This a text version of my sermon from Rosh Hashanah day 1:
It all happened in the span of eight days. Our oldest, Tali, moved to New York, where she is living on the Upper West Side and working – her first real job! That was a Sunday. Then on Thursday our son Josh climbed in the car and drove off to Poughkeepsie NY for his senior year of college. And then on Sunday – exactly one week after Tali left – we dropped our youngest, Merav, off at college – also in Manhattan – for her freshman year. And at the end of that tumultuous one week span, filled with packing, the purchasing of last minute supplies, two drives to New York and back, and saying goodbye to three children – Becky and I were officially empty nesters.
Now everyone has been saying to us ‘don’t worry, they’ll be back before you know it!,’ and common wisdom today is that your children will return after college, living for some extended period of time in their old bedrooms, thinking about their next steps and of course eating all of the food in your refrigerator. But the truth is you never know. Young people today in their 20s and early 30s change jobs and move to different cities at an unprecedented rate. And our challenge, more and more, as their parents and grandparents, will be how can we stay in touch with them, how can we continue to be a part of their lives, to stay close, even when there might be many miles between us?
One obvious answer to that question of course is modern technology. It is astonishing that we live in a time when you can pick up your phone, call a friend or child or grandchild, and have a face to face conversation with them. So we can – and often do – have contact with those we care about on a daily basis. But a relationship is not only about quantity. It is not measured in the number of texts sent or phone calls placed, or emails exchanged. Instead, a relationship is about quality – is there true caring and support? Honesty? Loyalty? Love? That doesn’t come from frequency of interaction.
The truth is there are many kinds of distance that develop in relationships. There is of course physical distance – your child is in New York or California. But there is also what I would call ‘soul’ distance, spiritual distance, emotional distance. And as we all know, you can be in the same town as someone, seeing them all the time – you can even be in the same home as someone – and the distance between you and that person can be vast. In some ways much greater than any distance that can be measured in miles.
That may be why the tradition asks us to read the stories of Abraham and Sarah and their household on Rosh Hashanah. We have become so accustomed to living in large homes, but imagine for a moment Abraham and Sarah’s camp. Even though the Torah tells us they were wealthy by the standards of their day, they all lived together in a small space, a couple of tents – one for the women, one for the men – separated by a few yards, and probably no larger than a couple of hundred square feet. It would be hard to put people in closer physical proximity.
And yet the emotional distance – the soul distance – between the people who lived in that small space was profound. Hagar and Sarah’s relationship was filled with distrust and jealousy, and Sarah treated Hagar with cruelty. Abraham was no help, in fact he struggled terribly in his relationships with the people closest to him. He was insensitive and a poor communicator, and had almost no understanding of how others felt. Close readers of the text have long noticed that after tomorrow’s Torah reading, the famous binding of Isaac story, there is a total breakdown in family communication. Abraham and Sarah never speak again. Abraham and Hagar also never speak again. Even Abraham and his son Isaac never speak again. And, perhaps most telling, Abraham and God never again speak.
I suspect more than a few of us who have come to pray this morning can relate to that story and those characters. Perhaps there is a Hagar sitting here today, who feels abandoned by the person most important to her in her life. Perhaps there is an Abraham, who has struggled throughout the year to do right by the people he loves, but knows in his heart of hearts he has failed. Perhaps there is an Isaac or Ishmael, brothers, but rivals nevertheless, confused and hurt by something they’ve done to one another, or a parent has done to them. And before you even know it there is a distancing that grows and grows. A month goes by, or a year, or a decade. And you begin to wonder if you can ever be close again. Or if you ever really were.
The pain in Abraham’s family lingered for a long time. As we read this morning Hagar was expelled from the family home. Not long afterwards Sarah died without any of these issues being resolved. Both of Abraham’s sons, Isaac and Ishmael, moved away from their father to make their lives in other places. Soul distance. I imagine Abraham at that time deeply bitter, angry with God, and bereft of the people most important to him in his life.
He works at it, old Abraham. He lives for 35 more years, and never gives up. He remarries, has more children, even seems to repair his relationships with Isaac and Ishmael, who do come together to bury their father Abraham when he dies. The question is do those late successes in Abraham’s life make up for the earlier hurts, disappointments, and failures? In some ways it reminds me of a baseball team that’s had a lousy season, and in September wins a bunch of ball games. Think of all the years Abraham wasted, all the time he lost with his sons when they were growing up, the bitter feelings he created with Hagar, the distant relationship he had with his own wife Sarah year after year. Sometimes he was around, but just as often he was not, and what he lost when he was not could never be regained. You cannot get back the time.
I can tell you it all comes out in the end. I know within five minutes of sitting down with a family to prepare for a funeral how they felt about the person they’ve lost. And when they are talking about someone they loved, respected, and cherished they will almost always say, and it is meant as the highest form of praise – “He was always there for me. You could always count on her – every time.” In many ways our relationships are about consistency. About showing up every time, not every once in a while. About loyalty and self sacrifice, about the people you love knowing they can count on you, every single time.
Maybe that is the lesson to be learned from Abraham and Sarah’s story, and maybe that is the reason our Sages chose it for Rosh Hashanah day. After all, in an hour and a half we’ll all be sitting down with our families having lunch together. And after you talk about the rabbi’s sermon, you look around that table, and you say, ‘these are the people I share my life with.’ And Abraham and Sarah’s story reminds us of how important it is do to right by those people. Not every once in a while, but everyday. Because if we are able to do it, to be there again and again, day in and day out, year after year, then one day when our family sits down with a rabbi to prepare for our funeral they’ll know – and so will the rabbi! – that together we were able to build something true and pure and sacred in our lives. That is what Abraham and Sarah were not able to do. That is what I hope and pray we can do better. And Rosh Hashanah gives us the opportunity to try.
In 1965 my father, a captain in the Army, was sent overseas to Vietnam for a year’s tour of duty. He left behind my mother and me, my mom I guess all of 23 years old, and I had just turned two. My parents were terrified, and they prepared in the best way they could for a year apart from one another. My dad had one additional fear – he was worried that after a year away, his son would not recognize him when he came home. He was going to be 9000 miles away from us, and all he wanted to do was to keep us close.
So he made a conscious decision to do the best he could with a bad situation. He wrote a letter to my mom virtually every day – over 300 of them in the course of that year. He also sent us tapes – made on an old reel to reel tape deck – so that in the days before FaceTime or videos I could hear his voice. On those tapes he would talk to me directly, calling me by name, telling me he loved me and he missed me, and he was going to come home to see me as soon as he could. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on my mom’s lap as she read me those letters, or as we listened to those tapes of my father’s voice, at the small kitchen table in our apartment on Rogene Drive.
Those were relatively small actions, but I can tell you, still to this day, a half century later, they made all the difference in the world. And when my dad finally came home, and we opened the door, I knew two things about the man standing there – I knew he was my dad, and I knew he loved me. That was pretty much all I needed, although it didn’t hurt that he was holding in his hand an Orioles uniform he bought for me, with number 5 on the back – Brooks Robinson. Another act of love. With every letter he wrote, every word he spoke into that tape deck, every little package he sent home, he had managed to keep us close.
If you’ve guessed by this time that my mom and dad have been greater influences on my life than the biblical Abraham and Sarah, you would be %100 correct. So much of who I am comes from their guidance, their wisdom, their values, and the relationship they’ve shared for more than 50 years. That is the way it always is. We are profoundly important to the people with whom we share the journey of our years, just as they are to us. Whether they are a half a world away, or in New York, or right here in Baltimore, whether our children, our spouses, our parents or siblings or grandparents, keeping them close is the most important work that we can do, something that nourishes and sustains who we are, and helps us all to understand who we want to be.
May God help us to do that work well in this new year, diminishing the distances in our lives, and drawing us close to one another, to our tradition, and to God –