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Sermon: Rosh Hashanah Evening, 9/18/20

09/22/2020 09:38:56 AM


Rabbi Charlie

See Rabbi Charlie deliver this sermon HERE. It is a little different than the written text.


L’shana Tova! A Good Year.

L’shana Tova! I do not offer these words lightly. These words of optimism and hope that we all can be inscribed for a good year – I offer in defiance of everything that the world has been throwing at us. At a time when the struggle seems overwhelming, when God and nature and humanity have given us more than we can handle, I offer these words, this promise – 5781 can indeed be a good year.

I know that it’s not looking good. The public challenges we face have pulled us in every direction, amplifying anxiety – it’s been emotionally exhausting. In addition, the private challenges that some of us face push us to the bounds of our resilience. We count the number of dead, the number of jobs, the number of acres burned, or the windspeed, the inches of rain. We cannot count what it feels like when breathing is difficult, when lives are uprooted, when businesses shutter, when safety seems but a dream.

Moments of crisis call for support, solidarity, and solutions and we have seen some of that, just not enough. Discord, doubt, and disparagement torment our airwaves, our social media, and our thoughts. Negativity surrounds us and it makes everything we are going through harder.

The Second Temple was destroyed due to sinat chinam - baseless hatred. In the 14th Century, Rabbeinu Bachya (Kad Ha-kemach) teaches that sinat chinam causes one to lie about another. One rejoices in another person’s failure and mourns their success. The implication is that it makes it impossible to see the good in another. He argues that baseless hatred is the cause of all sins between people.

Today, Sinat chinam is pervasive. It’s in the air we breathe. The righteous indignation, the judgment, the lack of trust, lack of faith – we can’t escape it and it’s tearing us further apart at a time when we need to come together. One could wish for a Jonah style revelation, where a prophet proclaims the problem and the whole nation repents. One could wish… and one could be disappointed. Changing the whole nation is beyond us.

What about ourselves? Each of us can look in the mirror and ask – Do I consume or enable baseless hatred? How does it impact or even permeate my life? Can I recognize the humanity in people I don’t like or disagree with? Sinat chinam has impacted everything, so how could we be untouched and what does that mean for our relationship with family or friends, our congregation or community?

This is a time for reflection and this is a time for teshuvah – repentance. Teshuvah is a return to God, which starts with turning away from baseless hatred. One of the greatest Jewish scholars of the 19th Century, the Netziv, points out that Abraham is a model for how to do this. Sodom was wicked. A town filled with theft and abuse. Abraham hated these people and can’t believe Lot went to live there. It’s so bad that God wants to destroy it. And what does Abraham do, he intercedes and tries to save the city. 

Just imagine how Twitter would have responded: Abraham is standing up for Sodom? What skeletons are in his closet? How much did they pay him off? Jew supports evil… What do you think, would Abraham have been cancelled?

So why would Abraham do such a thing? Because a life of righteousness is marked by caring for all people. Abraham was looking for the good. We don’t have to condone. We don’t have to approve. In fact, we’re going to disagree and disagree passionately. At the same time, the person we are disagreeing with is a person. And friend, enemy, or stranger, we are going through a lot right now.

Author and lecturer Leo Buscaglia recalled when he was asked to judge a contest to find the most caring child. The winner was a four-year-old boy. His next-door neighbor was an older man whose wife had recently passed away. The boy saw the man crying and went over and climbed in his lap. His mom asked him what he said to their neighbor and the child responded, “Nothing, I just helped him cry.”

Right now, we all need support. We need to care for each other. We may even need someone to help us cry. The mental health impact has been incalculable. The sense of loss is overwhelming. We are all doing our best to make it through and our problems are not going away tomorrow. The frustrations can build. We can get so angry. And if we really want to turn away from baseless hatred, it helps to know that the target of hatred is probably feeling this way, too. And sometimes, it can mean the world just to offer curiosity, a willingness to listen, a desire to understand.

I was reminded how powerful such openness can be this past week. Principal Ryan Wilson at Dawson Middle School in Southlake reached out to me and a couple of Jewish families. He realized that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were coming up and he wanted to learn more about how the school community could care for its Jewish students. He knew that there were issues and instead of blaming us for inconveniencing him – an attitude far too many of us are familiar with – he reached out.

Finally – after fourteen years of talking with teachers and administrators – someone really tried to understand how frustrating it is when a test is scheduled on our High Holy Days. Finally, someone heard our struggles with extracurricular activities, the piling on of homework. He heard the anxiety, he heard our suggestions, and he did not treat us like we were a burden. With all of the major difficulties that schools are dealing with right now, he took the time to approach us, to ask questions, to find out what practical solutions would look like for us – and it was amazing!

This is the kind of local relationship building that can have the biggest impact. It’s what we need in our lives and it’s what we need in our small, incredibly diverse congregation. Turning away from sinat chinam does not mean we have to love everyone. It starts with a small step - turning down the hatred. Look for news, not poison. Share information, not vitriol.

Turning away from baseless hatred means that we don’t have to agree with someone’s views to reach out to a friend or acquaintance or a member of our community with curiosity – a willingness to listen.  We don’t have to see eye to eye on any issue to help make minyan for kaddish or offer a meal if someone is struggling.

Turning away from sinat chinam means that we recognize our shared humanity - we are all fallible human beings and we are all dealing with a long term, challenging reality. That transition alone gets us started on the path of teshuva. It’s the kind of teshuva that’s transformative, it’s the kind of teshuva that we need, it’s the kind of teshuva that is possible.

Ani Ama-amim – I believe that we can do this. That is why I can say to you L’shana Tova. The world isn’t going to do us any favors – we have a long road ahead of us. But if we can reduce the baseless hatred that pervades our lives, we’re going to be better prepared to handle whatever comes our way and we’re going to be better equipped to help each other through it.

With confidence I say to you, L’shana Tova Tikateivu – may we all be inscribed for a good year.

Mon, January 25 2021 12 Sh'vat 5781