As we look forward with anticipation to the year ahead, we naturally take stock of our lives, and of our world at this moment. Whether consciously or not, we make note of where there is suffering, or an absence of some kind, and those moments of awareness give birth to our yearnings for something better…something more in the year ahead.
This relationship between that which we lack…and this which we hope for…is particularly apparent in our own Hebrew language.
My teacher, Dr. Avivah Zornberg, points out in her masterful book The Beginning of Desire, the linguistic synergy between the word shever, meaning brokenness, and sever, meaning hope. She writes: “When things fall apart, the opportunity for sever arises. Before such a crisis, in a condition of wholeness and security, hope is irrelevant. After it, some plausible reconstruction of the shards becomes essential. […] To think, then, is to respond with a kind of courage to the evidence, the surfaces of reality. To hope, likewise, is to dare to trust the more cheerful facets of a shattered condition.”
Zornberg’s point is that we can’t have hope without suffering….that we are reliant on occasional moments of suffering in our lives, no matter how painful they might be, precisely in order to grow as human beings.
The French Jewish philosopher, Andre Neher, in his reflection on the Holocaust, writes similarly:
“What does it mean to weep? To weep is to sow.//What does it mean to laugh? To laugh is to reap.// Look at this man weeping as he goes. Why is he weeping? Because he is bearing in his arms the burden of the grain that he must sow in the ground.// But now, see him coming back in joy. Why is he laughing?// Because he bears in his arms the sheaves of the harvest. Laughter is the tangible harvest…plentitude. Tears are sowing — they are effort, risk, the seed exposed to drought and to rot…the ear of corn threatened by hail, and by storms…[the suffering of our lives…]// […] It is not the harvest that is important; what is important is the sowing, the risk, the tears. Hope is not laughter and plentitude. Hope is in tears, in the risk - and in its silence.”
Tonight, as we take the first tentative steps toward this New Year, our focus will be on the question of hope…on the hopes and dreams that we each carry with us into the year ahead.
We are going to try something new this evening. In place of a formal sermon, representatives from three families have graciously agreed to share personal reflections on the question of hope. Their remarks will be interspersed throughout the rest of the service this evening. Let me take this moment to offer my personal thanks to Larry and Evelyn Eidelberg, Joel and Michelle Wagman, and Roy Fenichel and Amy Huang. We are honored that you are comfortable sharing your stories with us. You inspire everyone to share their stories with one another in the year ahead.
Larry and Evelyn Eidelberg:
When I was a kid and the High Holy Days came around, my mother often said that “it didn’t rain on yontif.” Even when it did, she’d play it down, label it temporary. She wasn’t a weather denier; she was expressing an image of the New Year as a time of sunshine and possibility.
She was the daughter of immigrant parents who fled the oppression of Eastern Europe to come to a land filled with hope and the promise of renewal. And Rosh Hashanah is the perfect time in the Jewish calendar for all of us to embrace that spirit.
A new year—whether religious or secular—offers the opportunity to rethink what we would like to be different in our lives and in the world at large. We can certainly hope for anything, whether personal or global. We can wish for a cool new car and more stuff, stronger relationships with family and friends, or a world truly dedicated to peace. And we can express those hopes, of course through shopping, or prayer, or actively strengthening ties with those we love, or community action.
Despite all of the hardships and tragedies Jews have endured throughout the centuries, we remain committed to keeping alive a spark of optimism that has helped us survive and prosper. That sense of hope, even in the darkest times, has been key to our survival and adaptability. We seem to be a people dedicated to finding solutions.
The Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah, meaning hope, was written in the 1870s, when the existence of an independent Jewish homeland was still a distant and improbable dream. But thanks to incredible perseverance and courage that hope became a reality. For many of us, Israel still symbolizes the possibility of a world where Jews of all persuasions can live in harmony with one another and with non-Jews as well. That’s another reality that today seems remote, but it’s high on my wish list for the New Year and is part of an even larger issue for me: more tolerance -- everywhere. It seems as though hatred and bigotry are on the rise. Immigrants in almost all countries face hostility and often danger. Ever-increasing ethnic and religious strife keep tearing apart the Middle East. The poor and disenfranchised continue to be marginalized.
As Jews we’re particularly sensitive to the scourge of anti-Semitism. Hate crimes are on the rise here and especially in Europe. Nativist extremists continue to scapegoat Jews as the cause of all types of problems. Disagreeing with Israeli policies is often a cover for across-the-board hatred of all Jews. For all of our successes (and probably because of them), we remain a convenient target of prejudice and blame.
Some of you will recall that in the early 1990’s in Los Angeles a man named Rodney King was brutally beaten by police. He was interviewed during rioting that occurred months later and instead of expressing bitterness, he asked a simple yet profound question that’s just as relevant today: “Can we all get along?”
The answer is clearly both yes and no. Intolerance and cruelty will never disappear. But neither will the human capacity for acceptance and compassion. And those are the qualities that I pray we’ll see much more of 5776.
So, I wish us all a New Year of tolerance, health, and hopes fulfilled.
Living in Westchester, we sometimes forget what a unique bubble we inhabit. We tend to take for granted what an accepting, heavily Jewish community surrounds us . Although we cannot begin to solve the world's problems, we can help, accept, and respect members of our SSTTE community.
Let hope and peace flourish in this congregation for the New Year and for many years to come.
Joel and Michelle Wagman:
Recently, Cantor Becker asked if Michelle and I would speak this evening on our hope for the New Year. After all, isn’t this what Rosh Hashanah is all about, as we search for hope in a seemingly challenged world? On these days, we pause from being in our state of constant motion to focus on the present and perhaps the future. This is certainly a time to think and talk about “hope and change”, although we promise not to make this a political statement. So, before turning inward to begin answering the Cantor’s question, we turned to our Jewish teachings and to our 10-year old son, Noah.
Our Jewish teaching tells us that “change” is what is central to what these Days of Awe are about. And as for “hope”, the Jewish people practically own a copyright on that word. The Hebrew word for hope is “tikvah,” as in Hatikvah, as in the national anthem of our beloved Israel. Hope requires the ability to envision a different course, to affirm that change is possible. When it comes to these Days of Awe, hope and change are two sides of the same coin.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that Western civilization is the product of two cultures: ancient Greece and ancient Israel. The Greeks believed in fate; the future is determined by the past. Jews believe in freedom; there is no ‘evil decree that cannot be averted’. The Greeks gave the world the concept of tragedy. Jews gave it the idea of hope in the conversation of mankind. To be a Jew is to be an agent of change in a world seriously threatened by despair. It is no accident that so many Jews commit themselves to fighting poverty, disease, and injustice.
Now, back to our assignment. We know that teachers (and our clergy are certainly teachers) often use the same assignment more than once. So, returning to the task at issue, we asked our son, Noah, whether during Limmud (the learning period) this summer at URJ Eisner Camp they studied or were asked what their hopes were for the New Year. Bingo, Noah replies, “how did you know”?
And, Michelle says, “Noah, what’s the answer?!!” He tells us he hopes for a safer world, peace in Israel (many of his counselors were Israeli), less hunger in our community and worldwide and a new Mac laptop. Okay, our child is not perfect. But, we were truly impressed by the skills of the Eisner Camp’s leadership and we hope that they continue providing an ideal setting for blending summertime play while building Jewish pride.
Okay, back to Michelle and me. With perhaps the exception of the new Mac laptop, we share Noah’s hopes for the New Year. We add to it mending some frayed family relationships, and finally, finding new ways for making ourselves agents for change. G-d knows this is needed.
And, we hope for the New Year being filled with less noise, more music, peace and harmony. L’ Shana Tovah.
Roy Fenichel and Amy Huang:
We would like to thank Rabbi Brown and Cantor Becker for asking us to speak today and our Congregation for considering our words on this Holy occasion.
Long before we got married and had children, Roy’s father once wrote a book called “Hope for a Better World.” Today, our strongest hope, for our children and for your children, is that we have the moral and spiritual strength to do all that we can to make this a better world.
We believe that the key to our hope for a better world is to ensure that everyone is acknowledged and accepted, that everyone feels they have a special spark, that everyone has a unique gift to give to this world, and everyone is worthy of our respect.
We teach our children that they are special and are enriched by our unique backgrounds. We also teach them the importance of embracing, and learning from, people of all backgrounds. And, most of all, to treat everyone as unique and valued individuals. It is a starting place to accept another who is different, but something larger to see, and appreciate, the uniqueness of another and to value, and protect, who they are and what they have to contribute.
To truly assure everyone that they are valued, we believe in celebrating, and sharing with our children, the rich diversity that exists in our lives and our neighborhoods.
We both grew up in a very diverse part of New Jersey and we are glad that diversity continues to be respected as a value among our family, our friends, our neighbors, and our schools.
We hope that our children grow into and contribute to a world that not only accepts diversity but values diversity and what it can contribute to making the world a better place.
We are grateful for being welcomed by our fellow congregants, and we appreciate that Reform Judaism strives to include all who are different. Our hope for the future is that our tradition transcends the welcoming of others, and truly includes those of all backgrounds into our Tikkun Olam journey toward making the world a better place.
In a world of increasing concern, such as the current tragedy of Syrian refugees with nowhere to go, it is our hope that the Jewish tradition of acts of loving-kindness toward others grows into a modern Jewish advocacy for those around the world most in need of healing, regardless of their country of origin. Never has it been more important for Judaism to put action to the Biblical idea: Love the stranger.
We believe that only by valuing the lives of others, even if they are different, maybe especially because they are different, can we enrich our own lives and our own traditions. And by infusing our own Jewish tradition with the richness of others, and by helping others in need, we hope to become a better Jewish family and to work together to fulfill our hope for a better world -- for our children and for everyone.