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The New Normal, Rosh Hashanah, 2013/5774

Rabbi HoffmanMy dear friends - This year I share with you a sermon that is as much about me as it is about the women’s stories who follow. We will learn together and construct a New Normal for this year and in the years to come. 

Saima, a rural Pakistani woman, was used to her husband's daily beatings, often the consequence of his own misery and rising debts.    Jeers and critiques came to Saima from everyone in the village, including extended family members for her inability to maintain control in the family home.  Saima was also an embroiderer. One day, after acquiring a $65 microloan from the Kashf Foundation, Saima was able to satisfy the local merchants' requests for her qualified work. In time, Saima became the sole income earner in her family.  She hired other local women and even her husband to meet the growing needs of her handiwork.  She was able  to pay off her husband's debt, put her daughters into school, bring running water to the house and even buy a television.  Reflecting with pride and satisfaction, Saima tells us, "Now everyone comes to me to borrow money, the same ones who used to criticize me,"  Kashf means miracle, and this story is indeed one of the miracles the organization is responsible for producing.  Here is a story of a woman who confronted a change and acted in faith in one of the world’s least common places, where we assume that people not like us are somehow primitive and uncivilized.

Saima's story is a dramatically unusual case of success and empowerment among the dejected and neglected women of the world.  We feel sadness for her physical plight and we are inspired by her spiritual courage.  She is a hero in the making.   I want to take her, hug her and hold her close, pinch her cheeks and feed her some kreplach.  Our collective hearts throb for her story and we wish her well.

Saima's story and others is a sample of empowered women we read about in Nicholas Kristoff's and Cheryl Wu Dunn's 2009 book, Half the Sky.  These women are the rejected and isolated ones in a global society.  Reading their stories, internalizing their compelling messages, we feel their imperative to respond to the injustices of the world.   We fear for them, their well being, and acknowledge our utter inability to change or improve the fate of millions human beings.  The number is simply too great.

Then, I met Marianne, not a very Jewish name, but nonetheless a young Russian mother of a four year old boy. I was part of a national delegation of rabbis from the Jewish Federations of North America, when we visited her Hebrew class in Ashkelon.   Our meeting seemed to be another show and tell at first.  Instead, Marianne's unrehearsed and spontaneous plea was transformed into a powerful moment of witness and testimony.  Marianne's parents may have been Jewish, but she had to seek legitimacy in her marriage by the רבנות, the State religious authority whose rule is law. At first, her Jewish identity was question, even denied.  She spent 4 years of preparation for conversion. Years filled with real tears and untold pain reflecting the denial and rejection she endured before her 'acceptance' as a convert to Judaism.   She would have long been considered a Jew in the U.S., even under the most strict circumstances.   She implored us to speak out for those silenced in the Jewish State, because she and thousands of others were emotionally abused during their journeys toward legitimacy and identity.

Rejected. Ridiculed. Ignored. Humiliated.   Tears streamed down her face while sharing her story with us.  The other students in her class and the rabbis along with me were stunned into silence.  Marianne's story ended positively. She completed her conversion. But she was shattered.  She pleaded to the group, "How many will give up on the conversion process long before reaching the end? You must do something to change this."

Back on the bus, my colleagues and I were perplexed. We asked, “Who would want this? How many others will turn away from the Tradition that rejects them?  Where were the non-Orthodox movements to support Marianne and her young family? What could we do?” The best communication materials may have never reached her anyway. 30 rabbis from North America felt helpless.

Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook. The impressive narrative of her well-educated, privileged journey in professional life is fraught with real challenges of parenting and partnering. Without the tireless support of those around her she could not have been successful.  It wasn't the years of education she acquired or how many holes of golf she was able to master that make her a leader.  She attributes her ability to champion one of the most successful businesses today to some inner-courage and A LOT of help.  She found the ability to overcome the fears looming behind her. She writes:  We need more portrayals of competent professionals and happy mothers, or even better happy professionals and competent mothers....Fear is at the root of so many of the barriers that women face. Fear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong choice.  Fear of negative attention.  Fear of overreaching.  Fear of being judged.  Fear of failure.  Then there is the holy trinity of fear. Fear of being a bad wife/mother/daughter. (Lean In, pp. 23-4)

We imagine and marvel at her success, "How does she do it all?" She is the COO of Facebook and an awesome mom!   The fears she associates with women in leadership roles is true for us all.  At its core, even among the most successful of us, there is a fear that it can all be taken away.I was never raised in a world where women were treated differently.  In fact, my mother and my wife, the rabbi, wouldn't even let me eat at the dinner table otherwise.   To me, it's shocking to consider that any of this is real.  These women possess important stories, powerful stories. But they are just that - stories.   It’s easy to say this can never happen to me.

Gender inequalities, slave trafficking, and war. Gun violence, immigration, economic depression, and moral vacuousness. The list continues and our powerlessness can grow.  Our concerns are brought into the temple now so that we can encounter their reality, challenging us to learn, even if there is little or nothing we do in response.

20th Century psychologist, death camp survivor and author, Viktor Frankl once wrote, "When we are no longer able to change a situation - we are challenged to change ourselves."   This season is a time to remember that struggles and fears can and will happen to us. And so we read in our Machzor:

On Rosh Hashana it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: 

Who will live and who will die, who in their time, and who before their time? Who by fire and who by water, who by earthquake and who by plague? Who will be torn and who will be whole, who will wander and who will have peace?

These questions are being posed every single moment of every single day, not just on the Holidays. We simply cannot stay focused or adequately respond to most of these very serious crises.  We cannot turn away, for the questions of our humanity and morality hang in the balance.  If we rally and make a call to action, we naturally wonder where to begin and where to create limits and boundaries. Still our inability to fully respond to strife and tragedy will unnecessarily permit innocent lives to perish. For this, we are silent. 

The social fabric is tearing, even shredding, each and every day, and we no longer have a ‘hand to wring’ in our anxiety and our fear.  And yet, here we are, celebrating another holiday season.   Will our honest assessment be that none of this will change us; that through our avoidance, we will be impelled toward renewed commitment and responsibility? This cannot be our message today/tonight.

A little over a month ago, I sustained a brain injury in the form of a cerebral vascular accident - a CVA, or a stroke. As cool as it is to have a title for something that happened to me, and even more cool to see the pictures of my own brain to prove it, I never expected such uncertainty to enter my world, just days after turning 40. For those who know me, sharing any of this is difficult, and yet how could I stand before you, my community, and not express what I am beginning to learn from this? While there is much health to glean, and a whole lot of luck, this is what I am beginning to learn... While there is thousands of years of sensitivity and wisdom from the Jewish tradition to bring to bear here, the homiletic or biblical teaching isn’t manifest. In time I can show you that even this experience has a Torah to teach. The only thing I can change right now - flax seed and baby aspirin aside, is myself. I can become more compassionate, more understanding with myself and others. I can become healthier in spirit and choose to live a life with integrity and wholeness.   And, it begins here. Here we are with so much to be worried about and ask ourselves how will we respond. Will we change ourselves this year? How so?   

My story is one you can and must internalize - not to eat more flax seed, but to know to embrace the uncertainty - to overcome the fear we have of what remains unknown and find an authentic faith, one that leads to action and deeper learning and growth.

This message of transformation was coming long before my summer emergency.

In July, I heard Ilana Dayan, a secular-Israeli journalist.   [Among her truly beautiful remarks, she recalled a passionate interview she conducted in 2005 with Rabbi Yerachmiel Weiss, Rosh Yeshivah Merkaz HaRav. It was three days following a massacre in his school that killed 6 of his students by former student who also happened to be Arab.  From the funerals, Weiss shared with Dayan two conflicting reactions. He told her, "I cried. 'Why did this happen?' and 'Why did You, God, leave me?!'" 

Shocked by his honesty, Dayan pushed the rabbi to explain how both his doubt and his faith were necessary reactions to this tragedy - to seek God in this loss amidst God's absence, and to renew one's faith despite the separation from God.  She pointed out a Torah learning and observant Jew simultaneously rejecting and pleading for God. We are moved to attention. ]

From this Dayan suggested that we live in a גם וגם reality - literally an ‘Also and Also' reality. We live in a reality in which we confront BOTH that which cannot or does not change AND the possibility that we can - indeed, we must change. As true as it is for Israelis it is true for us.

Dayan's presentation offered a message of hope; that amid the turmoil and seemingly frightened nature of the Israeli people, change and faith in that change is possible.  Israeli author and activist, Amoz Oz added about Israel and it is so true for us, "It is a dream come true, as such bound to be flawed, otherwise it would still be a dream." 

The realities we confront and the dreams we idealize do not have to be consistent.  In the world of גם וגם - Both-And, we have our realities and our inabilities to change them,  we have our dreams and the inevitabilities of those dreams creating new realities.

The great artist, Vincent Van Gogh said this differently, “For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.” It is the dream that enabled us to discover the most intricate details of the universe as we know it. Dreams defy all fear and reason.  Dreams are the ideal projections of a reality yet to be. 

בראש השנה יכתיבון וביום צום כיפור יחתימון

On the New Year it is written and on the Day of Judgment it is sealed.

Are these words a dream? Are they ideal projections of a reality yet to be?

We have an opportunity to explore the contours and dimensions of our dreams several times through our prayers and learning together.  A great example is heard each time we return the Torah to the ark we recite this verse from the book of Eicha - of Lamentations.  "השיבינו הי אילך ונשובה חדש ומינו כקדם - Bring us Adonai Back to You and we Will Return,  Renew our Days As Before."  We pray for God to return us to a time, more pristine, greater in clarity, even more simple.  The lulling melody draws us closer.  And we challenge the presumption, 'What are the pasts we aspire to return to?'  Has there ever been a time before we wish to return to?  Living in a shattered, broken, and grossly imperfect reality, what are the futures we can aspire to? The Saimas, the Mariannes, the Sheryl Sandbergs - the broken, the shattered and the imperfect ones are you and me, and how we change ourselves is the greatest gift we are given at this time of year.

There is ancient wisdom and truth here, that which transcends the fears of the present reality and does not fall trap to an abject faith.  Faith is as Rabbi Shimon taught: The world stands on three pillars - on Torah learning, on sacred worship and devotion, and on acts of immeasurable kindness. The pillars hold us up and gives us the courage to change ourselves, to change our futures now.

Torah תורה- We carry a tradition which has confronted ebbs and flows, revolutions and devolutions for thousands of years.  It is our heritage and our inheritance.  There is a text and narrative that presents for us the most human and divine message - that the present is not perfect. The study of Torah ultimately teaches us that our present is good enough each day to make it better, more just and more humane, more understanding and more kind.  It's a weekly, even daily review of a timeless narrative. In the Torah we meet a person, a family, a nation of seekers.  Abraham and Hannah’s stories are our stories. B’nai Yisrael is us, with triumph and failure, exiles and redemptions. If you do not already read this text yearly, this is the year. There are plenty of places where Torah is studied inside and outside this building. Friends, it’s Valley Beth Shalom - We will show you where and how.

Avodah - Rebbe Nachman of Brastlav reminds us,  "There is nothing so whole as a broken heart." Prayer in the Siddur is complicated to say the least, and so many of us are distanced by language and concepts left poorly explained.  But, most of us pray in some way - we express ourselves quietly through internal communications wishing healing for those who need it, guidance for those who seek it, and wisdom for those who believe it.  This ancient mandate calls upon us to pray here with intention and desire. We ask you, 'What does it mean for you to really pray and what could it mean for us to really pray together?'  Prayer happens A LOT around here. We sing and read, talk and argue, and even meditate a bit. Finding a place to pray inside the walls of this building isn’t so difficult. Friends, it’s Valley Beth Shalom - We’ll show you where and how.

Gemillut Hasadim - Our fundamental gift we give back to the world is that we love God and we love the other - there cannot be one without the other.  Rabbi Shai Held recently taught, "I can’t think of a better way to express the inextricable link in Judaism between our relationship with God and our relationship with other people: we have to embody for others the very things we ask for for ourselves."  Jewish tradition champions the truths that poverty will never cease from the land, and that we are commanded 36 times to heed the stranger.  Our love shown in our care for the needs of another is the most faithful response to our fear that the crises of the world are too overwhelming.  One act of Hesed - of kindness and generosity - tips the balance in favor of goodness. Feeding the hungry, responding to homelessness, knitting caps for cancer patients, collecting clothes for those who need. Helping children feel a sense of normal in a world of chaos. This you can do every day.   Friends, it’s Valley Beth Shalom - We’ll show you where and how.

I am moved by the intensely personal words of the U'netaneh Tokef prayers,  "מי יחיה ומי ימות?"  "Who shall live? And who shall die?" This year I naturally and powerfully reflect on them and say, 'I will live and I will die' - this new reality begins with openness and willingness to learn.  I do not have all the answers.  But I have a faith along with my doubt - minimizing the anxiety that I am powerless and out of control, and empowering me to take hold of each and every moment to learn, to care for the ones I love, and to care for the neglected around me a little more sincerely this year than the year before.

This is a גם וגם reality, a faithful doubt preparing us, supporting us, inspiring and guiding us in the year to come.  And I wholeheartedly pray the same will be for you.  כן יהי רצון - לשנה טובה.

Sun, July 5 2020 13 Tammuz 5780