Rabbi Hillel Skolnik
Sermon for First Day Rosh Hashanah, 5778
Southwest Orlando Jewish Congregation
Whenever I speak with a new or prospective family, I always speak with pride about the fact that we are a family friendly synagogue and encourage parents to bring their kids into our service. We have long had the belief – and I believe it has proved itself to be true – that kids learn best by being in shul and so we do whatever we can to make them feel comfortable inside our service. Along with that comes a slightly higher base level of noise that we expect on Friday Night and Shabbat morning but we navigate that line successfully because we have responsible parents who keep track of their children and gracious adults who recognize that these very children are the future of our synagogue and the Jewish community at large. It is a remarkable balance that does not work at every synagogue but is magical in this place. Interestingly, this past Shabbat, I noticed that even for us the general background noise was a bit higher than usual and it took me a little while to figure out why. My theory, and I’m pretty sure I’m right, is that as this was the first Shabbat since Hurricane Irma, it was our first chance to see each other and everyone was checking in with one another, asking about damage, power outages and saying extra hellos to the people sitting around them. It was, I suspect, the same conversation that each of us in this room have had with many friends and loved ones over the phone and with people in this room this morning.
In that way, Hurricane Irma as an experience became for us, the residents of Florida – and by residents of Florida I include guests who are here from Naples because they still haven’t been able to return to their homes and others who may be joining us from other parts of the state – one of those collective experiences that we remember as a communal event with our own particular details. These kinds of episodes don’t happen every day, but when they do, we remember them very clearly – where we were, how we reacted, and if given the opportunity how we prepared. On July 21, 1969, it was only Neil Armstrong who got to be the first human being to walk on the moon, but everyone who experienced that day remembers where they watched him take his steps and immortalize his words “that’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind”. Going back a bit further, ask anyone who remembers that terrible day in November of 1962 when President Kennedy was shot and they’ll tell you exactly where they were, how they heard it and how they experienced that awful day. The same is true, probably even magnified to a large degree when we think back sixteen years to the events of September 11, 2001. We know exactly where we were when we heard that planes had crashed in the World Trade Center in New York, into the Pentagon and that a plane had crashed in Pennsylvania and won’t ever forget our experiences of that day. But ultimately, in each of these collective communal experiences the background events were the same but the salient details of how we each went through it are our own. I’m willing to bet that no one else in this room was sitting in a park in Jerusalem on that Tuesday, what was for me, afternoon in 2001. It doesn’t mean I experienced that awful day any more or less than any of you, we simply had our own unique versions of that day and so our experience while shared was personalized.
Of course the same is true of what is now my second most unreal and unbelievable September 11th experience, that being September 11 of last week when Hurricane Irma came barreling toward our little corner of the world. We all endured the same hurricane but we did it in our own ways, as some version of the following events.
In truth, the experience of it all started many days before Irma made landfall in Central Florida when we first started to hear about what would become one of the largest Hurricanes in recorded history. Actually, if we’re really digging deep – and it’s Rosh Hashanah so if we’re not going to dig deep today then when will we – our emotional experience of Hurricane Irma really started with Hurricane Harvey as we watched from afar the devastation that struck Texas and devastated Houston along with so many other cities and communities. With those images in our minds we heard the first predictions of the storm that was headed our way and the forecasts that a category 5 hurricane was headed in our general direction. We continued into the week of prep as we checked and rechecked as many supermarkets as we could find for water, batteries, and generators, filled our tanks of gas as often as we could, looked for canned food and even purchased items on Amazon (some of which I know arrived four or five days after the storm – but in case any one is wondering, Sharon and I now own a battery operated fan).
There were the phone calls and the check-ins from people around here and from out of town, beautiful, kind and sincere offers of help. “Call if you need anything” became our most common phrase and more than ever before it was clear that people meant it. People from other parts of the country who saw on the news that our entire state was about to be covered by a Hurricane called and asked how we were doing. I can speak only for myself but every person who asked if we were ready, every offer of assistance and every call from friends and family made me feel only more prepared. So much so that by the time the weekend finally rolled around there was a feeling of almost, let’s get this over with already. The anticipation became almost unbearable that I was kind of relieved when it finally started to rain on Sunday.
When the drops began to fall, we all, again in our own unique ways, did what we had been preparing to do – some of us making the difficult yet brave decision to leave town and ride out the storm in another part of the country, while many of us hunkered down here, ready to ride it out with whatever massive amount of Pirates Booty, chips and chocolate we had managed to acquire. And we spent the day doing whatever would keep ourselves, and whomever was with us, as calm as possible – playing mah-jong, risk or some other board games, watching movies or for some of us making videos on Facebook live. Some of you I’m sure sat down with a good book which was not even a little possibility in our house.
As day turned into night there was the first tornado warning that came right around dinner time, so we in the Skolnik household put the kids’ dinner on trays and went into our closet downstairs, knowing full well that we might end up there later on in the evening. You know as well as I do that by this point the meteorologists were predicting that the eye of the storm was going to stay more toward Tampa, even to the west of Tampa, so when Sharon decided to try and get some sleep and leave me to watch the Giants game – who somehow managed to get walloped even worse than the Patriots did in their opening game – we decided that I’d keep an eye on the weather and if it seemed like we needed to move our three sleeping children back into the closet, I’d wake her up when the time came.
In telling the story of the final plague in Egypt, the slaying of the first born, the Torah uses a phrase to describe exactly when the plague happened, “Vay’hi Bachatzi Halayla” which means, “And it was in the middle of the night”, which was actually then used as a recurring refrain in a rabbinic hymn that some congregations chant on Passover. I will forever now associate the phrase “Vay’hi Bachatzi Halayla” with Hurricane Irma because it was close to midnight when Toni Minolti, the chief meteorologist for WESH 2 (the local NBC affiliate) started saying that he was seeing a shift in the track of the storm and that if it stayed on its current track, it was looking like it was headed right toward Kissimmee, right at the attractions, the Southwest Orange County area. Well, I thought to myself, they don’t call us the Southwest Orlando Jewish Congregation because we’re in the northeastern corner of the city. So I did what I know many of you did as well – I woke my spouse and together we moved our children, whom we had all been sleeping in the same room downstairs, back into our safe space, back into the closet where we stayed for about the next three-and-a-half hours. It was loud, it was windy, it was stuffy because we were sitting in a closet, and the kids were up the entire time though all cards on the table, I did fall asleep for a couple of chunks there because I was physically and mentally exhausted from the day. Finally, at about 3:30 a.m. we went back to the bedroom and got everyone back asleep until about 6:30 am.
When things finally calmed down later Monday morning and into the afternoon, we all went out to survey the damage. For whatever reason, and I have none, our house never lost power even though our neighbors across the street didn’t have power until Tuesday and I know that many of you had no power for at least several days – the Cantor had no power until I think Sunday or Monday and I believe there are still people whose power has not been restored. Living without air conditioning for days at a time in the Florida heat is a particular horror, the consequences of which have been shown all too clearly with the incomprehensible story of the 8 seniors who died in an assisted living facility in south Florida that lost power and their residents suffered through literally unlivable temperatures. Please understand I’m not saying this as an indictment on the electric companies who have been working around the clock to restore power, rather as a statement on the strength and size of the storm. I haven’t heard of any stories, within this community, of trees falling on anyone’s homes, but I know they fell in people’s yards and on cars in the neighborhoods in which we live and I don’t doubt that it happened in other places within the state. I saw many downed fences, including part of our own, and I am more proud than ever before to see so many of our synagogue’s children here today given that they were home all of last week. As I pointed out to someone who was trying to convince me that the news and our local government were overly hysterical and created a sense of panic that was unnecessary, it doesn’t have to be catastrophic in our neighborhood in order for the storm to create a catastrophe for our area. School hours, work hours, tourism dollars, untold amounts of damage to the Florida Keys and other cities, not to mention the loss of life – there was no sensationalizing. And let’s not forget the after effects it leaves us with – I was speaking with a congregant the other day who mentioned that when we had a lightening storm last Thursday evening she found herself afraid in a way she hadn’t been before going through Hurricane Irma. It was a traumatic event.
We are lucky, post Irma, in so many ways but one of them is that the Jewish calendar already had a prescheduled communal gathering so that we could all see each other’s faces and check in with one another to hear each other’s versions of this story. Yet even while our individual stories have common threads, as I mentioned at the outset, each is unique with its own circumstances, in a similar way to those other city-wide, state-wide, nation-wide or world-wide events that we have lived through. And so I found myself, especially at this time of year as we sit together as a community, searching not for the lesson of the storm, because I don’t approach natural disasters as events that are meant to teach us something, but rather for some sense of understanding that could be had and thereby shared with all of you this morning, less than two weeks out of Hurricane Irma, seeing the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and elsewhere in the Caribbean and not knowing what storms might come our way. To find it, though, we need to rewind even further to the other natural phenomenon of the summer, the solar eclipse.
While you could see the eclipse from basically anywhere in the continental United States, if you wanted to have the complete experience, if you wanted to see what it was like when day became night – if only for a couple minutes, if you wanted to witness the wildlife be confused and start making noises they only make in the evening, then your best bet was to make your way to what is called “the path of totality.” As I know at least a few of our members did, people from around the country, and perhaps even the globe, flocked to places like Charleston, South Carolina and other places on what was a defined, predicted and ultimately completely accurate path of where the best places to watch the eclipse would be. We knew ahead of time when it would happen, how long it would last and even exactly what materials were needed – the special glasses you needed to be wearing to avoid damage to your eyes. There was complete understanding of what the path of totality would be and when the moment arrived, the eclipse traveled across the country along the path of totality exactly as planned.
On the other hand we have our Hurricane Irma, and the ones that are still to come, as we watched prediction after prediction not knowing exactly where the storm would go – as I said, it changed paths again to come toward us instead of Tampa – because we were all within what is called “the cone of uncertainty”. And within that cone you can prepare, you can buy supplies, you do your best to fulfill the epically overused cliché of buttoning down the hatches, but at the end of the day we remain filled with the same thing that everyone within the cone has, uncertainty. And while I can’t claim complete credit for putting these two phrases together into one sermon, what I have come to understand is that these phrases, “the path of totality” and “the cone of uncertainty” belong together most especially for this time of year, for what is life if not the balance between living in the convergence of “the path of totality” and “the cone of uncertainty” each and every day.
Consider, what do we really know for sure when we wake up in the morning? What is our daily path of totality? We know the sun will rise and the sun will set, we know that babies will be born and some peoples’ lives will come to an end, we know that we love our children, we know everything that has come in the past and we know that we have plans of what we would like to do in both the immediate and distant future. But as for the rest of it, it is an ever changing cone of uncertainty. We might get up and plan to exercise but find for some reason that the treadmill isn’t working that morning and the internet is down so you can’t stream the video you’d planned to follow. We plan to go to work (unless we plan not to and even when we plan not to we sometimes end up at work anyway), but even getting to wherever you hope to go is its own cone of uncertainty. Will the car start? Will I-4 be drivable today? Will a drunk driver be driving on the wrong side of the road and make this into the worst or possibly even the last day of my life? I know I want to have chicken nuggets for dinner, but will I be able to find my favorite brand in the supermarket? Will the Indians ever lose another baseball game? (I wrote this during their American league setting streak of 22 wins in a row which has since come to an end). Will I get a promotion today? Will I get fired today? Will I sell a house today? Will I bring a new family into the synagogue today? Will my child say thank you for their dinner?
So many questions and so much uncertainty, it is enough to make a person hysterical. A rabbi friend of mine posted on Facebook the other day that he was thinking of adding the phrase “Hakuna Matata” to the end of his emails and wondered if that would be a good idea. I responded to the post and said, “Don’t do it!! There is so much to be worried about and speaking from personal experience, someone telling me not to worry about it, even my rabbi, isn’t going to suddenly take the worries away.” There is more than enough to worry about in this world because we live every day in “the cone of uncertainty” where almost nothing is guaranteed.
When I think of all those questions that come from our lives of uncertainty, it reminds me of another set of questions which we will recite together this morning, tomorrow and once again on Yom Kippur. Perhaps our most well know Rabbinic Hymn the High Holiday season is, Untanek Tokef in which we ask a number of questions – “Kamah yaa’vrun v’chamah yibarei’un? Mi yichyeh umi yamoot? Mi v’kitzo umi lo v’kitzo? Mi va’eish umi vamayim? How many will be pass and how many will be created/will be born? Who will live and who shall die? Who will be blessed with the completion of their natural years and who will not? Who will die by fire and who will die by water?” And ultimately have the declaration – “Ut’shuvah, ut’filah utz’dakah ma’avirin et ro’a hag’zeirah – that repentance, prayer and acts of charity have the power to sway the decree.”
The theological idea behind this prayer is that God spends these Aseret Y’mei T’shuvah, these Ten Days of Repentance that begin each new year, coming up with answers to these questions which is why repent for our transgressions and petition God over and over and over to inscribe and seal us into the Book of Life for the year to come, in essence establishing a predetermined path of totality for the new year. I have to tell you that most years, while I find these questions eerily powerful I find the concept and theology unsettling because the idea of it being established so far in advance who will live and who shall die is almost overwhelming and puts so much pressure on our actions at this time of year. But this year they bring me more calm because I find myself searching for a way to live life just a little bit more on the path of totality than in the cone of uncertainty. It doesn’t mean that I want to know the answers to these questions, but knowing that some of these questions have answers gives me a little more sense of a total path in an otherwise uncertain cone.
There is so much we don’t know, so much that is unclear of how the rest of the day, week, month and year will turn out that as humans it makes sense we would try and latch on to whatever sense of total knowledge that we can find. Yet even in this time of questions this much is totally certain – we are blessed to be a part of this loving and caring congregation, filled with people who always mean it when they offer to help. May we continue to be there for one another in good times in bad, in times of storm and in times of sunshine for many years to come.