Rabbi Hillel Skolnik
Sermon for Rosh HaShannah Day 1 5774
Southwest Orlando Jewish Congregation
So there I was a few weeks ago, standing in an unusually long line at Publix, thinking that the curse of always choosing the worst line had struck again. I turned around and saw that the woman behind me in line was a woman I’d met at some point in my two plus years here in Orlando, not a member of the synagogue, or even Jewish, but someone I recognized. Turned out she had recognized me too because before I could say hello, she said “Hi, how are you?” “I’m good” I replied. “How are you?” and then before I knew it, this woman – an acquaintance at best, not even at the level of Facebook friend – was telling me everything about her life. She covered her children, her husband, her parents, her in-laws, her job, her car, her dog and some other things too. Some parts of her life were going well, but a number of the areas we covered had hit rough spots recently and I heard about them all. Eventually the line progressed, I paid for my groceries and said a quick goodbye. But ever since then that interaction has stuck with me not because of the challenges she was facing in her life, but because of how the entire conversation started.
I suspect that many, if not all of us in the room today have at one point or another found ourselves in a situation like that, where what started as polite small talk turned into an opportunity for the person with whom you are talking to unload their problems. To be sure, when I have my Rabbi hat on it happens regularly – as it should and I value that the members of this community find me worthy of these moments and share their lives with me. But even when I’m just Hillel standing in line at Publix, or when each of us is just ourselves walking down the street, this kind of thing happens. It might be a neighbor, a friend, a loved one, or even the gardener. All you had to do is ask “How are you”, “what’s going on” or any other version of that seemingly innocent question and suddenly the floodgates have been opened.
And if we’re being honest, which we should be since today is Rosh HaShannah, who hasn’t also been on the spilling side? Haven’t we all at one point or another opened up to someone about our lives and everything that is on our mind simply because a person asked how we were? Goodness knows that I’ve had times where I’ve unloaded to a person who could not possibly have seen it coming. It didn’t matter that I might have barely known the person – sometimes that might even be helpful. But I suspect that we’ve all been there, when we just had so much on our chest and needed to get it off. And once you open up those doors, they’re hard to close.
As it does every year, the High Holiday season offers us the perfect opportunity to allow ourselves to open up both with each other and with God. It is true that every weekday, three times a day, we have the opportunity in the weekday Amidah to think about things we have done wrong, sins we have committed and to ask forgiveness for them – what I call the “small talk” version of t’shuvah, of repentence. We say, “Slach Lanu Avinu Ki Chatanu, M’chal Lanu malkeinu ki fashanu, ki mochel n’soleach elah atah. Baruch atah adonia, chanun hamarbeh lisloach. Forgive us our Parent for we have sinned; pardon us our Ruler for we have transgressed – for Your nature is to forgive and pardon. Praised are You Adonai, gracious and forgiving.” It’s not too deep, not too involved, just the amount of atonement that is called for on a weekday when our minds are focused much more so on keeping up with our busy schedule for the day – just as mine was that day at Publix.
On the other hand, the ten days that begin with Rosh HaShannah and conclude with Yom Kippur were tailor made to be opportunities for us to do substantive talk t’shuvah, a chance to have a healthy unloading of the actions that are weighing on us from the past year. It actually began this past Saturday night when we joined together for Slichot services, and we recited for the first time this year the confessional of Ashamnu when we beat our hearts and confess our collective sins. And on Yom Kippur we add into the liturgy the Al Chet, the even longer alphabetical list of transgressions that have been a part of our lives. This is the time to move beyond the vague everyday request of forgiveness and into a frame of mind where we are able open up in a truthful way and let out some of the guilt that what we have been holding in for way too long.
But in order for that to succeed, for these Aseret Y’mei T’shuvah to be ten successful days of repentance, we need to realize that God is wherever God is saying to us over and over “How are you?” and is waiting for us to answer. So whether it is while you are sitting here today, tomorrow or this coming Shabbat, while you’re at Religious School on Sunday, back at work during the week, eating dinner, out for a run, or driving in the car, it is our obligation to use these Yamim Nora’im, these High Holidays, to express to God everything that is on our minds. God is asking us how we are doing and this is the time to answer.
Having thought about that experience in Publix a great deal, what I also came to understand is that there is tremendous gratitude that should come along with the small talk that we share with people we bump into at the supermarket or happen to see at synagogue. First of all, how lucky we all are to have people who care enough to ask how we are doing. Whether they mean it in a way that is meant to be simply polite or as a genuine opportunity to share, how fortunate we are that there are people in this world who care enough about us to engage with us in the first place. Even though down the street they sing repeatedly about our world being small, the truth is that once you walk out these doors today there is a gigantic world waiting out there in which a person can feel very much alone. It is a blessing to be here with each other when we greet one another with friendly faces, offering wishes of a happy and a healthy new year, and the chance to interact with someone who cares and would be honored to listen to what you have to say.
Consider each of our situations today, surrounded by each other, juxtapose to that of our ancestors Abraham and Sarah about whom we read in the Torah readings for the two days of Rosh HaShannah. This morning we read about how Sarah finally had a baby, but even with the birth of Isaac, the family dynamic in their tent did not improve, eventually leading to the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael. And then tomorrow we will read Akeidat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac. What we never read about is a friendly face coming over to Abraham or Sarah in the midst of these challenges and asking them that simple question of “How are you?”
Imagine with me for a moment Abraham at the well drawing water and one of his shepherds saying to him, “Mr. Abraham, how are you?” “Well let’s see”, he might have said, “Things were going alright in life and then God came to me and said that I should leave the land where I was born and where my family lived to go to a land that God would show me. So I did. And then it turns out that Sarah was barren so she encouraged me to have a child with her servant Hagar. So I did. Then, since apparently moving to a new land where I didn’t know anyone wasn’t enough, God told me I had to circumcise myself. So I did. Then, thank God, Sarah was able to have a baby, my incredible, amazing son Isaac. But he and my older son Ishmael weren’t getting along so Sarah and I made the decision to send Ishmael and his mother out into the desert. Thankfully they were able to find water out there and I hear they’re doing alright, but let’s just say that was not the best day of my life. And then, just for good measure, God tells me to go ahead and sacrifice my son, the one whom I love, Isaac, on a mountain that God said God would show me. So off I went, totally petrified but ready to do as I had been instructed only to have an angel call down to me telling me to stop at the very last second. Man, you thought my beard was grey before.” And let’s remember that the very next verse in the Torah following the Torah reading tomorrow is the death of Sarah so Abraham is about to need someone to ask him how he is doing more than ever.
And how would Sarah have answered if she had a friend who asked her how she was doing? “You know, when I married Abram, at least that was his name then, I thought I was marrying a pretty level headed guy. Then he found God and off we went to some land that neither of us knew and where neither of our families lived. We got there and shock of all shocks there was nothing to eat so we had to go down to Egypt where I had to pretend to be his sister. Finally we got out of that awkward situation, came back and Abraham and I struggled to get pregnant. It seemed like we tried everything and when all else failed, I wanted to honor my husband and feel fulfilled myself so I instructed him to have a baby with my servant Hagar, but let me just tell you. Watching your husband have a child with someone else is not something I would wish on anyone. Finally, God fulfilled God’s promise and I had a beautiful baby boy, Isaac. He’s just amazing. So smart, so cute, has his father’s eyes. I happen to have some of his drawings in my tent if you want to come and see them. He’s quiet but you can tell he’s always listening, always paying attention. I wish I could say that once Isaac was born things were good around the house, but Abraham’s other son kept picking on Isaac and eventually enough was enough and I decided they had to leave. Abraham is a good husband and eventually agreed to send them away but it has never been the same with us. I know he understood but he could never have known how hard it was for me to ask him to do it. But truth be told, I haven’t seen him in three days. He apparently left with Isaac to go somewhere but I wouldn’t know because they left so early in the morning it was before I got up. Apparently, husbands and sons don’t need to tell their mother and wife that they are going off on a trip together.”
No one is really quite sure why we read these two chapters of Genesis on the days of Rosh HaShannah. They are not about the celebration of the holiday, nor do they have any real obvious connection to the themes of the day other than the ram that Abraham sacrificed in place of Isaac being the basis for using a ram’s horn as a shofar. But I offer to you that these two readings teach us to recognize how lucky we are to have people who care about us and ask us, even innocently, “how are you?” How lonely it must have been for our ancestors but how blessed we are to be together.
The second level of gratitude is in recognizing how wonderful it is when we can answer with honesty and truthfulness, “I’m good.” Those fleeting moments when everything is going somewhere in the vicinity of as we had hoped and dreamed are few and far between. “I’m good” does not mean I’m perfect, but it means that I’m happy with where my life is. I’m fulfilled. I wake up in the morning and am not miserable about facing another day.
As we all know, it is not always true in life that we are good. Sadly there are times when we just can’t catch a break, where everything that can go wrong does go wrong. And then, just when it looks like things might be getting better, this world just throws something else at us, some other challenge that we are forced to overcome and we do because what choice to we have? But it makes it virtually impossible to look a person in the eye and answer that question with a phrase even remotely resembling “I’m good.” And so we should feel blessed on any day when we can say that to another person.
The great sage Shimon HaTzadik, Shimon the righteous taught us in Pirkei Avot, in the Teachings of the Sages – “Al Shlosha Dvarim Haolam Omed, Al HaTorah, Al Ha’avodah v’al gmilut Chsadim, that the world rests on three things, on Torah, on service of God and on deeds of loving kindness.” I firmly and wholeheartedly believe that greeting someone who you see, be it a friend, a family member, a loved one, or a person you barely know and offering that person a chance to relieve themselves of some of the burdens they carry, the rare chance to simply let out the things that they might need to let out, is indeed a deed of loving kindness. And it is an act of even greater chesed to gently prod a person who responds with “I’m ok…” which is a cry out for someone to ask what is actually going on. We have the power to be there for our fellow human beings and in doing so strengthen a pillar upon which our community and our world stands.
As I think back to that conversation, I know that the one piece that was missing was a better response from me. In that situation we can find ourselves at a loss for words, for what does one say to a person that just listed every difficult and often times tragic thing that has happened in their life. There are no words of comfort, no magic formula and certainly no advice that any of us can offer for how to make things better. What I should have said was “Thank you so much for sharing. Thank you so much for giving me the gift of being the person that allowed you to say what you needed to say. I pray for you that you find the strength and perseverance to take on life with renewed vigor and that somehow, someway, these obstacles are overcome and replaced with times of goodness and blessing.” It’s hard to come up with those words in the moment. But as we begin the new year, I hope and pray for all of us that we recognize the power of even the simplest most innocent questions, that we continue to perform these acts of loving kindness for others and that we take advantage, when needed, of a chance to share our burdens with another. But most of all, I pray that in the coming year we all find the strength and perseverance to take on life with renewed vigor and that somehow, someway, the obstacles we all face will be overcome and replaced with goodness and blessings and the ability to remember that we are all here together.