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L’Shana Tovah

Thanks to everyone who participated in our High Holy Day services—with special thanks to all of those who volunteered. Rabbi Hirsch brought wisdom, kindness and intellectual force to the Days of Awe. You can read her sermons by clicking here.  And when our cantorial soloist Gerard Edery had to go undergo emergency back surgery in Poland,  where he is still recovering, Rabbi Hirsch on very short notice arranged for two wonderful substitutes—Cantor Nancy Ginsberg for Rosh Hashanah and soloist Ellen Allard for Yom Kippur. Here is an excerpt from our Kol Nidre co-presidents speech, which we offer here as a reflection on the place of The Village Temple in the lives of many people:

When Jerry and I tell people we are co-presidents of our shul we usually get one of two responses.

Pity.

Or abject pity.

But tonight, on this night of self-examination, we can honestly say you shouldn’t feel sorry for us at all!

I’m not saying there haven’t been very tough moments over this past year, as we began a transition.

It was a difficult process, to be sure. Passions were aroused. Feelings were hurt. Throughout it all, Jerry and I were impressed by how much people cared.

We have been gratified to see how many of you were willing to engage in conversations with Rabbi Hirsch about what the synagogue means to you. It has been a privilege to hear what the Village Temple has meant for you—at times of celebration and at times of stress and sorrow.

When I first became co-president more than three years ago, I paid a visit to Harriet Zimmer. Harriet is one of the founding mothers of The Village Temple and is now our oldest congregant—97 years old. I asked her what I needed to know about our congregation.

She didn’t hesitate.

“The temple is the temple,” she said.

I was taken aback at this Yoda like response. The temple is the temple?

Then she explained. “the Village Temple has been around since 1948,” she said. “Rabbis change, cantors change, people come and go. But The Village Temple is always there for all of us.”

So here we are, on this Kol Nidre evening, here for one another, so we don’t have to reach inside by ourselves.

And the Village Temple is here for all of us, as it always has been, for generations before us.

Wishing you an easy fast, and a hopeful New Year.

 

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A MORAL BUCKET LIST

A MORAL BUCKET LIST

Rabbi Deborah A. Hirsch

October 12, 2016   5777

Yom Kippur—“The Day of Judgment—Even the hosts of heavens are judged”.  We enter the sanctuary today—our hearts, filled with memories, hope, trepidation, awe.  We anticipate the final blast of the Shofar—its shrill pierce will inject eternity into our hearts.  The Torah portion we read this morning provides a frame for our actions—I put before you life and death—choose life.  

White is the color of the day—white robes, white Torah covers, but white is an achromatic color—literally a color without color—we, today, are ghost-like—all of our shortcomings are visible to God—no-where to hide.  White—the color of the shroud one traditionally is buried in.  Today is a day we pray the that gates of life open wide before us—we attempt to reorganize our priorities.  The Kol Nidre prayer chanted last night foreshadowed the fact that many of the pledges we make this day will vanish like vapor on a window in the days and weeks ahead.  This day ticks with the urgency of time.  Yizkor not only brings to momentary life, those for whom our hearts ache, it reminds us, too, of our own mortality…we know our days, too, are numbered.   We know we must make our lives count so that the white space between the dates that will be inscribed on our gravestones, or in the hearts of those we leave behind, will have value and meaning.  Living is about making a difference.  

There are times when life imitates pop culture—when we adopt fictional realities and make them our own.  How many in this congregation remember Edward Cole and Carter Chambers?  Justin Zuckham?  Not many, But if I were to ask, how many of you here are familiar with the term Bucket List, how many of you could raise your hand?

Indeed, Justin Zuckham, in his 2007 classic award winning film—coined the phrase, ‘bucket list’— He turned the phrase, Kick the Bucket on its head. The website, Personal Excellence, defines a bucket a list as, “a list of all the goals you want to achieve, dreams you want to fulfill and life experiences you desire to experience before you die.” Like Hugo, in Bye Bye Birdie—Zuckham affirmed for each of us, I’ve got a lot of living to do.’  Indeed if you Google, ‘bucket list,’ numerous sites emerge.  Recently I took a Facebook “have you done” challenge to discover I had done a majority of the posted items, including being in the back of a police wagon, hot air ballooning, visited Petra, sleep on a beach under the stars, visited all but 6 of our states.  There are those opportunities I probably will take a pass-on, like Base Jumping or climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.  William Wallace wrote, “Every man dies, not every man really lives.” Bucket Lists help us set priorities.  They empower us not only to choose life, but organize what in life we choose to experience:  For me Seeing the Northern Lights, a train ride across the Canadian Rockies, living in Israel, again, settling in the Berkshires—to name a few-- I know I’m at not alone—I would venture that many here today have crafted a ‘to-do’ list—whether projecting out over the year or, God willing, the decades ahead.  

But today, is about stripping away our material desires and focusing most acutely on turning away from those parts of ourselves that are selfish, boastful and unforgiving and turning towards those virtues that provide us with intrinsic meaning, that hold fast despite the tides of time. 

David Brooks’ book, The Road to Character, posits two types of virtues: the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues.  He wrote, “ The resume virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace.”  Those skills we all know—drive, intellect, multi-tasking, competition, quest for success. Many of us have had the privilege of creating resumes.  We know the drill—dynamic adjectives that describe our passion and acumen. There are those  ‘follow-through statements’ that demonstrate, quantifiably, the outcomes of our success. I managed a 50 million dollar account and enabled clients to receive a return of 8.7%.” Or, I taught an AP chemistry class in which 85% of the students placed out of first year college chemistry. Brooks, wrote, “We live in a society that encourages us to think about how to have a great career but leaves many of us inarticulate about how to cultivate the inner life. The competition to succeed and win admiration is so fierce, that it becomes all-consuming.  The consumer marketplace encourages us to live by a utilitarian calculus, to satisfy our desires and lose sight of the moral stakes involved in everyday decisions…We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success, but that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character.”  

In stark contrast, the eulogy virtues, Brooks wrote, are “the ones that are talked about at your funeral.” When I meet with families prior to a funeral, I often ask them to reflect on the intangible gifts they’ve received from their loved ones.  At first, there is a slight, almost uncomfortable pause, and then family members share characteristics not inscribed on a Harvard diploma or tax return bottom line: Words like, compassionate, caring, loving, humble, protective.  These descriptions quickly dwarf words like, successful, great tennis player or Ivy League.  Like eating an artichoke—sometimes those qualities that are most enduring—the sweetest--that get transmitted l’dor va dor—from one generation to the next, are only crystal clear to our human eyes when we remove the ‘measurable success choke’ that overlays that which truly gives us purpose.  

  This struggle between external quests and inner strength is nothing new; it’s just gotten more intense—more out of control in recent years and perhaps, destined to stay on that trajectory. It should come as no surprise that Judaism, too, has its Bucket List of core human attributes.  In recent years, synagogues have offered courses on Jewish Mindfulness-read hear yoga blended with guided meditation.  Other congregations have taken a 21st Century approach to the 19th Century course of study called Musar, defined as instruction or reproof.   Musar, you might say was the first Jewish Self-Help Movement.  Musar’s objective—to motivate its followers to relinquish their focus on success, wealth, ambition, and instead, deliberately contemplate one’s own ‘soul’ traits.   As we know, each of us has a unique genetic makeup and our DNA doesn’t change over a lifetime.  DNA testing cannot peer into our souls—it cannot tell us what level of compassion we will demonstrate when called upon---it cannot inform us our moral character.    

Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, founder of the Mussar movement, used to say that 

“it is easier to learn the entire Talmud than to change even one character trait.’  “Salanter and his followers believed that our ethical behavior could only become second nature when we were deliberate—when we focused our attentions to achieve that particular behavior. Our acts of compassion, or truth telling cannot be random—they result from our deliberate focus..  What are our ‘soul traits?’—They are the timeless values we learned as children and too often tuck away out of sight when confronted with daily pressures and emerging societal norms-- Humility, gratitude, patience, generosity, kindness, strength, trust, and truth, to mention a few.   

Brooks, derived part of his thesis from the renowned 20th Century Orthodox Rabbi, Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s book, Lonely Man of Faith, specifically, Soloveitchik’s interpretation of the two Adams found in Genesis One and Two.  Brooks suggests that “Adam I, is the ambitious, career focused side of our nature—the external, resume Adam.”  It’s that part of us that pushes us forward—achieving success, collecting trophies along the way.  Adam II is our internal persona.  Adam II “wants to embody certain moral qualities—a serene inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong.”  

 You might say, these ‘soul traits’ are like apple pie.  Indeed everyone appreciates them, but focusing on each one for a week or a month or a year to improve who we are—doing shuvah—turning from appreciation to making a daily effort to incorporate those values into our lives—especially when they abut against work and societal expectations and demands--that’s a different challenge.  Which of these soul traits get left behind when climbing the corporate ladder—competing on the soccer field—or engaging in heated debates over politics? 

Our societal norms do not make it easy for us, or our children, to strengthen soul traits.  We are living in an ever increasing “it’s about me society.” Brooks provides support for his supposition that society has dramatically changed over the past 80 years—we have moved away from being a society defined by those core character traits. He suggests that we have experienced “a broad shift from a culture of humility to the culture of Big Me—from a culture that encouraged people to think humbly of themselves to a culture that encouraged people to see themselves as the center of the universe.”  Brooks cites a 1950’s Gallup Poll that “asked high school seniors if they consider themselves to be a very important person.  12 per cent responded, yes.  In 2005 the same question was asked of high school seniors, this time 80% responded yes. Even more alarming, there has been a sharp increase among young people who, on surveys respond affirmatively with statements like “I am an extraordinary person’ and “I like to look at my body.”  

How do we understand this 180 shift over the past decades?  Brooks posits, that the last century saw the rise of 4 distinct generations:  The Traditionalists—those who grew up before the end of World War II, the Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials and Generation Z.  The traditionalists experienced the Great Depression, World II, the bombing of Hiroshima.  They were and remain the generation that was disciplined, humble, fiercely loyal, and a generation that worked hard and sought the outward reward of job security—the retirement gold watch said it all. 

This generation stands in sharp contrast to the Baby Boomer generation that followed—the ‘Me Generation’, for whom success was guaranteed as our country emerged from World War II.  Defined as workaholics this generation went on to have the highest divorce and second marriage rates.  And next, came Generation X that was defined by Watergate, and the end of the Cold War:  Two-parent working- families was the norm—the birth of the latch-key generation--a generation that would not acquire the same wealth as their parents.  And next marched in the Millennials.  A 2014 Pew Study reported the following: “Millenials are relatively unattached to organized politics and religion. They are linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry— and optimistic about the future.”  This is the generation that grew up in front of computer screens, products of a digital age, and like their computers, the children of this generation are the most programmed—most structured.  Randy Blazak, in her 2016 article, The Millennial Effect:  Here comes Generation Z wrote, “The great contribution of the Millennial generation is the recognition that you are not your job. They’ve seen their parents, painfully loyal to companies and careers, stabbed in the back, downsized and outsourced. Work is now something to provide you an income while you follow your bliss. Why commit to a profession that is just going to be replaced by a computer or Chinese child labor?”

  And who is Generation Z? Ann Kingston’s this newcomer “as tolerant but also overconfident, narcissistic and entitled.”  Generation Z is the only generation to solely know smart phones—dumb phones weren’t an option. They are weaned on instant contact—social media that can tell the world what they had for lunch. Kingston’s analysis gives support to Brook’s premise—our moral character fabric is being frayed.  In contrast, an Inc. Magazine article reported that the Generation Z population ‘appears to be more realistic instead of optimistic, are likely to be more career-minded, and can quickly adapt to new technology to work more effectively, The article also cited that “more than half the Millennials and Generation Z polled, stated that honesty is the most important quality in a good leader”. 

Surely our environment and societal external factors have deep impact on how we behave—more the reason why honing soul traits is so necessary.  

Jewish tradition teaches, everything is found in Torah.   On Rosh HaShanah I listed those Divine Attributes implanted within humanity—attributes that mirror our soul traits. This robust list includes mercy, justice, and compassion.  Oddly--one human trait –primary soul trait glaringly missing is, empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Why isn’t empathy one of the thirteen God-given attributes?  If we scratch the surface a little deeper, we find there is no word for empathy in Torah.  Modern Hebrew use Empatia or - Hizdahut Rigshit—literally, ‘to identify with feelings’. After pondering this glaring omission, it struck me, empathy is uniquely a human response --not a Divine attribute. It is a human soul trait.  God may have implanted empathy into our souls—but God cannot possess it.  God may know our feelings, our every action, but God cannot feel our human pain—it’s a human thing to do.  God displays love, and compassion, anger and forgiveness, but not empathy.

If there is a soul-trait that needs to be nurtured and protected in each generation, it is the soul trait of empathy.  Indeed, each generation has its unique collection of challenges.   Let me focus a moment on Generation Z—those born during the mid-90s and later—our teens and college students.  Too many of these youth are also poised on trajectory that at times spins out of control—more than previous generations.  All parents can empathize with what it is like to be a teen—but only so far.  Phrases like, I remember when I…fill in the blank, too often aren’t very helpful to these young adults.  Today’s world demands that empathy needs to be infused with a heavy dose of sympathy—feeling pity or sorrow for our children. Last summer (2015), The Today Show ran a series entitled, The Secret Lives of Teens. It featured youth at The Newport Academy Rehab Center.  The students who spoke openly on camera were bright, college-bound, upper middle class students.  They mentioned the helicopter parent syndrome—parents who hover, filling in, like a dance card, every hour of their child’s free time with some activity.  These teens openly talked about the mounting anxiety they felt each and every day. The show highlighted one recent survey that reported 1 in 5, 20% of college students have engaged in self-harm—usually cutting: One in five—a staggering number. One teen confessed that cutting, “took her mind away from the emotional pain because “something else hurt.”  

And there is a new legion of parents that has formed that has surpassed helicopter parents. The School Superintendents Website recently posted the following:, Today, behold the era of the Gen-X “stealth-fighter parent.” Stealth-fighter parents do not hover. They choose when and where they will attack. If the issue seems below their threshold of importance, they save their energy and let it go entirely. But if it crosses their threshold and shows up on their radar, they will strike — rapidly, in force and often with no warning.”  Yet, the added pressure of knowing that parents are hovering and making strategic strikes take their toll as well.  

One reality our youth face today that was not present in previous generations—to which adult here can empathize—is the impact of social media.  Our youth have nowhere to hide.  The pressure to text, tweet, face time, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, leaves one breathless. The teens interviewed on the Today Show complained that social media has “complicated their lives, forcing them to pretend they’re outgoing and having fun when the reality is much different.”   And when we couple this with dramatic increase in cyber-bullying, the results have been unfortunately deadly. Today’s teens are always ‘on’ Let’s face it, we live in New York…the city where two year olds are interviewed for pre-school, the city in which, if parents choose, it’s possible to pay a good portion of college tuition for 14 years, counting preschool, before their son or daughter walks onto a college campus.  And the stress doesn’t end once at college.  Emory University’s website Emory 4U, states boldly the sobering fact that one in ten college students has made a plan for suicide and 5.2% of Emory Students have seriously considered suicide in the last 12 months—and that is less than the national average of 6% of undergraduate students. Suicide rates have triples on college campuses since the 1950s.  The Ivy League and similarly competitive schools have the highest rate. As I mentioned on Rosh HaShanah white males have the highest suicide rate-- times greater than females.  These are mind-boggling statistics indeed. During the course of this summer alone, I unfortunately heard of two of our college students who knew someone at college—in one case, a close friend, who committed suicide this past year.  I have always admired MIT for its grading policy.  On its registrar’s office website it states clearly: “Freshman grading is designed to ease the transition from high school by giving students time to adjust to factors like increased workloads and variations in academic preparation. First semester is pass-fail. A, B, and C grades are used during the second semester so that freshmen can begin the progression to regular A-F grading in the sophomore year.”

Please do not misunderstand me.  I am not suggesting that parents or teens need to readjust long-term dreams or goals, or that academics, activities and community service aren’t important, but I am imploring, that the response to a child, high school or college student’s cry of, I’m feeling pressured—overwhelmed, is not, I know how you feel or everyone feels the same way at some time in his or her life—you’ll get through it, rather, our response needs to be, what can we do to help you through what is clearly a stressful and anxiety ridden time in your life..  We need first, to validate our children’s pain and then draw upon our God given soul traits of love and compassion and doing what’s right—to help our most precious loved ones—shuv—to turn to new possibilities.  

Indeed, Soloveitchik’s Two Adams exists—the external, ambitious Adam, and the inwardly focused one.  In order to live—we need both—one can’t survive without the other.  We need drive, but we need drive to be tempered by compassion, sympathy and empathy.  We need to realize the sacrifice involved in certain decisions, and for us not to gloat in their successes.   

When our soul-traits takes charge and help inform the decisions we make…when we ground our aspirations and dreams in language and behaviors that showcase our ‘soul traits’ of goodness, truth, humility, honesty and compassion—when, in our human inter-actions—with spouses, children, co-workers we temper drive and ambition and act with our humanity…then Nashuva, we turn, from ‘success oriented goals,’—the resume goals, to creating lives more reflective of the values we treasure.  And when things go wrong, we still can possess the spiritual machzi to get us back on track.  May, we in the year ahead, create those Bucket Lists that inspire and challenge.  And when we peer into those buckets, may we see the good that is within each of us, reflect back into our owneyes.  Keyn Yehi Ratzon.  

 

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TRANSITIONS

TRANSITIONS

KOL NIDRE 5777

Rabbi Deborah A. Hirsch

 

 A few years ago I was introduced to Dannan Parry’s poignant essay, “The Parable of the Trapeze--Turning the Fear of Transformation into the Transformation of Fear.”  This piece resonates with the themes embedded in these 10 Days of Awe.  It moves us beyond the past and the present—and hurls us into the abyss that leads to the future.  

Parry wrote:

“Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings.  I’m either hanging on a trapeze bar swinging along, or, for a few moments in my life, I’m hurtling across space in between trapeze bars.

Most of the time, I spend my life hanging on for dear life to my trapeze-bar-of-the-moment.  It carries me along at a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I’m in control of my life.  I know most of the right questions and even some of the answers.

But every once in a while, as I’m merrily, or even not-so-merrily swinging along, I look out ahead of me into the distance and what do I see?  I see another trapeze bar swinging toward me.  It’s empty and I know, in that place in me that knows, that this new trapeze bar has my name on it…. In my heart of hearts I know that, for me to grow, I must release my grip on this present, well-known bar and move to the new one.

Each time it happens to me I hope, no, I pray, that I won’t have to let go of my old bar completely before I grab the new one.  But in my knowing place, I know that I must release my grasp on my old bar and, for some moment in time, I must hurtle across space before I can grab onto the new bar.

Each time I am filled with terror.  It doesn’t matter that in all my previous hurtles across the void of unknowing I have always made it.  I am each time afraid that I will miss, that I will be crushed on unseen rocks in the bottomless chasm between bars.  I do it anyway.  Perhaps this is the essence of what the mystics call the faith experience.  No guarantees, no net, no insurance policy, but do it anyway because somehow to keep hanging on to that old bar is no longer on the list of alternatives.  So, for an eternity that can last a microsecond or a thousand lifetimes, I soar across the dark void of “the past is gone, the future is not yet here.”

It’s called transition.  

For us this evening, this Yom Kippur of 5777 is our Transition Zone –we are suspended this day between the year that has ended and the New Year unfolding before us.  We hang between our misdeeds of the past and our resolve to better as individuals, parents, children, spouses, partners, siblings or friends.  We hold onto our trapeze bar hoping that we have enough momentum to break away from this past year’s burdens and hurl ourselves toward a more promising, less stress- induced future, all the time knowing we have no assurance as to what that future may hold.  At the same time, Jewish tradition teaches us that forward motion is not possible unless we engage in T’shuva—in turning and returning…to ourselves, our loved ones our God.  Our trapeze bar does not swing straight, rather it zigzags between time and place.  

On Yom Kippur, each of us seeks the path that will lead us into a safe, healthy and secure New Year.  Would that finding that path be as easy as turning on our spiritual GPS and requesting the easy or direct route to a get us there.  Would that we could imitate migrating birds that just know when to head south and intuitively know the route. Unfortunately, that road is neither easy for us to find nor simple to navigate.  

Jewish tradition suggests that to move ahead in our lives we may need to turn or return to previous places and times that gave us direction and purpose.  Teshuvah is about turning and finding our way home. But what if “returning” is impossible?  Suppose that path is forever blocked!  

For some of us, the place to which we desperately crave to return can no longer exist on our road map.  How can we return to places and times of fulfillment and joy, when we can no longer embrace the source of our greatest joy—a loving husband, a playful child, a caring parent, a supportive sister, an adored wife, a trusted friend….  Our loved ones upon whom we relied and depended, whose lives complimented our own—provided us with balance…sanity…and whose fading smile we only now glimpse through the eye of memory—no matter how fervently we pray—how we bargain with God for a different outcome—we can’t bring back those whom we desperately miss.  

And there are individuals in this sanctuary--who know what it’s like to stretch to make ends meet—as careers have derailed, financial security evaporated.  Prior to the chanting of Aviinu Malkeinu I read a piece from the New Reform Machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh—a piece that dares to acknowledge what so many feel in our hearts--that no one in this sanctuary is immune from misfortune—who this night, consider themselves a statistic of the walking wounded.  The last line of that prayer is our appeal to God—to cause us to have faith when our daily reality makes praise of God challenging, at best. And for those who struggle with debilitating and devastating illness—patients and caregivers alike---who pray that the New Year return them to a life of health and to a daily routine void of doctors, hospitals and tests.   Do these individuals sit in the driver’s seat and map a course to their desired destiny, or are they merely passengers on a ride they cannot totally control. 

God willing, most of us will not encounter insurmountable hurdles in this New Year; yet, we also know that no one has a crystal ball to guarantee or assure us how this year will play out. The present may be safe or scary, comfortable or contentious, but two facts are certain: 1) the future will come and 2) No one knows what that the future holds.   This zone of uncertainty renders us vulnerable, and we can’t predict how we shall respond to life’s challenges.  So when our trapeze bar swings us toward another bar--encrusted with chronic emotional or physical pain-- how do we transition through those difficult encounters?   How do we emerge from them with greater wholeness and less resentment or anger?  Are there words or Jewish rituals that can help us on our journey? 

  I’d like to suggest that one particular prayer, whose underlying theme is woven into the High Holy Day liturgical fabric—provides us with direction. On both Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we read the sobering Unataneh Tokef prayer—a prayer that gives us an eerie glimpse into our possible future.  It’s last line--that hangs like a dangling preposition, identifies three actions that can help us temper judgment’s severe decree: Teshuva—Repentance; Tefila-Prayer; Tzedkah—Righteous deeds or charity.

 I would not be surprised if there is more than a few people here tonight who are shaking their heads—expressing disagreement with the idea that by repenting, or praying or doing tzedakah we can shield ourselves from premature death, or physical pain, or incapacitating illness?  Throughout my rabbinic career, I have held the hands of congregants who gazed at me through tears…unable to understand why her son had to die in a car crash…or why his four -year old grandson developed a malignant, inoperable tumor… Or why her college daughter perished on Pan Am flight 103.  If their loved ones had prayed more fervently or performed more acts of Tzedkah—would their fates have been altered?   

In 1981 Rabbi Marc Saperstein wrote an article about the Unataneh Tokef prayer’s final line.  His interpretation provides us with the lens through which to view this line suggesting that it can assist us in responding to the inevitable pain and anger that accompanies our losses and disappointments in life.  Originally, the last line of our prayer had two possible Hebrew texts.  The Yerushalimi Talmud reads:  T’shuva, Tefila, U’tzedakah mevatlin et hagezeirah:  They annul the evil decree.   A later version, the one included in our machzor, changed the Hebrew text to read:  “U’teshuvah, u’t’fila, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hagezeirah”—Repentance, prayer and tzedakah cause the evil of the decree to pass.

In his article Rabbi Saperstein suggested that this translation frees us to take control when paralyzing doom swings our way.  

He wrote:

“Death, sickness, impoverishment, tragic as they may be, are not identical with evil. They do bear a potential for truly evil consequences. They can poison, embitter, fill us with self-pity, destroy a marriage, blind us to the needs of others, turn us away from God. But the evil consequences of even the most fearsome decree are not inevitable. If penitence, prayer and charity cannot change the external reality, if they cannot arrest the malignant cancer, they can indeed ensure that the evil potential in that reality will not become actual and enduring, but will pass. They can enable us to transcend the evil of the decree. “

Although we cannot change the external realities of our lives, we can control how we respond to them.  We can choose to let go of our trapeze bar that is encased in bitterness, anger, spite, or sadness.  Indeed, in order for us not to be consumed by the pain we encounter, we must keep a sharp lookout for a new trapeze heading our way.  We need to forge a transition that enables us to leave behind our pain and paralysis.  

We have many examples of individuals who can teach us to navigate through this difficult transition and emerge whole, more focused and even renewed.  On Rosh HaShanah I spoke of the impact of 9/11 on our city—our synagogue.  I would like to share a personal reflection. Fifteen years ago, I found myself conducting Yom Kippur services in a most unusual and most sacred place.  The setting was a small room …linoleum flooring…desk chairs placed in multiple circles…no window treatments…no smiling  greeters at the door… no cantor…no ark…no Torah.  There were off set copies of a condensed Yom Kippur liturgy placed neatly at the back of the room.  The congregants were not particularly well-dressed and the group that gathered seemed distant…distracted…pre-occupied.  When it came time to recite the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, I sensed their discomfort and my own. I put down my machzor, and instead of reading the prayer--we talked about their discomfort with the prayer and their palpable anger…at the terrorists…and at God.  I shared Rabbi Saperstein’s interpretation of the text.  I knew, in my knowing place, that these men and women needed and deserved a radically different interpretation of this prayer.  “Who shall live and who shall die.” My congregation that morning consisted of volunteers from Ground Zero—men and women who witnessed the aftermath of 911 --both in the faces of those who survived the towers’ implosion--and those who mourned the death of loved ones.  Our sanctuary that morning was the Red Cross headquarters in Brooklyn.  Despite the horror some of them had witnessed, they channeled their negativity and hurt into life affirming acts---the performed the mitzvah of consoling the bereaved… often providing non-verbal comfort to the inconsolable… Their large, enveloping hugs provided the grief stricken with the soft shoulders necessary to absorb the mourner’s tears. 

We can also be inspired by Marcia Kannery’s story.    Marcia is the president of the Dialogue Project in Brooklyn, an organization committed to fostering dialogue between Muslims and Jews in America. Marcia helped found the Dialogue Project, not out of some left-wing liberal, rose-colored glasses desire.  No, her passion emerged from profound personal pain and loss.  While living in Israel Marcia’s life was forever changed when her fiancée was killed in a terrorist attack.  Two trapeze bars reeled towards her…one drenched in all-consuming loss, anger and hatred.  The other, wrapped in tolerance, dialogue and coalition.  Although her fiancées violent death could have unleashed an insidious evil within Marcia, she chose –ma’averin et roa ha’g’zeirah—she chose to let the evil pass…to dedicate her life to actualizing the biblical vision of turning spears into pruning hooks.   

  And, in the recent best seller When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi, an accomplished neurosurgeon about to begin the most rewarding chapter of his life—all his dreams about to be realized--was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.  The book chronicles his life from immediately preceding the diagnosis through the last days of his life---He died before writing the last chapter. His wife, Lucy, literally became his ghost-writer.  When Breath Become Air is a roadmap for how we, when we feel most out of control, when faced with a unique challenge for which there is no script, how we o grasp hold of that wobbly trapeze bar—and infuse the ultimate life transition with meaning, providing a legacy for those who will follow. Sadly, each one of us here tonight knows someone who is battling or has succumbed to a horrific disease—ovarian cancer, ALS, heart disease, Parknsons, to name a few. Paul Kalanithi reminded us that one of the early meanings of patient is ‘one who endures hardship without complaint.’  The weeks and months leading to their death are often consumed by doctor’s appointments, treatment, pain, medication, depression, loving albeit helpless family and friends.  In the epilogue, his wife wrote, “During the last year of his life, Paul wrote relentlessly, fueled by purpose, motivated by a ticking clock.”  Earlier in the book he stated, “I had trained for years to actively engage with death, to grapple with it, like Jacob with the angel, and, in so doing, to confront the meaning of life.”  Kalenithi, in his book, echoed the teachings of Victor Frankel, who like Kalanithi, was an author and physician—a psychiatrist.  Frankel, though, was also a Holocaust survivor who wrote the profound book, Man’s Ultimate Search for Meaning.  Frankel wrote “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way….

When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

When we find ourselves suspended in the transition zone...between life’s sometimes harsh realities.and the unknown future….that we have  the potential and opportunity, not necessarily to alter what fortune or misfortune befalls us—Rather, like the people I’ve just mentioned, we  too, can jettison ourselves  through transitional  moments while retaining our own integrity and self-worth.  While clutching the unknown trapeze bar of our future, we can affirm life and strive to find meaning and purpose.  

The same is true of this sacred congregation, we move through this year of transition.  We, too, have the power to inject meaning and direction—shaping a future that is robust and joyful…or not.

And we are not alone on our journey, for God is both the chain from which the trapeze bar dangles...the chain that supports our spiritual heaviness when we are afraid of falling…and God is the ruach—the wind at our back and the spirit within us that pushes us forward…into our awaiting future. 

Rabbi Harold Kushner, who had to deal with his emotions following the death of his son, wrote the following.

“We can’t pray the God makes our lives free of problems; this won’t happen, and it is probably just as well… We can’t ask God to weave a magic spell around us so that bad things will only happen to other people, and never to us.  People who pray for miracles usually don’t get miracles any more than children who pray for bicycles, good grades, or boyfriends get them as a result of praying.  But people who pray for courage, for strength to bear the unbearable, for the grace to remember what they have left instead of what they have lost, very often find their prayers answered.  They discover that they have more strength, more courage than they ever knew themselves to have.  Where did they get it?  I would like to think that their prayers helped them tap hidden reserves of faith and courage, which were not available to them before.” 

Indeed, for us, Tefila—prayer can provide us with the strength to…ma’averin et roa ha’g’zeira—to enable the evil that can redound to us from our life’s struggles-- to pass.

Tonight we prayed:  “O Hope of Israel:  In our weakness give us strength.  In our blindness, be our guide.  When we falter, hold our hand.”  

In this New Year, as we find ourselves swinging from one trapeze bar to the next…from joy to sorry…from loss to celebration…may we find the strength to hold on…the courage to move forward…and may God be with us on our journeys.  Keyn Yehi Ratzon.

 

 

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Trust and Truth

Rabbi Deborah A. Hirsch

Trust and Truth

Rosh HaShanah Morning 5777

 

Abraham should have reeled with confusion, sadness, anger and fear when God commanded him, “Take your son, your only son, the one you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him up as a sacrifice on one of the mountains that I will show you.” After all, Abraham was 137 years old when he set out on that perilous journey. Sixty-two years prior, God promised Abraham that he would become a mighty nation—his descendants—like the sands of the sea.  Though 37 years old, Isaac was not married.  If Abraham fulfilled God’s ludicrous call—God’s earlier promise to Abraham would have been a lie…Abraham would have been committing legacy suicide—he would have sacrificed his family’s future—the Jewish people’s future, after only two generations. What was God thinking?  We know from the first verse of the text, that God decided to test Abraham’s faith. Midrash provides the needed commentary—God’s prosecuting attorney, Satan, goads God into submitting Abraham to an unimaginable ordeal just to test the limits of Abraham’s faith—to determine the extent of Abraham’s unflappable trust. Abraham, who argued unflinchingly with God, to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah—how could the same Abraham dutifully fulfill God’s outrageous request without one word of protest?  Jewish tradition applauds Abraham’s unyielding trust and faith in God.  And what of Isaac? When Abraham began to bind his precious son to the wood, Isaac could easily have physically overcome his frail 137-year-old father and dashed down the mountain, fast-track-it back to the refuge of his mother’s tent.  Perhaps the answer rests in the fact that following their time atop Mount Moria, Abraham and Isaac never speak again.  And poor Sarah—who knew nothing—who according to one Midrash, upon realizing what Abraham had set out to do, died of heartbreaking pain and profound sadness—her trust in Abraham –shattered—her life, devoid of meaning.  

On this first day of the New Year 5777—as we recalibrate our souls—as we strive to turn course and begin anew, as we take stock of that which we hold most precious—let us examine our own levels of trust—how we, like Abraham, have been tested—how our trust engines have stalled-out, as we are tested repeatedly to discern fact from fiction, to decipher truth, and to trust the words and actions of those in authority, to struggle with our exasperation when those whom we admire betray our trust.  

Trust is defined as, the ‘firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something’ is indeed the cornerstone of human relationships.  Without it, we teeter in a state of imbalance.  From the moment we are born we begin to hone are trust cravings.  An infant, before she learns to speak, begins to develop trust in a parent.  According to psychologist Erik Ericson, “the trust versus mistrust stage is the most important period in a person’s life.”  An infant must learn to trust that his parent will be there to offer comfort and ensure that his needs are met.  University of Minnesota psychology professor, Jeffry A. Simpson, wrote: “Trust involves the juxtaposition of people’s loftiest hopes and aspirations with their deepest worries and fears.” Let me share a small secret-- I hate to fly—I’m scared to fly--and yet I have Million Miler status on American Airlines—having crisscrossed this country and beyond numerous times.  Despite my fear—my apprehension every time hear, ‘buckle your seat belt’-- I have enough trust that the pilot and crew are trained, the ground team is competent, and that I will arrive safely at my destination.  My trust keeps my fear in check.  My trust, coupled with the desired outcome of the trip, trumps, my apprehension.

There is a strong link between the trust we develop and the truth we are told.  My trust in an airline nose-dives when airline spokespersons cover-up, and lie about the plane’s maintenance records or captain’s health.   Or, when government officials insisted that the air near Ground Zero was safe to breathe, or toxic water is not contaminated, or new new nutritional finding that counters previous assured facts—caffeine, chocolate, pasta, eggs, sugar or red meat—in favor one decade and out of favor the next—just to mention a few. For those of us who have grown up in relatively stable homes, where parents did meet our most primary needs… we often experience truth and trust thrust into a mid-air collision course.  And too often, like Abraham, we remain silent and accept the revolving door of fact vs. fiction often, without a word of protest.    

Each of us here knows our feelings of disappointment and rage when those whom we admired, even loved, betrayed our trust.  Marriages that ended…friendships dissolved...parents and children estranged from one another due to lack of trust.  If lucky, and after much soul-searching, hard work and truth telling, some, just a fraction of those ruptured relationships are restored—healed.  Perhaps, those bonds will never be the same, but individuals can grow from hardship and emotional setbacks—often with therapeutic assistance. Trust can be rebuilt; but it is often a slow and arduous path. I have no doubt many sitting in this sanctuary will agree.  

It is difficult to enter these High Holy Days without two external forces weighing heavily on many:  Major League Baseball Post-Season and the National Elections just over a month away. As a devout Cub Fan—I will see how my trust and faith are tested in the weeks ahead…the same I am sure goes for Mets fans here today.  

There used to be a time when sports heroes unequivocally, were admired—trusted by youth and adults alike. Today, we too often are disappointed by one-time heroes: Pete Rose, Daryl Strawberry, A-Rod, Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds—and then there are those whose actions and lies caused irreparable damage:  Oscar Pistorius, Joe Peterno, Aaron Hernandez. It’s no wonder New Yorkers were so emotional when Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera retired—we actually got to applaud—kvell over two sports heroes—with untainted records--role models that didn’t disappoint.  The same can be said of golf legend, Arnold Palmer, who died this past week.

Sports figures are not the only ones who let us down. If one Googled the 10 least trusted jobs—one survey lists separately as three of the top 10 spots--senators, congressman and governors. Why am I not shocked!

In a November 2015 Pew Study, only 19% of those polled said that they can trust the government, always or most of the time—the lowest number in 50 years.  55% stated that ‘ordinary Americans’ would do a better job of solving national problems. Sadly, no surprise, 74% believed that politicians put their own interests before that of the country.  April 24 of this year, 60 Minutes ran an interview with Florida Representative David Jolly who exposed his Party’s requirement of members of Congress to raise their own campaign dollars.  For Jolly that sum was $18,000 a day—requiring hours each day taken from doing the work of a Congressman—of serving his constituents.  In the interview he stated, “Your first responsibility as Congressman is to make sure you hit $18,000 a day—to accomplish the larger goal of 2 million dollars in the next six months.  His interviewer, Norah O’Donnell challenged him, “Your first responsibility.” He replied, ‘my first responsibility as a Congressman.”  How can we trust that elected officials don’t make self-preservation their primary goal?

It pains me that the Era of the ‘Statesman’ is dead: those stalwart men and women of stature of previous decades who have been superseded by politicians, whether in America, in Israel—or across the globe.  Whether or not one agreed with David Ben Gurion’s or Menachem Begin’s politics—each the sworn enemy of the other—it would be difficult to say that these very different Prime Ministers didn’t put country first.  Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, remains a larger-than-life hero—who worked tirelessly to birth and secure a nation.  And, Menachem Begin, founder of the Likud party, a conservative—Begin, the same person who blew up the King David Hotel during Israel’s fight for Independence—whose name was never uttered by Ben Gurion-- was the Prime Minister who, in 1978, secured a peace with Egypt that now has lasted nearly 38 years—despite the recent Arab Spring that unleashed instability and violence throughout the Middle East.    And this past Wednesday, when Shimon Peres died, we witnessed the death of Israel’s last founding father. Though often ridiculed for his positions, Peres was a visionary, who championed the cause of peace in the Middle East.   Israel’s link to its humble beginning was severed with his death.  As Vice President Biden lamented, “ Peres was the ‘soul of Israel’ the ‘world now a little darker.’

        Politicians, who repeatedly fuel people’s fears to ensure their own success, have replaced the era of statesmen.  Politicians tend to say and do anything to ‘get the vote.’   There isn’t a day that goes by in recent weeks that there isn’t a headline that reads, “Which candidate—which politician can you trust?”  And when trust erodes, suspicion, like molten lava, spews across racial, religious and ethnic borders.  

For nearly a year, we have watched as politicians, especially those aspiring for the highest office in our land, have lied, or minimally, manipulated the truth, attempting to dodge accusatory fingers. No political party or candidate is immune from positing falsehoods as truth.  This year, the American pulse is beating faster—as an unprecedented number of Americans are fed up with politics as usual.  Perhaps the seeds of the Arab Spring 5 years ago, has taken root on our soil, as we witness an America divided.  Surely, a wide net of distrust, xenophobia beyond hatred, has been cast, spreading inciting animosity and suspicion of ‘the other.’ It is true, that many Americans have lost faith in government. 

When we find ourselves enmeshed in societal fracture—when suspicion of ‘the other’ is emerging as an American value, we need politicians to inspire and unite—to be realistic and optimistic at the same time.  How sad, that following last week’s presidential debate, commentators didn’t focus on lofty words or visionary statements, rather, every network and media agency jumped on the fact-finding-team band- wagon to determine the veracity of what was said during the 90-minute debate.  I’m certain we all checked the papers Tuesday morning to see who lied more—whom we could trust less.

Indeed, there are those in America who feel disenfranchised, who believe America no longer has a place for them.  We must have compassion for those who struggle each day to make ends-meet, who scratch their heads, wondering, like deer in the headlights, what happened to the America they once knew.  Indeed, a divisive chasm has been created. There was no lower point in our country’s history, no era of greater divide, than The Civil War, when our nation was physically and emotionally decimated.  The Civil War was America’s bloodiest war—pitting brother against brother—destroying family ties.  620,000 lives were snuffed out during the Civil War—nearly half of the deaths of all of our country’s wars combined.  Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address took place in March of 1861—just weeks after Jefferson Davis became president of the Confederacy as a divided America stood on the brink of Civil War.  Our country was on the verge of despair.  Lincoln could have rallied the North through hateful speech against the South.  He could have pointed the finger at those either less or more willing to go to war.  And yet, in the closing paragraph of that Inauguration address he eloquently stated:  

“We are not enemies, but friends.  We must not be enemies.  Though passion may have strained, it must not break, our bonds of affection.  The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”  

Would that we could hear such inspirational and aspiration words in this year’s election. There is a dis-ease in America—people fed up with politicians who don’t hear their cries of discontent.  Forty years ago, Howard Beale in the movie Network declared in his famous rant, “I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's worth, banks are going bust; shop keepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV's while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that's the way it's supposed to be. We know things are bad - worse than bad.”  He challenged the people to declare his now, memorialized quote,  “I am as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”  Throughout the past forty years, Howard Beale’s admonishment still strikes a chord with many Americans—for some our predicament has only worsened over time. 

I fear this dis-ease running rampant in our country is giving way to a disease of hate and suspicion—targeting minorities in our country—immigrant groups who have sought refuge from persecution—a vast majority of men and women who want nothing more than a better chance for their families..  Who here in this sanctuary did not have immigrant ancestors?  I was uplifted by the TV story of the Malibu Diner in Chelsea, following the pressure cooker explosion 2 weeks ago—how the manager instructed the restaurant staff to cook round-the-clock meals for police, first responders and residents of the Associated Blind Housing, I smiled at such an outpouring of humanity.  When I heard the manager’s name was Roberto Huerta, I called the restaurant a few days later, and they confirmed what I already knew in my heart, Mr. Huerta is a Mexican immigrant.   

Torah teaches that we are to love the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.  More than love for parents or even God—we are commanded to love and care for the stranger.  Rabbi Reuven Firestone, HUC professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam wrote the following:  “God works in mysterious ways. On rare occasions oppression is relieved by the direct and miraculous power of the Creator. More often, oppression is relieved in other ways: through the grace of God's likeness in the faces of helping neighbors — or helping strangers. God's miracles in Egypt are a metaphor for the miracles of human kindness that can happen anywhere and at any time. In times of great stress, the miracle is greater than at times of ease.”

I started writing this sermon 36 hours after the pressure cooker blast rocked Chelsea and spewed forth its metal venom.  I wrote as I watched the capture of Achmad Khan Rachami.  As I left my building that Sunday morning, a woman who walked besides me lamented about the sad and scary events of night before.  She then commented—‘and we know what the common denominator is’. Playing dumb I inquired what she meant, knowing full well the answer.  Muslims, she uttered.  I looked at her and said and what of Columbine, Aurora, Oklahoma City, Ted Kaczynski, Newtown, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston—and we can add now this past week’s attack on a South Carolina playground.  I realize it didn’t matter, as her short-term memory and that of too many Americans, only recall the most recent terrorist attacks perpetrated by adherents of Al-Qadea.

Playing the fear card of security—too many in our country are willing to trust hateful rhetoric and propaganda rather than the truth  —The issue is less about American security and more about targeting of minorities, minorities accused posing a threat to American values and democracy. The following statement describes the intent of propaganda:  “The function of propaganda is… not to weigh and ponder the rights of different people, but exclusively to emphasize the one right which it has set out to argue for. Its task is not to make an objective study of the truth…its task is to serve our own right, always and unflinchingly.”  

If statesmen belong to a by-gone era, and politicians will use whatever tactics necessary to get elected—fear being a potent elixir—then the above statement rings true.  The most frightening part of the quote I just read lays not in the words themselves—rather their author—for this quote was taken from Chapter Six of Adolph Hitller’s Main Kampf:  Hitler a mastermind of propaganda.  

Germany, following its embarrassing defeat in World War I looked for its savior and scapegoat.  Adolph Hitler nourished that ravenous hunger and created the perfect recipe to feed the people:  Eliminate Jews and the undesirables of German society and you create a master race.  Lies were hurled against the Jews—false accusations ignited a nationalistic pride anchored in prejudice, hatred and merciless annihilation.  Jews, throughout history, have been looked upon with suspicion and distrust.  The Kol Nidre, held precious by many of us here, historically was an accelerant for hatred and mistrust of Jews.  Kol Nidre, after all,  is a legal formula releasing us from vows we will make. Those who hated Jews repeatedly accused Jews of not being trustworthy in their business dealings.  Although the Kol Nidre formula applied only between God and Jews—demagogues twisted its intent to provide sufficient propaganda to fan the infernos of antisemitism.  

Unfortunately today, there appears to be a short distance between suspicion of minorities and the erosion of religious freedom.   Throughout the centuries religions have been fraught with distrust for the other’s beliefs.  Abraham Joshuah Heschel, in his 1966 essay, No religion is an Island, wrote: “We are heirs to a long history of mutual contempt among religions and religious denominations, or religious coercion, strife and persecutions.  Even in periods of peace, the relationship that obtains between representatives of different religions is not just reciprocity of ignorance; it is an abyss, a source of detraction and distrust, casting suspicion and undoing efforts of many an honest and noble expression of good will.” 

Historically, Jews are too acquainted with what happens when suspicion of religious belief rears its ugly head. Two years ago I delivered a Kol Nidre sermon on antisemitism, waving a cautionary flag as incidents of antisemitism increased overseas.  This summer, during a Small Cities Federation tour in Israel, Ariele Di-Porto, director of Aliyah at the Jewish agency, indicated that in the next 20-25 years French Jewry in France will be nearly extinct. Truth or propaganda re: impact of Radical Islam’s influence in France?  Only history will write the truth.   And American Jews are not immune from a growing groundswell of suspicion, and that suspicion grows more ominous when, at political rallies, religious minorities are identified as other and potentially deemed not welcomed.  I have always made a distinction between anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment.  That boundary is becoming blurred.  College campuses—from Brandeis to Harvard to Berkley and every university in between—are witnessing a fierce antisemitic uprising couched in pro-Palestinian rhetoric. An article last November by Daniel Greenfield was entitled: “The fight against Students for Justice in Palestine; Anti-Semitism Comes to Brandeis: How a university named after an American Jewish icon became a home for Jew haters and terrorist propagandists.” And…and university faculty and administration, committed teachers, dedicated to showing students paths to truth, too often are doing nothing to help students discern truth from fiction.    

Trust is defined as the ‘firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.’  So what can we trust—what Jewish wellsprings can we drink from to quench our thirst for truth.  How do we find our equilibrium?  

Each time we take the Torah from the Aron HaKodesh on these Noraim, we recite the verse from Torah describing the Divine Attributes we are to emulate in our lives.  The verse, a part of the second set of Ten Commandments, comes in the same Torah portion containing the Golden Calf incident.  The Golden Calf—a time when the Israelites fell dramatically short of fulfilling the destiny promised to Abraham.  The people rejected their God, their leader Moses and nearly denied themselves their future.  What are these Divine Attributes that stand the test of time:  compassion, mercy, patience, forgiveness, kindness, graciousness and truth.  These are the values we must trust –that must be our blue print for our treatment of the other.   These Divine Attributes—God’s gift to us-- stand boldly against human attempts to derail our humanity.  Perhaps Abraham, almost to a fault, trusted God’s compassion and mercy to prevail—to revoke the command that would have destroyed Abraham.  Perhaps that is why he was called ‘a man of ultimate faith.’

Let me conclude with another quote of our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln; words delivered right here in this Great Hall of Cooper Union in 1860:  “Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” 

And let us say, Amen. 

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FINDING RESILIENCE

FINDING RESILIENCE

RABBI DEBORAH A. HIRSCH

THE VILLAGE 

ROSH HASHANAH EVE 5777

 

Each summer holds the same routine for many in our city—warmer weather, time out at weekend homes, kids at camp, parents with more ‘me’ time, freedom from homework, trips to Citi Field or Yankees Stadium, dress-down work days or weeks, perhaps, even shorter work schedules as the weekend getaways expanded to include Fridays or Mondays.  This summer, for a span of two weeks, Americans and many around the world were glued to their televisions or tablets—watching as Athletes around the world participated in the Games of the 21st Olympiad.  Indeed there were favorites:  Michael Phelps who didn’t disappoint, Women’s soccer that did.  Simone Manuel became the first African American woman to win a Gold medal in swimming. Simone Biles who stole the hearts of millions.  And for the people of Puerto Rico, Monica Puig—a clear underdog—went on to defeat Tennis’ second seed, Angelique Kerber—to capture Puerto Rico’s first gold medal. Mara Abbott—who moved into first position in the women’s 87-mile bike race, after Annamiek Van Vluten crashed with serious injury.  Abbott, considered one of the strongest uphill cyclists watched as her 38 second lead precipitously declined in the last kilometer of the race—within 100 meters of the finish line she steeply descended from Gold Medal to 4th place—no medal--A heart-breaking moment to be sure.  Aly Reisman—fondly called ‘the grandma’ of her gymnastics team brought confidence and encouragement to her younger teammates.  The image of Aly hugging Simone Biles as Biles took the gold was an image of mentschlikite and sportsmanship personified. 

As we know Olympic athletes train for years—sacrifice much of their young lives—as do parents, and even grandparents, make sacrifices:  The competition meets, the travel schedules, the financial burden, the pressure, and ultimately, the feeling of exaltation or bitter defeat.  More than half of the athletes that participated in Rio did not medal—and, many returned to their native countries without fanfare or ticker tape parades—these hopeful stars will now take a deep breath and begin the grueling process once again.  Somehow, somewhere, they will find the resilience to tuck their defeats into a corner and forge ahead, eyes, body and mind set on doing better in Tokyo in 2020—visioning themselves on the platform clutching the elusive gold medal in their hands.  

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines resilience as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.”  What motivates defeated athletes to kick-start the cycle of Olympic training?  For some training has already begun for 2020.  Only a rarified few athletes will receive Nike or sports drink endorsement—fewer will become sports commentators.  The vast majority of those who train will barely succeed financially between this year’s Olympics and 2020—indeed, they must have the inner gumption – the stamina, the passion and resilience to start from scratch—never relinquishing their quest for personal best or world record.  

These High Holy Days—this first eve of the New Year 5777—is finding that place within each of us to start anew.  It’s about tapping into our spiritual, resilience gene.  The meaning of these Noraim—Days of Awe—is firmly rooted in our desire to turn from those actions when we missed the mark—make adjustments and continue on life’s journey.  Elie Wiesel, the vocal and written conscience of the Holocaust, who died earlier this year, wrote, “Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.”  

Tomorrow morning’s Torah reading, of the Akedah—the Binding of Isaac is perhaps the most controversial portion of Torah. Abraham returns from that life-altering ordeal to find his beloved Sarah has died—one tradition teaches that upon hearing of Abraham’s God-given mission, Sarah died from shock, sadness, rage and pain.  Sarah—alone with her thoughts, overwhelmed by her emotions could not find resilience.  In contrast, Abraham, while still mourning his beloved Sarah—looks to his future that almost went up as smoke on the altar, and sends forth his most trusted servant—perhaps his singular confidant, to find a wife for Isaac and to fulfill God’s promise of making Abraham a mighty nation.  

Resilience is most critical when we are faced with defeat, when we desperately try to find purpose and meaning in the wake of catastrophe.  

Sherri Mandell’s book, Road to Resilience, published this past November, provides us with direction. Mandell  was the mother of 13 year-old Koby, who in May of 2001 with his friend, Yosef Ishran, were stoned to death —the 62nd and 63rd fatalities  of the Second Intifada in Israel.  One can ask how a parent can ever overcome such unimaginable tragedy.  In her prologue to the book, Mandell wrote:  

Jewish philosophy teaches that resilience is not overcoming, it’s becoming. Becoming more, becoming our fullest, deepest selves as a result of adversity. We don’t escape, but contemplate and reshape. We don’t leap over troubles as if they don’t exist. We allow them to be our teachers. We experience resilience when we are enlarged rather than diminished by our challenges, when facing adversity causes us to change, grow, and become greater.

Building upon Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ literary style found in The Five Stages of Death, Mandell explores the seven Cs of resilience: chaos, community, choice, creativity, commemoration, consecration, and celebration.  Mandell, while holding her precious Koby in her heart and mind has learned to live Elie Wiesel’s teaching to reject despair.  

Walking that oft-times treacherous path is not easy.  There are individuals who rise to the spiritual challenge and others, no matter their intentions, like our matriarch Sarah, find the path too deep and daunting to climb.  

 1986, thirty years ago, was a most interesting year for Major League Baseball—particularly for the Boston Red Sox, California Angels and New York Mets.  I am certain many Mets fans here remember the roller coaster ride that eventually led to the Mets, game 7, World Series victory. I want to highlight a few sports moments that took place in that post-season year—mere moments that were literally life altering.  The first memory is that of the 5th Game of the pennant race between the California Angels and the Boston Red Sox.  With only one out needed in the top of the 9th to win the series, Angels’  ‘closer’ pitcher, Donnie Moore threw a home run pitch to Boston Red Sox center fielder, Dave Henderson.  Although the Angels tied the game in the bottom of the 9th, in the top of the 11 Henderson hit a sacrifice fly off of Moore—a double whammy—to win the game.  The teams returned to Fenway and the rest is history…The Red Sox faced the New York Mets in the 1986 World Series.  In game 6 of that World Series, in the 10th inning, Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner allowed a ground ball tapped by Mookie Wilson to roll between his legs allowing the winning run to score.  The rest is history—the Mets took game 7 for the World Series championship.  

Both Buckner and Moore became the butt of much criticism and unkindly jokes in the days and months following the World Series.  Each one wore the scar of scorn—though they didn’t wear it equally well.  Both Moore and Buckner, played through serious injuries the entire ’86 season.  Buckner at age 40 hung up his ball player uniform, and with the support of family and friends, became both a successful businessman and well-respected major league coach—only retiring from the sport he loved two years ago. Donnie Moore, who suffered from rib cage nerve damage wasn’t as resilient.  Moore went into a tailspin of despair and pain causing him to leave baseball in August of ’89.  Less than one year later, after taking his wife’s life, Donnie Moore committed suicide.   

Too many people today, alone, can’t make the cataclysmic climb out of moments of disconnect or despair. Resilience is dependent upon both inner strength and communal support.  Sherri Mandell could not have emerged from her tragic loss without the constant nurturing and love of friends and strangers who helped nourish her soul back to life.  Mandell and to a different extent, Buckner, found a place of belonging after defeat—they realized that their lives mattered even though their lives would never be the same.  

Sebastian Junger-in his recent book Tribe—On Homecoming and Belonging, examines Native American society and the profound sense of loyalty demonstrated by those born into that culture, as well as for those white men and women who in the 19th century, by choice or by force, became part of that Native American world.  Junger posits, that when people have a sense of belonging—when they find meaning in community—there is a tremendous sense of loyalty even when confronted with trauma or risk.  

  “Junger wrote, “We can learn from tribal societies about loyalty and belonging and the eternal human quest for meaning.  It’s about why—for many people—war feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it, what they mind is not feeling necessary.”  

Junger sites a 2012 study in the Journal for Affective Disorders, which reported, “ The economic and marketing forces of modern society have engineered an environment…that maximizes consumption at the long-term cost of well-being.”  It’s fascinating that during times of war suicide rates drop—when people feel they have a contribution to make to the war effort—their lives gain new meaning.  In contrast, white-males in the U.S., 

experience the highest rate of suicide.  As September 11th  will forever cast its shadow on High Holy Day observances—if we think back to that fateful day and the weeks that followed—people uniquely connected to one another—whether in looking at the make-shift billboards of missing persons, men and women spending 230 days on The Pile at Ground Zero, first to rescue victims and then to recover precious remains, children and adults alike joining together to make meals and cards for police and fire departments decimated by the loss of colleagues who ran into the fated twin towers to save lives.  We saw parents hug children a little tighter.  The best of New York emerged out of the ashes in the weeks following September 11th. 

This past year, when meeting with bnai mitzvah students who turned 13 in 2015-2016, I often asked parents the following question—‘Given the fact that you lived through one of the darkest days in American history, a time when New York City was licking its emotional wounds, what gave you the strength, desire to conceive and bring new life into a shattered world?’

And just 3 weeks ago, when Chelsea, was rocked by a terrorizing explosion resulting in 29 injuries, people rallied to help. In a year where racial tensions are boiling over—where police and black communities are consumed with anger and suspicion, it was heartening to see the young black Starbucks worker, Germaine, reach over the police barrier on 23 St and hand police officers donuts and coffee. Catastrophic moments can help dissolve racial tension and unite Americans across color lines.  

And when we speak about community—when we speak of where that sense of balance can be found—the go-to place for solace and hope—no JCC, or gym or artistic setting provides that emotional security more than houses of worship.  When 9/11 pummeled our city and assaulted our sensibilities—synagogues, churches and mosques literally became sanctuaries for the shell-shocked.  Our own congregation was overflowing at services on September 14, with those who needed the comfort of community—who sought a spiritual equilibrium in the pitch-black shadow of chaos.  Synagogues in New York galvanized corps of volunteers to call every temple member—just to check in.  For some congregations, this custom still persists.  More than any Jewish institution, the synagogue is the place Jews, and those who have created Jewish homes, turn to for solace, strength and community—let me repeat, no organization or institution can provide parallel meaning or comfort.  

It is because of that profound sense of connection and community that temples provide, that resilience becomes a steep upward climb, when fracture happens within that very sacred place of trust and nurturing.  

We join together tonight, some of you new to our congregation—while others have been part of this kehilah kedoshah—this sacred community for decades. Tonight has many firsts that can be perceived either as movement forward or as a departure from the past.  Before leadership engaged me as your interim rabbi, they made the wise decision to ensure that there the music on these High Holy Days would echo with familiarity.    I met with Gerard Edery, last spring to prepare for the High Holy Days. But as the Jewish saying goes: “Mann traoch, Gott Lauch—people plan and God laughs.”  As you know, Gerard underwent emergency back surgery in Poland at the end of August…I know his heart is with us tonight as our prayers for a speedy recovery are with him.  Yet, we did not despair—a resilience gene kicked into high gear—we tapped all resources and were so fortunate to engage two wonderful spiritual leaders and two superb accompanists, for these High Holy Days—Cantor Ginsberg will be our vocal conduit to God on this Rosh HaShanah with Paul Olson as her accompanist, and Ellen Allard will inspire and lead us on Yom Kippur with Carole Rivel at the piano.  

For some, the complete change in clergy leadership on this bimah would have been Dayeinu—would have been sufficient for some in our congregation to dive-deep into their resilience bank.  Some of the melodies have changed while the clergy team and accompanists have sought to preserve musical elements of the service held precious by many.  The spiritual elephant in the room, though, is not the changes to these High Holy Day services, rather, it is the pain, anger, and sadness and guilt felt by so many—it is the culmination of the hurt and anger expressed during the many months leading up to and following the congregational vote last February. There is a popular story told On Yom Kippur that has meaning for us tonight.  The story of the man who went through town week after week saying hurtful, and at times, untrue things about his neighbors.  As he approached the Noraim—the High Holy Days—he went to his rabbi and asked how he could make amends.  The rabbi told him to take a pillowcase and stuff it full of feathers.  The man thought the request odd, but nevertheless, complied with the rabbi’s instruction.  When he returned, proud that he stuffed hundreds of little feathers into the pillowcase, the rabbi told him to go out on the windiest of days and empty the pillow.  The next day a strong west wind blew—and the man went out—cut open the sides of the pillow—and flung it into the air—the feathers swirled and were blown by the wind to points not visible to the eye.  The man returned to the rabbi—who then instructed the man to go out and collect the feathers—an impossible task.  

This ancient story underscores the fact that words, and in the 21st century—emails, cannot easily be deleted.  More importantly, the feelings evoked by those words cannot easily be assuaged.  There is no spiritual or emotional Clorox to sanitize the past—There is no Obliviate Charm—used in Harry Potter—to erase the memories of those who were pained.  Jewish tradition provides us with a once-in-a-year opportunity to do Teshuvah—to turn—not obliterating the past—but turning to make the future a better one.  On Yom Kippur we will often pray the word Chatanu-usually translated as, we have sinned.  But the word Chet literally is not a sin; rather, it is the ‘mark’ found in archery.  When we commit a chet—we have missed the mark—we have fallen short of our highest-selves.  Indeed, there are many in this sacred space that can turn and point the finger—remembering words spoken, spirits fractured, and hurt and anger remaining. The goal of these next days ahead is to find the sliver-crack for a new beginning.

For me, that fragile sliver has already been formed in this congregation.  Each one here tonight made a choice to be here.  For non-members, you chose to be part of our worship experience and we welcome you into our chevre—into our temple family.  For temple members—you chose—you made a conscious decision to remain a part of this congregation.  You could have ignored your membership renewal letter.  I know some of you, are still poised on the fence—still somewhat uncertain as to the meaning of Village Temple in your lives.  Many entered this historic hall with memories of the past—memories that bring smiles and tears of joy and sadness.  And yet, on the holiest of days—on this eve of the New Year—as we await tomorrow’s shofar’s blast that will stir our hearts--You sit beside one another and pray in sacred community.  The key word for us is community—as community we are greater than any One—we are a combination of legacy and promise.  Memories of weddings, births, funerals, illness, bnai mitzvah fill this sacred space…life moments that you felt the support and encouragement of your temple family.  As you know, the name of our congregation is The Village Temple—Congregation B’nai Israel of New York.  B’nai Israel—the children of Israel—our patriarch Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel after struggling for his life with an angel—he prevailed.  So, too for us, we too must struggle with the past—not forgetting the pain, but allowing the memories of community and warmth to prevail.  

In Spencer Johnson’s bestseller, Who Moved My Cheese, Hem declared, “If you do not change, you can become extinct.”  Similarly if we do not seek, and if we do not dispense forgiveness, there is a great possibility for us becoming emotionally stuck. Indeed, as Junger reminds us, ‘it is in community that we find purpose and meaning’.  It is in community where we can be bolstered when adversity strikes us down.  It is in community that we are nourished and renewed.  Those athletes who missed their Olympic mark—found comfort and strength in the hugs and supportive glances of teammates and coaches.  I have no doubt, those family members who have joined now at the 9/11 memorial on that tragic anniversary for the past fifteen years, find a communal resilience—are infused with the emotional formula to pursue the future and not the past.   On 9/11 our congregant Fred Eichler, helped save the life of Jonathan Judd from the 83rd floor of the North Tower.  Each year the two families get together—they don’t forget the past but they celebrate the present and gaze toward each other’s future.   

I want to close this evening the words that I read earlier in this sermon—the heartening words of Sherri Mandel—for they apply not just to our individual selves—but to our communal congregational soul as well.  

“Resilience is not overcoming, it’s becoming. Becoming more, becoming our fullest, deepest selves as a result of adversity. We don’t escape, but contemplate and reshape. We don’t leap over troubles as if they don’t exist. We allow them to be our teachers. We experience resilience when we are enlarged rather than diminished by our challenges, when facing adversity causes us to change, grow, and become greater.”

I say to you now and may we say to one another: Chazak Chazak V’nitchazek.   Be strong—May we be strong—and may we in this New Year of 5777, strengthen one another.  Keyn Yehi Raztzon.  

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