Rabbi Ain Sermon Erev Rosh Hashanah 2020

Making Room for Ourselves and Others to Grow
Erev Rosh Hashanah, September 18, 2020

Click here for a PDF of the sermon text.

I want to give you a glimpse into our apartment during quarantine. Picture a plant. A small plant-green leaves. Nothing fancy.  Now you should know, I grew up in a home where sadly, house plants came to die. We had a beautiful front yard and backyard but house plants were just not our thing, and so, when someone gave Dave and me a housewarming gift a few years ago-a small plant, I was already nervous and frustrated with what would be the inevitable demise of the plant. But Dave nurtured this plant. And for the last few years it has lived in a small mug, on our kitchen counter, in the sunlight. During quarantine this spring, Dave had an idea. What would happen if we put it on our balcony? So, he put it in a bigger plot, with miracle grow, and watered it daily. Fast forward 8 weeks and Dave and I were sitting and looking at the plant and it had grown at least six inches. Fortunately, it wasn’t like Audrey 2 in Little Shop of Horrors, the last show we saw on Broadway before the pandemic/it didn’t need blood-all it needed was sunlight, water, and space to grow. Incredible. When we make space, even for plants, the potential and possibility for growth are huge. Of course, this also makes us wonder, what happens, when we put people or items inside of boxes and don’t give them space to grow?i’ll get back to that.

And so, like any normal person would say, I turned to Dave and said “there is a sermon in this plant.”

Tonight, is Erev Rosh Hashanah-the beginning of the new year when we want to explore our potential for growth and the growth of our world.

We know, that in normal times, a goal of each of our lives is to not only survive, but thrive. To expand our universe, to give ourselves potential, to meet the challenges-all of you know the phrases-you have lived them, you have written them, and you have nurtured others to do the same. There is even a cottage industry now for parents of teens and high school graduates called ‘Grown and Flown”-the idea that as our children grow we should give them the tools to fly so that they aren’t stuck in our nest-with a failure to launch mentality. Of course all of that is easier said than done even in the best of times. Yet, There are many moments of success in our lives and of course there are setbacks for people-there could be financial setbacks, mental health setbacks, or setback because of systemic challenges that keep people down-there could be setbacks because of timing and there could be setbacks because our system isn’t always set up to help everyone succeed, even those who are trying. Now, I don’t apologize for what I have been given nor do I apologize for what I have been blessed to give my kids, but looking at that plant I realize that not everyone has been moved from a small space to a larger space to grow. And so we might need to apologize for not realizing how others have been kept in too small a planter.

And of course, with COVID, it is much harder. This year, we have been cooped up in a way that has been completely unprecedented but we realize that we, like plants, adapt to the space we are given.

Emerging from narrow spaces is actually one of the most Jewish ideas that we have-as one of the foundational narratives of our people is our exodus from Egypt. Mizrayim means egypt, but Mi Tzarim means from the narrow spaces, and, in both cases, we can recall what this means.

So how do we respond when we feel that we, or someone else, is in too small a place?

With flexibility


But we must also realize what happens when people are in small spaces-some might not grow at all, and then, there are those, who are able to use our voices to help others move in a way that will change the world. 

How do we create a more perfect world with room for all of us to grow?

So tonight, i want to think about our lives by asking 3 questions:

First, what happens when we begin in confinement? How do we grow?

Second, what is the power of leaving our proverbial homes, and how do we enable that?

Finally, What is the role of those who have the power to move the plants? To see that the world can be shifted in order to give others what they need, and in so doing, will beautify the space for all?

Let’s start with the first question: How do we expand our selves even when we feel confined-Natan Sharansky, the most famous Soviet refusnik, who later rose to power in the Jewish Agency for Israel, and has been a symbol of hope for so many, can give us guidance.. Sharanksy was imprisoned for nine years in Soviet labor camps, half of which he said was in solitary confinement, and spent 405 days in a punishment cell. He was released in 1986 after heavy international pressure, including U.S. diplomatic efforts and humanitarian efforts led by his wife Avital Sharansky. 

Fast forward several decades and Sharansky had advice for people in quarantine right now:

 “In prison, I had to always remind myself I am part of a huge global battle. You also should remind yourself that we are at war with a very dangerous, though invisible enemy, and whether we will succeed in battle depends also on your behavior.”

His second piece of advice was not to make plans for the future “based on the hope” that everything will be back to normal in the few days or weeks. He added, “It does not depend on you. So, try to build plans that fully depend on you. … Read the book that you wanted to read or … learn the language that you always wanted to speak. And then it depends all on you: whether you succeed in your plans or not.”

Sharansky’s third tip was to hold on to your sense of humor. He said, “in prison I loved telling jokes to my anti-Soviet guards, and thank God, [now] there are so many jokes on the Internet.”

Tip No. 4: “Don’t give up on your hobbies.”Are there ways that you grew over the past several months? Did you take up a kind of exercise that you find yourself not doing right now as you enter the “post labor day” rush? Can you find something meaningful to do? Read? Journal?

His final tip was to “feel your connection.” “Remember that you are not alone. We Jews, for thousands of years, all over the world, were scattered, but we always had this feeling that we are a part of a big people, great people with our mutual past, our mutual future and our mutual mission.”

And that is what has SPS been trying to do during these days: Even these holidays we aren’t together but we aren’t focusing only on the services themselves but the ways of seeing each other’s pictures on different videos, or shmoozing in our virtual lobby, we want to expand what feels like in captivity.

But there is another message from the plant-and from others-that to truly succeed, we often need to move. A simple move from the kitchen to the balcony seems almost ridiculous, but like the plant that moved into the light, I think about heroes-imagined and real, who we look to for inspiration. Whether it is the heroes of the marvel movies who had to leave their universes to save the world, or heroes such as Harriet Tubman who left her home and was able to come back and extend the world of freedom to hundreds, or our biblical ancestors of Abraham, Rebecca, and of course Moses, who had to leave their homes in order to access their greatest potential…Taking our people out of their Mitzrayim…..In all of these cases, it is clear that people will expand in their universe if they are able to see their potential. Can we see our own potential, even during quarantine? Where are we headed? 

Rabbi Ben Adler, teaches that, in the creation myth of ancient Judaic mysticism, God creates the universe by a process dubbed tzimtzum, which in Hebrew means a sort of stepping back to make room for the universe. 

In Rabbi Gershon Winkler with Lakme Batya Elior, The Place Where You are Standing Is Holy: A Jewish Theology on Human Relationships, we read:

“At the beginning of time, God’s presence filled the universe. When God decided to bring this world into being, to make room for creation, He first drew in His breath, contracting Himself. From that contraction darkness was created. And when God said, “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3), the light that came into being filled the darkness, and ten holy vessels came forth, each filled with primordial light.

In this way God sent forth those ten vessels, like a fleet of ships, each carrying its cargo of light. Had they all arrived intact, the world would have been perfect. But the vessels were too fragile to contain such a powerful, divine light. They broke open, split asunder, and all the holy sparks were scattered like sand, like seeds, like stars….That is why we were created — to gather the sparks, no matter where they are hidden….

And when enough holy sparks have been gathered, the broken vessels will be restored, and tikkun olam, the repair of the world, awaited so long, will finally be complete. Therefore it should be the aim of everyone to raise these sparks from wherever they are imprisoned and to elevate them to holiness by the power of their soul.” Howard Schwartz, Tree of Souls, p. 122

This means that sometimes people need to step back in order to let others shine through.

Back to our apartment during quarantine-the other aha moment that we had this summer, aside from our plant, was how to create more space, without moving walls and actually renovating. We decided to turn our small office, into Jared’s room. Now that he is entering 10th grade and will be spending many days at home doing school virtually, we realized it was necessary to reconfigure our space to allow him to grow. So, we, Dave and I contracted, stepped back from the space we had, so that he can flourish. We relinquished some of our needs in order for him to shine for we know that a rising tide lifts all ships.

So how finally, how does this speak to us as a community?

The following rabbinic story addresses my 3 original questions of how do we move from confinement to growth and what happens when we emerge, changed.

In the year 70 of the common era, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai left Jerusalem in a coffin, the smallest of spaces, only to re-emerge and with creativity and ingenuity establish a center of Jewish learning in Yavneh, in Northern Israel. We see that from the ashes of the destruction of The Temple to the creativity of Yavneh and the emergence of rabbinic Judaism we have models in our lives and our history, that often necessity is the mother of invention and i would add creativity is the result of giving people people room and the ability to dream.   We can imagine that things can be greater than what they are now. We can learn from the wisdom and tenacity of those who came before us to create a more just society.

So-how will we create the space we need for ourselves this year, even with the restrictions of COVID? How will we expand our minds and our thoughts to imagine what a better, more just world could be? How do we help remove barriers from others so that they will shine and lift up our world?

Over the next 10 days, I encourage you to think about these questions and answers-as individuals, members of a family, members of our community, and members of our worlds.

First, find a space where you can expand your mind. If you are mainly home, can you set up an area that you find peaceful? Can you get a small bookshelf with new books? Can you turn your computer set up so that you have a new vision in 5781? At SPS we are trying to think about space in safe and meaningful and sacred ways. It is why we are opening the times for many of you to come to the ark during the next several days. It is why we will be creative about how to mark lifecycle events. It is why we will expand our space to not just be located to a building or a city but our nation and our world as we bring in speakers to enhance our learning from all over. 

And we will certainly do our best to consider what a just world looks like. A world that we feel good passing down from generation to generation. A world that deserves to be re-created each year at Rosh Hashanah. And we will remove barriers by talking about the ones-visible and invisible that exist. We will think about what it means to go deep into the recesses of our education and experience to understand how to bring more voices to the fore. 

It is why we are committing to looking deeply at exploring the essence of Judaism-through prayer, meditation, and mitzvot. I will be doing a class called the mitzvah initiative, where you, can join me virtually for a conversation about expanding your awareness of the role of mitzvot in your life. 

Over the coming days we will be together, ok, virtually, but we will be singing the same prayers, contemplating the same ideas, and together, hoping for a better world. Each of us can move from where we are to where we need to be to expand our hearts and our minds. To grow and to help others grow. And it is clear that when we do it with intention and integrity, we will surely create a better world, together. Shanah Tova.