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Finding Faith, Holding Gratitude

Rosh Hashanah Day Sermon 5778

Rabbi Boris Dolin

As I mentioned in an email to the community last month, I spent a week at the end of my summer in Charlottesville, Virginia.  This was not meant to be anything but a much needed vacation with Sarah’s family, and after a long two day drive we arrived to the peace and quiet of their suburban town about 20 minutes outside of the city.  I could of course talk about the politics, and the horrible news coming from the downtown about the neo Nazis and the protesters, but this has already been done.  I had been hoping to go to the local synagogue for Shabbat morning services--a rabbi's not-so-secret vacation pastime, not only to pray and sing along with the community, but also to see how the other rabbi, as we say, did his thing.  But when I heard that the area around the synagogue was filled with Neo Nazis and angry marchers, some armed with automatic weapons, I, or shall I say Sarah, said that I shouldn't go to services.  So, that morning, I spent Shabbat, only slightly begrudgingly, lounging at the nearby pool.

But I also knew that there were many churches nearby, including one where my mother in law's neighbor attended--a small, evangelical church overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains with a quaint little steeple protruding from the roof.  Missing my Shabbat, I was curious rabbi staying in Virginia, and it was worth a try just to get at least a taste of this unique experience.

Now I had been to churches before, but never an evangelical church.  As expected there was a nice band, with a few skilled singers, and plenty of hallelujahs and hand raising. There was an emotional prayer and brief discussion about the horrible events downtown and prayers for peace and compassion.  There were also admittedly a few uncomfortable moments for me as the lone Jew in the pew, and while I could hum along, I didn’t feel comfortable singing along with most of the prayers.

Yet one word kept popping out--a word I expected to hear, but one that stood out because of number of times and the strength that it was used--faith.  Faith in Jesus, faith in God, faith that the divisions in the country would be healed, faith in God’s protection, faith that the church member’s husband dying of cancer would soon be in God’s hands.  In this space, in this old southern church, I knew that this was not simply a word.  I could see in the bright and trusting eyes of those around me, that they believed.  They had complete trust, and they held on with a conviction which was powerful to an outside observer that things would come through.  No talmudic discussion of God’s role in our lives needed, no sneaking around the name of God to make sure everyone in the congregation felt comfortable.  On a level I could only begin to understand, they knew in faith’s power to comfort and strengthen them and guide them on their journey.

I think most of us would agree that while could say many things hold us together as Jews, a singular faith, one understanding of God, one way of practicing our traditions and rituals--this is as foreign to us Jews as a five course lobster dinner on Yom Kippur.  Of course we believe--many of us do believe in our own understanding of God, we believe in the power of community, of ritual and of living an ethical life--yet part of being Jewish is that as much as we believe, as much as we hold on to truth, we also question everything, and we challenge.  We question the texts we read, we question each other and as we know from all of the stories from Abraham to Chelm we even question God.  As Rabbi Sid Schwarz recently wrote, we Jews are, and have always been so much more a “people of fate” than of faith, held together by a shared history and a common destiny which guides us more than one single overarching system of belief.  As he points out, “If Jewish behavior were to be defined by one core phrase, kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, ‘all of Israel is responsible, one for the other,’ would be a far more accurate descriptor than “Shema Yisrael…” (New York Jewish Week, Aug. 29, 2017).

Yes, while this may be a contemporary truth for so many of us today, we know it hasn’t always been this way.  Maimonides' 13 articles of faith, still said as part of the Shacharit services in most Orthodox communities states very clearly that a very clear and straightforward faith was a core aspect of belief and practice.  A few of these statements:

  • Belief in the existence of the Creator, who is perfect in every manner of existence and is the Primary Cause of all that exists.

  • The belief in God's absolute and unparalleled unity.

  • The belief that G‑d communicates with people through prophecy.

  • The belief in the divine origin of the Torah.

  • The belief in the immutability of the Torah.

  • The belief in divine reward and retribution.

  • The belief in the resurrection of the dead.

While many might not be able to hold on to all these words,  even for someone who says them every morning, Judaism is so much more than belief.  We live by mitzvot,  by action, and by belonging to the Jewish people, not just believing.

The reality is, while there are times when we put our hand up in praise of the source of all, more often we Jews express our praise, show our love through this (--hands in front like arguing--).  In some ways especially as liberal  Jews, our faith is itself  a constant search, or as Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement says, said Judaism, faith, even God, God’s self is a process.   

But today of all days, when we come together to celebrate the New Year, and search for our path for the year ahead, many of us are hoping for something a little more stable than a process, yet again another challenge.  Something more inspiring and hopeful than another list of questions.

Today, on Rosh Hashanah, we begin to search for definitions--to accept this constant process, this learning and changing of life, but also to try to try to nail down some truths.  Did I live up to the person I thought I would be in the year that has passed?  Did I serve my role in my relationships, as a friend, a partner, a sibling, a citizen of the world?  What can I do to improve myself head down a path that I will be proud of?

Yet, I also think we have to be honest with ourselves as we experience this process of gathering here as a community--filling this holy space with the blessings, the melodies, the songs of praise, the simple words, and the difficult liturgy that we also can’t run away from faith.  We might come here for the community, the comfort and familiarity, the food--but  the mystery of these days commands us to delve a bit deeper, look at this idea, this challenging concept which for so many of us might linger in the back our being, a thing we deeply desire, but because of our theology or questions which might never fully reach.  Faith.

The first step is to rip out this word from the simple definition--because no matter what Maimonides might have said, ours is not a simple concept to unpack.

Unfortunately, seemingly every word that we use in English to describe faith, can’t be removed from its Christian context--and this is part of the problem.  Take the big word, that dangerous word, God.  When we have hundreds of names for God from Adonai, to Ehyeh asher Ahyeh, I am what I am, to hamakom the place, we can begin to understand how Kaplan might have been right on track when he said God was a process, more of a verb, then simply a thing that we can believe or not believe in.   As I often say, get ready for it, I don’t believe and have never believed in “God”.  But, don’t get me wrong, I am definitely a “believer”. I believe in Godliness and in the search, and I believe in Hashem, and the hundreds of names found in our tradition.

As with God, so too with faith.

The Hebrew word for faith is emunah. Many Hebrew scholars, however, believe that a better and more accurate translation for this word isn’t “faith” but “trust” or “trustworthiness.” We have countless stories in the Torah where God--excuse me--the process--expresses Emunah, by being trustworthy. From God’s relationship with the patriarchs and matriarchs, to the challenging story of the akedah, the binding of Issac that we read in tomorrow’s Torah service.  This emunah also fills our liturgy.  In the Modeh Ani, for instance, the prayer that we say every morning as we wake up, we end with the words, “rabbah emunatecha” – “how great is your emunah.”  In a very powerful way, we are saying that when we wake up, after these mysterious hours of darkness and sleep we give thanks that there are certain things we can trust, the rhythms of life that are so dependable--that night turns into day, and day into night.  That our eyes can open once again to the world.

But then there are the times when things simply don’t work out.  When the rhythm gets a bit off beat, and the normality of life, the trust, the emunah is broken.  We experience loss, pain, trauma, and we see sadness and challenges, that a prayer of thanks can not overcome.  When a loved one dies, when a relationship fails, or when for whatever reason, we encounter an unexpected turn on our path of life.  This is when we need that emunah, or dare I say, faith, the most.  But for many of us, our God, our stable source is not always there waiting.

Looking at the theme of the Yamim Noraim, the days of Awe can help us move forward.  Beginning today, and for the next ten days, we come together as a community to reflect on our place in the world, and explore who we are in relationship to others.  Through cheshbon hanefesh (“accounting of the soul”), we ask ourselves the tough questions: “What mistakes have I made in the past year?  How have I fallen short? Of whom must I ask forgiveness? Where do I want to be in my life a year from now?” Our tradition tells the myth that that this spiritual questioning is preparation for the ultimate Day of Judgment, when we die and literally stand at heaven’s gates. Rava, one of the great scholars of the Talmud, actually suggests a list of questions made by God as we each reach that important moment.

Some of these questions are straightforward and might be easy to answer: “Were you honest in your business? Did you set aside time for study? Did you engage in procreation?” Yet one of Rava’s questions is a bit more of a challenge: “Tzipita li’yeshua? Did you hope for deliverance?” or as Rabbi Ron Wolfson puts it, “Did you live with hope in your heart?”  As we examine ourselves on this holy day, standing at the gates which separate our past from our present and future, we know that there might be joys and challenges, blessings and regrets.  Yet, as we take time to reflect on the role we each have in fixing some of the brokenness in ourselves and our world, this is the question we can ask.  Maybe not, do we have faith, but do we live with hope for something better-and are we thankful for what we have.

In many ways, a Jewish “faith” all comes down to tikvah, this hope, this gratitude, to thankfulness.  Again, the English translations are not able to fully do justice to the true meaning of the Hebrew.  Hakarat Ha Tov, “Recognizing the good” brings light to a very important aspect of gratitude that is not found in simply the idea of thankfulness.   The good is already in the world, the blessings are sitting beneath our feet, making their way before our eyes, and we simply have to be attentive enough to be there to recognize them.  Even in the first chapters of the Torah, we are reminded to remember to recognize the good, as we read about the creation of the world, we only know each day is complete, not only because of what was created during that day, but because it was acknowledged as good.

The challenge of course is to be able to recognize the gratitude when there is so much else blocking our way.  When we encounter that pain, sadness or suffering.  When we experience loss, or are simply unable to move into a place of happiness, even recognizing the good in our lives is not an easy task.

Rebbe Nachman of Bretzlov, the founder of the movement of Bretzlov Hassidim whom you might find on the streets of Israel dancing and jumping with joy at all hours of the day made it very clear:  “Gratitude rejoices with her sister joy, and is always ready to light a candle and have a party.  Gratitude doesn’t much like the old cronies of boredom, despair and taking life for granted.”

Gratitude is so important, that there are even stories of our teachers expanding their thankfulness to even the inanimate objects around them.  It is said that the Kotzker Rebbe before throwing out an old pair of shoes, would kindly wrap them in newspaper before placing them in the trash saying “How can I simply toss out an old pair of shoes that has served me so well these past years!”

Or the Mussar teacher Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian who was once talking to a student after davening and folded up his tallit to put on a bench, but noticed that the chair was covered in dust.  He rushed to get a rag to clean it-the student tried to get the towel instead, but the rabbi said “No no, I must clean it myself, for I must show my gratitude for the bench upon which I folded my tallit (David Schlossberg , Reb Elyah)

I don’t think the rabbis are necessarily saying that a bench or our shoes have feelings and are happy when we remember to say thank you--although I do feel a good children's story idea coming on--clearly their intention was for us to cultivate a sense of gratitude that goes beyond what we are used to in our daily lives.  We are comfortable saying thank you to someone who opens a door for us or helps us when we are in need, but what about those people and even those things that lie underneath our spiritual gaze.  The rabbis call to say 100 blessings a day is a reminder that every single moment, every interaction we experience is deserving of a blessing, not only for what we see in front of us, but also for the different levels of giving that led to our thankfulness.

Hakarat ha Tov, is such an important part of being Jewish that it is even inherent in our name--yehudim.  When Leah, had her fourth child, she named him Yehuda “I am grateful” , and of course, Yehudi, Jew, derives from this name.  We Jews, the people who have survived so much, who have lived through the challenges and the blessing of history, who have made it through destruction, dispersion, great periods of learning and growth, wandering, the enlightenment,the Holocaust, the birth of Israel, and now are resting on the edge of new but confusing new Jewish world. We Jews after all of this, remain, yehudim the thankful people.

This fact even comes across in how we greet each other.  The tradition is, when asked how they are doing, a Jewish person should say “Baruch Hashem!”  Blessing be God.  How am I doing? I am thankful for what I have! (of course remembering that we Jews also hold a bit of positive pessimism, it is also understood that, obviously, it could have been worse!)

Gratitude is complicated.  But what is important is that gratitude, the truest deepest form on recognizing the good, is also the deepest expression of what we might understand as faith.  We can always give thanks to a greater being, give thanks to God, or give thanks to our ancestors, those who came before us.  We can give thanks to the earth, the animals, the bread and food we eat.  But in reality the simplest thank you to a friend is just as profound a philosophical statement.  By saying thank you, we recognize that we are not alone.  We acknowledge that we need others to exist, to inspire us to teach us, or sometimes simply to lend a hand.  And, through this act of saying thank you, we also acknowledge that we are vulnerable, since even the smallest expression of gratitude reminds us that we cannot survive without the help of others.

If we trip and fall, and someone helps us us, we recognize our frailty.  If someone catches us in an unkind moment, and offers us tochecha, compassionate rebuke, we are reminded of our imperfection.  If we, are given a gift or a kind word, we remember that kindness, well it feels good.

From a psychological perspective, gratitude, and the absence of gratitude is all about trust:  Robert Solomon writes in The Psychology of Gratitude,

The neglect of gratitude is, in itself interesting...We do not like to think of ourselves as indebted.  We would rather see our good fortunes as our own doing...Like the emotions of trust, in invokes an admission of our vulnerability and our dependence on other people.  Thus gratitude lies at the very heart of ethics.  It is more basic perhaps, than even duty or obligation. (“Forward in Robert Solomon's Psychology of Gratitude”)

Of course Judaism is filled with expressions of gratitude.  From the 19 blessing of the Amidah, thanking God for life, for sustenance for our ancestors, to the simple brachot of foods and natural wonders, we are never left with a void of blessings.  According to our tradition, thankfulness should literally fill our days, from the moment we awake, until we go asleep at night.  

On Rosh Hashanah we say in our liturgy “Hayom Harat Olam” – on this day the world is born. What an incredible concept!  Our entire life has been leading up to this moment--everything we experience, all that we did right, and all of the regrets.  Hold on, but don’t hold on too much--because today the world was born, and we can start fresh again. So take the time to look back and to reflect. What has led you here to be here in this place today? What are the memories and experiences that you continue to hold sacred? Who are the people who have guided you on your journey? And what will you do to turn these memories into action?

Hayom Harat Olam.  Today the world was born.  No matter where you have been, no matter what you think may lie ahead--all that we have is right here.  Hakarat ha Tov, we can give thanks for the good, and live with hope for a better future.

You know what I love most about these holidays truly is seeing all of you.  Not only is each and every one of you a beautiful person, but by being together, by doing this, we have no choice but to remember that we are not doing it alone.  Each of us with our own complicated stories, our pains and joys, sitting with gratitude and sitting with hope, experiencing this among so many others, our community.  We are truly held up by each other.   

We are living in tough times.  Some days it feels like the world is falling apart.  Corrupt politicians, deadly hurricanes, endless wars and sickness--it can be tiring just to open up the paper.  But today, on this New Year we can fight back against this new reality, and can agree to live life differently.  We can, we need, to affirm our hope and and our will to move ahead, to not just survive, but truly live with a commitment to each moment, and to each other.  

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief rabbi of Britain, put it well.  He once wrote: “To be a Jew, is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair. Every ritual, every mitzvah, every syllable of  the Jewish story, every element of Jewish law, is a protest against escapism, resignation, or the blind acceptance of fate.  Judaism is a sustained struggle, the greatest ever known, against the world that is, in the name of the world that could be, should be, but is not yet.”

Faith, gratitude, compassion, commitment, hope.  Emunah means that we matter.  That others matter.  That what we do, what we say, and every bit of help we can offer to others and to our broken world, matters.  Every act of Teshuva of turning, does make a difference in ways that we can never imagine.  

And in the end, a faith in God, the process, Godliness, a faith in ourselves, is necessarily the most simple truth, beyond words, beyond language and definitions, it is a faith that we will always have each other.  And maybe that is faith enough.

Read Rabbi Boris's Sermons From 5777:   Where are We Going?


Thu, November 14 2019 16 Cheshvan 5780