Posted on February 14, 2022
United Parish of Brookline
February 13, 2022
It is always such a joy and a privilege to be here with our friends at the United Parish in Brookline. Thank you to Pastors Amy Norton and Kent French and to Minister of Music Susan DeSelms for the warmth of welcome that we have received. Before offering some reflections on our theme of hope and resilience, I just want to recognize how blessed I feel to be able to join with you today. For the past two years we have been unable to gather together in-person, and it is wonderful to be back in your beautiful sanctuary. But more than this, we are living in a society where the voices of hate and prejudice continue to grow. As a Jewish community we are still under the shadow of the horrific terrorist attack at a synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, in Colleyville, Texas. Against that backdrop joining together in prayer and song, in love and community, in faith and hope is no small thing, and I am so grateful to the Clergy and congregants of the United Parish for your care and compassion.
Perhaps this is an appropriate place to reflect on our passage from the Book of Lamentations. I want to take us back about 2500 years. It is hard to put ourselves in the shoes of the community that authored this book – I do not think it is an understatement to say that their world had been destroyed. The Babylonians had conquered the land of Israel, destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, and sent the people away into exile. For most peoples that would have marked the end of their existence; history is filled with examples of groups who disappeared in the face of similar military defeats. But that was not the Israelite way, and the way that they responded means that today we Jews and Christians can gather together.
Eicha: Lamentations 3:19-26 (adapted from Jewish Publication Society)
To recall my distress and my misery
Was wormwood and poison;
Whenever I thought of them,
I was bowed low….
The level of distress in these words: the poet says that even remembering the despair of those days is a poison to the soul. When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, it was the wiping out not only of a religious center but of the center of the universe as the ancient Jewish people understood it. Only in that Temple had they thought that they could communicate with God. Only in that Temple had they thought that God would listen to them. The Temple was the place where their sacrificial fires had been lit, and the place where their sacred songs were sung.
When the exiles made it to Babylonia and hung their harps on the branches by the river, saying “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land,” (Psalm 137) it was not only because they felt they could not sing in their grief, but because the place where those songs were composed to be sung had been destroyed. Their songs did not feel fitting anywhere else.
During the early weeks and months of the pandemic, I think that many of us felt grief that echoed that ancient trauma. Exiled from our sanctuaries, unable to be together in these glorious halls where the music of our faiths is sung: how could we sing?
But the ancient poet goes on—
But this do I call to mind,
Therefore I have hope:
The kindness of Adonai has not ended,
God’s mercies are not spent.
They are renewed every morning—
Ample is Your grace!
“Adonai is my portion,” I say with full heart;
Therefore will I hope in God.
Adonai is good to those who trust in God,
To the one who seeks God;
It is good to wait patiently
Till rescue comes from Adonai.
How could the poet move from such utter despair to hope in the space of a verse? She has found God’s kindness in this world. She has found compassion and tenderness. She has found the miracle of light that dawns every morning, even in exile, even in despair. The miracles of the everyday—the caring gestures among people, the miracle of being able to notice goodness and beauty and accept them—those miracles came with the exiles and stayed with them when they were far away from their spiritual home. And they came to recognize that that was the presence of what was most sacred: k’dushah, holiness, didn’t exist only in the Temple. It was there with them, traveling with them as it had through the Israelites’ journey through the Wilderness. It was there with them, as it has been for us, even during the long months when we’ve had to be apart.
In the face of tragedy and suffering there is always the possibility that some will give up, despairing of their situation. But the religious response is to remain ever hopeful that things can and will get better. This hope comes because of our understanding that God created the world and that we were created, each and every one of us, in the image of God, possessing within us that Divine spark and ability to help recreate the world around us when it is not the way we want it to be or the way it should be. Our religious tradition calls on us to be active in responding to the circumstances around us, and one of those responses is to nurture and share hope.
We also don’t simply have history to look back on, but the memory of where our ancestors have been, of what they have overcome, of the way that they have survived also give and encourages hope for a brighter future. The Rabbi of my childhood, Rabbi Hugo Gryn z”l – may his memory be for a blessing, was born in Czechoslovakia in 1930, and he shared stories of his experiences living through the Holocaust. One story, which has always really stuck with me, took place in the winter of 1944 when he and his father found themselves in a concentration camp grotesquely named Lieberose – Lovely Rose. His father announced that it was the eve of Chanukah, our festival for kindling light, and took out a homemade clay bowl. He then began to light a wick immersed in his precious, but now melted ration of margarine. Before he could recite the blessing Hugo stopped his father and protested, “We need the food. We can’t afford to waste it on a candle.” His father looked at Hugo – and then at the lamp – and responded, “You and I have seen that it is possible to live up to three weeks without food. We once lived almost three days without water; but you cannot live, not even for three minutes without hope. This lesson of faith, learned in the most hopeless of circumstances, embodies the Jewish response to the world, we live in hope.
The section of the Torah we read this week of the year in the Jewish calendar is Ki Tisa, the portion of the Book of Exodus when Moses goes up Mount Sinai, after the giving of the Ten Commandments, and he is up there for so long that the people at the foot of the mountain start to fear that he will never come down. As we all know, they make the golden calf, turning to the immediate gratification of something tangible and shiny, rather than allowing themselves to hope for something bigger, realer, higher and deeper. Looked at through our contemporary lenses, the calf is a symbol of the people’s cynicism: they make a decision to choose posturing and easy pretenses over “the evidence of their own eyes and ears.”
We might ourselves fall into cynicism in the face of their failure to hold on to their own lived experience of crossing the Red Sea and of hearing the thunder of God’s voice at Mount Sinai, just as we might feel resigned in the face of all we see in our own time of people choosing to yield to their own fears rather than choosing to care for our greater society.
But our Torah portion does not stop there. In this same portion that we read this week, Moses and God agree that God will from then on go in the people’s midst. There will be miracles from then on, wherever the people will be willing to see them. In the words of our teacher Rabbi Larry Hoffman: “Faith is not something you have; it is a strategy you follow.”
As we follow that strategy of faith it can provide us with hope, but it can also serve to strengthen us and make us resilient to bear the challenges that we encounter along the way. The children of the people who wrote Lamentations returned to the holy city of Jerusalem, they reestablished their community, and they rebuilt the Temple. They survived in Babylon, just as we survived through slavery in Egypt and the years of wandering in the wilderness. And then in the year 70 the Romans destroyed that second Temple and ended Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, but the story did not end there. When the modern State of Israel was established in 1948 the national anthem they chose was called HaTikvah – The hope. The words speak of the hope that survived through almost 2,000 years of exile, the song that continued to be sung, and the connection that was never lost. But when you listen to the tune you can hear in the melody the strength and resilience that allowed the people to survive through all of their suffering. The faith and resilience that they had to keep on hoping.
And while the primary religious responses to times of challenge and suffering may be hope and resilience, there is one other Jewish response not found in the Book of Lamentations. This response is humor, we have always found those ways to make a joke and laugh at our situation no matter how desperate it might be. In the movie Fiddler on the Roof, about a Jewish community experiencing antisemitism in Tsarist Russia, one member of the community asks the Rabbi: Is there a blessing for the Tsar, and the Rabbi responds: May God bless and keep the Tsar far away from us. A sense of humor, which is considered a Jewish characteristic by over 40% of the community, allows us to laugh even when situations appear hopeless. And I think it is emblematic of the fact that alongside resilience and hope at difficult times we still need to find opportunities for joy – moments to smile and laugh together. Yes, we are living through a challenging moment, but our ability to gather together in song and prayer; despite the voices of hate, in the midst of a pandemic, and even with the weather conspiring against us; being here with all of you brings us joy; which in turn strengthens our resilience and nurtures our hope.
Here together this morning, and beyond—
May we continue to find ways to reframe our experience through song and with laughter.
May we allow ourselves to lament, and know that even within our crying out we do not have to let go of our awareness of miracles and of joy.
May we remember this day of joining together as loving companions on our journey through the Wilderness, and may we unite in choosing strategy of faith—the path of care, goodness, beauty, and gratitude—to guide us to our Promised Land.
Ken y’hi ratzon: May it be so.