Temple Beth El, Rosh Hashanah 5775, Thursday, September 25, 2014
L’shanah tovah. It is great to be together. I love being part of a big family – this big family of Temple Beth El and the big family into which I was born. Now my parents did not plan on having five children. They had three which was a lot on a Rabbi’s salary and schedule. Then my mom got pregnant.
Nine months later, as she entered the hospital, my father expressed concern to the doctor about all the kicking inside my mom’s womb. My father said, “It’s either an octopus or more than one.”
The doctor dismissed him, “It’s only one and a small one at that.”
Shortly after, I was born at 4 pounds 4 ounces. The doctor no doubt smirked with satisfaction. Yet ten minutes later, the nurses were shocked when my brother’s foot popped out. My family and the world were completely unprepared for our birth.
Decades later, I received the original letter my father sent to my grandmother announcing our arrival. He shared his dialogue with my mom when she awoke after the delivery.
My father said, “It twins honey.”
My mother laughed, “Some joke.”
“No, really, its twins.”
“Are you kidding?” my mom said.
“Look over here… two… one boy and one girl, really!!”
“Doctor,” my mom replied. “Put me back to sleep. Wake me in a half hour and tell me it’s only one.”
When my twin brother, Jon, and I were born, my family and the world were completely unprepared.
This past year, more than 130 million babies were born and we and the world were similarly unprepared. This year has been exceedingly painful especially for our world’s children.
In this dawn of a New Year, we offer our heartfelt prayer: Adonai, Adonai, eyl rachum v’chanun… compassionate and loving God, in this New Year of 5775, have compassion upon us and upon all your children. Hear their cries. Heal their pain. Enable us to nurture the seeds of hope you have implanted within them and labor in the soil so that those seeds can fully take root.
In the first stanza of our New Year’s prayer for the world’s children, we plea to God to stop the pain of violence and war. We petition God to wipe away the tears and allay the fears of children and parents who live overseas in war torn areas and who face violence both within and beyond our American borders.
The Mishnah says that in Jewish terms a parents’ responsibility is:
• to welcome a child into our people,
• to teach a child Torah – our moral code
• to train a child in a trade, a profession
• to give our children the tools to have successful sacred relationships
• and some rabbis say we must teach our children to swim.
Yet no where does it say that we must accompany our children for burial.
My heart weeps when my memory conjures up images of the funerals of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali, the three teens who were kidnapped in June – the day our Beth El Family Trip landed in Tel Aviv. Israeli flags draped their bodies as their parents and Israel’s Prime Minister eulogized them.
My soul cries to learn of Jewish fanatics engaged in an abhorrent revenge killing adding an innocent Arab youth to the list of victims and his parents to the grief stricken circle of relatives. They sparked flames of war that would expand the circle of sorrow to hundreds of thousands.
My breath leaves me when Doron, our Israeli educator for a decade and a dozen Beth El trips and close friend, shared stories on Facebook of his wife and their sons’ daycare teacher making a game of responding to sirens and running into bomb shelters so that their sons Tal, who is one, and Shai, who is three would not be traumatized. Their mom or their teacher would say, “Let’s see how fast we can run, hide under a blanket and make a play tent inside the shelter.”
As soon as I learned of the Red Siren app (an actual app that lets you know a rocket has been fired at Israel), I downloaded it to my phone. It rang with every rocket fired – hour after hour, day after day, and week after week. Thousands of sirens were sounded as I wrote the text of this High Holiday sermon. Usually my seasonal sleeplessness is caused over writing this sermon, but this summer my stress was caused over Israeli and Palestinian strife along with so many other fearful acts of violence: Iraq, Isis, Hezbollah, Syria.
The story is told of the Angel that was sent to earth with orders to bring back to the most precious thing he could find. He searched from pole to pole. He went to the depths of the sea. He picked up a ‘gold nugget’ but reconsidered saying: “This is not good enough for God.” He found a ‘flawless pearl’ but tossed that aside, as well. Finally, he heard a sob. It was a man on his knees, pouring out his heart to God for help and forgiveness. The Angel said to himself, “That is it. I have found it.”
The Angel held his hand under the man’s face and caught a tear. He flew in triumph back to Heaven; presenting it to God: “This God ‘the tear’ is the most precious thing on earth.”
Tears speak louder than words. Tears tell us of pain and let us know that a healing hand, a healing voice, a healing act is needed. The Talmud teaches that since the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, the gates of prayer are locked – an angel must serve as intermediary carrying our petitions up to God. But the gates of tears, Rabbi Elazar tells us, are not locked. God hears the cries of the oppressed.
Our Biblical mothers wept abundant tears.
Sara wept. According to the Midrash on the Torah text we will soon hear, she had an inkling that her husband Abraham, in a moment of fanaticism, planned to sacrifice their son.
Rebecca wept. Her children, her twins Esau and Jacob, were fighting in her womb. She said, “If this is so, why do I exist?” No parent wants to see their child caught up in battle.
What is so horrifying about this past year was the horrendous use of children as human shields and workers in wielding war. Hamas forced their children to build terror tunnels filled with explosives that were designed to kill our children. They planned to kill thousands of our brothers and sisters on these days of awe.
Hannah wept. As we will soon read in the Haftarah, Hannah wanted a child so deeply and prayed so sincerely that her lips moved and no words came forth. The Priest observing her thought she was drunk. Hannah became a model for genuine prayer.
In the second stanza of our New Year’s prayer for children we ask God to open our eyes, to see within our children their capacity for hope and healing and to follow their lead.
Children have healing power. I recognize it each time I visit to the Charlotte Jewish Preschool for Shabbat. Even if I have just left a hospital room or met with a bereft family, when I look into our toddlers faces, the worries of the world melt away. The chubby one year olds, the energetic two years olds, the joyful three years olds sing with passion, dance with abandon, and always bring hope to my heart.
Children have healing power. Following the tragic shooting at the Kansas City JCC and Jewish retirement home this past Spring, we received a packet of children’s cards sent from the Sikh Community of Greater Charlotte. They experienced a similar loss with the 2012 shooting in a Wisconsin Sikh Temple. One child wrote: “Dear Jewish Community, I am sorry for your loss. Please stay strong in your faith, even though it is very hard to go through these types of things. We know how it feels to lose people for no reason.”
Pictures of flowers, stars, and American flags surrounded by their words of “I’m sorry” brought solace to my soul.
Children have healing power. From the age of 11, Malala spoke out for the rights of Pakistani girls to receive an education. At the age of 15, a gunman from the Taliban got on the school bus and asked, “Who is Malala?” and fired three shots at her face. One entered her forehead leaving her unconscious. Rather than silencing her prophetic voice, this militant magnified her powerful cry for change. This generation can and will and is making a difference.
Let us be inspired by her fearlessness. Malala said, “All I want is an education and I am afraid of no one.”
Let us be inspired by her optimism. Malala said, “Let us remember: one book, one pen, one child one teacher can change the world.”
Children have healing power. As war was being waged between Gaza and Israel, dozens of Palestinians and Israel campers were together in Maine attending a summer camp called Seeds of Peace. They lobbed balls on sports fields rather than rockets, and exchanged words and ideas rather than fire. Over the past twenty years, 5,000 kids from war torn countries have spent the summer at these camps learning how to see another side, to hear another voice, to create another future.
God, let us learn from our children whose eyes, hearts and minds open more easily than ours.
The final stanza of our Rosh Hashanah prayer petitions God to strengthen our resolve to protect the children of our world. As US citizens, we are each obligated to call child protective services if we recognize that a child’s life is threatened. Domestic abuse happens, even in Jewish homes. The children’s lives of our world are being terrifyingly threatened.
A close friend of mine, Reverend Robin Tanner, gave birth last month to twins. My son Alec and I were blessed to visit the babies on their 8th day. Alec had never held a newborn. For 30 minutes he sat holding Kirk while I held Ella. Alec was awed by their tiny fingers, their tiny toes, their tiny noses – so small, so adorable, so innocent, so perfect.
Adonai, Adonai, eyl rachum v’chanun. Adonai enable us to help the worlds’ children.
In our prayer, God’s name “Adonai” is repeated twice. The first Adonai refers to the transcendent God who is above and beyond. The second Adonai refers to that image of God within us.
In just a moment Cantor Bernard will passionately chant the Akeidah. It is called the binding of Isaac and not the sacrifice of Isaac, because an angel comes down to stop Abraham’s violent act. Today, we pray for God to send an army of angels down to us to stop the insanity of bloodshed, to peel away the layers of anger and antagonism, hostility and hatred.
In Hebrew, the word “malach” means angel and human messenger. We cannot wait for God’s celestial soldiers. This morning we pray for the strength to stop the violence and pain. We pray for the resolve to never surrender to evil saying, “The militants are too great in number, too fearful, too passionate, and too powerful.” We must speak out against fanaticism even within our own family of faith.
When I was born, my father concluded his letter to his mom saying: “What am I doing with five kids? Only yesterday I was happy-go-lucky bachelor with nary a care in the world. But it is fun in a way and I am confident we will manage. Of course, I sent my boss, Eisendrath, a letter “urgently requesting a cost-of-living raise.” No response as yet. As long as we are healthy we will be happy and I hope you are too.”
In this year of 5775, we too need a cost of living raise. Not a monetary cost of living increase as I am not speaking right now about teacher salaries or income equality. I am not speaking about balancing budgets – federal, local, or personal. I am speaking about balancing our time, our energy, and our focus of concern.
Mohammed Ali said, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth,” This year our world is crying out for a cost of living increase. We need to increase our commitment to create a better future for our children inside our homes and outside, inside this sanctuary and outside, inside our homeland and outside its borders. This is a huge cost of living increase, I know.
The problems of our world are great yet the world is smaller than ever. We can no longer close our eyes to painful realities from the Middle East to our own borders. We see them in the images of photojournalists, we hear them in the words of bloggers, we sense them through simple postings on Facebook.
To be a Jew is to plant for the future: saplings, seeds for vegetables and fruits, seeds of education, seeds of hope, and seed of peace.
Sara’s tears led to peace. An angel stopped Isaac from being sacrificed.
Rebecca’s tears led to understanding. The twins fighting within her womb were two nations, two peoples. The womb warfare foreshadowed the real warfare of the world that causes us to cry for change.
Hannah’s tears led to transformation. In her bitter grief she wept, prayed, and vowed to act. If God blessed her with a son, she would raise him to serve God. Hannah’s son, Samuel, would be the prophet who would anoint David as King – our most successful monarch from whose seed our tradition teaches that a messianic time of peace will indeed come.
May our tears also lead to understanding, peace and change.
In closing, I have adapted a 1995 prayer by Ina Hughes.
Adonai, Adonai eyl rachum v’chanun
Adonai above and Adonai, within
on this New Year’s Day,
we pray for our children
for our young ones who wake too early
and our teens who sleep too late.
We pray for our children
who put sticky fingers on our technology
and who leave trails of belongings wherever they go.
And we pray for those
who stare at photographers from bomb shelters
and from rubble caused by rockets
who witness realities we do not allow our kids to watch on tv
who live in war torn worlds.
We pray for children
who sneak into our bed in the middle of the night and keep us awake.
Whose extra-curricular activities consume our gas
and any free moment we might have.
And we pray for those
who have no rooms to clean up,
whose pictures aren’t on anybody’s dresser,
whose parents are not there to hug them
and whose monsters are real.
We pray for children
who squirm in Temple and disturb our prayer
whose tears we sometimes laugh at
and whose smiles can make us cry.
And we pray for those
whose physical and emotional wounds were intentionally caused
who are pawns in political and religious struggles
victims of wars they did not start.
We pray for children we never give up on
and for those who never get a second chance,
for those we smother.
and for those who will grab the hand of anybody kind enough to offer it.
For all these children we pray,
for they are all so precious.
May this year of 5775 be a good one for us, for the 1000 children of Beth El, for the two million children of Israel ,the two million children in Gaza and the West Bank , and the nearly 2 ½ billion children of our world. May we make it so not just with our prayers but with our actions. May we feel on our faces tears of joy in watching children play in peace.
As my father said to his mother on the day I was born, “As long as we are healthy, we will be happy, and I hope you are too.”
Shanah tovah – God, please may it be a happy new year.