Rosh Hashana 5779

Today is Sept 11. We all know the solemnness of this day, and exactly where we were and what we were doing on this fateful date in 2001. How ironic that I was north of Tampa for the military funeral of my Uncle Stanley, who had served in the Army and was at Pearl Harbor on the day it was attacked in 1941. I awoke to my brother exclaiming as I exited the shower, “hey – look at this! A plane flew into the World Trade Center!” I immediately assumed it was a small aircraft – an accident, an unintentional misfortune for some unlucky pilot sightseeing up the Hudson River.

Then, as we both dressed, the second plane hit, and I began to suspect that something more was occurring than some mere misfortune. We became glued to the TV, like so many others. When the third plane hit the Pentagon, I felt for certain that we were under attack and my anxiety quickly increased when I thought about how many planes were up in the air.

As we were getting ready to go to the cemetery, the first tower collapsed. I was in such denial that I said, “I bet the fire department deliberately imploded the tower to save the other one.” My cousin Jodi looked at me with resigned horror in her eyes and said, “No. It collapsed from the plane crash.” I was in shock and shaken. I felt vulnerable and scared.

The second tower came down as we entered the cemetery for the graveside service. We were all in shock and the funeral was surreal. We went back to my cousin’s Susie’s house, where my Aunt Pearl and Uncle Stanley had been living. In order to cope with the intense grief due to the recent events in her personal life, my Aunt Pearl was already drugged up. Her stupor deepened upon encountering the additional horror of this attack on her city of origin. Her only expression was a glazed smile. As Bruce Springsteen soon put to pen, “My city in ruins.” New York City was all of our city in ruins. It was the hometown of my entire remaining family on both sides. It was a safe haven, where my family came for, and was granted refuge, as Emma Lazarus has written, inscribed on our statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Three of my four grandparents sailed past the Statue of Liberty: in 1895, 1917 and 1928. All three were tired, poor and wretched refuse of Belarus and Germany. My fourth grandparent was the tired, poor offspring of two other immigrants from Belarus and Austria. However, what all my ancestors had was the spark of resilience – that deep still, small voice of Divinity within all of us that holds onto the present moment of life that speaks to us of purpose, meaning and hope. This same inner Divinity which Jewish Mystics teach is this inner Divinity which manifests as a Divine spark that exists within everything in creation as its core, cheering everything on, including us and the blades of grass around our feet, every grain of sand on earth, and every star in the heavens. And thus, we hold onto the present moment of life as if it were our last, and we move forward.

They left the tenement slums of Williamsburg, Brooklyn to better lives in Flatbush, Brooklyn and Bayside, Queens. My generation of cousins were the first to not work in factories, drive trucks, plumb people’s toilets or deliver potato chips to candy stores. We took the baton from our parents, first generation poor Jewish Americans, and some of us went to college. This is the American story of immigrant resilience. A beautiful story of a land of opportunity for all, no matter what religion, race, creed, origin or sexual orientation. At least, that was the story we hoped for all.

However, we know for too many that is not their story. Racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia and other cancers on society still exist, but fortunately, a new generation of resilient young men and women are working to cure that societal cancer. Just like the resilience of my grandparents, of New Yorkers after 9/11, of so many of you in recovery from your own losses, trauma, challenges and deep inner wounding, resilience is the hidden kernel, the Divine spark within us all – if we are willing to face our struggles and not avoid them.

In the Torah, resilience is a common theme. Abram and Sarai left Ur and headed into the unknown. They left the comfort of their parents’ home, their ancestors’ land, to trek out onto a path of no known destination. They were always moving forward, even in the face of obstacles and challenges – always moving forward.

In Gen 12:1, The Eternal said to Avram, “Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”  This is the very text that calls us all, as it called Abram, Sarai and my three grandparents to leave the known – even the suffering of the known – for the unknown. This was the same call that all of your ancestors answered when they left their homes for America. It’s the call of facing fear and moving forward anyway.

Resilience is how Jacob faced his fear. When confronted by his brother Esau, he wrestled through the night and prevailed. Haven’t we all wrestled through our own dark night of the soul, only to come out on the other side, somewhat wounded and limping, just like Jacob, but with a new name, a new identity arising from the struggle, with new insights and growth?
Jacob’s name changed to Israel, one who struggles with God. We all struggle with God – what do we believe, what do we not believe? One minute we are grasping for God and another we are grasping for whatever our egos want in order to assuage fear and desire. One minute we are avoiding struggle and the next we find ourselves stuck in an existential swamp. One minute we don’t think we need others in our lives, then we wake up and realize that we must have others in our lives in order to live a life of meaning.

Our greatest Prophet Moses was called at the burning bush in Exodus 3. The text states, “Meanwhile, Moses was keeping the flock (of sheep) of Yitro, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian. And he led the sheep to the farthest end of the wilderness and came to Horeb, God’s mountain. And the angel of God appeared unto him in flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. And Moses looked, and behold, the bush burned with fire and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside now and see this great sight, where the bush is not burning and see this remarkable sight.“  We may ask, why isn’t the bush burning up?

Some would respond because it took an extraordinary event to awaken Moses out of his walking sleep. So many times, the Torah alludes to being awakened from our walking sleep – our stuckness in auto-pilot mode, our inability to see the growth opportunity in life’s challenges. How often are we all shaken, temporarily awakened by a life event, one that we would not wish on ourselves or anyone, such as a job loss, death of a loved one, change in health, or any other existential challenge or crisis? We can deal with it through strategies of avoidance, such as drink, drugs, work, sex, repression, and thus go back to sleep. Or we can deal with the pain by facing it head-on and remaining acutely awake and aware of it and attempt to work through it for permanent growth and awakening.

God said, “Moses, Moses” and Moses replied, “Hineini – here am I.” The key to this text is when Moses replied, Hineini – here am I.” The text was referring to complete presence to what was happening in the moment. I am fully present – not checked out, not avoiding, not lost in 10 billion thoughts, not listening to the inner dictator, the inner critic or the inner judge. “I am here,” I am fully here and open. That’s the first step of resilience – facing what is so, not avoiding or caving into fear; rather, facing trepidation with wonder, lost in the abyss of ambiguity – and moving forward anyway.

Resilience is often a group effort. I think of those who are in the Survivors of Suicide support group that I now facilitate in Decatur. Several of us are further along the road of recovery because we have been addressing it, working at it for some time. Sadly, each month there are new participants, just weeks or a couple of months into the horrible grief journey of having lost a loved one to suicide. What supports them – what supported me 5 ½ years ago – was being lifted off the floor by others. Recovery from trauma is always possible when we are supported by others who have experienced and transcended the type of trauma that we are facing. Nobody does it alone.

Resilience can also be acceptance of a disappointing outcome or even failure. In Numbers 27, And God said unto Moses: “ Get up into this mountain of Abarim and behold the land which I have given unto the Children of Israel, And when you have seen it, you also shall be gathered unto your People, as Aaron your brother was gathered, because you rebelled against my commandment in the wilderness when you struck the rock in front of the congregation.” Moses was then told to choose Joshua to lead the Israelites. There is a lot to unpack in this text.

First, Moses only got to see the reward of his 40-year leadership and yearning, but not to experience it. While the text references when Moses got angry and hit the rock instead of touching it with his staff to release water for the Israelites, I feel there is much more to this. Given the times when Abraham negotiated with God to save the Hebrews from punishment and given the numerous times when Moses pleaded for forgiveness, such as after the Golden Calf incident and many other transgressions, why would one simple act of losing one’s cool result in the complete loss of crossing the finish line – of reaching the destination? I feel that the insight in this teaching is that sometimes, no matter how much we grasp at something, no matter how hard we work for something, no matter how hard we study or prepare, we will fail or not finish what we set out to accomplish. We will not reach the goal. The teaching here is the perennial wisdom taught in so many religions: focus on the journey and not the destination; attachment to anything leads to suffering.

In the Pirkei Avot, 2, Rabbi Tarfon said, “the day is short and the work is much. It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Rabbi Tarfon referred to the fact that we are never going to reach the destination, nor will we ever going to complete the work of inner transformation. However, we can neither avoid the journey, nor be overwhelmed by whatever growth opportunities – often painful ones, which are presented to us during our lives.

Moses, though disappointed and sad at the loss of leading the Israelites and entering the Land, accepted his fate and handed the reigns to Joshua. The impending death of Moses represented his resilience in the face of major loss. Death in this text is a metaphor for letting go of something very important to be transitioned into the next phase – in our case, gathered up to Moses’ people, like Aaron before him. This speaks to the final act of resilience for all of us – facing with fear and trepidation our own physical end and transition into the Great Mystery.

Here we are on Sept 11, a nation deeply divided into many “us’s” and “the Others.” This is our opportunity to let go of what we believe is the Promised Land and to stop demonizing The Other. While we can disagree and even strongly dislike the behavior of our leaders, it is time for us to journey to our own Promised Land – our inner selves. It is time to leave the land of our father, the land we know and move forward to an unknown land – our future, without grasping onto an outcome or a place upon which to arrive. It is time to face our own demons in the night and wrestle with them until we integrate them. It is time to see the burning bushes not consumed within ourselves and wake up from our sleep, with absolute terror, still moving forward against all odds and obstacles. It is time to let go of our disappointments, losses and own our humanity – deeply wonderful, flawed, amazing, wounded, powerful, vulnerable manifestations of God.

A dear friend of mine has opined that wisdom is knowledge tempered by experience, and spirituality is wisdom tempered by mystery. We grow wise by learning through knowledge wedded with experience. We grow spiritually by embracing Mystery.

We are all gifts to the world – a miracle of two cells joining from an act of deep and committed love, growing through life’s trials and tribulations into the Divine being that we all are. May it be so this Rosh Hashanah, that we continue the work of T’Shuvah, embracing the grandeur of mystery and the unknown as opportunities for growth and spiritual deepening, a turning toward ourselves and each other with the goal of repair to be better than we were last year – resilient as ever and ever moving forward to the Promised Land of love, connection and living empowered lives, where we make a difference in the lives of others and we make the world a better place for all.