Monday, September 14, 2015

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5776 - Blessed is the Knower of Secrets

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 - September 14, 2015
Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler, Congregation Am Echod in Lindenhurst

I’ve always loved the Torah and Haftorah readings selected by the rabbis to be read on Rosh Hashanah.  I love them because in so many ways they’re unexpected:
Rosh Hashanah is one of the days of the year when the most people come to synagogue and hear the Torah and Haftorahs read aloud.  And so you might expect that the rabbis would have chosen something dramatic and extraordinary like receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, or a list of the very particular laws that make up what is known as the Holiness Code, or even the story of the Creation of the World in the beginning of the book of Genesis for all to hear this morning.  But, no.  They chose a narrative that describes the emotional life and personal challenges faced by a human family. 
On the 1st day of Rosh Hashanah it’s traditional to read the story of Sarah, a woman who had no children despite God’s promise to the contrary.  Previously, we’d heard that she gave her maidservant, Hagar, to her husband so that he might have children through her, instead.  We imagine - though we do not yet hear directly - her longing, her jealousy, and her outrage.  We want to cry out on her behalf, “that’s not fair.  That’s not right!”
And then, today, on the 1st day of Rosh Hashanah, we read the narrative wherein Sarah  learns of her pregnancy in old age, her laughter, and the birth of her son, Isaac.  And then we watch as she observes her son with Hagar’s son, Ishmael.  Her voice waivers with jealousy, fear, and then her demand that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness.  The Torah portion we read today is a story of the emotional life - the longing, the sorrow, the conflicted heart of one woman - Sarah, and those in her inner circle.
Sarah was a very prominent woman - the wife of Abraham - but she, like her husband, is described in the Torah using language that could describe any of us: the language of the human heart.  Though in many ways, her situation was extraordinary, she becomes for us on Rosh Hashanah a mirror for our own lives, our own emotions, our own struggles to make sense out of the hand we’ve been dealt.
And then, the story from the Prophetic literature chosen by the rabbis to read as the Haftorah is, in many ways, parallel to the story of Sarah.  It’s the story of Hannah, and it is just as unexpected and extraordinary in its ordinary-ness.  Again we read about the emotional life and personal challenges faced by a woman.  And again, the feeling in her heart is that of longing.
And, like Sarah, Hannah is longing for a child.  She, too, has watched with envy as her husband’s other wife enjoyed the fruits of her fertility while she herself felt left empty and alone.
On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we read both the Biblical and Prophetic stories of real people - women - with hearts broken, crying out to God.  We read of families: husbands, wives; mothers, fathers; children, siblings.
I think this is because we, too, stand before God (and beside one another) today with hearts filled with emotion: sometimes grateful, sometimes sorrowful, often longing. I believe the stories of Sarah and Hannah are meant to give us language to articulate what we most want and need.
We are all here today with different prayers, different dreams, different wishes for life in the New Year before us.
I suspect there is not a single one of us in this sanctuary today whose heart is not heavy - or filled with longing - for some reason.
- There are those who have a family member desperately fighting a disease.
- There are those who carry the emotional weight of caring for an elderly parent.
- Others might have a child suffering from addiction or mental illness.
- We may be struggling financially and worry about paying bills, or living beyond our savings
- We may be waiting for approval from our health insurance or Medicare for a procedure we need but cannot afford.
The Hasidic master the Ba’al Shem Tov taught, “Everyone has in him something precious that is in no one else.”
Sometimes, that something precious can be invisible to others, and horribly painful.
The simple truth is that none of us really knows the details of each other’s lives.  We all arrive at Rosh Hashanah standing at a crossroads of some kind. If we are here, we have taken the day off work, or changed our schedule. And we are all in the middle of something complicated that challenges us.

Our ancestors Sarah and Hannah were women who cried out in their longing, women who desperately wanted children. They were women whose pain was hidden from everyone but God.

It’s possible that one of the reasons we read these stories is as a reminder to keep hope alive:
The first thing we read from the Torah on Rosh Hashanah (in the very first verse) is that God took note of Sarah, as promised”.   We might say that Sarah’s is the story of an answered prayer.  Perhaps we read this story to remind us that we, too, might keep praying - hoping beyond hope - that our prayer, too, might be answered like Sarah’s was.  Whether we are praying for healing, or success, or help, or fertility - God just might take note of us, remember us.

But I think it’s something deeper, too.  I think we read these stories because they point to an even more universal human experience: that of the invisible, or silent, emotional life of the Other.
And so today on Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Memory, the biblical name for Rosh Hashanah, I think it’s important to remember that the pain experienced by our ancestors living centuries ago, and the pain experienced by our neighbors living nearby, and the pain that we ourselves experience is sometimes not visible to those around us.
It’s important to remember that people experience hardships and sorrow and they are often standing or sitting right next to us.

“Everyone has in him something precious that is in no one else.” The Baal Shem Tov’s words ring true today as they do everyday.

Our personal narratives, because they are our own, are, by extension never entirely known by anyone else.  I learned a teaching by my colleague and friend, Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bozdin. She teaches that:
The Rabbis of the Talmud, in tractate Brachot, codified a bracha that is recited upon seeing a large faceless crowd:
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech HaOlam … Chacham HaRazim.
“Blessed are you Lord Our God King of the Universe, knower of secrets”
Most brachot have an inner logic.  Even when we see a rainbow, we recite a bracha remembering the covenant – to remember Noah and the flood.  But why when one sees a crowd do we call God the “knower of secrets?”  

The Rabbis knew the effect of a crowd results in a loss of personal identity. When you stare out into a massive crowd of thousands it becomes difficult to see individuals. A bracha that acknowledges God as the “knower of secrets” reminds us that, to God, we are never nameless, never faceless, never unknown.
But, taking this one step further, it’s also a reminder to us that just as nobody truly knows the secrets of our lives, so too should we remember that everyone else in that crowd is carrying stories and sorrows hidden from our view.

Empathy can happen only when we remind ourselves of these truths, and reach out to one another in compassion and forgiveness for that which we could not have known.
We need to ask rather than assume. When we ask “how are you?” we need to wait patiently for the answer to come.
We need to slow down and listen to stories. And in the process, we will become more sensitive to the mysteries and secrets otherwise hidden from view.
If we respond and interact to people with compassion and empathy, then this will truly be a Beit Adonai, a House of God, and we will be able to dwell in it, all the days of our lives.
Shana tova.

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