Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann Last year at this time, I stood in front of this…
Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann
Rosh HaShanah is a liminal moment. It is the meeting point between 5779 and 5780, the year that has passed and a brand new year. On Rosh HaShanah, we stand on the cusp of newness, and are invited to let go of the past year and to gaze into a future of endless possibilities. We are to imagine the world not as is, but as it should be.
And, if I am being fully honest, I have to admit that saying goodbye to the old and looking bright-eyed into a new year has felt much more challenging for me than in years past.
My heart feels heavier this year. I carry the pain, distress, and frankly the wear and tear from the events in our country — the more monumental events and the day to day ones — which betray my core Jewish values- values like kavod (the honor and dignity deserved by every person), hesed (compassion and love) and emet (truth).
I enter the New Year with heightened anxiety as a Jew in America, awake to the reality that there are many hate-filled people who want to harm me and my people — and that there are those in positions of power who manipulate this fact for political gain.
I hear the cries of children separated from their parents reverberating in my ears and see in my mind’s eye the pictures of human beings being kept in cages.
I am concerned for the health and wellbeing of our democracy and our planet.
Each of us experiences the world around us and this moment differently. Some of us are more prone to worry; some of us bend towards optimism. Some of us click our browsers or news apps or re-read our papers multiple times a day; others choose to engage less in the details and the constancy of news updates. Some of us are more directly impacted by the threats; others less so.
Yet I imagine many of us — no matter what our political affiliation or flavor of that affiliation — come into this year with some mix of worry, anxiety, pain, anger or even despair. In the words of writer Anne Lamott, “There is so much going on that flattens us, that is huge, scary, or simply appalling. We’re doomed, stunned, exhausted, and overcaffenated.”
There are of course also reasons to be hopeful or at least cautiously optimistic. We are living in a state that has made tremendous gains in protecting the rights of women and immigrants (Thank you New York!). On almost every issue, young people are leading us, calling us into a better future.
Yet, the future remains as uncertain. No matter what happens, it will take time and sustained effort to heal and repair America, to address the damage done to our environment, to return to the norms of democracy; to deal with the hatred that has been normalized these past few years. Not to metion addressing the legacy of racism and its many manifestations today.
During these last few months, as I have been thinking about what I might say to the congregation given this past year, I have been meditating on this question: How do we find strength and inspiration as we face a new year, one that might be as challenging as the year that passed? How do I face a new year that might be even more challenging than the last?
In this process of trying to answer that question, for myself first before I could authentically share anything with this community, I found myself gravitating to one of our ancient stories and finding meaningful answers to my question within it. It is the story of another liminal moment, of leaving the past behind and facing an uncertain future: when our mythic ancestors crossed through the Red Sea on dry ground.
It is a familiar story — but sometimes in its familiarity, we lose the details, the emotional nuance. So, let me paint the picture:
The Israelites have been enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt for 400 years. They know nothing else but a life in chains, a life where their time, their bodies, their families are not their own. They have known the cracking of the whip; likely suffered physical and sexual abuse. They were likely separated from their loved ones. Their worth is measured only through their productivity. They have virtually no autonomy to make their own decisions.
And they have just witnessed plagues. Some affected their communities and homes alongside the Egyptians. Others, they watched from their slave quarters and the might and terror of them shook them to the core. Some of them made the courageous decision to put blood on their doorposts. With just a few moments to pack, they gather their rations and what they can carry and joined the masses as they ran from the only place they knew to be home, as terrible as that home was.
They walk as fast as they can given the masses in front and behind. Fear and Courage in each step.
They arrive at the Sea, raging in front of them. Expansive, to the left and to the right. All they see is water. Behind them, they hear and smell the horses and the vengeance of their task masters coming for them. This is it. There is no going back and there is no going forward. They are dead on the spot.
And then, the Sea parts. The Israelites walk through the Sea onto dry land and behind them the Seas start to close in on their enemies, those who tormented them through the years and those whose blood they sought just moments ago.
Moses begins to sing. “Mi Chamocha Ba’elim Adonai” — Who is like you God!
After his long exposition, his sister Miriam leads the women in dance.
וַתִּקַּח֩ מִרְיָ֨ם הַנְּבִיאָ֜ה …אֶת־הַתֹּ֖ף בְּיָדָ֑הּ וַתֵּצֶ֤אןָ כָֽל־הַנָּשִׁים֙ אַחֲרֶ֔יהָ בְּתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹלֹֽת׃
“Vatikach Miriyam HaNeviah et hatof b’yada vatzena chol hanashim achare-ha b’tupim uvimcholot.”
“Miriam took her timbrels in her hand and all the women went out after her with Timbrels and drums.”
Thanks to Debbie Friedman, z”l, most of us are familiar with the song of Miriam and the women, who were “dancing with their timbrels.” We read about it. We sing about it. We understand it as part of our larger Exodus narrative.
But the rabbis of the midrash realize there is something strange and suspect about this story. They scratched their heads and asked: Why in the world would the women have brought drums and timbrels with them?!
We know that the people didn’t have time for the bread to rise… yet Israelite women found the time to locate and carefully pack their drums? They had limited space… was a timbrel necessary for the journey? Perhaps we might understand why Miriam, the leader of the women, brought her timbrel — but “all the women” as the text describes?
Rashi, the great medieval Jewish torah commentator offers one answer to this question, saying that: “The righteous women of that generation were confident that God would perform miracles for them. So they brought drums from Egypt.” (Midrash Mekhilta)
Despite all evidence to the contrary, the women believed good things would happen to them and their people. It seems that Rashi is saying that the women are an example of faith for all of us.
I appreciate Rashi’s teaching — but I want to complicate it a little, push back. His gloss makes it sound that the women just believed. But theirs wasn’t a passive act. The women didn’t just believe in a better future. They planned for it. They packed for it.
Imagine each individual woman making the decision to bring their timbrels and drums on the journey. Each timbrel might have taken up the space of a few days or weeks’ rations of food or a few blankets for themselves or their families; the drums must have been the size of a few jugs of water that would help them survive the journey. These women took risks. Their decision was intentional, purposeful.
Many of us are uncomfortable with the word “faith” as it is associated with blind faith or unthinking obedience. But the vast majority of the time, faith in Jewish tradition is about the marriage of belief AND action. This is exactly why nearly every midrash on the parting of the Sea describes human action as the impetus for the sea. Many of know the famous story of brave Nachshon, who walked into the sea up to his chest, until the waters parted. There are other midrashim who say that the entire people rushed forward, enabling the sea to part.
Rabbi Noah Farkas, a contemporary rabbi, offers this incredible definition of Jewish “faith,” saying: “If faith means anything it is this: to believe that the future, no matter how uncertain, informs the creativity of the present, and that if we step boldly, we too can participate in the act of redemption.”
In the crisis we are in, I find that platitudes like “Just believe” or “Have hope” are not helpful, perhaps even harmful. We do not simple answers. We need action. But we also need to believe. Because if I do not allow myself to believe, I might not pack the timbrel or take the step into the sea.
Faith in the future animates our present and inspires us to take bold steps toward liberation.
וַתַּ֥עַן לָהֶ֖ם מִרְיָ֑ם שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽה כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה
“Va’ta’an lahem Miriyam: Shiru Ladonai Ki Ga’ah Ga’ah”
“And Miriam chanted to them: Let’s us sing to God for God has masterfully triumphed.”
In the commentaries, there is a debate about when this Song of the Sea took place. Was it when they were across the dry land, looking back on what they had traversed and then once safe, they were able to offer praise?
Like any good Jewish conversation, there are others who disagree. They argue that it was DURING their walk through the sea that the Israelites cried out praise and “Hallelujah.”
None of us were there so we don’t actually know! But I want to lift up interpretations that speak to me and can give us strength. And to me, the idea that the Israelites sang while in the midst of a dangerous journey, when their liberation is incomplete, is profound and extraordinarily relevant.
If as Aviva Zornberg says, “The women carried the instruments of song through the corridors of fear” — can we? If they allowed joy and gratitude to quicken their steps, might we? If they can give praise while living with uncertainty, can we?
Joy is not a luxury. It is an antidote for despair and the fuel of redemption.
A story: Two and a half years ago, I visited the Dominic Republic as a Fellow for American Jewish World Service: We were in the DR learning about human rights abuses and the activists who were creatively and audaciously responding to them. We boarded the bus to drive one hour to Haina,to visit La Junta Mujeres de Mamá Tingo. The organization roughly means “The united women of Mama Tingo,” the namesake of the organization was a land rights activist assassinated in 1974.
On the bus, we had the opportunity to learn from AJWS staff person about the tremendous challenges facing girls and women in the D.R., especially those in more rural areas. Of special focus for this group is ending violence against girls and women. Right before the car was parked, we learned that Femicide- the murder of girls and women because of their gender, and most often by their spouses or partners, kills one woman every TWO days in the D.R. The mood was heavy as we got off the bus and walked into the community center.
Upon our entry, we were greeted with a joyous and beautiful dance by young women and girls in bright flowered costumes. Pretty soon, everyone was clapping their hands and nigguning alongside them, shaking our bodies for the first time of the week. In that moment, we were all raised up in joy.
After introductions and heart-wrenching storytelling in small groups, we came back together for more singing and celebrating — the young girls shared more dances, we shared a Halleluya chant, we ended the day with everyone on their feet.
At our communal lunch, a colleague asked one of the organizers, “How do you have so much joy, in the midst of so many challenges?”
She replied, “Joy is part of our faith, but it’s not easy. We work on it. We insist on it. It helps us have the strength to do the work we do.”
(L’havdil-to distinguish) While our situation is of course very different, the idea of joy as part of our faith rings true for me. It speaks to the magic of what we do as a spiritual community at SAJ. Every week, some version of this community gathers for services. As is the way of the world at the moment, most weeks we come after some scary and terrible incidents have happened in the world (i.e. Tree of Life, Poway, family separation). And also of course we bring the sad and hard things from our own lives.
Often, our services begin reflecting the mood of the outside world. Yet with each song, with each Halleluyah, with each celebration at an aliyah, we find our way to holding more joy than when we entered the sanctuary.
Affirming joy, even or especially in the midst of struggle, is a spiritual practice. A practice that fills us with courage, strength, and creative faith to face the world and to bring our whole selves to the work of repair.
אָ֣ז יָשִֽׁיר־מֹשֶׁה֩ וּבְנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ לַֽיה וַיֹּאמְר֖וּ לֵאמֹ֑ר אָשִׁ֤ירָה לַֽיה
“Then Moses and all the people sang this song saying: I will sing to the Holy One.”
The text says: Moses AND the people sang. Then the song proceeds in the first person. “I sing” (not “we sing”).
This textual inconsistency is a problem for rabbinic commentators who want to see the torah text as perfect. Many commentators understand this discrepancy by explaining that Moses was the only one who spoke. The rest of the people were like a chorus. To me, this is a cynical read.
I prefer to see it that in moment of gathering to sing, they came together and sang as one. There are very few other times in the 40 years of wandering where the people are unified, as they are so often in factions, in fighting, power grabbing, and kvetching. In this moment, they were united in vision and purpose.
What a powerful reminder of what is needed in this difficult time. Simply put: community. The problems of our society and of the world are too big and too complicated to face them alone, to fix them alone. We need each other — this community of people sitting together in this room at this moment. And we need our broader community of allies and coalition partners who can dream together and fight alongside each other.
Community is a, maybe the, vehicle for the creative faith that Rabbi Farkas spoke about; for the transformation from despair to hope of the young girls in the Dominic Republic or in our own sanctuary at this very moment.
And just like our mythic ancestors at the sea, SONG is the way we come together. Song is the way we go from individual people with individual problems to a collective. Song is what helps us imagine a better world and stay in the fight even when the outcome is unclear. And song, especially when we sing together, brings joy to challenging moments.
This past Tisha B’av, I engaged in civil disobedience for the second time. After a gathering of reflection and study at CBST attended by hundreds, a small handful of us made our way to Amazon. Listening to our immigrant allies at Make the Road, our goal was to draw attention to the technology companies and technology divisions whose platforms enable current immigration practices such as deportations and family separations. After a moving Tisha B’av ritual, 43 of us sat down and engaged in civil disobedience which was the beginning of a very long afternoon/evening.
The moment we sat down, we began to sing. When each one of us were arrested, slowly, one by one, we sang. When we were taken to the city bus (what was big enough to hold all of us), we sang.
When we sat on the bus waiting for others, 43 voices voices sang as one.
The seemingly long ride down to 1 Penn Plaza, we sang.
We sang until our throats were sore, not to mention our arms from being cuffed behind our backs. Our bodies were uncomfortable, but our souls soared.
That day and since, I thought of Miriam and Moses and all the men and all the women who sang their way through the corridors of fear, who planned for miracles and forged their vision of the future with their creativity.
The promised land felt a little closer, with our timbrels in our pockets, singing our soul’s hope along the way.
As I said at the start, this Rosh HaShanah feels different than in years past, with the world as uncertain as ever. And so, I want to end my talk today in a different way than I normally do. Instead of giving you a blessing or closing with a fancy thought to wrap everything in a bow, I want to invite us to be like Moses, and Miriam at the sea. For us to face this new year singing together, as one.
The words we will sing are “Olam Hesed Yibane” written by friend and colleague Rabbi Menachem Creditor. It has become somewhat of an “anthem” in the last few years, sung at protests and in shuls around the country. What you may not know about this song is that Rabbi Creditor took the words of the Psalmist “Olam Hesed Yibane” and inverted them when writing this song. The text could literally mean “God’s compassion is eternally built” or “a world of compassion will be built” (or other translations!) but — turned it into an active verb. “I will build this world from love. You MUST build this world from love.” This is a that vision of faith spoken about before — we must believe and envision AND we must commit to planning for it, building it, and packing for it.
I invite you to sing even if you don’t sing that well. I invite you to sing more like you might sing in the shower rather than in public. I invite us to sing our way through the corridors of fear.
(Congregation Sings and Rises for Olam Hesed Yibane)