Editor’s Note: Rabbinic Intern Lily Lucey originally gave this sermon during the outdoor service on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5782 (Sept 2021).
My mom is amazing in a crisis. God forbid, but hurricane, death, a frightening diagnosis, she’s the person you turn to for the kindest words, for a source of comfort, and the person who can wisely advise because she’s definitely already obsessively done all of the practical research ahead of time, before the crisis ever happened. Or even to have cute little labels on each of the bathroom doors listing which of the many hurricane evacuees who have taken refuge in her home (including the pets) will be assigned to each windowless room if the windows are smashed in the storm. (True story.) Since she is highly empathetic and sensitive to the pain of others, I would never have described her affinity to take care of others in a crisis as something that she enjoyed per se… until I read the book A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit. The book was written pre-Covid-pandemic era (2009), but, aptly, as the 20th anniversary of 9/11 is upon us, she examines the human response to disaster. Solnit describes the shocking discovery that came from studying and observing peoples’ reactions to sudden disasters: that so many people communally experience something joy-like, not in the suffering itself of course, but in the sense of purpose and being present in the moment that comes from the way people come together in a sudden crisis.
Solnit says: “Disasters are, most basically, terrible, tragic, grievous, and no matter what positive side effects and possibilities they produce, they are not to be desired. But by the same measure, those side effects should not be ignored because they arise amid devastation. The desires and possibilities awakened are so powerful they shine even from wreckage, carnage, and ashes. What happens here is relevant elsewhere. And the point is not to welcome disasters. They do not create these gifts, but they are one avenue through which the gifts arrive. Disasters provide an extraordinary window into social desire and possibility, and what manifests there matters elsewhere, in ordinary times and in other extraordinary times.”
I was thinking about our own k’hillah, our congregation, and how we (I included of course) frequently refer to ourselves by our nickname: “Shomrei.” But grammatically, “shomrei” is a Hebrew word in construct state, basically a type of compound word that must have another word attached to it. It implies its own preposition– “of”– and doesn’t technically make sense on its own. When we call ourselves “Shomrei,” we are calling ourselves “the guardians of.” It’s an unfinished thought.
But really, are we living this unfinished type of thought all the time, in a manner of speaking? We go about our daily lives in a construct state without naming what we’re really attached to– what ARE we the guardians of in our lives? What IS most important? Most of the time, we are a compound word without considering the other half. Often not naming that we are connected to something bigger. And that’s probably okay—most of the time we need to do that, now more than ever in pandemic life, each of us really just getting through what we have to do, as best as we can, moment to moment without having energy to think about the big picture most of the time. We’re not even living just one disaster right now, and this is no longer the short-term crisis that we thought it would be a year and a half ago– most of us have now had experiences of multiple challenges stacking up at once, whether it’s a basement flood in a pandemic, parenting struggles in a pandemic, job loss or illness during a pandemic, a Covid exposure causing us to miss something important, which snowballs… you name it, we’ve learned to expect something unexpected to happen and it’s still overwhelming when it does. At times we do stop and consider what is really important in life, and that includes the mundane, by the way, which can also be meaningful in its own way. Sometimes it’s a duality, like in Jewish prayer practice, where we balance BOTH keva, reciting our prayers by rote, and kavanah, reciting with full intention. Meanwhile we can’t stop doing our jobs and worrying about our material possessions altogether, because really we’re doing the best we as humans know how; we put one foot in front of the other (and some days we just can’t even do that). Which is OKAY. Really, really okay. But at the same time, living like this, pre-, during, and God-willing post-pandemic, without recognizing what else we’re connected to can create a sense of loneliness or emptiness. Maybe we know that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves, but we are either too overwhelmed by this thought or too unsure how to tap into it or even just too busy to name it. As Ana Levy-Lyons points out in No Other Gods: The Politics of the Ten Commandments, “The greatest irony is that the postreligious world has not granted us its promised freedom. While it seems like we can now do ‘whatever we want,’ what we want is often invisibly shaped by powers beyond our awareness. There is always something that guides our aspirations– something for which we are willing to sacrifice.”
So as not to let the void be filled by greater void, let’s complete the thought for our community. What is the bigger picture, the other half of our compound word? What ARE we the guardians of? Shomrei… Emunah! Faith.
Faith. It’s a daunting concept, but Jewish faith is not blind faith. We are taught and encouraged to ask questions, to discover our personal theology, to intellectualize. And yet it does require us to consider something bigger than ourselves. It requires vulnerability, because faith is relational. We have faith IN something. And because having faith in something means knowing something is there that perhaps we can’t see or feel at every single moment, having faith requires an overall trusting relationship. We can consider this in multiple types of relationships, whether it’s a person’s relationship to another person, a person’s relationship to the Divine, or a communal relationship (like ours!); in any of those, having an overall trust in the big picture of the relationship is central. In a type of relationship that we’re really committed to (which could be to one’s spouse or partner, to one’s child, to one’s community, or personal connection to God/Divine/Source of Life), we leave space for imperfection, knowing that these imperfections do not necessarily break the relationship. Relationships have highs and lows. We know that sometimes we’re going to make mistakes, say the wrong thing, and that we need to leave space for not feeling fully connected to the relationship at every single moment, but we trust in the long-term big picture of the relationship. As a parent, when I make a parenting mistake, I don’t say, “Oh well I guess that parent/child relationship is over.” I say, “I’m sorry, I made a mistake,” and I know that one moment was just one moment of the long-term big picture of my parent-child relationship.
And when we have this kind of faith in a relationship, any step toward t’shuvah has more weight. We can trust in the authenticity that the person is offering us. An apology for a mistake made is believable. And we probably have quite a bit of t’shuvah to do. Relationships of all kinds have been tested and challenged during this pandemic. Communities have been tested and challenged. So how do we foster trust and faith in our relationships, to each other, to the Divine, and to our community?
For one thing, what if we just remember that we all deserve the benefit of the doubt? Debra chanted so beautifully for us today the prayer of Hannah. When Hannah prays with just her lips moving, the high priest Eli assumes that she’s drunk. Turns out, she’s praying, an authentic prayer from her heart, which becomes part of the rabbinic basis for silent prayer and an inspiration to us for continued authenticity in our relationship to our personal prayer life. Our texts, even just the High Holiday texts alone, are full of examples of situations that could have been handled better by assuming good intentions first. In communities we so often don’t assume good intentions from each other. What if we built communities by genuinely having faith in one another?
When we see people doing good things, we often hear expressions such as, “My faith in humanity has been ‘restored.’” Why are we sitting here waiting for someone to “restore” our faith in humanity? Why are we waiting for signs to come from somewhere out there in order to GIVE us faith? As Solnit pointed out, the type of good intention and desire for meaning and purpose and community often brought out by sudden disaster are hovering here inside of us all of the time. So what can we tap into that would allow us to have that kind of faith without needing it to be constantly “restored”?
Well, what if the Emunah is in us all the time? It’s in our relationships. It’s in our community. It’s not something we need to sit around waiting for, but something that we nurture without waiting for anything from outside of us to bring it about. Linguistically, “emunah” is related to the word “amen!” What is the power of an “amen”? When we say “amen” we’re saying, “I believe in what you said.” I have faith in what you said. It’s relational, like emunah, and strengthens our relationships. And look, it feels good! When we have a whole congregation singing, “a-a-men” together, we have the potential to fill ourselves up with that sense of community that came from right here inside of us.
As we embark on a new year as a community, may we find that source of emunah that we seek right here within ourselves and in each other, remembering to assume the best intentions. Remembering that we can nurture the emunah rather than waiting for someone to restore it for us. And may we build each other up through as many “amens” as we can muster for each other, have faith in each other’s journeys, and have faith that we’re each doing the best that we can do. And because WE are the guardians of Emunah, let us say…. AMEN!
Latest posts by Lily Lucey (see all)
- Open Hearts: Yom Kippur Sermon by Lily Lucey (5782/2021) - Fri, Sep 17, 2021
- Doing One Good Thing: Rosh Hashanah Day 2 Sermon by Lily Lucey (5782/2021) - Thu, Sep 9, 2021
- Emunah/Amen: Rosh Hashanah Day 1 Sermon by Lily Lucey (5782/2021) - Thu, Sep 9, 2021