Rosh Hashanah Day 2: How will you face tomorrow?

RH Day 2 5778 2017 Rosh Hashanah

Sep 22, 2017

Rabbi Philip Weintraub

Congregation Agudas Israel

No matter if you’re born

To play the King or pawn

For the line is thinly drawn ‘tween joy and sorrow

So my fantasy

Becomes reality

And I must be what I must be and face tomorrow

So I’ll continue to continue to pretend

My life will never end

And flowers never bend

With the rainfall

https://play.google.com/music/preview/Tsnydxl4rl572mwahajkvaiuddu?lyrics=1&utm_source=google&utm_medium=search&utm_campaign=lyrics&pcampaignid=kp-songlyrics&u=0#

In 1966 Simon and Garfunkel released “Flowers never bend with the rainfall”. Many discuss it as a parable for depression, or a treatise on existential philosophy, yet I see it as an argument for hope. Yesterday I spoke of our hope for the future, thinking in the frame of the eclipse about planning ahead and considering our passions. Today I think about the eclipse itself. What do we do when things get darkest?

This year I became a board certified chaplain. In the last few years, I have spent thousands of hours meeting with you and with others in my office, in the hospital, in hospice, and in your homes. I have spoken to you in good times and bad, celebrated joyful moments and cried with you as things got tough. To become board certified, I had to write a spiritual autobiography and an essay demonstrating how I met dozens of competencies. The essays were theological, intellectual, and attempted to think deeply about the emotional and spiritual well being of myself and others. Yet when I sat for my board interview, sitting with a panel of already certified chaplains they asked very little about my essays. Over and over, they asked how I FELT about things. They asked how I dealt with my feelings, what coping methods I used.

I must be what I must be and face tomorrow

I spoke of the miscarriage we suffered, how we shared the loss with you, and were blessed with love and support back. I shared how writing, speaking, very occasional exercise–I know, I know it should be more–and even watching TV were helpful to me. When thinking about Rebecca’s upcoming surgery, I know that we have a powerful community, people who have gone through the same and those that have not, yet all who want to help us get over this brief speedbump in our lives.

Our attitudes toward life are so impactful. How we react to the world around us speaks volumes about us, but also about our history. Do we fight or do we flee? Do we hide and cower and pretend or do we acknowledge and make a plan?

Jeremy Brown, an ER physician and researcher at NIH also keeps a Talmud blog. He shared that in the Talmud,

Succah 29a: תנו רבנן: בשביל ארבעה דברים חמה לוקה: Our Rabbis taught: A solar eclipse occurs on account of four things.

Without going into the details of the sins, the rabbis saw an eclipse as a bad omen. Yet how can it be a bad omen if it is a naturally occurring and predictable event? How do we solve this problem?

The Maharal of Prague (d. 1609) has a lengthy explanation in his work Be’er Hagolah which, for the sake of clarity, we shall summarize. The Maharal acknowledged that an eclipse is a mechanical and predictable event but he further suggested that if there was no sin, there would indeed never be a solar eclipse. G-d would have designed the universe differently, and in this hypothetical sin-free universe our solar system would have been created without the possibility for a solar eclipse.

Another attempt to explain the Talmud was offered by R. Yonason Eibeschutz (d. 1764). In 1751, R. Eibeschutz was elected as Chief Rabbi of the Three Communities (Altona, Hamburg and Wandsbek),…[and] gave a drashah in Hamburg in which he addressed the very same problem that Maharal had noted: If a solar eclipse is a predictable event, how can it be in response to human conduct? His answer was quite different. The Talmud in Succah is not actually addressing the phenomenon that we call a solar eclipse. According to R. Eibeschutz, the phrase in Succah “לוקה שהחמה בזמן “actually means “when there are sunspots.”

Yet today, many found the eclipse a cause for celebration. What a blessing to be able to see an amazing natural phenomenon. Looking at more recent rabbis, some were asked if one could say a blessing. Both the last Lubavitcher Rebbe and Hayyim David Halevi, a prominent former Chief Sephardic rabbi of Tel Aviv, may both their memories be a blessing, said it was inappropriate to say a blessing–how can we add to the Torah? If the Talmud did not say a bracha, we cannot either.

While I am far less prominent than either of them, I would have to disagree. There is a blessing for seeing natural phenomena–lightning, mountains, oceans, earthquakes, meteors and comets etc.:

ברוך אתה ה’ אלוקינו מלך העולם עושה מעשה בראשית – Baruch Atta Adonay Eloheinu Melech HaOlam Oseh Maaseh Beresheet. Some might even say Shecheyanu, thanking God that we are alive to see this day. My teacher, Rabbi Josh Heller, wrote in a tshuvah for the Conservative Movement’s Committee of Jewish Law and Standards that we should say

Blessed…Whose strength and Power fill the world

בָּרּוְך אַתָּה יְיָּ אֱֹלהֵינּו מֶלְֶך הָּעֹולָּם, שֶכֹּחֹו ּוגְבּורָּתֹו מָּלֵא עֹולָּם

We can debate about the proper blessing, but my desire to say a blessing on the eclipse speaks to my philosophy of Judaism and of life. Reiterating, how we react, says much about us. Is the Judaism, is the life we want, one where we are afraid of the world around us? Are we looking for terrible omens and signs that the world is coming to an end? Or are we looking for the good, are we looking not just to survive, but to thrive.

There is a story in Talmud Brachot 60b: “Rabbi Akiva was accustomed to saying “Everything Hashem does is for the good”. Once Rabbi Akiva was traveling with a donkey, rooster, and candle and when night came he tried to find lodging in a nearby village only to be turned away. Although Rabbi Akiva was forced to spend the night in the field, he did not lament his fate. Instead his reaction was “Everything Hashem does is for the best”. (It is interesting to note the difference between Rabbi Akiva and us. If for example we were learning for a long time, and we couldn’t find a place to sleep wherever we were, we would have complaints against Hashem that this is the reward we get for learning?! Yet Rabbi Akiva who obviously learned more and better than us had no such feelings). A wind came and blew out his candle, a cat ate his rooster, and a lion came and ate his donkey, and again Rabbi Akiva’s reaction was “Everything that Hashem does is for the best”. That night a regiment came and took the entire town captive, while Rabbi Akiva who was sleeping in the field went unnoticed and thus was spared. When Rabbi Akiva realized what happened he said, “Didn’t I tell you that everything that Hashem does is for the best”?” Rashi explains that if the candle, rooster or donkey would have been around, the regiment would have seen or heard them and would have also captured Rabbi Akiva.

How many of us would react like Rabbi Akiva? Would we thank God that we had survived an attack? Or would we be angry at the loss of our possessions? In recent weeks, we have seen disaster after disaster, floods, fires, storms and more. What is amazing to me is the variety of ways people react. Some are despondent, yet they have lost very little. Others who lost everything, who start with nothing, are filled with gratitude. I spoke recently with Rabbi Hirshel Jaffee, a former rabbi of TBJ. He shared with me some of the tsurris that has been in his life–numerous cancers, the recent loss of his daughter–yet the heart of our conversation was about his deep optimism, his view that hope always remained.

No matter if you’re born

To play the King or pawn

For the line is thinly drawn ‘tween joy and sorrow

Every one of us has faced adversity. Every one of us had great joy and life experiences. Some of us have had far more on our plate, some of us have had less. Too often we hear “God only gives us what we can handle”, which while might sound consoling is rarely positive in the moment. Rather, we might discover that listening to one another’s trials and travails is far more effective. The meaning we find from suffering is far more powerful when discovered individually than imposed by others. Yes, our tradition can offer ideas, yet it is not the exclusive answer. Our tradition brings us both Job and the rabbis of the Talmud with a diverse set of answers!

So I’ll continue to continue to pretend

My life will never end

And flowers never bend

With the rainfall

Simon and Garfunkel give us an out. Yet their idea is based on our Jewish traditions. We can live “As if” things are better. We can live “AND”, knowing that we are not limited to a single emotional state. We can be Happy and sad. We can celebrate AND grieve. We can recognize that the world is not only what we see, but what we make of it. Our tradition teaches us the importance of greeting one another with a cheerful countenance AND that we can reject suffering as a theological concept.

Over the last few years, I have reminded you again and again that our lives are a series of choices, of decisions great and small. How we react to adversity, how we react to one another, greatly determines how we feel about ourselves and the world around us. This is not just pop psychology, but the wisdom of our tradition.

Using the frame of the eclipse, we know that the darkness of the eclipse is only temporary. It is not permanent. The sun is not disappearing forever. It is a moment of time. As another voice in our tradition says, gam ze ya’avor, this too shall pass. If we remember the moments to come, sometimes they can help us in those difficult moments. We know that some sorrows are so great they need more than platitudes, yet the power of our community can help in matters great and small.

As we continue these High Holy Days, let us find the strength to react well, to react strongly and decisively, and to bring love and kindness to our reactions.

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