I would paraphrase that sentence to say that human beings, reaching out to others in need, doing good things when they don’t have to do them, are as close as we will ever come to seeing the face of God. And it happens all the time.

Any time we find ourselves stirred to be more generous, more courageous, more self-disciplined, more grateful, we may not have seen God face- to-

face but we will have caught a glimpse of God’s back and seen the difference God can make in our lives.

Any time a Jew does something that calls for a blessing, we are asserting that God is present. Can you see the difference between saying “Praised are You O Lord our God who brings forth food from the earth” and saying “Praised is God who brings forth food from the earth”? To say “You” in a prayer is to claim that God is there with you. God is not in the place; God is in the moment, in the spark of gratitude for food expressed in a Jewish religious idiom. When you light the Shabbat candles, when you say Kiddush over the wine, and you say “Barukh Attah Adonai”, you are recognizing the invisible presence of God in your home at that moment. You are saying, I am doing this because God is real and God is stirring me. God is teaching me to create a moment of holiness.

Three thousand years ago, a band of Israelites yearned to see God so desperately that they fashioned a Golden Calf and told themselves “That’s what God looks like.” And God got very upset with them and said to them “You don’t get it. I’m not an object. I’m not a thing you can draw a picture of, or make a statue of. I am the Power that liberated you and guided you for the

last few months and will continue to liberate and guide you, even if you can’t see Me as I do it.”

Two thousand years ago, some people felt they needed to see God, so they came to believe that a young Jew from Nazareth was God in human form. And God said “No, I’m not incarnate in one person any more than I am incarnate in every person, young and old, black and white, male and female, plain and attractive. They are all My image.”

And we today yearn to see God. We come to services on Rosh HaShanah and we virtually challenge God: Reveal Yourself! Make something happen so I’ll know that You’re there. And God says to us “Forget about it. You’re not going to see Me. Nobody can see Me. I’m not a person and I’m not a thing. I’m not a calf and I’m not a carpenter’s son. You want to see Me? Go out and do godly things. Help the poor and comfort the grieving, make your community a better place, and then go home and look in the mirror. That’s as close as you will come to seeing what God looks like. Watch the things you say and control you behavior, and you will feel Me as a living presence in your life. Write a check to tzedakah and you will feel God guiding your hand as you sign it. Light the Shabbat candles, make your table an altar and your home a sanctuary, and you will feel My presence so strongly that you will say “Barukh Attah Adonai Eloheynu Melekh HaOlam Asher Kidshanu B’mitzvotav…”, Praised are You, O Lord, who by Your presence has shown me how to bring holiness into my home and into my life. AMEN

10

JUDAISM TEACHES WE CAN ALL BE REMARKABLE

Some of the great religions of the East propose to teach their members how to avoid pain and heartbreak, and their secret is really a very simple one:  they can teach you, in two words, how to avoid ever being hurt by life.  Would you like to know their secret?

Don’t care!

Don’t care about people and you will never be hurt if you lose them.

Don’t trust anybody and nobody will ever disappoint you or break your heart.

Don’t cherish anything and you will never be saddened as its being taken from you.

Don’t love, don’t trust, don’t cherish and I will guarantee that you will never weep.

There are religions, great and venerable ones, that teach that.

But Judaism teaches us just the opposite: care deeply and be prepared to pay the price that loving entails.

Love your parents, though it means someday seeing the grow old and weak, and your hands will be powerless to help them.

Love them, though it means that someday you will lose them and feel that a part of you has died with them.

Love you children, though it will cause you so many sleepless nights.  Love them thought it means feeling the pain of the scraped knees and their hurt feelings.

Love them, though that will only make it harder for you one day to see them grow up and go out on their own.

But do it the hard way; love them and trust them enough to let them do that.

Love your fellow humans, even though it would be so much easier to be callously indifferent to them.  Love them, because to do anything else is to abdicate your humanity – to avoid the pain of being alive. To live means to be sensitive to pain and hurt, in the same way that the living raw flesh is so sensitive to every touch, while the dead cells can be cut and scraped and never feel a thing.

Judaism does not teach us how to avoid pain and sorrow; it teaches us how to stand up to it without being broken by it.  How to live in a world where painful tragic things happen, and still affirm tot be God’s world.

And then there is one more thing that Judaism would offer to do for us, to help us live as people were meant to live.  There is a dream each of us has secretly in our heart – unless some of us have already given it up as untenable or unattainable – the ambition to be somebody significant, to matter, to make a difference in the world.  None of us wants to feel that, at the end of his days, he will have passed through the world and left no trace behind, and that he as had no real impact on the world.  We would like to justify our existence, to stake our claim to some sort of immortality, on some remarkable achievement that will leave the world different for our having been part of it.

And yet, what can we do?  Very few, if any, of us will write a book that will be ready 20 years from now.  It is not likely that any of us will come up with a medical discovery that will save lives, or an invention that will enrich lives.  Who of us will have a bridge, a street, a building named after him?

Judaism speaks to this secret yearning of ours, and says that it is possible.  It is within the power of every one of us to be a memorable person, to live a significant and impressive life.  Judaism offers us not only the secrets of life, but the secret of immortality, of living beyond our appointed years – how to be the kind of parent who will be remembered with words of blessing, how to be a friend who won’t easily be forgotten, how to be the kind of neighbour whose impact on a community will remain even after he is gone from the scene.

Anyone’s life can be fashioned into a spiritual masterpiece. The equivalent of sainthood is not reserved for a small group of unusual souls who are separated from the rest of society. Sainthood – that is, a life of spiritual excellence – is the prerogative of every normal husband, wife, parent, working person, anyone who takes life seriously.

You don’t have to have a particular talent for religion to be a spiritual, remarkable person.

 

 

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