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Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5781:  A Sermon Reflecting on Hope, in the Shadow of the Pandemic

09/19/2020 06:50:54 PM


Rabbi Jefrey Brown


Shanah Tovah.

I want to begin this morning by just asking you to pause and catch your breath.

I don’t know if this is true for you – but for me...when I’m harried, and my thoughts are scattered...I just try to slow down. Before organizing my thoughts, I concentrate on my feelings.

In this pandemic, I’m concerned for the health of my family, friends, and each of you.

I’ve grieved for my, and our, losses.

I’m frustrated and angry because our government can’t bring order to the pandemic’s chaos.

I’m awfully anxious.

It’s an anxiety that grows from the unknowable. How long will all of this – the virus, the masks, the no hugging, the empty trains and the empty sanctuary - how long will it all persist? I’m anxious about that.

And I’m broken-hearted and appalled as I witness this most recent round of systemic racism that is so poisonously embedded in the fabric of our country. I’ll have much more to say about this on Kol Nidrei. For now, we name this plague, and recommit ourselves to a teshuvah-turning. We must strive for a more equal, and justice-filled future year ahead.

We teach our students that Judaism has a blessing for everything. But the rabbis of old never coined a blessing that could be recited precisely when the world is overcome with pandemic and racism.

What would be the blessing of this moment?

For me, it’s the blessing we say after learning of a death. Baruch Dayan HaEmet.

Blessed is the True Judge.

It’s a paradox. At the very moment we’ve learned of a heart-rending death - we are supposed to bless God for the reasonable order and justice of the universe. Praised are You O God, the True Judge.

At the string of funerals I officiated at during the month of Passover – when our congregation lost 15 people, I stumbled over this blessing every time. What is praiseworthy about the almost 200,000 who have died in this country from COVID-19, and the 950,000 who have died around the world. More to the point: how can we make sense of that which does not make sense?

Abraham – whose story we read every Rosh HaShanah – offers one answer to that question. He blessed God, because he realized that God was testing him. 

In Pirkei Avot, the rabbis chronicle...not just the test of the Binding of Isaac... but also nine prior tests in his relationship with God. Those tests took a toll on Abraham, just as our test is taking its toll on us.

We can see it at the beginning of the Binding of Isaac, at Gen 22:4, which notes that Abraham looked up at Mt. Moriah mei’ra’chok – from a distance. A distance that is not just geographic – but also emotional. Abraham felt alienated, marginalized, and distanced from the God that had been an earlier comfort and strength.

That emotional and social distancing defines our present moment. We are looking out mei’ra’chok - lonely and distant – from God and one another – right now. We are praying virtually, instead of in person. And Bat Mitzvahs, weddings, baby namings, and funerals –when we yearn most to be close to God and each other...have all been re-written. Because of social distance. We now live our life, like Abraham, suffering and broken: mei’ra’chok.

But all is not lost.

My teacher, Professor Avivah Zornberg, points out that the Hebrew word for brokenness, which is shever, is linguistically linked to the Hebrew word sever, meaning hope. It is as if the DNA of the Hebrew language is speaking to us, saying: that hope, which overcomes loneliness, emerges from the depths of our being distanced. She writes: “When things fall apart, [...hope] arises. Before a crisis, [...] hope is irrelevant. After it, [...] reconstruction of the [broken] shards becomes essential.”

Being hopeful is all well and good...but how do I do that, given all the death that has afflicted us, the health crisis that threatens us, the hate that runs rampant – all while wildfires and hurricanes of Biblical proportions threaten. And how can we be hopeful when none of us knows precisely when these terrible things will end.

Theologian Michael Fishbane suggests one answer in Exodus 10, at the very heart of our Passover story.

Moses pleads with Pharaoh to initially let them go to worship God temporarily. Pharaoh asks Moses how they intend to pray when they meet God.

Moses answers: "We won’t know, until we get there." (Exod. 10:26)

Fishbane adds: “It is the task of [Judaism, and Jewish

living] to prepare a person to live with such unknowing, and to live [with...] spiritual resolve.”1

In that sense, we have had 5781 years to prepare for the current crisis. We build spiritual resolve when we break glass at the end of a wedding, and when we eat horseradish and salt water at seders. These rituals are sobering. Just at the moment when we joyfully celebrate: we pause and remember the tragedies of Jewish history. These rituals realistically remind us that suffering is a part of life.

Yes, we are overwhelmed in this moment. But it won’t be forever. This too shall pass. In the meantime, we seize hold of hope, and affirm our belief that a new year, filled with healing and peace and justice, begins today.

Even in the midst of past year’s darkness, our congregation has been a source of light and hope to others.

When most of the country thought primarily of themselves as they rushed into quarantine, our members started by asking how they could serve volunteering to grocery shop. By delivering meals to the homebound. By making phone calls to those who were alone. And by teaching those who were tech- challenged how to use Zoom.

We inspire hope when we show up, together – exactly like we do this morning – when we are present for one another. Do more of that in the year ahead. Join us more frequently. Join us for the Zoom Shabbats that happen every single Friday night, filled with hope when we see one another’s faces, and gain newfound strength for the week ahead. Join us for the different support groups that we facilitate online as we strengthen each other. And join us in learning online, as we joyfully affirm that the study of Torah is always a source of hope, whether you’re 9 or 90. When we gather together, there is always hope. New ways of being in the world give birth to new resilience and new possibilities and we have already begun to feel it right here in our community.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote that “A morality of hope lives in the belief that we can change the world for the better.”2 My friends, you have already begun to do it, by serving and inspiring each other. And we will continue to do so, in the months to come.

As we proclaim, with hope, each time we finish reading from a book of the Torah: be strong, be strong, and together – we will be strengthened. So may it be in this new year.

Shanah Tovah.

1 Sacred Attunement p. 1702 To Heal a Fractured World, p. 166

Fri, March 24 2023 2 Nisan 5783