Erev Rosh Hashanah 5776
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5776

Shanah Tovah U’mvorach

I like to begin Rosh Hashanah, not with very heavy or intellectual sermons, but with words that engage and entertain…stories that stay with us.

Over the course of many years I have saved stories that inspire and stories that humor and stories that are nearly unbelievable.

Tonight I want to tell you one that has an unusual beginning, and contains a lesson from which we have much to learn. I learned this from the writings of Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief British Rabbi.

This is about one of Israel’s great Psychologists and researchers. His name was Reuvein Feuerstein. He transformed the lives of brain damaged children. He gave children and their families hope when they believed all was lost. His approach to children reflected incredible, not only insight, but patience to stay with the tiniest responses of the brain damaged child.

His work was impacted kids all over the world; as far as the Native American population in America.

The elders of a tribe wanted to show Dr. Feuerstein their appreciation for what he did for some of their children and so they invited him to a tribal gathering.  He appeared with his wife and they were escorted into the Tent of the Chief. There, the leaders were sitting around a circle and invited Dr. and Mrs. Feuerstein to be seated. The tribal leaders were in full headdress.

As they began with a traditional welcoming ceremony, the professor, an Orthodox Jew from Jerusalem, was amazed by the surreal nature of where he found himself. He turned to his wife and in Yiddish he said: “If my mother could see me now!” And then, to his amazement, the chief who overheard him responded in Yiddish: “and what would your mother say if she knew the tribal chief understood and spoke Yiddish!”

The Chief then shared his story. He was in fact Jewish and a survivor of the Shoah. He was a religious Jew. After liberation, he came to America and decided that he wanted to move as far as possible from Western civilization that had failed him. He became a doctor on an Indian reservation.

Dr. Feuerstein and his wife were the first Jews he had met since that time.

Feuerstein received his commendation from the Native Americans, returned to Jerusalem where he lived out the rest of his days, but never forgot this story.

He was born in Romania, studied Psychiatry in Bucharest and was forced to flee by the Nazi invasion. He was a lucky one. He got out and made it to Palestine. There he settled and began his life’s work treating the children who were traumatized by the Shoah. After the war he returned to Europe and trained at the Sorbonne and then returned again to Israel where he established the Institute for the Enhancement of Learning Potential.

He dedicated his life to children with disadvantages; mostly physical like autism and brain damage, but also cultural and social. His methods have been adopted by schools and hospitals in over 80 nations around the world. He was defined as a genius; his eyes twinkled…he was a small, slight man. And children loved him.

I tell you about this because of the experience with the Indian Chief and because of his methodologies.

You see, they were both rooted in spirit and love. The Chief loved life, he loved creation he loved the natural world…man had disappointed him. But he did not move away from an essential faithfulness in God’s creations; not only mother earth but also caring for members of the tribe as a physician.

Feuerstein was a deeply spiritual Jew. His neurological work was complex but his healing always began with loving the child. And so children felt that and they loved him too. His faith was transformative. His young patients believed they would improve. Because he let them know he believed they would improve. He saw the most disabled child as a creation of God and treated every child with dignity.

Feuerstein taught people that faith and optimism changes lives. And that one thing that can rescue us from despair is the knowledge that there is someone who believes in us.

At the end of the day this is what God’s presence in our lives can do for us. When we fail, he can be with us. When we fall, our faith can lift us.

At the end of this service and every morning and evening service since the beginning of Elul we say, “Though my mother and my father abandon me, God will gather me in.”

And that’s where faith can transform us…Our faith is God, can be rooted in the sense that God has faith in us.

If we know that, then as we walk into the days ahead we know that as we ask for the power to change, to grow, to love…God will accept our desires, will forgive us…and then, we can forgive others and even forgive ourselves.

You know, the most widely known and deeply felt American spiritual is the prayer, song, “Amazing Grace.” And although we think of it as Christian, I know it is about any true faith.

Amazing Grace…how sweet it sounds…It saved a wretch like me.The song was written by a preacher poet named John Newton. John Newton was a slave trader. And one day he saw the light. He realized what he was doing was so evil, so wrong. And when he did…he found grace…compassion, love and forgiveness.

That’s what it means when it says “I was blind, but now I can see.”

And then the former slave owner knew he could approach God with faith…because God was waiting for him.

So, as we enter this first door of the Yamim Noraim, let’s consider that God is waiting for us. God is waiting for us…The doors are open. Let’s meet him over this day and the days ahead.

You never know where you will find a Yiddish speaking chief…and what that will teach us.

We learned from Dr. Feuerstein from the native American chief, and from John Newton, that true openness to people and their needs is a power that transforms; cyncism into faith, guilt into forgiveness…despair into hope, and fear into love.

We can make this a Shanah Tovah…if we move forward with that…

As the great Chief said…Gut Yahr!

Shanah Tovah