A couple of weeks ago, before Hurricane Irma hit, I was standing in a tractor trailer, helping load supplies for Hurricane Harvey victims in Houston. It was hot out and even hotter inside that trailer. The amount of supplies that needed to be loaded into the trailer was overwhelming. And the supplies kept coming. You kept coming – in your cars, your minivans, your SUV’s – each of them filled with more supplies. I stood in that sweltering truck trying to cram as much as I could into it. Part of me felt the urge to jump out of the trailer and into my car, turn on the AC and just sit there and cool down. But, I looked out at so many of you – coming in droves – and was overcome with love – love for each of you, love for our community, love for the people affected by Harvey – so overcome with love that I stayed in that trailer. I hadn’t felt this kind of love in some time. You see, before being motivated by Hurricane Harvey, I was trying to process the hate we saw in Charlottesville last month, raw, dehumanizing hate that was eating me alive, dragging me down to dark places, separating me from this love I got to feel in the back of that trailer. It was your love for the people of Houston that allowed me to rediscover this love inside of me and this rediscovery motivated me to pack more into that hot trailer.
Too often, life can be like those moving walkways in airports – you hop on with all your stuff and allow it to carry you forward to your destination. You look at those who choose not to hop on with you, those who choose to walk to the same destination on their own two feet, at their own pace. The dehumanization that took place in Charlottesville became a moving walkway for me. I jumped on and it was hurtling me and my stuff forward to an unknown destination where hate is defeated.
White supremacists are motivated by conceiving of others as subhuman and acting in a way that deprives others of positive human attributes – like the ability to love and be loveD. We can’t stand by and allow the hateful ideology of supremacists to spread and undermine our capacity to love each other. But, as I looked out at you from the back of that trailer, I realized: we can’t allow the demise of their ideology to become our moving walkways. When we do so, we become so hell-bent on stopping something awful that we fail to look out and see goodness. We become incapable of feeling the love and sharing the love inside of us – the same love that the supremacists deny we have the ability to give and receive – the same love they want to strip away from us – and, by doing so, turn us against each other. By jumping on a moving walkway because of hate and remaining on this moving walkway because of hate, we help foster the goal of those who do the hating: we ignore the good. Like a garden that is not tended to, when goodness is ignored it begins to wither and die. We can’t allow this to happen. We need to step off the moving walkway. This doesn’t mean we won’t get where we need to go. This doesn’t mean we won’t defeat hate. We’ll do so, however, in a way that enables us to incorporate the good into our lives and not just focus on the hate. We’ll do so in way that allows us to do what the supremacists don’t want us to do – become better, stronger, more united by the good and thus THRIVE, not simply survive as we move forward.
Sadly, hateful ideologies are just one of many things that frighten us these days. Life is overwhelming. Life is unpredictable. This is what the most challenging prayer of the High Holidays, the prayer that we recited earlier, Unetaneh Tokef, is all about. Granted, as Unetaneh Tokef lists that horrible things that might happen to us, the prayer goes to what seems to be a horrible extreme:
…who shall perish by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by wild beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague…
But, after coming through Irma, supporting the victims of Harvey, trying to wrap our heads around Charlottesville and dealing with our own personal struggles, maybe this list doesn’t seem that extreme to some of us. The fact is, we don’t know what lies around the corner. It could be something wonderful. And too often, it’s something overwhelming, if not totally awful. “Who will live and who will die?”
When it comes to our own personal struggles and struggles that we’ve shared, like Irma and Harvey and Charlottesville and all the other events that have affected us, too many of us here today have been hit in the gut by at least one of life’s curveballs. For many of us, one or more of these curveballs have brought us to our knees. An overwhelming feeling of fear and uncertainty, a death, an illness, a professional loss, a financial crisis, a fractured relationship. Most of us, because of one or more of these curveballs, have felt the true depth of pain, exquisite, real, raw pain.
And, for many of us, this pain, whatever the source, has pushed us onto at least one of those moving walkways and we’re going full steam ahead. Propelled forward by negativity. Trying our hardest to make it through – trying our hardest just to survive – until we reach some unknown destination that will obliterate our hurt.
But, just like Hagar in this morning’s Torah reading, at some point, we have to step off the moving walkway. At some point, we realize it won’t get us where we really need to go. We’ll burn out, or the walkway will just stop functioning. Either way our determination to survive won’t empower us to thrive.
And so today, we need to step off the moving walkway.
Hagar does this when she cries out to G-d saying “I just can’t do this anymore!” She steps off the walkway. The Torah tells us that she sits down. And what happens when she does so? She discovers that well of water that she would have missed had she stayed on that walkway, hurtling to a place she would’ve never safely reached. And from this well of water, she pulls the strength she needed not to survive – but to thrive. She rediscovers the love she has for her son. She rediscovers love. And this not only gets her through the desert, it empowers her, as the Torah tells us, to build an incredible life for her and her son.
So this Rosh HaShanah we’re not only going to step off the moving walkway, together, we’re going to the same well that Hagar discovered.
I stood before that well as I looked out at you from the back of that hot trailer a few weeks ago. And, I’ve got good news, I stand before the well again this morning. It’s right here. It’s the people that fill this sanctuary. It’s community. It’s the stories that some of us will share over the next two days. It’s in the music and the prayers that we share in this space. It’s in the positive stirrings that fill your heart and your soul right now. It’s in the discussions I want you to have with those you love this afternoon and into the evening and during the day tomorrow. All of these things and more make up the well from which each of us will draw from this Rosh HaShanah. While we will each use what we pull from the well differently, when it comes down to it, what we’ll pull out is a much needed reminder of the deep and abiding love we have inside of us right now for the people that fill our lives. This love is what kept me working in that trailer. This love is what motivated Hagar. This love is what will push us in a positive direction despite all of the challenges we face as we wander through the valley of the shadow of death, pain and struggle mentioned in the 23rd Psalm. This love is what will allow us to thrive – not simply survive.
As you know, last year I was on sabbatical. While I spent a lot of time studying, I also spent time reflecting on the many experiences that have shaped my rabbinate over the past decade and half. There have been so many wonderful experiences. And, yes, many challenging ones as well. While I don’t like to focus on the challenging ones, during my sabbatical, I came to appreciate how these challenging experiences – mainly the many funerals and shivah minyans we’ve experienced together as a community – how these moments have pushed me off the moving walkway of grief and before Hagar’s well.
Each of the people who have slipped away from us over the years – their passing has devastated their family – many of you here today. I can’t and won’t ever try to compare your loss to what I’ve felt as your rabbi. This being said, as your rabbi, I’ve buried too many members of our community, too many people that you’ve loved, too many people that I’ve loved as well. Too many people whose lives were cut too short by illness or trauma. Too many of us left behind shocked, stunned – wandering in that valley of the shadow of death.
Many of you have asked me over the years how I do it. How I can walk through the valley of the shadow of death so often. Yes, walking this valley weighs on me. It has led to many sleepless nights, many hours thinking about why bad things happen to good people, wondering what the purpose of life is and even challenging God.
As I’ve traveled through the valley of the shadow of death, there have been times when I’ve found myself, just like Hagar, lost, afraid, overwhelmed. These are the times when I’ve hopped on the moving walkway of grief. But, fortunately, just like Hagar, there have been tremendous moments of clarity in the valley, moments when I’ve stepped off the walkway and realized that there is, shockingly, some light in the valley. Light that has allowed me to thrive as a rabbi, as a human being.
This light is love. Love for the deceased. Love for you and your families. Even love for people I don’t meet until a funeral. The ability to express this love, this commitment, this deep and abiding connection by carefully guiding you through the valley of the shadow of death, by honoring the person we lost, it pushes me forward. It motivates me. It gives me the strength to persevere.
When we lose a member of our community or when one of you loses someone close to you, being called upon to help is such a tremendous honor. I‘m charged with the overwhelming task of conveying the essence of the deceased. While doing so, I’m determined to be a mirror, reflecting all that I know from experience and all that I learn from listening to stories about the deceased. By being a mirror, reflecting the essence of the deceased before all those who gather at a funeral, I’m given the opportunity to hold a place for the deceased, to honor the deep connection so many who attend the funeral felt with the deceased, and remind those in attendance that this connection is still here. The emotions and memories that I can elicit – are reminders that the connection is sustaining. And it holds the promise that the essence of the deceased goes on.
“Rabbi, thank you. I felt mom in your words. You brought her into the sanctuary. I’m so grateful.” Or “Rabbi, I didn’t know the deceased, I am just a friend of her daughter. But you let me feel like I knew her. I now understand just how special she was. Thank you.” Being able to give you the opportunity to feel, to experience the spirit of one no longer with us is what propels me through that valley of the shadow of death.
Funerals aren’t times to whitewash life and erase away the pain. On the contrary, they’re moments to put a life and all its ups and downs into perspective. By holding that place for the deceased, I’ve been fortunate enough to help people heal fractured connections. A few months ago, I stood with a 60-year-old man who was burying his father. I didn’t know either very well. But I could feel tension. “I don’t know all the details of your connection with your dad,” I said to the son at the end of the funeral, “but I can tell that there’s some unfinished business.” He began to cry and said, “yes, indeed Rabbi, there’s much unfinished business.” “The fact that you’re here,” I said, “speaks volumes about your bond with your dad. Go finish the business. Go make your peace.” He did just that, walking up to grave on his own. I stood off to the side. When he was done, he walked back to me. “Thank you Rabbi, my dad and I, we’re good now.” It’s moments like this that make me persevere.
I’m a firm believer that death isn’t the end – that life goes on just like energy. While I can’t prove it – I can share my faith and I do just this at funerals. I often ground my faith in our Jewish teachings or insights I’ve had while being with people as they slipped away. “Rabbi, I didn’t know it was okay for us Jews to believe in life after death. Thank you for opening my eyes to this – it makes me feel better.” Knowing that I can make a difference for folks as they walk through the valley of the shadow of death – these are my ah-hah moments. Moments when I realize that I can bring just a bit of healing, just a bit of comfort, just a bit of light, just a bit, to others. And this makes me persevere.
Toward the end of Unetaneh Tokef, after all the bad and scary stuff are listed, the prayer tells us that “teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah” – that personal growth, that prayer and deep connections – these things help lessen the intensity of the bad and scary stuff. It’s so important that we pay attention to these words.
Yes, the prayer lists some of the horrific atrocities that can happen – a blunt reminder that life throws us those curveballs. Curveballs that we can’t stop from coming our way. BUT, no matter what is thrown our way, Unetaneh Tokef says, we have the power not to stop the curveballs, but to lessen the pain these curveballs leave behind after impacting us and those around us. We have the power, the prayer says, to lessen the intensity of life’s traumas. This power is something we should all take advantage of because, when harnessed, it gives us a purpose that not only elevates us, but elevates those around us as well. This power is our capacity to love each other – to step off the moving walkway and deeply care about each other.
Over the past decade and a half, I’ve learned that you can’t rely on a moving walkway to get you through the valley of the shadow of death. You need to walk with your own two feet. And I’ve done this so many times, I’ve created my own pathway through this valley. Every time I come off the path and leave the valley behind, I hope and pray that I never have to return. But inevitably I’m back on that worn path – drawn back not simply by my rabbinical obligation to help mourners, but also by the sense of real purpose and meaning that I find each time I walk the path – a path that, while often treacherous, leads me to Hagar’s well, where I find the strength to once again reach out, connect and lift others up.
As that tractor trailer I helped load began its journey to Houston a few weeks ago, I reached out to a friend of Ramat Shalom’s, the Jewish Cowboy Joe Buchanan. He was here last year leading a country-western Friday night service. Joe lives in Houston. He and his community were hit hard by Harvey. I was able to get him in touch with the driver of the tractor trailer and hoped that they would connect with each other when the truck arrived in Texas.
As I finished preparing my home for Irma and South Florida started to feel the fury of the storm, my computer started ringing – a call from Facebook. From Cowboy Joe. “Joe,” I said, “is everything okay? Did you get the supplies?” “Rabbi,” he said, “I know Irma is coming. I just want to check in on you – just like you checked in on me…” This man and his community lost so much, but he cared enough to check on us. “And thank you,” he said, “we got the supplies you all packed into the trucks and what a difference they made.” We did that. Our love made a difference. “And,” he continued, “we’ll pack trucks here for you guys if we need to. We’re sending South Florida our love.” Joe’s love for us helped me step off my pre-Irma moving walkway – to step back from some of the fear and anxiety that the storm had filled me with and to yet again connect with that love that I rediscovered on that trailer that was filled with our love.
That same love has overwhelmed me over the past several days as I, yet again, watched you pull up time and time again in your cars, minivans and SUV’s filled with supplies – this time to the synagogue – this time for victims of Irma. We had so many donations that we managed to overstock Feeding South Florida. All because of our love for those who lost everything – many of them complete strangers to us.
When we love each other, we do make the world a better place, we help each other thrive. Don’t ever underestimate this. You need to know that for me, you are part of Hagar’s well. You are living the words of Unetaneh Tokef. You are lessening the intensity of life’s traumas. You’ve done so by the love you’ve shown the victims of Harvey and Irma. You’ve done so as we gathered in this room in the year that has come to a close to remember our own; you’ve done so by gathering in homes this past year for shivah minyans. Watching you lift people up, comforting each other, being surrounded by you, receiving your embraces and calls and emails asking me how I am, hearing from folks about how supported they have felt by us, I am overwhelmed by the love that permeates this community. You remind me that we’re not alone in the valley of the shadow of death and pain and struggle. And this lessens – even if it is just a bit – the intensity of my own personal struggles, my own personal grief. I’m not alone. I discover my own healing by walking through the valley along with you. Your presence allows me to persevere.
I invite you to join us tomorrow when we will hear from six members of our community as they share their stories of perseverance. What is it that drives them forward. What is it that allows them not only to face the challenges life has thrown them but to face these challenges while building lives of meaning and purpose. Each of our stories, they are different – but each of them contains lessons. Each of them make up part of the well. They have the power to inspire and fill each other with the strength needed to persevere. What’s your story? Tell it to yourself this new year. Figure out what it is that pushes your forward despite the curveballs that life throws at us. Share your story. Listen to each others stories. Step off the moving walkway. Come with us to the well. Pull from it what you need to persevere, to thrive and flourish and to change the world.