Please read this beautiful sermon, given by Rabbi Michael Simon, family friend and not only my mother’s Rabbi for the last 10 years of her life but also who she referred to as her “5th son”. This sermon gives a wonderful and moving tribute to my Mom. Thank you Michael.
Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Day 1 – Kaveh El Adonai
Over a breakfast with other rabbis last month the subject of our High Holiday sermons came up. Well in the course of that conversation, one of the rabbis, whose wife is going through a serious illness herself, asked the following question.
What can you say to your congregants who have either gone through, or are going through, some pain or hardship in their lives this year? What can you say that can help them deal with their troubles?
Although there are no easy answers to these questions, at least I had a thought. Because it is the exact same subject I had already planned on speaking to you about this morning, on Rosh Hashanah.
You see, in thinking about Judaism’s response to these questions and to life in general, I am reminded of the story of a young American who moved to Israel shortly after the State’s establishment. He applied to have a telephone installed in his home. Three weeks later, he still had not heard from the phone company, so he took a trip to its office.
“When did you apply for the phone?” an official asked.
The American gave the precise date.
“But that’s only a few weeks ago.” The official picked up a stack of much older applications, which had still not been filled.
“There are so many people ahead of you,” he said.
“Does that mean I have no hope?”
The Israeli looked up sternly. “It is forbidden for a Jew to ever say, ‘I have no hope.’ No chance, maybe. But no hope, Never!”
Now you know why the national anthem of the State of Israel is Hatikvah – the Hope!!
But hope, Tikvah, is only part of our response to life’s difficulties. We know that man cannot live by hope alone.
That is why, beginning with the month of Elul, twice each day, in the morning and evening, we add Psalm 27 to our liturgy. Why Psalm 27?
Because that is King David’s story of his own struggles against adversity and hardships. Look at the words David chooses. “Adonai Ori V’yishee,” “The Lord is my light and my help, Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life, Whom shall I dread?”
And then he concludes with the words, “Lulei Heemanti L’rot b’tuv Adonai;” If I have faith to see God’s goodness. “Kaveh el Adonai chazak v’yametz libecha v’kaveh el Adonai.” “Look to the Lord; be strong and of good courage! And look to the Lord!”
Faith, Hope, Strength and Courage! Aren’t these the very qualities we all need to get through life’s ups and downs? Of course they are!
Before FDR famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” King David, as well as other figures from our literature, our history, and our liturgy, remind us that if we place our trust in God, if we have hope and faith, if we have strength and courage, we can face our greatest trials and obstacles, and we can overcome life’s challenges, without giving in to fear or despair.
Think about it. Wasn’t it just last week, wasn’t it this very same message, that helped us get through the potential devastation of Hurricane Irma as it has also done for other disasters we have faced and will unfortunately continue to face?
And you know what else? If you were to take a moment and really think about it, aren’t some of the most inspiring people throughout history, not just King David, looked up to precisely because they exhibited these very same traits; often under the most trying of circumstances?
Can you perhaps think of some of them as you sit here today? People who you have admired over the years, not just for their status or their talents, but because of what they faced and overcame to achieve that status? Helen Keller, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackie Robinson, Elie Wiesel, to name a few? They all had hope and faith. They all exhibited strength and courage to overcome obstacles and succeed.
Here’s one example. In 1986, when the famous Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky, now the head of the Jewish Agency, was finally set free by the Soviet Union, he explained that during his many years of imprisonment in the gulag he had turned to the Book of Psalms, specifically to that final verse of Psalm 27, to help him cope and give him the hope and courage to endure.
Why did Sharansky rely on that line to help him get through? Because it inspired him to not be meek, timid, or subservient. “No matter our circumstances,” Sharansky said, “we are reminded that we can look to God for light and for the courage to face whatever comes our way and resolve to overcome those difficulties.”
When Sharansky was finally freed and arrival in Israel, his friends and admirers carried him to the Kotel in Jerusalem to pray and to celebrate his freedom. Even at that moment, onlookers observed that he was still holding tight to his beloved Book of Psalms.
While we might never be able to eliminate life’s difficulties, while we never know when hardship or sorrow or illness comes upon us, we do have the ability to react to it in a more positive way; by relying on our faith in God, our hope for the future, and our own internal courage and strength.
And it is precisely this message, that needs to resonate and remain with us as we begin this New Year. Because this message is a quintessentially Jewish one. Certainly on an individual level, but yes, even on a societal level as well, we must always believe that things can get better and then do our part to make that so.
And we act with that way because Judaism requires us, asks of us, even demands of us, that if we face life’s problems and overcome them, we then repay God by helping others, and by inspiring others through our own actions, to do so as well.
That is a Jewish life. That is what Psalm 27 teaches us to do.
You know what else? You don’t only have to look for a famous person to draw this inspiration from. That’s because I am sure that each of you sitting here can think of an example from your own lives, someone you know or have known, who inspired you, and who has helped you get through difficult times because of their own faith and hope and courage and strength.
I’ll share one. This past February, Rabbi Amnon Haramati, a High School teacher of mine, passed away. Just so you know, the only difference between Rabbi Haramati and God was that God didn’t think that He was Rabbi Haramati.
But if you looked at him during class, every so often you would see him wince. His eyes would squint ever so slightly. A sour crease would envelope his lips. Sometimes he would rub the side of his head with his fingertips. On the right side, if I remember correctly, was about a one inch square indentation, as if a chisel had been taken to his skull. There were rumors his skull harbored a metal plate, a souvenir of Israel’s War of Independence. But he never spoke about it. We never knew what had happened.
In his short but moving acceptance speech upon receiving the Covenant Award as an outstanding Jewish educator in 1994, he finally told his story.
One day, in the summer of 1948, as a member of the Israel Defense Forces, he was critically wounded near the walls of the Old City. He was brought to the monastery which served as the temporary residence of Hadassah Hospital where he was declared dead on arrival and left in the corridor.
That night a nurse passed by and heard a groan from his bed. She alerted the doctors who rushed him into the operating room. They treated his injuries and successfully revived him. Although he left the operating room breathing on his own he remained in a deep coma. The diagnosis was that if he even emerged from the coma he would be blind the rest of his life.
The following night a nurse wanted to read. So she took a flashlight and chose his bed to sit at because she was sure that she wouldn’t disturb the blind, comatose patient. However, while she was reading, he uttered the Hebrew word “aish,” meaning fire. The nurse thought that maybe this meant that there was some vision and so she called the chief of the eye department, who came, examined him, and determined that there was indeed hope for his eyes. In time, he responded to treatment, came out of the coma, was able to see and eventually left the hospital.
About a year later he was facing a medical board who told him that he was about to be discharged from the Israeli army as a disabled war veteran due to his head wounds. He was asked by the board what were his plans. He answered that he would like to continue his academic studies. The medical team told him don’t even try, you will never succeed.
However he remembered his Talmud teacher who told him a Jew may not despair. Never say there is no hope. And he remembered King David who said, hope, look to God. However just having hope is not easy. There are always difficulties on the way. Therefore King David said, be strong, and be courageous.
By having hope and faith and courage and strength himself, Rabbi Haramati continued his studies, became a revered teacher, and gave hope and inspired others.
As I asked, do you know of people in your own lives, including yourselves maybe, that might have a similar story that has inspired you? I know for certain that many of you do. Rabbi Haramati is certainly one I knew. But let me share with you another story of hope and faith and strength and courage.
It’s the story of a young girl who was born in Amsterdam, Holland. And no, I’m not talking about Anne Frank. Her mother died when she was thirteen, leaving her with her father and brother. But she never despaired. When the Nazis came to power her father, brother and then fiancé were all taken away; to eventually perish. She still did not despair nor give up hope or faith.
She studied to become a nurse. She stood up to the Nazis when they confronted her in the Jewish hospital. And she survived the Holocaust thanks to her faith and the heroic efforts of her future husband and a Christian family who hid her.
When the war was over she found herself pregnant and alone, giving birth and developing a severe illness. But again, she did not despair. Through her faith, hope, strength and courage, Sipora Groen rebuilt her life which included five children, 12 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren before passing away this past April at the age of 95.
I want to share with you something that Rabbi David Glanzberg-Kranin said at her funeral because it was the perfect description of what I already knew that I would be speaking about today. How to live your life without despair, and with the faith, hope, strength and courage to live that life no matter the circumstances.
“Here’s the important lesson for all of us. There are external forces in our lives that are completely out of our control. You’ve all heard the ancient Jewish teaching: “Stuff happens.” For all of us, stuff will happen that we were not responsible for; there will be circumstances that we did not create. But in case you had any doubt, here is what Sipora’s life reminds us:
We do have control over how we respond to the circumstances of our lives. We can choose love instead of hatred; we can choose laughter instead of bitterness; we can choose strength and resilience rather than giving in to despair; we can choose to continue to learn—even in our 90’s—which is the decade that Sipora read Torah and Haftarah for the first time.
We can choose to speak our minds like Sipora would always do telling Americans how prudish we are–and advocating that both marijuana and prostitution ought to be legalized in this country—as it is in Holland. We can choose to love for every moment we are blessed to live as Sipora’s family will tell you how blessed they were to receive so much of that love.
And we can learn that it is never too late to develop a crush! Sipora really did have a crush on Bill Clinton and she thinks that secretly, he, too, may have had a crush on her.
And we can learn from Sipora to put your actions into deeds. Sipora frequently went around telling her story about surviving the War to both children and to adults—in her heavily Dutch-accented English—often for 45 minutes without a pause—and with nary a peep to be heard in the room as she spoke.
And there is one thing that Sipora would do after every such talk: She would give each person present a hug. In that hug, Sipora would convey something unbelievably profound to people who had often been very wounded by life.
“So have I been wounded,” that hug would convey. And yet life is worth living—and each of us is worthy of love. Sipora Groen gave out literally thousands of these holy hugs over the course of her life.
Talk about faith, hope, strength and courage. Sipora delivered it.”
As if those words from Psalm 27, which we recite during these days of introspection and repentance, didn’t inspire us enough, then let Sipora and others like her, be our role models to always inspire us to remain hopeful, to remain strong, to remain faithful, and to remain courageous no matter what comes our way.
Let us always have faith in both God and our fellow man despite how difficult that faith might be at times. And let us use Rosh Hashanah to rekindle the hope and faith in those in whom we might have lost faith with this past year. And yes, that can include either God or our government and other institutions.
I’m not naïve enough to believe that if you just have hope and faith, all your problems will disappear like magic. And I’m certainly not naïve enough to believe that if you just have hope and faith, you will suddenly be cured of whatever illness afflicts you. We know that life doesn’t work that way.
But I will tell you what I do know, what I do believe, and what I am sure about. That without faith, without hope, without strength, and without courage, we can never, ever, overcome whatever difficulties life throws at us.
And I also know this, and I can say this, because unfortunately there are a number of you sitting in this room who have dealt with unbearable pain in your lives including the loss of children. You are indeed here because you have had the faith, hope, strength and courage to see you through your pain and are an inspiration to all of us.
To ignore or deny the realities of life would be foolish. But to give up and deny yourselves the tremendous goodness and beauty in this world, in our families, in our communities, and in our houses of worship, and the hope, faith, strength and courage we derive from them, would be equally, if not more, foolish.
My answer to the question asked by those rabbis at breakfast a month ago? Kaveh el Adonai Chazak V’yametz Libecha V’Kaveh El Adonai. Even at your lowest moments, never lose faith, never lose hope. Have the strength and courage to carry on.
I’ll conclude with perhaps a modern translation of Psalm 27, from the late, great Jerry Lewis,
When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark
At the end of the storm, there’s a golden sky
And the sweet, silver song of a lark
Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown
Walk on, walk on
With hope in your hearts
And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone
May we all be blessed with a year full of health, happiness, prosperity and peace. May we all be written into the Book of Life.
And may we all live our lives with strength and courage, and with hope and faith in God. Kaveh el Adonai chazak v’yametz libecha v’kaveh el adonai.