Rabbi Ain Sermon Rosh Hashanah First Day 2020

What are the Important Questions We are Asking in 2020?
Rosh Hashanah Day 1, September 19, 2020

Click here for a PDF of the sermon text.

The High Holidays are upon us. On one hand, it has felt like the longest year ever and yet, I can’t believe it’s already September. What am I supposed to say to you, this morning? What could you possibly need to hear? Preparing for these high holidays has been one of the hardest so far in my career. Not because there aren’t plenty of ideas to reflect on, but because, of the enormity of the shift in our landscape this year. Of course it created a sense of awe, but we are still living through it, so quite frankly it is hard to find ways to tie it all up in 5 sermons.

But I will try. I will try to get at the essence of what it means to be Jewish overall, what Judaism says to us in these trying times, and how we can use the tools, techniques, and history of being Jewish to give us the strength to contemplate life’s most important questions. I will NOT be doing all of that this morning 🙂

This morning, I want to reflect on the lessons we might learn from 2020, specifically through the lens of COVID-19 and what our Jewish tradition can teach us as we understand what are our most basic needs. And so my job is not to tell you the news that you can easily access on the many different stations that it appears, but I hope that this morning, I can use this time to share how I think the wisdom of Judaism can help frame this moment because I believe that that is a role of a synagogue. To help you see how Judaism can be a lense through which you can articulate and process your everyday desires, thoughts, and experiences.

Let me begin personally.

This has been a scary time which is a fitting way to start a RH sermon, because our Torah readings evoke fear. Sarah’s fear of the loss of the love of her husband, Hagar and Ishmael’s fear of hunger and homelessness, Isaac’s fear of loss of life and I could only assume Abraham’s fear of being responsible for all of this pain. I imagine that all of us have weathered these emotions to different degrees. The fear of not knowing what the next day will be like. I remember in early April, I couldn’t sleep. I had a cough that wouldn’t go away and I was taking my temperature every few hours. While I didn’t have covid-19, I felt that the invisible tidal wave of the disease was just a few feet away and that it could, at any moment, overtake us. Let me be clear. I know that people had it much worse than me-people lost loved ones, people were sick, people are sick. But the fear that so many of us felt in March, April, and May in particular, when we were just trying to flatten the curve, caused me to have many sleepless nights.

So I stayed up late into the evening and began writing down those values that are important to me, so that, in the scary event that in a blink of an eye I wouldn’t be able to communicate, my family would know what was important to me.

“It is April 2, 2020 and I am writing these thoughts, as I stay up, each night, not being able to fall asleep. I am so scared. I am scared that since I have been sick since February, something might happen to me. I am scared for Dave. I am scared for my kids. On one hand, I am very proud of my life. I have a wonderful husband, great kids, a successful career, great friends, and feel bound to a wonderful community. But I don’t want to die. I don’t want to say goodbye yet to my kids. They still have so much growing to do and I want to be here to see that.

On that late night in April, I continued to write: “There is so much pain and disaster right now. People are going to starve. We have a full pantry of food and a refrigerator that I keep restocking. Ok, it doesn’t have exactly what i might want in a given moment but it has more than most and for that, i am grateful.” Of course, as you can see, I was ok. I was just “regular” sick…but the emotions I felt were strong, even though I was ok. 

But I wasn’t only scared for myself. I was scared for our community. I was scared for many of you. Those who are older. Those who are sick. Those who work in hospitals. I was scared that you didn’t have what you need and that we wouldn’t know. I was scared that I would fail you, and if I did, I am sorry. I hope you will forgive me. 

And so I continued to ask myself questions that to me, help us frame how to enter this new year, so i share some of these questions with you that I have used when teaching about ethical wills.

If you knew that you were potentially going to face death (as we all do) to whom would you address your thoughts at this moment?

For me, it is certainly to my children, jared and zack. As of the writing Jared was 14 and Zack was almost 12. Jared was in 9th grade at Heschel and Zack was in 6th grade at Schechter Manhattan. I am so proud of them. They are kind, sensitive, and yet normal teens! They both have their moments where they can drive each other or me nutty but the love that they have for each other and for us as parents is something that makes me smile. WHO WOULD YOU SPEAK TO?

Another question: What were formative events in your life? For me, it was  A)  Going to camp ramah as a child and then again as a counselor B)   Switching to JDS in 8th grade D)  Going on Poland/Pilgrimage and deciding to become Kosher E)   Going to Ramah in the summer of 1994 which led me to Barnard F)   The tree incident of 1995 at camp which made me think about God on a daily basis G)  Meeting Dave freshman year at Simchat Torah at Erica Newman’s house-his influence on me to join the DD program; his willingness to marry and celebrate a woman who wanted to be rabbi 🙂 H)  Buying tefillin from my rabbi, Rabbi Cahan I) Being hugely disappointed by my other childhood rabbi J) My summer serving as a navy chaplain cadet K)  Living in Israel during The 2nd intifada L)   The death of three young people within 15 months when I was a rabbi in syracuse M) The birth of my children N) Challenging and successful job searches. S The loss of my grandparents Q)   And so much more…What were moments that were formative in your life?

  Who influenced you the most? There is no question that there are people that I can point to-people who had an impact on me as a child until today and people I have known more than half my life. My parents and grandparents have and had attributes of a strong work ethic, a commitment to the Jewish community, a love of their children and extended family, an understanding that learning is a lifelong endeavor, the importance of generosity, and so much more. They all, in their own ways showed me how to be a better person, professional, community leader, and caregiver. I am forever indebted to what i have learned and what i continue to learn from them. 

My sister Dorie, who I am grateful is part of my life, not just as family but as my closest, go to friend. I have learned from Dorie that you need to share your feelings out loud, that you should be expressive in all parts of your life, and you should enjoy documenting every moment. 

 When I was 18 years old, I met two people, Dave, and his mom Ellen, who also have influenced me greatly. They have taught me how to make every moment an experience, every item a precious treasure, every birthday and hallmark holiday one to celebrate, and that no obstacles are out of reach. I learned perseverance and strength through them.

And:   What are some of the important lessons that you learned in life?

A)  It is really important to work hard-and while some people (like me) start with a huge leg up, privilege because of what my parents had accomplished and could provide for me as a child and a young person, it is also hard work and work ethic make a difference in how you perceive of yourself and how others perceive you. But i also know that sometimes, even with hard work there are times that we encounter many roadblocks and we need to move the roadblocks for ourselves and others when we see them unfairly placed int the road. 

B)   Don’t expect life to be fair even if you have done everything right (accidents happen). Bad things occur. 

C)  Our heart can expand, it doesn’t get divided into smaller pieces when you meet more people to love. Loving someone else doesn’t diminish one’s love for someone already there.

D)   Things can’t be neatly tied up in a bow, as much as you might want them to-life is messy. I try to live in the center. Extremism is bad even if it feels easier to market. In fact, last year, my sermon was about balance! But being a passionate centrist is how I have lived my life and how I encourage others to do so and that brings me to the question of why ask these questions if we are all going to have different answers? 

The reason is, we need to understand what is at stake. Each of us matters. Each of us has wisdom to share. But we also need to find wisdom in our tradition to help frame our experiences right now for the big questions and the questions that enable us to go through each day. 

On Rosh Hashanah we have an opportunity to reflect on that which is important to us and we have a chance to reset-so what can we learn? How do we evaluate the past several months through the lens of our Jewish tradition?

First, we recognize that though there are moments that we all feel that we are in the dark, we know that the sun will emerge-and so we need to look to our tradition for hope and perspective and sometimes for a reminder of what is important.

So here are the Jewish lessons that all of us can learn from COVID as we enter into this new year regardless of how we answered the first sets of questions:

First, as Pirke Avot asks, who is wise? One who learns from all-It means that I don’t know everything and I shouldn’t believe someone who feels that they know everything. Rather, we should know what we know and know what we don’t know. It means having people to go to, to ask questions. It is why, as your religious leader, I believe I have a religious obligation to keep everyone safe and it is why we have taken a conservative approach to this year’s holidays.  And it means that I need to ask questions, for the times that we are in person, and so: what does it mean to learn from everyone? It means that I have been able to lean on the doctors and other experts in our midst to ask important questions for all of our health and safety and for that, i am grateful. 

The next question that I believed emerged for all of us, during these days, is also from Pirke Avot:

Pirke Avot asks: who is rich? And the rabbis answer their own question by saying: The one who is satisfied with their lot. Money didn’t define satisfaction this spring, toilet paper and clorox wipes did. Being able to have essential items-the basics-cleaning supplies, food, masks, that is what the essential items are. Even today it is almost impossible to find clorox wipes! Yes, we want more than that. Of course. So did I. But we began to focus on what essential means. And of course we started using that word for people-who are essential people? Who are essential workers? What are essential businesses? That is clear-the doctors, nurses, scientists, grocery store workers, public transportation drivers, EMTS and Police who transported people to hospitals, those in maintenance at the hospitals, nursing homes, those in the military, and teachers, and more, who couldn’t work virtually. They showed up, each and every day, putting themselves (and often their families) at risk because they didn’t pay attention to their own individual needs, but understood that they were a part of a collective. It is why we applauded them each night, ritually, as a token of our support. To all of you at home, who helped this world on our behalf, I thank you for the bottom of my heart and my soul. You are essential. You are needed. And we will all be forever grateful. And to all of us that stayed home, thank you. Our staying home enabled essential workers to do what they needed to do.

Covid taught us that we live the phrase: Al Tifrosh Min HaTzibur. Do not separate from the community. Now you might find it ironic that I am using that phrase as we are all sitting separate from one another. But the fact is, what we learned this year is that just because we might be physically distanced, doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t be spiritually connected. It means that Kol Yisrael Aravim Zeh BaZeh, all of Israel is responsible for one another is a phrase that we must live out. We must support each other, our community, our institutions. We need to realize that in order to be together next year, we need to be together this year. So thank you, for committed to the SPS community. 

Marcelo Gleiser, the 2019 Templeton Prize Laureate, and the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy at Dartmouth College, wrote: 

“Covid-19 will change us as a species. We must respond not just as nations fighting an enemy, but as a species fighting for survival. The virus will not wipe us out. But it is causing untold pain and loss, destabilizing global markets, and turning our daily lives into a surreal dreamscape. Our vulnerability and co-dependence are openly exposed.

Nature doesn’t care about our arrogance. A tiny organism is forcing us to revisit our values, our divisions, our choices as we barricade within our homes with our closest family members and consider what will come next. We can taste the anxiety in our mouths, imagining what will happen if we lose internet connectivity, or run out of food and resources or worse, contract the virus.

We would be foolish not to embrace the central message of our predicament: that we must come together to survive….

We must think collectively as a human hive, each of us playing an essential role. The first steps are simple: to be humble in the face of what we don’t know, to be respectful of nature and its powers, and to work together to preserve not just our lives and those of our loved ones, but the lives of all of us in the hive, young and old, celebrating the gift of being alive.”

The gift of being alive. Yes, for sure. At this moment, we can and must celebrate the gift of being alive. 

That despite our fear we can find resilience in appreciating that which is essential

That despite our loneliness we can find community around us, even virtually.

That despite our disappointment, we can find silver linings.

I often share at baby namings the hasidic teaching that “when there is a birth of a new baby, the world begins anew.” I truly believe that we are in the midst of watching a new world emerging. I am hoping that it is one of appreciating all those who are essential. Finding the capacity to be grateful for what we have. And opting into community as opposed to opting out.

Here at SPS we are cultivating opportunities to help with this-to think deeply about the essential values and ideas of Judaism and Jewish community. We know that we need to look deeply at what is important. And we will. This hasn’t been an easy year. I know that so many people wish that this time, 2020, could just be canceled and we could have a do-over.

Leslie dwight wrote:

“What if 2020 isn’t cancelled?⁣

What if 2020 is the year we’ve been waiting for?⁣

A year so uncomfortable, so painful, so scary, so raw — that it finally forces us to grow.⁣

A year that screams so loud, finally awakening us from our ignorant slumber.⁣

A year we finally accept the need for change.⁣

Declare change. Work for change. Become the change. A year we finally band together, instead of⁣

pushing each other further apart.⁣

2020 isn’t cancelled, but rather⁣

the most important year of them all.”

 As we turn the corner into 5781 let us do it with the presence of mind and the tenacity of spirit that we aren’t going anywhere, rather, we are asking ourselves important questions, we are learning from this year, and we are forging ahead to live the values and the history that makes us who we truly want to be. Shana Tova.