Divrei Torah by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
This Rosh Hashanah each of us enters this room from different worlds of experience and with different needs. Some of us are full of gratitude and joy, some have recovered from illness or escaped misfortune and we rejoice with you. Some of our hearts ache with sorrow and grief; for some, our loved one’s lie in bed, ill or ailing, and for many of us, death has taken those whom we have cherished. May our presence together in community and in prayer bring some comfort.
Some of us arrive with hearts embittered; having searched for answers in vain, having felt betrayed by teachers, by our leaders and by religion too. For some, life has lost meaning and value. May the knowledge that we are All seeking, that we have come together today and through these many sacred days to come to enter into a journey of reconnection, that hopefully opens our eyes and our hearts to new possibilities; may this awareness help to restore the hope, that there is indeed something to find.
Let us take a moment for all of us to acknowledge this community with whom we gather- some who are present each week, some who return for these annual services, some who are here for the first time. Let us take a moment to greet those sitting nearby who you may not know. To introduce ourselves and give welcome to each unique individual that sits with us today.
Did you know that RH has many other names? One of them is Yom Hazikaron- A Day of Remembrance. This year, like every Rosh Hashanah past, we are called to remember: to re- member-that is to put back together that which has been become broken. We usually think of this in terms of relationships. Today I want to reframe that imperative, so that we might attempt to put back together the way we see, the way we view the story of this year. Like Hagar whose eyes were opened to seeing in a new way, we too carry that potential.
There is no doubt that we are living through extreme and trying times. Uncertainty and instability have oddly become our most reliable conditions. So many of our societal structures and the systems that we have relied upon, are breaking down. Every day the news brings another “unprecedented” story. The fabric of communication that should bring people together, continues to divide us. Our communities, our friends and even our families have become increasingly polarized. On a larger scale we see that Nationalism is on the rise, which is never good for the Jews, and to top it all off, we are facing ever more extreme environmental threats each season.
In the face of such uncertainty, I ask myself, how do I/we manage to maintain inner balance and move forward each day with a positive contribution?
In considering this, I had to acknowledge that this is certainly not the first time we Jews have faced this kind of question. So, perhaps, there is some wisdom our tradition may be able to offer.
We might learn from Hagar’s story which we read earlier today. Rather than turn away and seal ourselves off , let us try to open our eyes even wider. Amid the stories of pending disaster are also the stories of hope, ingenuity, kindness and human spirit at its best. We simply don’t see or hear these stories as frequently, if at all.
I recently learned about a man named Nasir Sobhani, also known as the ‘Street’s Barber’.
He gives haircuts to homeless people. He walks through the streets and offers grooming to the poorest among us. I watched a short video about him and saw him truly transform people. It was not simply a physical change, he rekindled their spirit. He describes his experience this way: People walk by them like they’re nothing. Sometimes they feel like they don’t even exists. But it’s a good feeling when you can make someone feel like a human. I’ll do what I can to make someone feel clean. I am hoping with a clean cut, I can spark a clean start in someone ‘s life. If its not just a haircut, I’ll do a face shave. If its not just a face shave, I’ll do a full treatment, dry shampoo, put essential oils in their hair. It’s a beautiful experience, to connect with someone on the streets while grooming them, making them feel good. I don’t think anyone can really understand the feelings I get when I’m on the streets. And what we are destined to do as human beings, is to find our talents, and through our talents, use that to benefit mankind . I don’t wake up every day with birds singing in my window or money in my pocket, but I do what I love and I love and I do. Its simple.”
There are countless stories of people contributing in unique and beautiful ways, supporting one another and the earth herself. Our task is to open our eyes. To be on the lookout for goodness.
And not only that- when you see it or hear it, share it! Because that is how we lift each other up. The Me’or Einayim teachs that when we share good news, we are invoking an aspect of Elijah the Prophet. Elijah, we are told will herald the Messiah. So when we share good news, we are already engaging in the work of redemption by magnifying the goodness in our world.
Today we will sing a familiar song that repeats the words Hayom many times. Hayom means Today. It is a call out to the Universe that says: Hayom! Today! Bless us!
Hayom Today! Answer our prayers.
Hayom! Today- Lift us up.
The key to the prayer is the word Hayom- Today. It calls to us- be Present to this very moment! Today is what we have- Today is really all we have. Today- let us open our eyes.
Hagar’s story beckons us to look closely for the wells of living water that already exist, and are usually closer than we imagine. Hagar’s story tells us to open our eyes to the blessings that exist in the present moment. This is tool #1.
Judaism offers a beautiful and simple practice to anchor our vision and frame each day. When we awaken in the morning we recite a prayer called Modeh Ani which expresses our gratitude for this new day, for another chance to live our best self. It is a morning mantra that focuses the mind and heart on gratitude for life. But that is not all. The prayer concludes with the words- rabba emunatekha- which means “ how great is your faith in me.” The prayer reminds us, not of our faith in G-d, but of G-d’s faith in us! How radical an idea!
I give thanks to the greater wisdom of the universe for putting me here, for having faith in me. Which tells me- that today- each day is a gift. And if the great and awesome source of life has faith in me, then, I too must have faith in myself and in the unfolding of the human story before me.
Emunah/Faith is tool #2
What is faith? Faith from a Jewish perspective is an attitude backed up by action. It is the persistence of the belief in goodness in the face of evil. In Hebrew the word for faith is emunah. It comes from the same root as the word Amein. Amein or Amen is an affirmation. Emunah is an affirmation of a reality much greater and more awesome than our own personal stories. Emunah expands the frame of reference from the local to the cosmic.
For many of us- the word faith may cause an allergic reaction!
But I am asking you to expand your frame of reference. Faith is a belief in the ultimate goodness of humanity and the goodness of life. This kind of faith provides the engine to continue to engage in self-refinement and repairing the world with acts of kindness and beauty.
A friend and Rabbinic colleague recently told me of his childhood Rabbi-
Arthur Lelyveld, who wrote in his book "The Steadfast Stream," that the definition of faith for Jews is not necessarily a doctrinal belief; rather emunah for Jews means "persistence." That was the "emunah" of the prophets -- to keep on speaking, keep on working, despite the obstacles and uncertainty.
This audacious persistence is what has given strength to the Jewish people throughout our many trials. It should not be overlooked as a tool for our times. And so I ask you to consider right now, what do you have faith in?
Think about this for a moment.
Perhaps some have faith in the transformative power of love, perhaps some of us have faith in the goodness of the human spirit. Perhaps for some of us, nothing comes to mind. And if so, I would say- you are not alone. But , then I would ask you to consider, What do you wish you could have faith in?
During this High Holiday season we have a practice to recite Psalm 27 or part of it during each one of our services. The psalm concludes with these words.
Lulei He’emanti lirot b’tuv Hashem, B’eretz chayim.
Kaveh el Adonai Hazak v’ameitz libekha v’kavei el Hashem…
The transation: If only, I could believe in the goodness of G-d- in the land of the living, nevertheless, put your hope in the Eternal, be strong in your heart, and trust.
This first words- Lulei he’emanti- If only I could believe, indicates that even the psalmist had doubts. Rashi specifically comments on this word, saying in effect, that we don’t really know if our actions will have any ultimate effect, nevertheless, the psalmist continues by saying, “hope with all your heart” and continue to do good.
Even if we cannot find in ourselves that ultimate sense of faith, let us at least hope for it with all our hearts- and continue to do good. For that itself is a powerful force.
In extreme and uncertain times, we need an anchor. Today, I offer us 2 tools to center and anchor ourselves. Each involves vision- what we see and how we see it. Let us open our eyes and Stay Present to the blessings that surround us every moment.
And then let us expand our vision to cultivate emunah- an ongoing persistent faith in the goodness of life and humanity.
As we do so, may our actions be aligned with our vision.
Let our actions represent the best of who we can be.
I came upon this Native American Pueblo prayer, that I offer as a closing blessing on this teaching:
Hold on to what is good,
Even if it's a handful of earth.
Hold on to what you believe,
Even if it's a tree that stands by itself.
Hold on to what you must do,
Even if it's a long way from here.
Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Rabba Kaya served as Interim Rabbi of RJC from October 2017 through June 2019.
More about Rabba Kaya