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riding the waves of the moment

09/06/2021 08:00:00 PM


Rabbi Lisa Delson

Sermon - Erev Rosh Hashanah 5782

There once was a story about two rabbis who were traveling the high seas at the same time but on different boats. Rabban Gamliel saw from a distance that another boat had capsized and sank. He immediately tore his clothes in mourning and cried out  “How could this happen? A brilliant mind has vanished.” Rabban Gamliel knew that the other boat carried Rabbi Akiva, one of the most remarkable Torah scholars in all of the Jewish tradition. 

A few days later when Rabban Gamliel disembarked his vessel, he saw Rabbi Akiva! The two scholars sat together and discussed Jewish law until finally Rabban Gamliel interrupted and said, “how is it that you made it to shore safely? Who lifted you up from the water?” Rabbi Akiva answered, “A plank from the boat became available to me and I held on for dear life, then I nodded my head at each and every wave that came toward me. The waves did not wash me off the board and I reached the shore.” (interpretation of Yevamot 121a). 

We might immediately look at this story and think, this has to do with COVID - the waves of infection, near death experiences, and looking at a situation from asocial distance. All of this is true and a good allegory for our time. However, there is something even deeper here that we can take from this brief story: it's that of the interaction between the two rabbis when they are on dry land. Rabban Gamliel interrupts the great Rabbi Akiva in his discourse of halacha and asks to hear the story of how he survived.

Just like the rabbis, we have been through a lot. We have missed weddings, bar mitzvahs, funerals, vacations. We celebrated our birthdays in undertones rather than the grand acknowledgement of the wonder of life. During COVID, I was pregnant and had a baby. Noam, my youngest, has never been inside our beautiful synagogue, for his own safety. His bris, on January 6, was shared on Zoom with our friends and family from around the country but only my parents were there to comfort us and celebrate during the ceremony. My oldest son, Micah, powered through first grade on Zoom and our middle son, Asher, learned that life can still be well-lived while wearing a mask at preschool. We worried about everything, the kids, their health, our health, how two working parents without help could manage it all. It was a scary and yet beautiful year.

It’s all so much that we could spend the next ten days crying instead of praying. However, Hineini, translated into English means here I am and here we are. Our tradition teaches us about the power of telling our stories and reflecting on what was so that we can move forward. 

In the book, The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning, the authors use the model of Alcoholics Anonymous to dig into spirituality. Storytelling is one of the backbones of AA. They say, “The practice of telling stories of ‘what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now’ makes us whole because it makes us available to one’s real identity.” In preparation for this evening, I invited a few community members to share their stories of the past year and who and what helped them to reach this moment. 

Shari Carruthers, long time PTS member shared this reflection, “These past couple of years have made me step back and reflect on what is important in life. The emails and outreach from my Sholom Women and WRJ friends, PTS clergy and family, while I was living in Sydney with my daughter, Rachel, during her recovery of oral cancer, made me realize how much I valued this community in challenging times. It’s those same people who surround me with love, friendship, walks, opportunities to vent, and mahjong games that help me stay grounded and gave me hope each day during COVID.”

During these difficult times, we have been forced to really look closely at our life preservers, who were the people to hold us up when it seemed that we might sink? A PTS member with children in the preschool and the youth education program wrote, “When I think about the highs and lows of this past year, it seems to boil down to being seen or not. In the times I was hurting and feeling invisible, discounted, left behind, I was almost always able to turn away from that darkness and find someone to help me see more clearly.” We are all nodding to the waves as they wash over us but they do not knock us off course. Throughout this season, I encourage you to think about who are your life preservers.

Dr. Betsy Stone, psychologist and professor at HUC-JIR in New York teaches a great deal about trauma. She speaks of these heartaches, these traumas as scabs, each time we face something difficult we become someone new, someone changed. We are truly in a new place. There is no going back.

One of the tragedies of this year has been that we have had to find community from afar. We count on gathering, sitting shoulder to shoulder at services, sharing meals, and studying our sacred texts. In the absence of these opportunities, we recognize their power. Yash Snider said, “In this time of isolation, I have become more aware of how I treasure the community around me.” 

Joel Silk, new PTS Board of Trustee member also reflects on the stark contrasts in his life from this past year. He talks about the highs and lows and everything in between, saying, “I have been isolated from friends and family, but became closer with my Jewish community by joining the board. My company went public [and] my team at work grew almost 10x over the past year, yet I’ve never actually met any of the new hires. Our kids have missed out on birthday parties  and vacations to LegoLand, but we have spent more (and better) time together. The kids have become more creative through boredom and have strengthened their relationship with each other. All said, this year has brought tragedy, heartbreak, stress, and more than anything else, uncertainty. But it has also brought us a little extra time, space, love, and hope.”

One of the ironies of these past 18 months is that we have had the opportunity to be in the moment in ways that we never were before. For some, Hineini, being right here, was all that we had. Kari Schiro, a parent in our preschool wrote, “I never had my brain to myself --- because three meals a day (plus snacks!), distance learning, and mommy, mommy, MOMMY!! --- it has been impossible to be anything but in the moment. While "being in the moment" is always posited as the ultimate goal, I've come to think that grounding myself in the continuum of time is equally important. Don't get me wrong, there have been many wonderful moments --- listening to my daughter hum to herself as she scribbles her imagination on a page, watching my preschooler's eyes twinkle with mischief, or just watching my oldest son read for hours, with no place else to be --- but being perpetually in the moment can be disorienting and strangely lonely sometimes.” Kari’s Hineini, is such a powerful reminder that we need both, we need to be in the moment but being in the moment only makes sense when we have that “continuum of time” to ground us.

As a synagogue, we had hoped to be here on Erev Rosh HaShanah in a different way, with a full sanctuary and no masks. It is clear we are still on a journey and haven’t returned all the way home. I wonder if Rabbi Akiva felt the same way, he had only just landed ashore but hadn’t made his way home. These lessons of gratitude, community, acknowledging our pain are what is getting us through. How have you made it to this place in time? 

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Wonder of the Universe who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to THIS moment in time. While we may not be home yet we can give thanks for the journey. 

Shana Tova!

Sun, August 14 2022 17 Av 5782