Editor’s Note: Rabbi Greenstein originally gave this sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5781 (Sept 2020).
שנה טובה! – Shanah Tovah! A Good and Sweet Year to all, a year of blessings and health to all!
I spoke those words a year ago, as I speak them every year.
I did not imagine at that time that my prayer – our prayers – would be in vain – and on such a global scale!
This year we have undergone a global collapse of our economies and our ways of life. We have watched governments act cautiously or callously on behalf of their populations. We have been avalanched by miserable acts of selfishness and heroic – sometimes tragic – acts of selflessness. We have suffered massive loss of life.
We, who are fortunate enough to be marking this Rosh Ha-Shanah – we fortunate ones – are all bound up – almost literally bound and gagged – with new fears and concerns. Our sadness, discomfort and anxiety – and our exhaustion from carrying these feelings, and the necessary adjustments we make for them – are like nothing we have experienced ever before. We are constrained by unseen forces and unresolved choices.
So, on this Rosh Ha-Shanah we cannot be physically gathered together, neither as a congregation nor as family and friends, in the manner and degree that has always given this holiday much of its special character. We have been missing each other’s presence, each other’s company, for too long, and that loss is felt even more acutely at this time of ingathering.
Thankfully, so much struggle and immense time, effort and creativity has been invested in developing ways to overcome this loss. Tremendous work has been done by our Administrator, Lisa Zelenitz and her assistant, Marita Falconer, and our custodian – Carlos Alegre.
Daunting challenges have been met with great skill and wisdom by our educators – Director Heather Brown and Assistant Director Aylah Winter. Our Rabbinic Intern, Lily Lucey joins with them, and has also heroically and thoughtfully assumed the gigantic burden of coordinating our wonderful holiday programming this year.
The volunteers of Shomrei have been astounding, including our Past President, Sara Ann Erichson, our new President, Miriam Haimes, and all members of our Moving Forward Committee and our Board. None imagined the responsibilities and tasks that would confront them, and they have devoted themselves full-time to meeting this challenge.
In addition, so many Shomrei members and friends have helped in countless ways to hold our community together and to contribute to enhancing our High Holy Day experience.
I have been witness to, and participant in, this effort, and I rejoice in expressing my overwhelming gratitude to everyone, and my deep appreciation for everything they have done, are doing, and are committed to continuing to do.
Yet, if I can hope to contribute, in these holiday talks, to all the achievements that have helped us reach this moment – it is by insisting that our challenges are still largely un-met and our tasks are still largely undefined and as yet to be accomplished.
This is because the dimensions of our present crisis extend far beyond the absolutely important and urgent questions of when we will be able to once more hang out together, pray together, eat together, study together, cry and laugh together.
Naturally, we should seek answers to those questions. But we can choose to contemplate these questions in a broader and deeper way, so as to open the door to contemplating the many other issues that we must confront.
Yes, we have a choice. When we concentrate on our problem of the lack of physical contact, proximity, and interaction with others and sorely feel the painful personal inconvenience and deprivation, we can try to solve that problem in ways that will either mitigate or obviate the problem. And it is good to work on these solutions.
But – what if we saw that we can do more than that? We can choose to not only overcome the problem of absence for ourselves, but also to listen to what this problem is trying to tell us, to feel the underlying roots of this problem.
For if we can feel for those roots, we will come to feel, anew, despite the amazing gifts of technology – how simply and irreplaceably human we are personally, and, moreover, how precious is the human-ness of other human beings.
“But really,” you may be thinking. “Isn’t this just a banal cliché?”
So let’s talk about clichés.
We call something a cliché in two ways: Either we mean that it is an oversimplification that does not really tell the whole truth, or it is an unnecessary repetition of a truth that we know already.
What makes something a cliché is that, whatever its original, small moment of truth, that moment is passed. Whatever illumination that cliché once offered has faded away and is no longer visible.
What redeems a cliché, then, is when it, all of a sudden, at a particular moment, hits home again as being true. What we were so comfortable dismissing or taking for granted suddenly speaks to us again.
Clichés are sleeping repositories of slivers of truth. So they allow us to acknowledge some truths without having to take them too seriously.
Such a cliché is “the precious human-ness of all human beings.”
We have been happy to roll our eyes if we hear anyone sincerely spouting such platitudes. But such a reaction is actually an abject effort at defending ourselves from the commanding call of that simple proposition.
Like a sleeping beauty, the cliché of human preciousness has been awaiting its moment of awakening. But this will not be accomplished by a princely kiss. Our slumbering consciousness has been too deeply drugged by apathy, privilege and pseudo-sophistication.
Yet, perhaps the specter of death created by the confluence of the pandemic with this season of the Days of Awe can be that particular moment that can bring the cliché back to life and redeem it. For our own redemption hangs in the balance.
Before we wave away the cliché of human preciousness, let’s recognize our present moment. What we have learned from this pandemic is just how far we have gone toward denying, degrading, devaluing and destroying the preciousness of the human being.
It is precisely during this time of pandemic – a crisis that theoretically threatens everyone – that we have begun to discern that, in reality, the viral effects do, indeed, fall on some people more heavily and tragically than on others.
The toll of sickness, pain, dislocation and death is borne disproportionately among poor people, people of color, people without adequate health coverage, and without social connections. And this is not because of features of the virus or because of life choices of the sufferers. It is because of our choices as a society – over generations, year after year.
So, what about this New Year? When we wish each other a Shanah Tovah – a Good Year, a Year in which we are inscribed for Health, Peace and Life – how shall we mean it?
We have been missing each other’s company. Let’s not miss the deeper meaning of what that feeling signifies.
The preciousness of each and every human being – shall we continue to dismiss it as a pious cliché?
Or shall we, with courage and wisdom, change our paths, as individuals and as a society, so that the preciousness of the human being guides our actions and policies, our thoughts and choices?
I close with a prayer, created by the Ursuline Sisters of Louisville, Kentucky, a prayer I have shared with Shomrei in print and during our Sharing Shabbat moments –
May we who are inconvenienced
remember those whose lives are at stake.
May we who have no risk factors
Remember those most vulnerable.
May we who have the luxury of working from home
Remember those who must choose
Between preserving their health or making their rent.
May we who have the flexibility to care for
Our children when their schools close
Remember those who have no options.
May we who have to cancel our trips
Remember those who have no safe place to go.
May we who are losing our margin money
In the tumult of the economic market
Remember those who have no margin at all.
May we who settle in for the quarantine at home
Remember those who have no home.
As fear grips our country
Let us choose love.
During this time when we cannot physically
Wrap our arms around each other,
Let us yet find ways to be the loving embrace
Of God to our neighbor.
שנה טובה! – Shanah Tovah!
Image: “Choose your Path, is it Light? (Abandoned Tram end station Tackheide, Krefeld)” by Musicaloris is licensed under CC BY 2.0