Rosh Hashanah Day 1: What does God call us for and are we ready to answer?

Rosh Hashanah Day 1
“I want to teach about God.”
“I want to teach Torah”
I want to help people
I want to be a rabbi.
I want to tell you my story but before I can get to my life and my memories, let me start with our most famous Biblical characters-God and Abraham-the stars of our Rosh Hashanah Torah reading. Boy did Abraham have faith. So much faith that when God called to him to leave home, to go on a journey, he did. But more than that, even more powerful than moving from one place to another, was the akedah, the binding of Isaac, an example of faith that is both held up and examined.
Let us recall the story:
Hineni. I am here. Abraham’s answer to God’s call on a sunny day in Beer Sheva. “Abraham”, God called. Take your son, your only son, the one you love, Isaac, and take him up to be offered as a sacrifice to the place that I will show you. Hineni. I am here. Why did Abraham answer that call? What was Abraham’s conception of God? Did Abraham know that God was going to instruct him to sacrifice his son? Why did Abraham answer God? Did Abraham attempt to anticipate God’s test or was he truly ready to fulfill the task that God was about to put in front of him? What was Abraham telling God? More importantly, what was Abraham telling us? What does it mean to be here? Does it mean something more than a physical location? When we each say “hineni” I am here-are we really? Do we really feel ready to engage with the person asking us where we are? If we are, what does it mean-how will we behave the next day, and what does this story have to do with us? PAUSE
While I do not remember consciously thinking about God in elementary school, I can only imagine that my view of God was an old man in the sky. I would never have used the variety of names, terms, and explanations that are now in my vocabulary to express my relationship with the Divine. The question is how did I get to this gray area? And what impact do those feelings have on who I have become and what I have chosen to do with my life?

Let me start with the following. I don’t believe that God speaks to me directly and quite frankly, it worries me when people feel they do…but I do believe that having an understanding of the spiritual, or thinking about the spiritual, is a way of recognizing that we are here on this earth for something more than ourselves-a mission-, and the journey of life is to figure out what that mission is and work to make it a reality. We won’t only have one mission in life-different ones will pop up on our journey. Some small, some large, but hopefully all meaningful.
Back to my story…1995 was a seminal year for me.
So-I will start with the 3rd event, chronologically. It was November, 1995, and I was studying in the library at the University of Rochester, where I was visiting a friend. As I walked back to my friend’s dorm, I began to hear very strange news. Prime Minister Rabin has been shot. “What,” I said to myself? How could that be? Who could have done this? I rushed back to my friend’s dorm, we turned on the TV, and there it was, the murder of a man who had been committed to peace. Killed just moments after singing a song to peace, at a rally for peace, one of our own, Yigal Amir, seemingly in God’s name, murdered him.
But was this Yigal Amir’s Hineni moment? He may have thought so but I refuse to believe that. I won’t believe that. I don’t believe that. I had to believe, and I do believe that this was an evil man, a murderer, sadly, not deranged, for he knew exactly what he was doing, in the “name” of defending our people. He assassinated a man, who had been a warrior, a diplomat, a leader, and most important, a rodef shalom-a pursuer of peace. The fragile peace process that was filled with such hope, began to die. As I think about Rabin, I think about his legacy. I think about what he committed to. I want to think about how he, like Abraham, answered, Hineini, I am here, when he signed the Oslo agreement. I will do something.
His words were quite powerful. He once said, “I enter negotiations with Chairman Arafat, the leader of the PLO, the representative of the Palestinian people, with the purpose to have coexistence between our two entities, Israel as a Jewish state and Palestinian state, entity, next to us, living in peace. We must think differently, look at things in a different way. Peace requires a world of new concepts, new definitions.” Rabin was a man who knew what he wanted, and knew what needed to be done, for the sake of peace. Sadly he gave his life for it, but his ability to step up and step forward for the sake of something larger than himself, has forever stuck with me.
The 2nd story of 1995 was also a tragic one-albeit more local-It took place in the community I grew up in. One fateful morning in July, in our beautiful suburb of Potomac, MD-a terrible thing happened.
On July 20, 1995, a month before what would have been Irma’s Goff’s 25th wedding anniversary, her husband and their three daughters—Andrea, 22, Sheri, 19, and Alyse, 15—were murdered by a painter’s assistant inside the family’s Potomac home. In reflecting on the 20 years since this horrific time, the two survivors, Irma, and her son Scott, who was away at the beach at the time, spoke poignantly to a magazine this summer, about moving forward.
“Scott doesn’t let himself dwell on the horror of it all. He never really has. In the months after the murders, his mom decided that the two of them had to keep going, that they had no other choice. “He was my reason for living,” Irma says of Scott.
“There’s no shoulda, woulda, coulda,” she says.
…Despite her loss, a loss that she says can be difficult for her to explain, she’s had plenty of joy over the years. She smiles when she talks about the time she created a YouTube video, called “Irma’s Kitchen,” on how to make her famous mandel bread, a Jewish biscotti her children loved. Life does go on, she’s learned. And she now has something new to smile about: Scott and his wife Amy had a baby this spring.”
When I think back on this story, I still get chills. You see, I was in USY with Sheri Goff-we used to hang out in our youth lounge. Her home was 5 minutes from mine. How could this happen? I don’t know. But what I learned is that Irma and Scott continued to say “hineni”-we are here. They weren’t called by God, but they were called my circumstance. They stepped forward, one foot in front of the other, despite how difficult it was.
And then there was a 3rd story from that year, 1995.
This is my story.
“Quick, everyone out of bed!”
“Pull up the window screens”
“Hold on, watch out”
“AHHHHHH”
Crying everywhere, screaming, shouting, darkness….
Not your typical Shabbat morning at Camp Ramah.
It was 8 am at Camp Ramah in New England. Everyone was asleep, because when you can sleep, you do. My bunk was to lead services that morning, so we would have to get up a little bit earlier than usual to prepare.
All of a sudden, we were awoken out of a deep sleep. It was as if my entire bunk felt the same force. Winds, stronger than I had ever experienced before, one could ever imagine, began blowing through the windows, into the bunk. I stood on my bed, which was perpendicular to the wall, to assist my camper in pulling up the window screen to prevent the wind from blowing everything out of its place. When I looked out the window I saw circles of dust, flying outside. A tornado was invading Palmer, Massachusetts. The next few minutes were a blur. All of a sudden, I was screaming. I was trapped in-between a fallen tree and the wall. A tree that was originally over 50 feet high above the outside of the bunk, had split in two and the top have crashed through my roof at camp, only to land six inches away from me and spear my bed. And I was caught in between the tree and the wall. But I narrowly escaped. And in the end, 20 years later, I only have a few scratches that make up a scar. But that moment is deep within me. The impact of what could have been is a part of me.
I have never been a firm believer in miracles. I just take things for what they are, and assume that if something is meant to be, than it is meant to be. But I could not have that attitude that Shabbat morning. There were too many “what ifs” to contemplate. To me, this showed me a side of God that I never thought about. God as protector. Maybe even a protector of me. But how arrogant I feel, even stating that, for I ask myself fundamental questions such as where was God on November 4th when Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated? Where was God when the Goffs were murdered? AND-Why was I saved?
The fact is, I can’t answer where God was. I don’t know. I don’t know why bad things happen or why there is evil. But what I do know is that those of us who but by the grace of God, are here, need to think about not why we were saved, but what we will do. We need to think about how we will live and how we will act and how we will be known. I do know that we can feel God’s response, in how we are responded to by others, and this is expressed from the sages of thousands of years ago until today.
Recently, Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of the famous book “When Bad things Happen to Good People” shared,
God is in the work of those who offer comfort, those who help with money, with time, with concern. We find God, and we respond to suffering by engaging in work that will better humankind.
Sadly we don’t need to look very far to understand that there is tremendous suffering by others. Whether it is the homeless on the streets of NY or the horrible images from the Syrian refugees, we cannot remain comfortable in our seats. Last week when a 3 year old refugee who died and was later buried at home, the world stopped and finally took notice
His final journey was supposed to end in sanctuary in Europe; instead it claimed his life and highlighted the plight of desperate people caught in the gravest refugee crisis since World War II.
The images of the Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body on a Turkish beach have reverberated across the globe, stirring public outrage and embarrassing political leaders.
He drowned after the 15-foot boat ferrying him from the Turkish beach resort of Bodrum to the Greek island of Kos capsized shortly before dawn on Wednesday, killing 12 passengers. Aylan’s 5-year-old brother, Galip, and his mother, Rehan, were also among the dead. His father, Abdullah, was the only family member to survive.
Though Syria has been war torn for 4 years and though we have known that this refugee problem was going to be a concern, it took an image of a child, a boy, to pull us from our comfort zone. We could no longer change the channel or click on a different news story that came across our desk. NO. We forced ourselves to look, to see, to understand, that those leaving did nothing wrong. And they need help. They need us to answer Hineni.
And we, members of the Jewish community, know far too well that too few people answered hineni when we needed them most. Over 75 years ago our people you, me, each of us and our families were turned away at the shores, trying to get in. This is not a matter of policy-this is a matter of humanity. And we must engage with humanity. We are taught that we are created betzelem elohim, in the image of God, and if we are to think about God, and speak about God, and ask about God, we must behave in a way that we want God to behave. And we must treat others as they should be treated-in the divine image. And so we must begin to look for ways to help. Sadly, there are numerous areas in life that we can help but as I reflect on this past year, I want to call out just a few.
Certainly we need to talk about the refugees from Syria. I understand that there are political ramifications for every decision made but as the Jewish community watches this nightmare unfold we cannot just sit back and be silent. We must find a way to communicate urgency and help. There are a number of Jewish organizations, HIAS in particular, that is working to give people ways of contributing to this cause in order to help people around the world.
A second area that we must continue to explore is race relations. Like the Syrian refugees, this is not easy, and there are many variables as to why different groups have succeeded and why others have not. But this past year, as the world celebrated 50 years since the African American community was given the right to vote, 50 years since Selma, we know there is a ways to go. Just this past May, a number of us from this congregation, proudly answered Hineni as we went down south to hear stories of people that had struggled for freedom and had walked with Dr. King. We could have said “oh, this is all in the past”-but just weeks after returning, we heard the horrible news of the racist hate crime perpetrated in a house of worship, a historical Black church in Charleston, where a white supremacist murdered the ministers and parishioners in cold blood, solely because of the color of their skin. This is not acceptable. We cannot be silent in the face of hate. Hineni.
And of course the Jewish community have been targets of hatred as well, and we must speak up. Whether it is the Jewish community of France who was targeted in a supermarket this past January or the fear and intimidation that many college students feel as they speak out in a support of Israel, we need to stand up and support our young people as they seek to stand with the Jewish people. We need to help others and we need to help ourselves. We need to say, Hineini.
Rabbi Howard Shulweis of blessed memory explains that “hineni” is the initial willingness to respond to the other, to readiness to act on the other’s behalf no matter what is being asked. When trust has been built up and we have lived in a committed relationship over time, when each of us has to be ready to respond and act when the other, to whom we are committed, calls. This is why we must respond to those in need. This is why we must consider how to open our doors. This is why we must understand what are the systemic problems in our country and our world, not just band aid solutions. PAUSE
So-I also realize that I must thank God for everything that I have been given. I must do something to prove that there was a reason that the tree didn’t fall at a slightly different angle. I can admit that I still do not have a firm grasp on what God is, but I do not think that anybody really does-that is why I must continue to learn and to teach-to show others why I am proud of who I am-A mom, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a Rabbi. I am proud of what I do.
But, I still ponder the question, What am I here on this earth to really do? What is my calling? What keeps me up at night? I feel blessed to have found a vocation and a location where I can engage in what I love-working with people, studying our tradition, building community, supporting Israel, caring for the vulnerable, teaching people of all ages, and more. I know that I am blessed to have a wonderful husband and incredible sons. But I still ask myself, What else should I be doing? How can I be a better member of humanity? It is precisely during this time of year, the days of awe, that we must confront this question.
For me, my hineni moment was the tree. I knew that I had to do something that reflected the continued gift of life I had been given and for me, being a rabbi, talking about God, is a reflection of that appreciation.
But of course this isn’t always easy for any of us. Finding our passion, our purpose, is a lifelong journey. And we think about it at different stages in our lives.
Earlier this spring, David Brooks, gave a wonderful commencement address at Dartmouth where he said
“Your fulfillment in life will come by how well you end your freedom. By the time you hit your 30s (which most of us in this room are beyond), you will realize that your primary mission in life is to be really good at making commitments.
Making commitments sounds intimidating, but it’s not. Making a commitment simply means falling in love with something, and then building a structure of behavior around it that will carry you through when your love falters.
When you make a commitment to something you truly love, whether it’s a spouse, a job, a company, or a school, it won’t feel like you are putting on an uncomfortable lobster shell. It will feel like you are taking off the shell and becoming the shape you were meant to be.
When you’re making a commitment, you won’t be paralyzed by self-focus because you’ll have something besides yourself to think about.
He is talking about a hineni moment. He is talking about being present and being aware and doing something beyond yourself. That is what this season of awe is about. It is about recognizing who you are, hearing the call and going after it. It is about struggling with God, it is about struggling with sadness. And it is about doing so in community, for that is how we get through it. That is how we determine where we are headed. Not on a lonely path, but surrounded by others.
So the question is, what are the moments that we can each point to-maybe they were moments of struggle, maybe they were moments of joy, that we felt called? How will we seek, find, and commit to that which we are called to do, even when it is hard? How and where will we make a name for ourselves? And I don’t necessarily mean on a letterhead, or on the corner office, though those are nice. I mean Jewish commitment card: What are you called for this year and what will you want to be called? As we prepare to really engage in acts of introspection this year, we must think about the moments where we are called and how we will respond. Not everything will be as global as the Syrian Refugee crises or the BDS movement. It might be a smaller calling, but nonetheless important. It could be coming to the package delivery here at SPS for Dorot. It could be walking in the breast cancer walk. It could be giving blood at the NY Blood center. It could be calling someone who is lonely. We don’t always need to sacrifice our sons when saying Hineni, sometimes, we just need to sacrifice a Sunday.
In Judaism, during these days of awe, we have, in triplicate, the roadmap to get started, if we are feeling stuck. We are told that Teshuva, repentance, Tefillah, prayer and introspection, and Tzedakah, the pursuit of justice, are the avenues on which we should walk to avert the evil decree.
As I said earlier, I don’t know why bad things happen to people and I won’t have such hubris to express an answer. But what I do feel is, it is how our community responds, when bad things happen, that sets us up to know if we are doing what we should be, if we are behaving how we must be, and if we are acting on what we are called to become.
And finally, we return to the Akeidah-the binding of Isaac-the hineini of all hineinis. How many of us, how many scholars and poets, have wondered about the call to Abraham and whether I could have answered it the way he did? The answer is no — I couldn’t have answered it because it wasn’t my calling and I am not Abraham. Our people was called to all of Torah with thunder and lightning and the sound of shofar. But you and I hear the shofar today and have to listen closely for that part of Torah which is a personal call. We need to figure out how to answer it in a way that we are proud of today, tomorrow, and when we come together at the end of these days of awe, on yom kippur, we can begin to reflect on if we have heard the call, and if we are proudly answered hineni. Shannah Tova.