A text version of my sermon from Rosh Hashanah day 2 –
I will confess something this morning, being our season of confession, which is that I am feeling a bit nervous. Not about this morning’s service, which after all is almost over. Not about this sermon, which will also be over in a few minutes. But instead, about tomorrow morning, when many of you won’t be here. Because tomorrow morning, Shabbat Shuvah, I will celebrate the 40th anniversary of my bar mitzvah. And some weeks ago I agreed, in honor of this occasion, to chant both the haftara and the maftir tomorrow. But I’ve been so busy, I haven’t practiced! So I feel a bit like a bar mitzvah bachor, and all afternoon I’ll be practicing my maftir!
What is helping me is that I know I’ll be in good company. Not only with all of the bar and bat mitzvah boys and girls who will be celebrating with their families in this new year, but also with all of the congregants who will come to the Torah in the coming months to thank God for reaching a milestone day their lives. You may know the baseball expression ‘hitting for the cycle’ – what does it mean? Right! And there are Shabbat mornings where we have the shul equivalent of that here at Beth El – a baby naming and an auffruff, a 50th wedding anniversary and a 90th birthday, all in one morning. People come to the Torah to celebrate those moments because they want to connect that important day in their lives with something that is sacred, and they also want to thank God for that gift of time. Over the years I have been privileged to stand with many couples at the Torah as they expressed the gratitude they felt for the time they had shared and they life they had made.
I don’t know how many couples I’ve shared that anniversary moment with, at this point probably a couple of hundred or more. But there are two such moments particularly that stand out in my mind. The first was many years ago, when Sam and Vera Singer came to the Torah on the occasion of their 60th wedding anniversary. Sam was a wonderful guy, a bit of a character, and as I was talking to him and to Vera, and saying ‘what a wonderful thing,’ and ‘mazaltov,’ and ’60 years of marriage!’ with a twinkle in his eye Sam leaned over to me – in front of the entire congregation – with his mouth near the microphone – and said ‘rabbi, it seems like longer.’ I will always remember that!
And the second moment, just a few weeks ago, in the Gorn Chapel, when Lucille and Nathan Goldberg came to the Torah to celebrate their 76th wedding anniversary. I did not misstate that number – they’ve been married for 76 years. That is a rare thing. It is a wedding anniversary I will probably never see again in my rabbinate. There are a series of things that have to happen for a couple to be married 76 years. Obviously they need to be blessed with good health, and to live well into their 90s. I think a devoted, caring, and loving family around them makes a huge difference as well. Some luck along the way is a necessity. And of course they have to have a love, a respect, and a level of caring that nourishes and sustains their relationship for decade after decade. But they need one other thing, that happens at the very beginning of their relationship – and that is a leap of faith. Because every anniversary – whether it is the first or the 76th – begins with a leap of faith.
Certainly that is true for couples. Every couple faces an unknown future when they stand under the huppah. Their hope and expectation is that they will find all of the good things that life has to offer – health, a family, financial success, and many years to be together. But the truth is they don’t know what their future will hold. Almost half of the couples that marry today will get divorced, and every couple will face significant challenges in the course of their journey together. And yet they take the chance, and they make that leap.
That was certainly the case for Gertrude Mokotoff and Alvin Mann. Like many couples, they were introduced by a mutual friend. They took a liking to each other, had a first date, and quickly became an item. It took a few years – and it was Gert Mokotoff who had to pop the question – but they were finally married this summer in upstate New York. Alvin is 94. And he married an older woman – Gert is 98. And that folks is quite a leap of faith. At their wedding celebration Alvin told the story of their first sleep over. This is the way he described it: “We had spent the whole day together, and at night, I set up the bedroom for her, and I was going to be in the next room. She gets into the bed, and I say good night and start walking out, and she says, ‘Where are you going?’” God willing, in the summer of 2018 Alvin and Gert will celebrate their first anniversary. But that never would have happened if not for the leap of faith they took, that they could make a future together as husband and wife.
Of course the same is true for institutions, and even nations. You may or may not know that Beth El and the State of Israel share the same birth year – 1948. That means, if my math is correct (which it rarely is) that the modern Jewish homeland will turn 70 this spring. And this year, 5778, is the 70th time our congregation has gathered together to welcome in a new year. That does not quite match Nathan and Lucille’s 76th anniversary, but it is striking nonetheless. And think for a moment of the leaps of faith required for those two 70th anniversaries to come to pass.
This May it will be 70 years since the founders of Israel gathered with David Ben Gurion in Independence Hall in Tel Aviv. At 4 o’clock in the afternoon of the 14th of that month Ben Gurion banged his gavel on the table, but before order could even be established the 250 assembled guests rose to their feet and spontaneously burst out into an emotional singing of Hatikvah. When things quieted down Ben Gurion read, live on the Israeli radio station Kol Yisrael, Israel’s Declaration of Independence. When he finished the last words, Rabbi Yehuda Fishman came to the mic, and recited the שהחיינו blessing. It was a powerful moment, full of emotion and hope, but who could have known then that in just 70 years Israel would become one of the greatest nations in the entire world?
And who could have known, 70 years ago, when a small group of 8 families came together with the goal of creating a congregation where progressive Jewish values would be embraced, where men and women would sit together, where a vibrant Judaism for the 20th century and beyond would be lived – who could have known then where the congregation’s journey would take it? Who could have known that in 70 years Beth El would become one of the largest and most respected synagogues in the United States, with 1700 families, open 365 days a year, helping thousands and thousands of Jews to feel closer to their heritage, tradition, and God?
Who could have known? With the possible exception of God Godself, no one. And yet 70 years ago Ben Gurion stood and declared Israel to be an independent nation. And 70 years ago our founders made a pact that they would do their best to bring a new congregational community into being. 76 years ago Lucille and Nathan left a huppah to walk out together into the future. One month ago Gert Mokotoff and Alvin Mann did the same.
There is even a rabbinic tradition that it was the leap of faith of one individual that enabled the Jewish people to become a nation. You all know the story – fleeing Egypt, the Israelites are trapped at the edge of the sea with the Egyptian army closing in behind them. Moses pleads to God, but God says to Moses ‘you have to do something.’ And the waters don’t move, and the army is getting closer and closer.
But the Sages teach that one individual – Nachshon – begins to walk forward into the water. And all of Israel, even Moses, watches him. And the water reaches his waste. And then his chest. And then his neck. And he keeps walking forward. And he stretches his head up, to catch the last gasps of air before the waters close over his head, and just at that moment the sea begins to part. And then one Israelite, and then another, and another, and another, begin to follow Nachshon, and when they together emerge on the far shore, they have become Am Israel, the Jewish people.
It all began with a leap of faith. But if you think about it, so does every human undertaking. We have limited and imperfect knowledge of the road we travel and the journey we are on. It is not just Nachshon, or Ben Gurion, or the Singers or the Goldbergs, or even Gert Mokotoff and Alvin Mann. Each one of us begins a day not knowing what it will hold. Each one of us begins a new year wondering where it will take us. May God grant us the faith we need to leap forward into this new year with hope and courage and trust, that our days will be full, our journey fulfilling, and our lives a blessing.
May that be God’s will – כן יהי רצון