Erev Rosh HaShanah 2016, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann
Every year, I look forward to the Erev Rosh HaShanah service. As the sun is setting, we have the opportunity to physically and spiritually usher out one year and welcome in a new one. Finding myself again in the unique holiday melodies, I contemplate newness and the gift of starting over. If I am lucky, I am able not just offer greetings of Shana Tova to a neighbor, but to feel all the hope and optimism and possibility that comes with a brand new year.
Anticipating the holiday has felt different this year. The past few weeks leading into the holiday have felt different. I enter into this year yearning for the belief in infinite possibilities and new beginnings but unsure if I will experience them. Lately, hope and optimism have been replaced with a mix (with amounts varying daily) of anxiety and dread, fear, self-righteousness, and cynicism. It has been harder for me to connect to the messages of Rosh HaShanah this year; it feels more of a Yom Kippur, self-and-world examination and confession, kind of year.
I am guessing I am not alone in noticing that Rosh HaShanah feels a little different this year. Or, noticing that we might feel a little different as she arrives. It has been a really painful and difficult year in the world. Just to name a few things: This, our eyes were opened to an ongoing refugee crisis in Syria, which is continuing to endanger and displace millions. Gun violence continues to claim innocent lives. We are witnessing the devastating impacts of racism in our society and renewed legitimization of anti-Semitism.
And then of course there that thing consuming my almost every waking hour -our presidential election, and it feels that the very character and essence of our nation and our world is at stake. And for some of us, the feelings of hopelessness come not only from the outside world, but from our own life challenges.
Yet here we are, and this evening marks the first day of 5777, a new year. And while our tradition does not command that we be or feel hopeful, it does encourage us to see a broader vision that might not be before our eyes at the moment. It invites us to consider (believe) that we can be renewed and our world can be renewed. In that spirit, tonight, I want to share a few teachings to help us recover hope and strength in these dark times and to help us walk through the holiday’s door of possibility.
Finding Perspective: Learning from History
When I feel that the weight of the world crashing down on me, I try to think of a famous Yiddish folktale which goes like this:
A poor man lives with his large family in a small hut. The noise and fighting is driving him crazy so he goes to the rabbi to help him solve his problem. The rabbi asks if he has any animals and the man says, “Yes, some chickens, geese and ducks.” “Bring them into the hut with you.” The man is confused, but trusts in the wise rabbi and does what he says. With the chickens, geese and ducks in the small hut the noise only gets worse until the man has to go back to the rabbi.
“Rabbi, I can’t stand the noise! It’s too much.” “Do you have any other animals?” asked the rabbi. “I have a goat.” Says the man. “Bring the goat into your home.” Again the man is confused, but does as the rabbi says. Again the noise gets worse and the man returns to the rabbi and complains. “Rabbi, why did you tell me to bring the goat into my house? The noise is even worse than before!” “Do you have a cow?” the rabbi asks. Exhausted and frustrated, the man replies yes. Again the rabbi tells him to bring the animal into his home and again the poor man complies. Time passes and the small hut is even more crowded and noisy than ever and finally the man goes back to the rabbi. “Rabbi, I’m going crazy. There’s no room and the noise is out of control!” “Put the animals back outside.” Relieved, the man rushes home and puts the animals back into the yard. That night the man and his family have the most perfect night of rest. The next day he rushes to tell the rabbi. “Rabbi,” the man says, “I slept so well last night. I finally had some peace and quiet.” “Just remember,” the rabbi replied, “When you think things are bad, remember: it could always be worse.”
I love telling this story not only because of it is an entertaining way to teach a life lesson, but because it is a quintessentially “Jewish” message. Things can always be worse! Things have been worse!
When I look around at the circumstances around me that seem so dire, so disappointing, it is helpful to hear this straight out of the mouths of my Jewish ancestors, and it somehow enables me breathe and begin to believe that “we can get through this.”
There is another lesson learned from looking to our past: As Rabbi Robert Levin says, “The continued survival of the Jews alone is an argument against despair, a warrant for human hope.” This sense of perspective is articulated also by Rabbi Toba Spitzer when she says, “It is helpful to me to place myself in the millennia-old course of Jewish history and ritual.
There have been such great highs and such devastating lows for our people, for the world, during the past few thousand years- and yet, our traditions have endured, our people as endured, as has the hope that perhaps this year will be the year when, finally, we human beings get it right.
After all, we have as a society made real advances in health, communication, and technology. Some even argue that despite what’s happening in our world, quality of life for more people is improving. Taking the long-view does not invalidate that we are living in very hard, dangerous times- but it can help give us perspective and strengthen us to face what needs to be faced.
The Theology of Perpetual Renewal
Another source of hope and inspiration for me is a central message of the high holidays and Rosh HaShanah in particular: the ever-present possibility of renewal, the idea that no matter how intractable something might seem, it can change. That no matter how stuck we are in our lives, we can get un-stuck; we can find a new way.
The idea that the world renews itself every year is part of a larger Jewish theology about the perpetual possibility for change and redirection. Not only every year, but every day. In our morning service, we say, “B’Tuvo M’chadesh B’chol Yom Tamid Ma’aseh v’reishit”: Every day the work of Creation is renewed. Our ancestors believed creation was not as a singular act, rather an ongoing process. If each day is entirely different than the next, therefore, each day, we have an opportunity to start all over again.
Further, tradition expands: not only is every day new, but each moment is full of unknown possibilities. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, a Hasidic master, teaches on the verse “Kol HaNeshama T’Hallel Yah: Every Soul or Breath Praises God” that we are renewed, with each and every breath. According to Levi Yitzhak’s interpretation, each moment we breathe is an opportunity to experience teshuvah, change or redirection and therefore, at each moment, we can become new creatures.
In the spirit of Levi Yitzhak’s words, let’s pause, take a breath, and take in the possibilities of what the next year can bring and what the new year can bring.
Look for the Helpers and the People Making a Difference
Sometimes, is not an idea that can inspire us — it is people, individuals who act selflessly and generously to heal and fix — and whose stories need to be told.
Our biblical tradition has many examples of “helpers.” The entire fate of the Israelite people who are enslaved, oppressed and seeking freedom is intertwined with two women, Shifra and Puah — the midwives who risked their lives to save the Israelite boys Pharaoh ordered to be killed. We often tell the narrative without them — yet they were essential players in this drama and an inspiration of fearlessness and righteous rebellion.
Similarly, when Moses was at a moment of crisis on the way to Sinai-when the community was taxing him so much that he could not longer manage, his father-in-law Jethro came and helped him set up an entire system of judgment, and it seems from the placement of that story right before the revelation that this organization was a necessary step in the people being ready to stand at Sinai and receive the law. We often forget to tell Jethro’s story, but we might not have made it up the mountain without him.
When we tell our stories in life — and when they are told to us by journalists and analysts — we often don’t hear about the helpers- whose actions, whether small or large, can inspire us to have courage and act, even when we are scared or unsure. Fred Rodgers, who I grew up watching on television famously said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
There are so many helpers, so many heroes in fact who are working to address the many “isms” in our society. I was most recently inspired by an unexpected one — Alex, a 6 year old boy from Scarsdale, NY who saw the photograph of Omran Daqneesh, a 5 year boy whose bloodied and bruised face become the latest poster child for the horrors inflicted on the war-ravaged city of Aleppo, Syria, and Alex wanted to do something in response. He wrote a letter to President Obama asking the President to please let this little boy into America so he could join his family.
In the letter he says: “Dear President Obama. Remember the boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria? Can you please go get him and bring him to our home? Park in the driveway or on the streets and we’ll be waiting for you guys with flags, flowers and balloons. We will give him a family and he will be our brother.”
A video was made of Alex sharing his letter that has become a viral sensation. President Obama referenced the letter in his speech to the UN at their gathering on the international refugee crisis. I know this video impacted me personally, putting the issue back to the front of my attention and reminding me to make a donation to help children like Omran. Who knows how much impact this small act of writing a letter will ultimately have, how many hearts it might open?
The helpers may not always appear to us — their stories don’t often get told. But just as they are woven into our own Jewish narrative, so they are woven into the world in which we live. Looking for them and sharing their stories is such a gift- it can renew our faith in humanity and inspire us to act.
As we move into a new year, in this difficult time in which we live, we balance the anxiety and despair we may feel with the hope and possibility at the heart of these days and in these teachings. How do we want the new year to be? Do we give into despair, or can we adopt a long-view that recognizes the highs and lows of history? Will our worries overtake us, or will we strive to make each day, each moment, each breath an opportunity for renewal? Will we hear only what’s wrong or will we look for the helpers? Will we become the helpers?
5777. A Brand New Year. May we be filled with hope, courage, and possibility as we face it.