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Tools for Survival in Difficult Times - Sermon from Erev Rosh Hashanah 2019

10/11/2019 04:08:51 PM


Rabbi Hannah Orden

            Rosh Chodesh Tov.  Tonight I wish you not only a good and sweet new year, but also a good month, because Rosh Hashanah is the only Jewish holiday that is celebrated on the new moon. I have always loved that we start a new year with the return of light.  It’s a tiny sliver, but we know that the light will grow brighter.  It’s a beautiful metaphor for the hope we feel in new beginnings.

            The sliver of light is powerful but it is surrounded by darkness, and the darkness is also powerful.  Darkness can inspire us in different ways.  It can fill us with awe and fear, a sense of wonder and mystery.  In a novel based on the prophet Jeremiah, the author writes: “The night connects us to the infinite because the dark that descends on us is the darkness that goes on and on right up to the edge of the universe.  During the day it’s possible to believe that we aren’t part of the infinite, that we are in a bubble of light.  But night reminds us of the truth. 

            Our ancestors in the wilderness were always coming face to face with both light and darkness, day and night.  And because of that, they experienced more directly fear and awe in the presence of the infinite.  They called the infinite God, and the God they experienced encompassed all things – light and dark, good and evil.  Eventually, they put this idea into the words of a blessing: Blessed are you, Our God, sovereign of the universe, who fashions light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates all things.

            Our ancestors did not understand that the earth revolved, they knew nothing about the cycles of the moon, but they saw that after utter darkness, a sliver of light returned to the sky; they saw that after night, the sun returned.    Instead of a God of the sun and a God of the moon and a God of the earth, they imagined one God that encompassed all things.  One God that ordered the sun and the moon and the stars, day and night, dark and light.  And they spoke about this God out loud, saying: Hear, O Israel, God is one.

            This is the tradition we have inherited – the idea that God encompasses all things – good and bad, joy and sorrow, success and failure.  Our tradition insists that we notice not only the light and the hope, but that we also pay attention to the darkness in our world and in our lives. As I thought about this, a question took shape in my mind – How can we embrace the darkness, the sorrow and pain that is inevitably part of every life?  How can we use it to grow?  How can we enable it to strengthen us and not break us?  How can we transform suffering into blessing?

            This year I have been drawn to stories about people who have experienced trauma and found a way to survive and to help others survive.  I took an online course over the summer with Jewish liturgist Alden Solovy.  He talked about his personal experience when his wife died from a brain injury, and he was in so much pain he could not pray.  Eventually he was able to pour his anger and pain into words, and the words became prayers – prayers of grief, prayers of comfort, prayers of consolation, prayers that helped him and also helped others.

            I also recently discovered the poetry of Gregory Orr.  At the age of 12 his father took him and his brother out hunting.  Gregory did not realize that his gun was loaded, and he accidentally shot and killed his younger brother.  He says that he lived in complete despair for four years until a teacher showed him that he could find meaning through words, through poetry.  Here is an example of how he transformed his pain into poetry:

            Grief will come to you.

            Grip and cling all you want,

            It makes no difference.


            Catastrophe?  It’s just waiting to happen.

            Loss?  You can be certain of it.


            Flow and swirl of the world.

            Carried along as if by a dark current.


            All you can do is keep swimming.

            All you can do is keep singing.

            Many of you know that I love the poet and singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen.  This spring and summer the Jewish Museum in Manhattan hosted an exhibit about Leonard Cohen called “A Crack in Everything.”   The name of the exhibit refers to a line from his song “Anthem” – There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.

            Part of the exhibit was a compilation of clips from different interviews he had done over the years.  One interviewer asked him about the difference between poetry and prayer, because some of Cohen’s poems and songs seem more like prayers.  Cohen said that his father died when he was nine years old.  He didn’t know what to do with his sadness, so he wrote a poem for his father. Then he took one of his father’s bow ties and cut it open.  He wrapped his poem in the bow tie and buried it in the backyard.  He said that poem was really a prayer.  It was his own ritual of mourning. And he has been writing poems and songs, many of which are really prayers, ever since.

            I became fascinated by the question of why some people are able to transform pain while others are immobilized by it, even broken by it.  And I think this is true not only about pain in our personal lives, but also the pain and suffering and injustice that we see all around us.  I wanted to explore what we can do so that the pain does not defeat us.

            I posed this question at a Shabbat morning service in August.  One person said that the first step is to know that you deserve comfort.  Another said that love has a lot to do with it.  You have to love yourself and be loving toward others.  Someone said you have to take your pain and turn it outward.  Another had a counselor who told her she is a survivor, and she can use her strength to bless other people’s lives.  One person said she has had a lot of surgeries and has some amazing scars.  Some people might consider them ugly, but she looks at them as a sign of healing.

            I found these answers helpful and thought-provoking.  I was also touched by the ways people find to feel connected to loved ones who have died. This is another form of comfort and healing.  At the service one woman said that her mother loved rain.  She lived in California where there was a drought, and as this person was returning from her mother’s memorial in California, it began to rain, and she felt comforted.  She felt her mother’s presence in the rain.

            My friend Navah’s wife died suddenly of a brain tumor two years ago.  Navah told me about being at the beach with her son Ari and seeing a double rainbow. Ari looked at it in awe and said, “That’s Mama.  She’s here with us.”  This is such a beautiful aspect of being human – the capacity to create comfort for ourselves.

            During the summer I took a walk with a friend from rabbinical school whose son died during his first year of college.  I told her I wanted to speak about how people heal from pain, and I asked her how she was able to go on.  Without hesitating, she said: “First you have to have your pain acknowledged.  You need to be able to face what has happened, and you need people around you to allow you to grieve.”  I thought of the poet Gregory Orr who said that after his brother died, the adults around him said it was okay because his brother was in heaven.  He called this “premature consolation.”  People mean well.  They care about us and do not want us to suffer.  And we also do not want to suffer, so there is a temptation to move on quickly and not allow ourselves or others time to grieve.

            Then I asked my friend Karen what comes next after the pain is acknowledged and we have had time to grieve.  She told me a story about coming back to rabbinical school after sitting shiva for her son.  In a class about pastoral care, she met a man whose wife had died.   He was struggling with loneliness and loss.  Karen spoke with him and learned that he had lived in a town in Connecticut where Karen’s father grew up.  They discovered that they both loved the onion rolls from a Jewish bakery in the town.  Karen planned a visit with this man and brought him onion rolls.   When she got home, there was a message on her phone saying “Karen, you are going to make me fat!”  She laughed when she listened to the message and realized it was the first time she had laughed since her son died.  “For me,” she said, “that was the next step – to help someone else, to make him happy, and be able to laugh together.”

            I have seen this before.  When we lived in Massachusetts, a young girl named Rosie whose family belonged to our congregation was killed while riding her bike.  Her parents were shattered.  I don’t think any of us believed they would survive.  But something like a miracle happened.  Rosie’s aunt was in Africa and a young man approached her in the lobby of her hotel.  He handed her a letter he had written and asked for her help.  He was the oldest of five children and their parents had died in the AIDS epidemic.  The aunt went home and gave the letter to Rosie’s parents, and they began to find ways to help these children with education and resources.  Rosie’s parents now travel to Kenya every year to visit the children.  They bring clothing and school supplies and helped build a school in the village.  Most of all they let the children know they are not alone – there are people who care about them.  For Rosie’s parents these children can never replace their daughter, they cannot take away the pain, but they have given them a purpose, a reason to go on living.

            My friend Karen was quick to point out that this next step has to come from you.  You can’t help someone or join a cause because other people think it will be good for you.  It has to be something that is meaningful to you.  She really wanted to do something kind for an old man who was mourning his wife.  But that would not work for someone else.

            Alden Solovy and Gregory Orr and Leonard Cohen transformed their pain into words of prayer and poetry and song.  Karen and Rosie’s parents transformed their losses into helping others who are in need.  Every one of us experiences loss and pain in our lives, and each of us has to find our own way forward. 

            Karen and I also discussed parallels we see between individual trauma and societal problems.  There is so much that is broken in our world.  We are inundated with stories of refugees escaping war, victims of mass shootings, women who have experienced sexual abuse, children separated from parents.  Sometimes it is too painful to look at, so we lash out in anger on social media or we rush to do something that may or may not be helpful but that we hope will help us feel better.

This year I am serving as president of the Summit Interfaith council.  During the summer, a member of the council contacted me, asking that we sponsor a vigil to protest the treatment of immigrants and refugees. But when this person spoke to someone who works closely with asylum seekers, he was told that they don’t need a vigil as much as they need donations of phone cards so they can contact their families.  It was so simple, something any of us can do, but we hadn’t thought of it.  Sometimes, we need to hit the pause button, allow ourselves to feel pain and helplessness in the face of so much suffering, and then take time to understand what is needed and how we can realistically help.

When I lead Dialogues on Race, people often say they don’t want to just talk about racism, they want to do something.  I understand the impulse, and of course we must do more than talk.  But we can’t skip the step of looking directly at the pain of racism and our own complicity. I am extremely proud of a group of CBH members who took on the challenge of delving deeply into the ways that even those of us who do not consider ourselves to be racist have internalized white supremacy.  Some people in the group are planning to offer the opportunity to others this year, and I hope you will consider engaging in this important work.

            We need to be able to look at what is happening in our world and allow ourselves to grieve.  Then we need to explore what we can do and what we are moved to do individually and collectively.  There is wisdom in the well-known quote from our ancient Rabbi Tarfon who says that it is not up to us to complete the task of repairing the world but neither are we free to desist from it.  We each have a part to play.  Part of our journey in life is to find what we want to do to heal the world and, in the process, heal ourselves.

            At Congregation Beth Hatikvah we have people who cook for the homeless and people who tutor refugee children.  We have people who bring in plastic bags to turn into benches and people who educate us about racism.  Sometimes I feel bad that we are not going more.  Sometimes people say to me: Rabbi, why aren’t we providing sanctuary or why aren’t we housing the homeless or why aren’t we doing more to combat climate change?  And I have to remind myself that we are a small community that depends on the leadership of our members.  The issue that speaks to my own heart out of my life experience is racism.  And that is where I focus much of my energy.  But that does not mean I consider other issues less important.  If you have an idea, if you are passionate about some way to heal our world, I encourage you to pursue it.  If you need others to help you, let us know and we can try to connect you with people who might share your passion.  If you want to help somehow but aren’t sure what to do, we have projects you can join.

            There is one more tool that my friend Karen offered for transforming our pain – and that is self-care.  Our world is full of darkness and pain and it is also full of light and joy.  When we are in pain, we need to find ways to connect with joy and pleasure.  I discovered a way this summer that worked for me.  I was inspired by a poet and community activist in Indiana named Ross Gay who decided to write an essay every day for a year about something that delighted him.  He published the essays as The Book of Delight.  I borrowed his idea and posted on Facebook something that delighted me each day in the month of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah.  It turned out to be a wonderful way to prepare for a new year.  Not only did I become more tuned in to the delights in my life, but other people shared their delights and we created a beautiful bouquet of delights together. 

My favorite essay in Ross Gay’s book was called “Joy is Such a Human Madness. The title is a quote from the author Zadie Smith who writes about being on her way to visit Auschwitz while her husband was holding her feet.  She says: “We were heading toward that which makes life intolerable, feeling the only thing that makes it worthwhile.”   Zadie Smith suggests that facing the intolerable while deeply connected to others, is a kind of joy. 

In the essay, Ross Gay writes: “It astonishes me sometimes how every person I get to know – everyone, regardless of everything – lives with profound sorrow.  Brother addicted. Mother murdered.  Dad died in surgery.  Rejected by their family. Cancer came back.  Fetus not okay.  Everyone. Always.  Not to mention the existential sorrow we are all afflicted with which is that we and everyone we love will die.  Picking up on Zadie Smith’s idea, he says: “What if we join them – your sorrow to mine. What if we joined our sorrow?  I’m saying: what if that is joy?”

I wrote this on Cape Cod, sitting outside in the brightest sunshine, under a clear blue, cloudless sky.  Hummingbirds were darting around me.  I was surrounded by light and delight.  And at the same time my heart held the darkness and pain that exists in this world.

And now I am here with all of you.  It is dark outside. If we dare to look, we will see the infinite darkness.  It may frighten us. It may fill us with awe. It may remind us that we will all die.  But we are here together.  We join our sorrows and our fears.  We share our delights.  We sing and dance together.  And the sliver of the moon in the night sky reminds us to welcome all of life – the light and darkness.  The sorrow and the joy.

Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad.

Hear, O Israel, our God is one.

B48 Gesher Tzar Me’od

Fri, July 10 2020 18 Tammuz 5780