Rabbi Cassi’s Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5782

Riding the Waves

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5782/2021

Rabbi Cassi Kail

As the High Holy Days approached this year, I struggled to find the words to address this community. I – so rarely without words—wondered what I could say that would meet our needs at this precise moment. One Facebook meme joked that every rabbi should stand up on Rosh Hashanah and exclaim, “I am so overwhelmed! I don’t know what to say!” and the community would nod and say, “Cheers! I’ll drink to that.”[1]

We are living in unprecedented times. It isn’t just the civil unrest, polarity, antisemitism, and racism of our world. It isn’t just the effects of the Taliban’s rise to power, an assault on reproductive rights, or the devastating natural disasters on the east and west coasts.

It isn’t just the immense loss we’ve experienced over the past 18 months of this pandemic. It is a combination of all of these forces that make this High Holy Day season particularly challenging.

The 4th Century Talmud tells the story of two people who took a boat to a small island. Once they arrived, they baked and cooked. As they were about to enjoy a delicious meal, the ground beneath them began to tremble. They soon discovered that the hard foundation they thought to be an island was actually the back of a large aquatic creature who hadn’t appreciated them using its back as a cooking device. The creature flipped over, and the two diners were hurled into the sea. They boarded their boat and quickly rowed to safety, but they were left feeling extremely shaken. What they thought was a solid foundation turned out to be transient, unstable, and even volatile.[2]

Perhaps we feel that way as well. Over the summer, we were delighted that Covid cases were going down, and vaccination rates were rising. We dared to dream of safer, more predictable world. We dared to book trips to faraway locations. We visited family we hadn’t seen in over a year. We rejoiced that the school year ahead of us would be so much better than the last. We burned or gave away our facemasks. We scheduled parties and celebrations.

And then, slowly, the cases began to rise. Break-through infections became more than a possibility—as friends and members of our community became ill. CDC guidelines tightened. L.A. County once again required indoor masking, physical distancing, and diligence. Parents grappled with whether to send their children back to school, Torah school, and extracurricular activities. We wondered what steps we might need to take to minimize chance of infection for loved ones who are immune-compromised or at increased risk. The foundation of safety was not as secure as we had imagined. So, we put off our celebrations and travel plans, ordered new facemasks, and made challenging choices about what we would and wouldn’t attend.

I was at Camp Newman, serving on faculty when the Covid surge began to grow. One day, I received a request to meet with the medical staff right away. “Rabbi,” they said. “We really could use some time to talk to you.” Naturally, I agreed, and at 9 pm, I made my way to the mirpa’ah—the infirmary, wondering what was on their mind.

“This has been such a hard year,” they explained, recounting patients they treated and sacrifices they made to protect family members and friends. “And now, looking at the news and hearing from friends, we know things are getting worse again. What does the Jewish tradition teach us about how to move forward?”

As I listened to their words, I thought about a different story from the Talmud that has sustained me during the pandemic. Perhaps you’ve heard me tell it before.

Rabbi Gamliel was traveling by ship when he saw a wrecked vessel on the horizon. He recognized it at once as Rabbi Akiva’s boat and began to mourn for his death. Surely, Rabbi Akiva could not have survived. Rabbi Gamliel returned to the yeshiva a short time later, and there before him was his friend, Rabbi Akiva. “How did you survive that shipwreck?” Rabbi Gamliel asked. “Who saved you?” “A daf—a plank of wood from the boat – appeared before me.” Rabbi Akiva replied. “I held onto it, and as each wave came my way, I bowed my head.”

A short while later, the Talmud tells a similar tale. Rabbi Akiva was out on a boat when he saw the remnants of Rabbi Meir’s ship in the middle of the water. Rabbi Akiva immediately began to mourn. Surely, Rabbi Meir could not have survived. Shortly after, Rabbi Akiva returned to the yeshiva, and there before he was his friend, Rabbi Meir. “How did you survive that shipwreck?” asked Rabbi Akiva. “Who brought you up to the shore?” Rabbi Meir answered, “One wave carried me to another, and that wave to another until a final wave cast me onto the shore.”[3]

There is a power in these stories, because when thrown into a nearly insurmountable obstacle, Both rabbis manage to survive. How do they do it? By resisting the urge to fight the waves,[4] by not wasting energy fighting against the current, by relinquishing control over that which is out of their hands and taking their journey to safety one wave at a time.

This, as we know, is so hard to do. When every cell in our body longs for the pandemic to be over. But we know that riding the waves is the only forward. At times we think we are inching closer to the shore, only to have the winds shift us away. After eighteen months, we are tired of riding the waves, but we, like the Rabbis, persist.

Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir offer different strategies of resilience and strength.

Rabbi Akiva latches on to a plank—a floatation device—to help him weather stormy waters. When the stress of the pandemic rises, we hike, read, bake, and meditate. We learn Torah, form online social groups, or binge-watch the Marvelous Ms. Maisel. We root for the Dodgers, paint, sculpt, write or compose.  As Rabbi Akiva demonstrates, these are more than hobbies. They are life vests giving us the balance, buoyancy, and hope that we need.

In 1977, activist Natan Sharansky was imprisoned for 9 years in Communist Russia for his Zionist activism. Half of his prison time was spent in solitary confinement, where he was given thin clothing and barely any food. He had no bed, chair, table. He was forbidden to read or write.

When he was later asked how he made it through those dark years, he explained that he spent much of his time playing chess games in his head. “Thousands of games,” he explained. “I won them all.”

Sharansky had been a young chess prodigy, and this simple game bolstered him. “The KGB hoped that I would feel weaker and weaker mentally,” he explained. “Actually, I felt stronger and stronger” because of the game.[5]

For Reuven, a Romanian Jew who became a refugee at 12, a violin was his source of strength. As a very young boy, he had found a violin left behind by Gypsies fleeing the area.

He was amazed to discover that he could play any song by ear. He explains, “When we were expelled, my mother prohibited me from taking this violin, but I took it anyway and hid it. Then my little brother sat on it and broke it; I think there were about fifty [broken] parts. A gypsy succeeded in gluing it together. I took it with me everywhere we went, and it became my parnasa [livelihood].”[6]

The violin was battered and worn, but it was Reuven’s plank during life’s storms. As psychologist and rabbi Tirzah Firestone explains, “He had smuggled his fragile man made treasure throughout Central Europe as a refugee. Like him, the violin had born the forces of war, expulsion, and poverty. Like him, it had been broken to bits—but never irreparably. [This violin enabled him] to light up the room with the music of hope.”[7]

Rabbi Akiva teaches us the importance of having outlets and balance in our lives. What are ours? What centers us during our most challenging moments, giving us hope? When there is so much outside beyond our control, what are positive forces in our lives that we can?

Rabbi Meir employs an equally important strategy. He focuses all of his attention on the present moment, responding and moving with each wave. He doesn’t fret about what happened in the past or what might in the future. He stays in the here and now, riding one wave at a time.

Rabbi Meir understood that so much of our lives is spent focusing on the past or the future. Our history is important because it shaped us into the people we are today. Our successes and failures, mistakes, and learnings, struggles, and triumphs have enabled us to mature and grow. There is a danger, however, in dedicating too much thought to the past. Focusing on past hurts and mistakes will not make them go away. Wishing we could return to better days will not make that possible. As long as we live in the past, we cannot fully participate in the present. Rabbi Meir could have spent his energy wishing that he hadn’t gone out to sea that day or that he had checked his ship more carefully, but doing so wouldn’t change his current predicament. It would only use up the limited energy he possessed.

Similarly, we might wish to spend our time thinking about the future, putting all of our plans on hold until that magical day when we will reach the shore. While planning for the future is worthwhile, there is a danger when we spend so much time thinking about our distant dreams that we forget to make the most of this moment.

In his book, “The Power of Now,” Eckhart Tolle writes, “All negativity is caused by an accumulation of psychological time and denial of the present. Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry – all forms of fear – are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of non-forgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence.”

Rabbi Meir knew that he would be happiest and strongest if he focused his attention on the present. So he rode each wave and allowed it to carry him to the next one. And he became a survivor.

At our best moments, our focus on the present has allowed us to be innovative and attentive to one another. We have found ways from multi-access services, concerts, classes, Torah on the trails to neighborhood connections, scavenger hunts, art programs, food drives and challah pick-ups, meditation, sound healing, and holiday gift bags to uplift one another and enrich our lives. We were present – in person or virtually for funerals and Shiva minyans. We offered support and meals to one another at times of loss, illness, and injury. We have celebrated together on joyous occasions, from births to B’Mitzvah celebrations to confirmations, graduations, anniversaries, and recoveries from life-threatening situations. In virtual oneg rooms, we took the time to forge new friendships. In programs about racial justice, we learned about the experiences of fellow community members. In dialogues about Israel, we learned to appreciate the nuances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In reading one another’s stories during Elul, we came to appreciate the beautiful diversity at Temple Beth El. And we realize that by nodding to each wave, we made space to not only get through each moment but to find the blessings therein.

Adapting and finding blessings is part of our Jewish story. You may recall that the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 C.E.  At this time, all of Jewish life revolved around the Temple. Sacrifices were the primary form of worship. When the Temple was destroyed, the Jewish community was in a state of distress, for which they saw no end. They longed for the past. They could not envision a future, and their present was terrifying. Just as people were starting to give up, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zachai chose to ride the waves. Rather than staying in Jerusalem, struggling to find meaning, food, and safety, he envisioned a different future for the Jewish people. He devised a plan which required him to enter a burial casket, pretend to be dead, and have his students sneak him out of Jerusalem.

Once safe, Rabbi Yochanan approached Vespasian, who he believed would become emperor. He asked Vespasian to put aside some land in Yavneh so that the Jewish people could establish a center of Jewish learning.[8] Rabbi Yochanan understood that the only way forward was to accept the world as it was and respond to it with creativity and thoughtfulness. He also provided the people with an outlet. Remember the story with Rabbi Akiva grabbing a plank of wood? The word for a plank, daf, has an additional meaning. It is the same word used to describe a page in the Talmud. Jewish learning was the floatation device that would help them through the storm.

Rabbi Yochanan taught the people that there were other methods of coming together and that prayer could occur outside of Temple walls. He reinvented Judaism, breathing into it new life and meaning. As Rabbi Alan Lew teaches, “if the Temple had never been destroyed, the renewal Judaism needed so badly could never have taken place. If the walls of the Temple had never fallen down, the fundamental spiritual impulse of Judaism—the powerful emptiness at its core—may very well have been smothered.”[9]

Sometimes the hardest journeys provide opportunities for innovation and blessing. Perhaps this is why the Talmud teaches us to be soft like a reed and not hard like a cedar.[10] A reed can bend without breaking. It is flexible enough to not only weather the storms but to grow through them.

My friends, I know as we enter this new year, we wish that we were further along on our Covid journey. We are frustrated by past mistakes, and we long to reach the shore.

Like me, you may sometimes want to shout “I’m so overwhelmed! I don’t know what to do or say!” But when you do, remember, you’re not alone. We are all riding the waves of this storm, trying to find our way. We’re all in this together.

One of my favorite poems from this High Holy Day season was written by Rabbi Rachel Barenblatt:

Here’s the thing: the year begins anew
even in the worst of times. The leaves
will turn and fall and then they’ll grow again.
And sometimes we’re afraid, and we can’t know
what choice to make to keep anyone safe.
Uncertainty’s a bear. All we can do
is seek out sweetness everywhere we may
and work to fix what brokenness we find.
The good news is we’re not in this alone.
We’ll help each other hope when light seems dim
and lift the sparks that darker days reveal.
We’ll love each other fiercely: in the end
there is no greater work that we can do.
We who survive will help each other heal.[11]

We do not know how the winds will blow in this coming year, but we know how strong and resilient, and adaptable we are capable of being. So with a plank in one hand we bow our heads to each wave, having faith that it will lead to another and another, until at long last, we reach the shore.

[1] @maimonides­_nutz, “I feel like after the year we’ve all had, our rabbis should be able to stand up on Rosh Hashanah and just exclaim, “I am so overwhelmed! I don’t know what to say!” and we’d all kind of nod and say “cheers I’ll drink to that””, Twitter, August 24, 2021, https://twitter.com/maimonides_nutz/status/1430298271361028097

[2] Talmud Bavli Bava Batra 73b

[3] Talmud Bavli Yevamot 121a

[4] Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh “Floating in the Waters of Uncertainty” YK sermon 2020/5781

[5] https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-25560162

[6] Firestone, Tirzah. Wounds into Wisdom (p. 112). Monkfish Book Publishing. Kindle Edition.

[7] Ibid, 112-113.

[8] Gittin 56a-56b

[9] Lew, Alan. This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared (p. 59). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.

[10] Taanit 20a

[11] https://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/new-years-poems.html