this a text version of my sermon from day one of Rosh Hashanah 5777
The young couple, looking forward to their wedding, smiled as they entered my office and settled into their seats across from me. It was a meeting I’ve had hundreds of times over the years, and one I always enjoy. Talking about the wedding, getting to know the bride and groom, and exploring with them at least a bit their hopes and dreams for the life they will make together as husband and wife. In the course of those meetings I always ask the couple about their plans for having a family – how many children might they like to have? When will they start? I know it is a nosy question! But if the rabbi can’t ask that question who can? And the truth is we need more Jews in the world.
But as soon as I broached the topic with this couple, I could tell they were uncomfortable. They looked at each other for a few moments before the young woman said this: “Rabbi, we just don’t know if we want to bring children into this world. It seems like such a dangerous and scary place right now, like it is all headed the wrong way. There is terrorism and climate change, racism and riots in the streets, shootings in schools, how can we bring a child into this kind of world?”
I was a bit taken aback, but I caught myself and I talked with them about it. That we need more Jews in the world. That we need more good people in the world. That we need hope in the world. But as I talked, in the back of my mind I was thinking ‘who can blame them?’ I was sitting with them in the first week of September, coming off one of the most disturbing summers probably any of us can remember. Police were shot in the streets of Dallas and Baton Rouge. There was horrible gun violence in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Refugees from the Syrian civil war wandered through Europe. The terrorist attack in Nice France on Bastille Day. Financial anxiety as the market teetered and tottered back and forth, the unsettling and frankly sometimes bizarre rhetoric of the presidential campaign. There were new reports about climate change and rising seas. It seemed for a while every day the news was worse than that of the day before.
And I also knew that my young couple was not alone in its feelings. We can actually measure these things today, in ways that we never have before. Big data, as they call it, can be assembled by analyzing the millions upon millions of Goggle searches that take place on a daily basis. Over the past 8 years internet search rates for anxiety have gone through the roof. Searches for ‘anxiety at work,’ or ‘anxiety at night’ or ‘anxiety at school’ are the highest they’ve ever been since scientists started tracking such things. So if you feel that sense of unease that my young couple feels, if you are anxious about the world, worried about what is happening around us, then you are in good company, because it seems that almost everyone is experiencing that in one way or another.
Of course we Jews understand ourselves as worrying experts. Who worries better than the Jews? We gave the world Woody Allen and Larry David. It was Woody Allen who once famously said, “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and its all over much too soon!” It is a particularly Jewish joke that the mother who is about to visit sends a telegram that simply reads ‘start worrying details to follow.’ And we are the people who brought the world the phrase ‘oy vey!’ We use the term so often that Penny Wolin, the great Jewish photographer, once remarked that oy is not merely an ordinary word for Jews, but is actually an expression of an entire world view. This certainly was a summer that deserved a lot of ‘oys.’
I think there is a cogent argument to be made that the presidential election process we’ve watched unfold over the last months was a direct reflection of that pervasive sense of unease and anxiety. As Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders rose in the polls many experts saw them as two different sides of the same coin, in both cases attracting groups of people who felt disenfranchised, who felt they did not have a voice in the traditional political system, and who felt afraid about what the future may hold. The general sense of both groups was that the country is heading in the wrong direction, and that radical action needs to be taken in order to set it right.
And we also know that come November 8th, when Americans head to the voting booths to elect a new president, many of us will cast a ballot with great trepidation, regardless of which candidate we vote for. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are the two most unpopular presidential candidates in recent memory, maybe in history, and I know from speaking to many of you that regardless of which person you vote for you may very well feel uncomfortable with the ballot you cast. And so even our presidential election, which is so often filled with hope and expectation for a brighter future, I think will be filled this year with anxiety.
A few of you here today are old enough to remember the ringing phrase from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address in 1933. That also was a dark time for our country, it was the height of the Great Depression, and FDR stood in front of the nation vowing to speak candidly and honestly. What was his memorable phrase? “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” I understand that phrase in two ways: One, fear can paralyze us, fear can keep us from acting when we must act. But I also think it means that fear and anxiety can distort our understanding of things, and prevent us from seeing things as they really are.
This morning’s Torah reading is a perfect illustration of that idea. You remember the story – Sarah, Abraham’s wife, is threatened by the concubine Hagar’s presence in the household. She presses Abraham to send Hagar away, and he relents. Early one morning he takes some simple supplies, a loaf of bread, a single skin of water – he gives them to Hagar and he sends her and their son Ishmael out into the wilderness.
Things unravel quickly. She gets lost, she wanders aimlessly, the water runs out, and Hagar falls into despair. She places her son under a bush and walks away to suffer alone, not wanting to see his pain, wanting only to withdraw from the cruel world she sees all around her. But then the story turns, an angel appears, and Hagar is able to rediscover the strength she needs to carry on. What is striking about the passage is that Hagar’s circumstances don’t change. God does not make a miracle for her, but what God does do is open her eyes. ויפקח א׳׳לוהים את עיניה – God opened her eyes – and then she was able to truly see, and to realize there was a spring of water just a ways away that could sustain her and her son. The well had been there all along, but her fear prevented her from seeing it.
And I am wondering what the fear and anxiety of our time are preventing us from seeing. You remember being a child, and your mother or father turns out the lights at night and leaves your room. All of a sudden any ordinary object – a dresser, a chair, a jacket – could be transformed into a menacing shape. I feel like that is where we are right now. Standing in a dark room. And in that darkness we can lose our way, and in losing our way, lose our understanding of what truly matters most. The values we cherish. The people we love. The expectations we have for ourselves and our lives. And I think, I hope, that Yom Tov is a time to reclaim what truly matters most. To dispel darkness, to open eyes, to see with clarity our lives and our world.
I am sure you are familiar with the so called Miracle on the Hudson, the story of the pilot Chesley Sullenberger, who miraculously managed to land a failing jet plane on the Hudson River, saving the lives of every crew member and passenger. The story is playing in theaters these days in the movie Sully, Tom Hanks playing the no nonsense pilot. Haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard the movie is ‘OK’ but Hanks is terrific. Fundamentally that story is about one person who is able to set aside fear and to see something, to perceive it, to truly understand it – in a way others could not. Everyone else looked at the Hudson and they saw water and a sinking plane. Sully looked at the same river, and he saw a runway. What angel gave him that insight, opened his eyes in that kind of way, we will never know.
But what if an angel were to appear to you and God were to open your eyes during these sacred days? What might you see? Could we recognize the wells that are right beside us? If we did we might take a fresh look at our families and see them as the gift they are. We might reach out to old friends we once laughed and cried with. We might feel compelled to reconnect to a community of faith and service that sustained our people for thousands of years. We could see within ourselves the strength, always there, to overcome disappointment and fear and anxiety, to emerge with new found hope and faith in ourselves, in those we love, in humanity and in God.
The holidays come each year to open our eyes. They remind us of what matters most, they give us an opportunity to reaffirm our very best qualities. The holidays come to help us truly see that there is great light in the world, and enduring hope and kindness and caring in the human heart. May that be our faith and our fate as we together welcome this New Year.