Suspended in a Miracle
Yom Kippur Day 5782/2021
I stand here today thinking back over almost half a century of High Holy Days as a rabbi.
In Rabbinical school I had a few student pulpits for the High Holy Days. One of my most memorable was 1976 – the year I was studying at Neve Schechter in Jerusalem as part of my rabbinic preparation and I took a student pulpit at an English speaking boarding school located at S’de Boker in the Negev – south of Beer Sheva. We took a hike on Rosh Hashanah afternoon and we stood in the middle of the desert, not far from where Abraham probably stood and we sounded the shofar, in a setting that was probably not far different from the one Abraham stood in 4000 years earlier. It is a long way from there to here – in so many ways.
My first High Holy Days as a rabbi was in Southfield Michigan – I was the Assistant Rabbi to Rabbi Irwin Groner z”l and I found myself, a newbie, speaking in one of the most prominent synagogues in the country – in an expanded sanctuary that was filled with 4500 people.
After Michigan I spent 13 years delivering sermons from the pulpit of Beth Judah in Ventnor New Jersey – with wonderful memories of a special community in which Edy and I raised our children, made many good friends and I developed as a rabbi. Memories of Tashlich Services where we cast our sins into the Atlantic Ocean while standing on the beach are one memory from those wonderful years.
For the last 28 years I have stood right here, on this pulpit, with the privilege of being the rabbi to this remarkable and respected congregation. Who woulda thunk that the smallest in-person attendance I would ever address from a pulpit in almost 50 years would be for my very last High Holy Day sermon?
Although I am reminded of a piece of advice from my Rabbi – Fishel Goldfeder z”l (when you get to my age you find that too many of the people who were instrumental in your development now have z”l after their names. The world becomes a lonelier place as you age – or maybe more accurately you keep the company of memories as much as moments) Rabbi Goldfeder cautioned me that it is tempting for a rabbi to focus on numbers. How many people are members of your shul? How many people were in shul last shabbat? How many at a wedding or a funeral? (My kids used to like to joke – if I came home from shul and said – “we had a large Bar Mitzvah this morning..” They would laugh and ask – “How big was he?”) Rabbi Goldfeder cautioned: “there is a temptation to focus on the numbers but remember as a rabbi, the only important number is 1. We deal in 1’s and 2’s. The only number you need to know is 1 – the person that is standing before you at that moment – everything begins and ends with them. Be kind to that one person, teach that one person, help that one person, comfort that one person – and you will have done your job.”
I hope during these past 27 years, you have been that one person. That I have been there for you. I believe that many times I have, but I also know that many times I have not – -on this day of forgiveness I ask your forgiveness for the times I have let you down, for the moments when you needed me and I was not there. Please forgive me.
So the fact that today our sanctuary is not packed to overflowing as it was so many times – the fact that there are not 4500 people here as there were at my very first sermon – is merely an exclamation point to what the rabbinate is really about – it is about me and you – about the relationship we had, the torah we learned together, the laughter we shared, the tears we cried together. It was the countless times I told you you would do fine on your Bar Mitzvah as you nervously stepped to this bema; it was about a look we exchanged as you were about to walk your daughter down the aisle, it was the hug we shared as you departed from your mother’s graveside and I wanted you to know it would be ok – never the same – but ok.
Next year God willing, for the very first time in 28 years a new rabbi will stand where I now stand. I hope the sanctuary will once again be filled to overflowing – I hope you will stay with this wonderful congregation as it moves forward into this new and exciting chapter in your history. I hope you will give him/her a chance -to hug you and to cry and laugh with you – to share the special moments that are yet to come. I hope you will be as kind to him/her as you have been to me. Well, maybe a little kinder.
What will I miss the most when I am no longer your rabbi? Not the sanctuary filled to overflowing. Certainly not the 2 AM phone calls resulting in a rush to the hospital or the request to please come over my father is dying. Not the endless meetings – no I won’t miss the meetings. What I will miss most are the hugs.
On Rosh Hashanah I stood before you and tried to convince you that all you need is love, that Judaism begins and ends with love. On Rosh Hashanah I attempted to prove that thesis by sharing a few foundational texts from our tradition that teach just that: all you need is love. Today I will try and make it even simpler – because love can so often be so complicated – today my message is: all we really need is a hug.
I never realized how important hugs were until this past year when Covid forced us apart, when I had to go a whole year without your hugs. How wonderful this summer was — what a joyous celebration to be able to hug – again. And then to have the rug pulled out from under us – we thought that the nightmare was behind us. And yet here we are with our masks, and our obligatory distance and our inability to hug.
For this, my final High Holy Day sermon I wish to speak to you about the importance of hugs. And about the ultimate hug — the one from God that awaits us all.
I think I need to begin with a disclaimer. I know that hugging has become much more complicated in 2021. The irony is not lost on me that I am speaking on the importance of hugs in the wake of the Andrew Cuomo fiasco. But there are hugs and there are hugs. There is a difference between being friendly and assaultive. The problem is that the difference is not only in the intention of the hugger but in the perception of the huggee – the one receiving the hug. Sadly I am no longer a hug initiator the way I used to be. I am reluctant to initiate a hug out of concern that it will be misperceived – and if I feel the need, I now ask first – “can I give you a hug?”
The hugs I miss the most are the ones with your children. The shul should be a place where your kids are loved and where the rabbi is someone who loves them. I think it is still possible to be that and show that — it is just a lot harder without the hugs. I remember once sitting on the floor of the bema in the chapel with our preschoolers – and one of our 3 year olds leaned over and gave me a big hug – so I hugged them back. It was a sweet moment. One of the teachers cautioned me that I need to be careful in hugging a three year old – my response was: “she started it!”
Go into the preemie ward of any hospital today and you will find a rocking chair. You will find nurses and volunteers who come just to spend time holding these babies as they literally fight for life. The incubator is critical for their survival – but so are the hugs. Studies show that infants raised in orphanages in Romania in the 80’s who suffered from the lack of physical contact – suffered terribly well into their lives.
We all need to be hugged — and although I acknowledge that this has become much more difficult in our contemporary world -I also believe that this is a complication at a time when we need these hugs more than ever.
Emile Durkheim the pioneering sociologist coined a term in the early 20th century to describe the feeling you get being in a group of people who care for you — and show that care and love. He called it: collective effervescence. Collective effervescence is the synchrony you feel when you connect with others in a shared moment – when you are with strangers on a dance floor, colleagues in a brainstorming session, teammates at a little league game or friends and loved ones at a Bar or Bat Mitzvah Service or Wedding, or yes, even a funeral. Collective effervescence is what we feel when we gather as a community to observe a sacred day — like today — this, what you are feeling right now.
This is what Covid stole from us, these moments of collective effervescence. Like the Delta Variant, emotions are also contagious. They spread from person to person. We gather in joy and feel the joy that surrounds us – we sit alone and there is a dark cloud that settles over our head. As we isolate ourselves to protect us from catching one infection, we realize we have also deprived us from catching the other one – the joy, and the love that comes in being close with others who care. During the darkest days of this plague – I am so proud of the online community we created here at Temple Beth Sholom. Hundreds of you joined us for a Friday Night Service or a Shabbat morning Bat Mitzvah – or now for these High Holy Day Services.
Together we create a community as best we can. We learned that it was possible — not easy, certainly not the same – but possible to hug remotely. I have done too many funerals this past year — and too many of them died as a result of Covid. Not all of them died of the disease itself — some of them died from loneliness and isolation. They could not survive without the hugs. It is called: “touch hunger.” Just like regular hunger — touch hunger serves as an alert that something important is missing – in this case the sense of security, intimacy and care that comes with a hug. I recently visited one of our senior members. She introduced me to her robotic dog that her children gave her – she laughed as she told me – “I know it is just a toy — but still I talk to him and hug him – and it is nice to have him around.” I completely understand.
Over the past year — we have all had to learn the importance of masks and safe distancing. Soon, when this terrible plague passes we will need to re-learn the art of social closeness, the art of safe hugging, what David Brooks calls: “aggressive friendship.”
The Declaration of Independence promised us certain inalienable rights – the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If we learned anything from this terrible year – it is that we need not only a Declaration of Independence — but a Declaration of Interdependence –
This is why it hurts me so much when someone says they refuse to get the vaccine — they tell me it is about their right to independence, their right to freedom. I got my vaccine shots – to protect you as much as to protect me. What good will my survival be if you won’t be there to share tomorrow with me? The sooner everyone gets the shot — the sooner we can hug. Get the shot!
Let’s learn a little torah. The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed 2000 years ago. But its memory is a vital and vibrant part of Judaism even today. There are many customs, some of them you are familiar with – that are done zecher l’mikdash – as a reminder of that Temple. The glass we break at the end of a wedding – -one of the most widely recognized Jewish customs – why is it done? It is a fulfilment of an ancient promise – a’aleh et yerushalayim al rosh simchati…” to place the memory of a Temple destroyed and a people exiled, above our chiefest joy.
The Talmud spends pages upon pages describing the Service in that Temple – and in describing the dimensions and details of the Temple itself. One of my favorite details of this ancient and sacred Temple was a description of the Keruvim. What were the Keruvim? Well, you may know more about them than you think. Our Christain friends call them Cherubim. They have been depicted in Renaissance paintings as chubby little children with wings. The movie Raiders of the Lost Ark – tried its hand at a poor representation of these Keruvim that were made of gold and sat in the Temple over the Holy Ark. Biblical descriptions sometimes depict them as lions or bulls with wings and human faces. Last night I quoted the author son of one dear family friend, so today let me quote the author daughter of another dear family friend -Ilana Kurshan. Her book “If All The Seas Were Ink” is also worth adding to your reading list. But I learned this not from Ilana’s book but from the d’var torah she gave at her wedding in which she taught some of the mystical discussions surrounding the Keruvim. Our religious texts insist Keruvim aynenu min hamidah… that they took up no physical space, they existed in spiritual space only. Another beautiful reference in the Talmud – echoing this – says that these Keruvim rather than existing in space were “suspended in a miracle.”
But the one part of the Keruvim I wish to focus on with you this morning is their wings. According to the Talmud their wingspan was the entire width of the massive Temple. And then the Talmud asks (Baba Batra 98): Keruvim, keytzad heym omdim – how were they standing, how were they positioned? Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Elazar disagreed on this matter. One said they were facing toward each other – and the other insisted they faced outward with their backs to each other. Now the Talmud never likes disputes and always tries to resolve them. So how did they resolve this one? Which way were the Keruvim facing? You are going to love this. According to the Talmud: When the Jewish people followed God’s will and behaved according to God’s direction – the Keruvim faced each other, and when the people betrayed God and did not behave the way they should – the keruvim faced outwards. Rabbi Kattina said: “Whenever Yisrael came up to the Temple for the Festival, the curtain of the Beit Hamikdash would be removed and the Keruvim would be shown to them.” In other words — as part of the ancient pilgrimage festivals when Jews made their way to Jerusalem – for a brief moment – the curtain was pulled back and we could catch a glimpse of the magnificent Keruvim – and if they were hugging – if they were intertwined with each other it became an acknowledgement that our behavior had found favor before God, that we were living our lives the way God wanted us to live.
What a remarkable teaching. I hope you will remember the Keruvim. When they, and we, embrace – it is very good. When we turn away from each other – it is very bad.
In a few moments we will stand to recite the Yizkor Service – we gather on this sacred day to remember those who gave us life – those who lived and died and like the Keruvim so long ago are now suspended in a miracle. They no longer live in space but in our hearts and they occupy a spiritual not a physical realm. Like the Keruvim of old – we can choose to face them and embrace them – or turn our backs on them and ignore them. We have come here today to hug them, and embrace the love with which we were gifted and promise to pay it forward to yet another generation. And the fact that we can no longer physically touch them – does not diminish the power of the love we feel one bit.
Next week we will read the final verses of the Torah – we will complete the cycle of reading that has occupied us for the past twelve months — and of course on Simchat Torah begin it all over again. But in the final verses of V’zot habracha- the Torah tells us of the death of Moses. The midrash describes it as a “beautiful death”: “So Moses, the servant of the Eternal, died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of the Eternal.” The Hebrew reads, al pi Adonai, “at the command of God — but literally those words – al pi – mean: by the mouth of God.” The rabbis understood this to mean – that God took Moses with a kiss.
Apparently God also believes that hugs are important – that God’s ultimate gift is to end our life with a divine embrace – in a moment of exquisite love.
In the Yizkor service we will rise – and the cantor will chant the El Maley prayer –
El maley rachamim, — God who is so full of love and mercy – shochayn bam’romim, – God who dwells on high – who exists not in space but in time – ham-tzay m’nucha n’chona tachat kanfay Hash’china…,
“God we beseech you – take our loved one in one final embrace of love to dwell with You in time – forever. Protect their soul forever, and now, merge their soul with eternal life.”
These are the loving words we will stand and recite in just a few moments – as we honor the memory of those we loved and those who loved us – and are no longer living, those we so much want to hug — but cannot, not anymore.
What I am trying to say — is that Covid, the Torah, Jewish tradition and Yizkor — all come to teach us the same thing: You don’t have to touch someone to hug them; you don’t have to be with them to feel their love -Relationships are forever. That at its most basic – relationships like the keruvim of old, exist not in space, but in time. The time we spend with those we love — the time you and I have spent together – they too are “suspended in a miracle. Therefore it is ok — to let go. The love won’t be lost, it can’t be lost.
Life is finite – our arms can only hold so much. Like a kid in a candy shop – if you want more you have to let go of some of the things you are holding.
Forrest Gump’s mama told him that life was like a box of chocolates. I am here to tell you that life is like a bag of coffee. When you get a fresh new bag – you scoop out the spoonfuls with abandon. If a few grains drop off — no loss — there is so much more left in the bag. But then as you get toward the bottom, you start measuring spoonfuls with much greater care, each grain becomes precious because there are so few left.
Kate Bowler writes, “ As we get older – years dwindle into months, months into days and we begin to count them – each and every one of them – as a gift to be treasured and not squandered. “All our dreams, friendships, petty fights, vacations and bedtimes with children in dinosaur pajamas – they all have to be squeezed into a finite dwindling number of hours, minutes and seconds. There is no time left to waste.”
People ask me what I will be doing after I retire. Am I worried that I will be bored? No, I am not worried. For I have so much yet to do – and so little time left to do it. People ask me – how will I spend my time? Is there a list of books I want to read? Movies I want to watch? Will I skydive or learn to knit? Garden? Is there some other new skill I want to learn?
I really don’t know what I will be doing.
But, please don’t give me one of those “1,000 Places To See Before You Die” books for my retirement. You see, I have no interest in bucket lists. Bucket lists are the antithesis of Yizkor.
To make such a list means to miss the point of Yizkor – that life’s wide road narrows to a dot on the horizon and then disappears from sight. To ask: “what do you want to do before you die, writes Kate Bowler, “disguises a dark question as a challenge. The problem with bucket lists is that they miss the point entirely. “Instead of helping us grapple with our finitude, they approximate infinity. They imply that with unlimited time and resources, we can do anything, be anyone. We can become more adventurous by jumping out of airplanes, more traveled by visiting every continent, more cultured by reading the most famous books of all time. With the right list we will never starve with the hunger of want. What strange math – these lists. As Kohelet, as Ecclesiastes says: Hakol Havel- In the end — all of our accomplishments are ridiculous, all of our striving is unnecessary. “Our lives are unfinished and unfinishable. We do too much, never enough and are done before we’ve even started.”
Just ask Moshe Rabeynu for whom it was clearly too soon. Just ask anyone — who now prepares to stand for Yizkor and recalls a loved one who passed “too soon.” It is always, “too soon.” They all died – with so many things yet to do, so many hugs yet to give.
And there you stand, clutching your to-do lists and not realizing that the only moment you can embrace is this one, right now. And in a moment – -you will have to let this one go as well.
I would like to close – not with a sacred text from our tradition – but a poem written by the poet Mary Oliver who passed away just a couple of years ago – it is entitled: “The Summer Day.”
“Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean–
the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.”
And then – Mary Oliver concludes:
“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it your plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?”
So what will I be doing when I retire? With my one wild and precious life? I hope to be sitting on my front porch – maybe waiting for you to visit. And if you do, I look forward to embracing you, hugging you – sharing one more exquisite moment of love – as much as I can – for as long as I can.
And in that moment – the one when we embrace each other, I believe that the Keruvim – the ones that exist not in space but in time, the ones who like us are “suspended in a miracle” – they will turn toward each other as well – and they too will embrace and God will smile – to know we finally learned how to love.