Yom Kippur: Hope comes home

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
October 9, 2019
Yom Kippur Yizkor

Starting on Rosh Hashanah, I have spoken about tikvah, hope, a Jewish value that is central to our souls. Hope is wonderful, essential, life-giving, but what happens when we run into a brick wall in our lives? What happens when we are exhausted, tired, scared, hurt? Recent studies show that after three hours of social media, our teens have higher rates of depression and anxiety. Journalists who regularly see graphic images from around the world are getting PTSD. We live in a world that sometimes seems bereft of hope.

One of the simplest truths in life is also one of the most challenging: our lives are never entirely one thing. We are rarely a singular emotion. At weddings, we break the glass and remember the destruction of Jerusalem. Shiva homes frequently have interludes of laughter as beautiful and funny stories are shared. Sukkot next week is called the season of our rejoicing, and we read Ecclesiastes, which is one of the most depressing Megillot of the Tanach.

Coming to CBI was life-changing in the most positive ways. Here we have a found a community of people who care deeply about our holy traditions. We see people striving to bring Jewish tradition and observance into their lives. We know so many of you who desire to better the world, who take seriously their obligations to Gd, Torah and Israel. We have seen the power of hope at CBI. It has been a truly incredible year.

We are truly blessed, but that does not mean our lives lack suffering, illness or pain. In Hebrew/Yiddish, we use the term “tsurris”. It comes from “issurin”, a Talmudic word for suffering or afflictions. Our tradition regularly considers suffering and its sources. We wonder if sufferings are “afflictions of love”--issurin shel ahava--that will push us to be better people, or if they are just a normal part of life. For some people, every ache is a sign from Gd, while for others, Gd has created the world and given us the space to live, die, and everything in between. However we imagine suffering and pain, our tradition also offers us strategies to deal with them, methods to live a more meaningful and more positive life, amidst the normal and abnormal turmoil. We have been lifted up through hope and prayer.

Today, I share one of our family’s stories not because they are unique, but because our stories are your stories. When we talk to one another, we discover that we face the same challenges, share the same struggles. We frequently keep our challenges to ourselves. We show the world the “facebook view”, sharing only the good news, the happy baby pictures, yet hide the messiness of life. Reminding ourselves of the good is sacred. It is important, but sometimes it allows us to imagine that we are alone.

WE ARE NOT ALONE. You are not alone. We are here, together, for one another, a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community. As we go through our tsurris, our brokenness, we are given the opportunity to rebuild stronger. Like the bone after a fracture is more resilient, our hearts are more resilient, our souls are more resilient than we might ever imagine. In the early 1900s, the Kotsker Rebbe taught that there is nothing so whole as a broken heart. He recognized that hope could help heal us. If we look around this room, we know there are so many very whole hearts!

When we recognize that we are not alone, we have hope, then we are better able to heal, to grow, to learn, to find some meaning in our challenging experiences.

On her birthday two years ago, Rebecca celebrated in the OR. She had a double mastectomy and reconstruction. It was a complex surgery. After hours and hours of waiting, I finally heard that she was ok. Throughout the day, I was alternately uplifted and terrified. I knew she had made a responsible choice. Her mother, sister, grandfather, had all survived breast cancer. After genetic testing said she was BRCA positive, she knew she could not live with the fear of cancer. She felt that with her history it was not if, but when. So she had surgery. It was not easy. While the pain did not last long, it was weeks before she could lift Eliana again. The experience was emotionally fraught. Discussing mortality and cancer in ones thirties feels wrong. We all know that our mortality rate by age 120 is 100%, but acknowledging that is a major mental hurdle.

Surgical recovery is a challenge. It requires acknowledging the limits of our bodies. It requires asking for and accepting help. We could not have gone through it alone. We had parents, friends, congregants, daycare, school, that helped us take care of our physical and spiritual needs. Powerfully, we had hope for a better future, one where cancer would be a memory, rather than a threat.

From Sharsheret, a Jewish cancer support group, we learned that 1 in 40 Ashkenazi Jews are BRCA carriers. Rebecca is not alone. Jewish women and men have much higher rates of breast, ovarian and skin cancers than other similar populations. This is something that we must all be aware of. As Jews, Ashkenazi and Mizrachi, we must be more vigilant than others. Just as we encourage Jewish couples to consider genetic testing as they prepare for parenthood, it behooves us to consider BRCA testing for Jewish women (and men). 

Looking back at her surgery, we have learned so much about ourselves and our communities. Rebecca has spoken regularly about her experience. She made a difficult choice, hoping to live a full life with our family. While there are no guarantees, sharing this choice, learning about the BRCA gene may save the life of another person. After seeing Rebecca go through this, a dear friend of hers got tested. She discovered that she was positive. She knows that Rebecca is there for her, can talk about her choices and why she made them. Rebecca allowed me to share this story to turn her challenge into a positive, in the hope that it may positively impact, you, your children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.

Walking with someone through major surgery is a challenge. Sitting in a waiting room for an entire day is emotionally exhausting. I have been there and will be there again. I am blessed (and I mean that) to be able to spend time with you and your families in so many different contexts. It is a privilege to be welcomed into the challenges and joys of daily life of our community members.

How do we transform sorrow into joy? How do we find the hope amidst our struggles? How do we turn our mourning into dancing, as the psalmist writes? Sharing our experiences, recognizing that we are in this life together, that we are a holy community, fighting with our sacred texts together, lifts us up. Helping others through their struggles helps us restore hope to our lives.

When I was in rabbinical school, a classmate, Rafi Lehmann struggled with chronic illness. Tragically, after a month in the hospital, he died right around Yom Kippur ten years ago. He was engaged to be married the following month. His fiancee, Sara Beth Berman grew up in Coral Springs, and through USY and the Luski family, is known by many here. She is a lifelong Jewish educator and spoke about the struggle of being a widow before her marriage. A decade later she tries to share something positive with the world from her terrible experience. In the process of writing a book about her experiences, she produced a program for the Jewish Theological Seminary called “What Now?”. From it’s blurb: “After tragedy, what happens next? How does Jewish tradition help us respond? To put to rest her own years of turmoil, alum Sara Beth Berman interviews faculty members of the Jewish Theological Seminary to finally get some answers.”

Besides sharing her own story, she connects to some of my most favorite professors. She encourages them to share the Jewish texts and concepts that inspire them, while also asking them to share their more personal stories. She pushes them to share what meaning, what strength they found in their own suffering and in our holy texts.

One of the faculty members she spoke to was Rabbi/Professor David Kraemer, the librarian of JTS. Rabbi Kraemer brings forth one of my favorites texts from the Talmud. It is one that Rabbi Neil Gillman and I discussed so many times. We live in an imperfect world. As Jews, we are trying to make it better, one little tiny piece at a time. Even as we do so, terrible things happen. We are hurt, we get sick, or even worse, the ones we love most get hurt or sick. Terrible people do terrible things, causing pain to others. Do we respond with hope or are we caught in a cycle of pain? Sometimes before we can hope, we must acknowledge that pain, the loss, that missing piece. Before the heart can heal, we must feel it.

Professor Kraemer points us to Berachot 5a-b. There we find rabbis in the midst of their own pain and loss. Some of them are miracle workers and healers, yet they are not able to help themselves. Kraemer quoted a series of exchanges between rabbis visiting their sick colleagues. One rabbi asks Rabbi Yochanan:

what do you make of your suffering? Literally the question, which in Hebrew is havivin alekha yissurin?, “Are sufferings beloved to you?” [From other] rabbinic texts it’s clear that the pious response would be, “Yes, they are, because they are brought by God to improve me.” ... Rabbi [Yohanan] says, “No, neither they nor their reward.”

Meaning he doesn’t even reject the notion that there may be a reward for the improvement that comes with suffering. But he doesn’t care. He doesn’t want it, which is absolutely extraordinary. That kind of simple rejection, to say no, I don’t want it, without any further elaboration.

Rabbi Gillman taught us that you don’t do theology at the bedside. When someone is watching their loved one die, or when someone is themselves ill, it may be challenging to have an academic discussion on the meaning of evil or suffering. I disagree with my mentor. Some of our most creative understandings of life happen in those transitional, liminal moments. They are when we may feel the presence of the Divine in ways we do not always! Talmud Berachot has the rabbis not only in the academy, but in their most challenging moments. How do they respond there?

Professor Kraemer saw the rabbis struggling with pain. In the moment, they could not find meaning, but later on, they could debate and consider it. When we look at our lives, sometimes we need to step back. In the moment, we cannot consider all the possibilities. We cannot imagine that we have the strength to get through, yet we do. Over and over again, we prove that we can overcome, that we can grow, that we can learn from even the most horrific situations. We discover hope amidst the darkness.

When we look to help others, we might try to contextualize people’s problems. Sometimes we tell them their problem is no big deal. Think about how children interact with the world. If the wrong outfit is in the wash, it is a tragedy. We try to help them mature and recognize when something is minor, but in that moment, it is the end of the world to them. As parents, grandparents, friends, so often we see a situation and wonder why someone else is so upset, yet if we acknowledge their pain first, we may be better able to help them. We all know that telling someone something is “no big deal” rarely ameliorates the situation. When we show compassion to others, we are far more likely to help them. When we show compassion to ourselves, we are far more likely to actually improve.

We will soon turn to Yizkor, which is a time of remembrance. I think of those we have lost this year, beloved relatives of some of you in this room, people I have known and cared about. In every family, we have a story of suffering, of illness, of challenge. Whether it is cancer or heart disease, AIDS or tragic accidents, we ourselves or people we know are personally afflicted and affected by challenges. We all have our issurin.

As the great shofar is sounded, as we imagine writing ourselves in the Book of Life for the next year, I continue to wonder about how we react to all these challenges. What holds us up when times are tough? How do we keep our strength when we feel like we will crumble? What do we have in our toolbox to help us manage our expectations? Where do we find our sources of hope?

At the end of the day, prayer, Gd, faith, love, one another, therapy, community are many of the tools to get us through our difficult times, to help us find ways to celebrate again after and even DURING times of tragedy. Sadness and joy are not mutually exclusive possibilities. Loss and hope are not enemies, but partners.

As much as we like, we cannot control every aspect of our lives, every little or big thing that happens to us. What we can control is our reaction. How do we deal with the challenges of life? Choosing to respond positively, with hope, with a new plan for action, that we can do. As I said on Rosh Hashanah, today is the day Gd has made, rejoice in it. What do we learn from what has happened to us?

As we prepare for Yizkor, as we think of those who we have loved and lost, let us think of the decisions they made. Did they react well to stress and change? How can we emulate them when they did? If they did not, how can we use their example to react with love and hope and prayer!

When you look back at your year, it has been incredible AND your journeys have still been challenging. We have all had our issurin. Do we accept our suffering and the rewards or do we rewrite them?

Every year I return, again and again, to the most powerful line of the Unetaneh Tokef, which tells us that T’shuvah, T’fillah and Tz’dakah have the power to transform the harshness of our destiny. Renewing ourselves/repenting, prayer/yearning and charity/deeds of righteousness do not miraculously defeat cancer or solve all our problems. Rather, they change our attitudes; they help us gain the tools to thrive in any situation. In the year to come, may we turn every curse into a blessing, every sorrow into joy, every broken heart into a whole heart, every struggle as a moment to rediscover our hope.

G’mar hatimah tovah! May you be sealed in the book of life.