Rosh Hashanah 5778
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Rosh Hashanah 5778 (After The Storm)

Shana Tovah

It’s always good to be together.

I feel particularly grateful that we are safe. That the roof over our head is intact. We remember that Yom Kippur not long ago when we had to disperse before Mustafa because of a hurricane. Some were relieved.

This year, Irma came earlier. We sit here grateful for our good fortune. It could have been so much worse; we all know that. I’m so glad that this building emerged pretty much unscathed. I will tell you that our maintenance crew were here immediately after the storm and have done a great job. And we cannot forget the needs of the victims of the storm, here in Florida and Houston.

Every critical event carries meaning. I think that part of the unique dimension of being human, is that we can find meaning in significant moments. The religious mind will attribute lessons to the natural events of the world. They’re not always simplistic or superstitious – that we must learn.

We started to do it with a Creation story and then Noah and the flood. More than a children’s tale, we have uncovered great lessons in those stories. These are lessons about human behavior and human responsibility about chaos and an orderly universe.

Today, I could have spoken about the natural world and its randomness. I could have spoken about the incredible human response to this storm. People, and they are amongst us, Ron Gallatin and Summer Faerman, and young Jerry Kramer, were incredible in mobilizing an effort to help. I will reserve comment about them and others for another time.

I was sent an op-ed piece, after hurricane Irma, that resonated with me, and it fit in perfectly with the sermon I wanted to give this morning. It was written by a woman named Judith Zaroff. Judith lives in Boca Raton in one of our beautiful upscale country club communities. For various reasons, Judy was alone and had to leave her home; she went to a shelter. How many of you went to a shelter? I would venture to guess very few of you would. When we are privileged we get to avoid shelters in most cases. Judy is from this kind of background.

She wrote a piece about the three days that changed her life. She was with 200 people who hunkered down in a local high school. There were no people that came from her country club community.

She wrote the following: “What I witnessed there altered many of my preconceived notions of those less fortunate than I.”

Most of my “shelter-mates” were no strangers to adversity and seemed more prepared for it. Many came with big families, big inflatable beds, beach chairs, food and lots of snacks. They were worried, but hopeful, polite and caring. there was praise for FEMA, which supplied our minimum amount of food and the workers who tried their best to keep the shelter clean.

I felt compassion, helpfulness and love in the shelter. I witnessed lots of middle-aged sons and daughters taking care of their elderly parents. I met 2-week-old Isabella, who was born on the day of the eclipse, and a 4-week old Japanese baby who never cried. Then there was the Hispanic woman with her daughter and autistic son who came to the school after having “a bad feeling” about staying in a big house. That feeling was an omen — she later found out that the space she parked in while there and soon vacated was then crushed by a falling tree. As she told us the story, she kept looking upward and thanking the Lord. Then there was a young, pregnant Mexican woman with her husband and three young kids. She was scheduled for a cesarean in four days. We laughingly told her not to name the new baby girl after Irma.

I would be remiss in not praising the many high school volunteers who served food, were extremely helpful and even sang songs with the children one night. A special thank you to the pretty blonde woman with a boot on her leg who checked on us all while pushing a scooter supporting her leg. Amazing people!

I made new friends, and felt proud of myself that I was a help to others by listening and sharing. The shelter has changed me and I feel more open to those around me. I have grown. An experience that I feared, morphed into one that expanded my view of life and all its people…”

I’m bringing this story because it seems to me that it has something really important to say to all of us. It’s a story because of the lives we live after we have found success and create environments where we essentially don’t “see” or “hear”, don’t interact with others. And so our experience of others is shaped by a news story here or there, or political conversations, or the generalized judgements we internalize.

What I have learned in life is that we fear those who are different when we don’t know them. And what I know is that fear leads to resentments and too often prejudice and even hatred.

I want to share something from my own past and its lessons. I have received great education from many places. But, if you ask me where my most important education comes from, I will tell you it was from Bridgeport’s Central High School.

I went to school when bussing was enforced in order to move our society towards desegregation. At that time, most of the Jewish families in my neighborhood moved to the suburbs; to Fairfield and Westport, and Trumbull. My family stayed in Bridgeport. And so, as a Jewish kid, I was part of a very small minority in Central High School. There was a large African American population, lots of Puerto Ricans (at that time we were told that there were more Puerto Ricans in Bridgeport then in Puerto Rico. There were significant numbers of Portuguese kids, Italian kids and the children of Eastern Europeans. There I developed many relationships with others. And those relationships continue to inform my life.

When we don’t see or know others, we fear them.

But more than that, I know that within our tradition there are two tendencies. One is about our separateness, and the other is about our connections and responsibilities to all people. I will be speaking more about this on Yom Kippur.

Today, what I’m thinking about is how our experiences shape our capacity to respond to others with understanding and kindness. Before any of you think that I am a male version of Pollyanna, let me tell you that I’m coming to this, because of our readings today.

Specifically, I’m telling you this story because of a rabbinic teaching as to why we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.

Because in addition to all the reasons we know the rabbis say that the shofar call is a cry. And it is done to remind us of the crying of a number of mothers. And one of the women crying was Sierra’s mother. Sierra, a Canaanite General. The story is found in the Book of Judges and takes places at the time that Deborah was the prophetess of our people.

Here’s a shortened version: Sierra was a general of a Canaanite tribe that was coming to destroy the new Hebrew nation our ancestors. He was enticed by a beautiful young Jewish woman, her name was Yael, he invited her to sleep in his tent.

What happens next doesn’t have a lot of detail, but its messy. She lulls the general to sleep. And once asleep, she takes a tent pin and slams it through his head. Beautiful Yael kills General Sierra and apparently saves our people. But that’s not the story the rabbis recall.

Our tradition does not make a big deal of the physically powerful. Leave that to the other nations. We see power a bit differently. And, that’s how we survived.

Here’s the story that the rabbis preserved. The evil General’s mother is waiting for her heroic son to return. And the rabbis describe her as waiting up late at night. She’s watching out the window, wondering where he is. She’s trembling. She’s crying in fear.

You know that feeling? Waiting up at night for a kid to come home? You know the feeling, the uncertainty when someone we love goes to a dangerous place? And we wait for them to return.

It’s horrible.

And, at some point, she learns that her son, the general, will not come back…

Her son died in a war.

How horrible is that pain… But here, we are empathizing, not with the pain of a mother from Israel? Here we are empathizing with the pain of the mother of the enemy. Because we know what it means to be a mother.

What do we do with the pain of the enemy?

And this is part of the brilliance, the depth of meaning we find in our tradition. Her cry, the cry of General Sierra’s mother, according to the rabbis is a reason that we blow the shofar!

Because a merciful people can feel the pain of another.
A mother is a mother. A parent is a parent? And we are to feel that pain.

We have to know the situation. We have to know the people.

There are other women in the stories of today; and I’m referring to the biblical stories that we read. And each of them teach us.

There is Hagar… banished into the wilderness because of her son’s teasing of Isaac. And she sits away from him because she cannot stand to see her little son, her Ishmael die of thirst. And she cries. God hears the cry of the mother.

And I think our tradition is asking us: Can we hear her cry?

Can we feel the cries of mothers and fathers around this world…caught up in war and famine? Can we allow ourselves to feel the pain of the Syrian mothers and fathers whose children have been washed up to shore, lives have been torn apart by war and evil?

In the relentless struggle with the Palestinians, I have always felt that our leadership has missed something…And that is, the ability to express the pain of the other…We knew once what it meant to lose our homes, to lose our land. Can we see the pain of the other?

Can we leave the walls which confine our vision and our hearts and see people as people?

And Sara? We learn she cries too. Her husband, Abraham, gripped by some religious fervor leaves with her son; and the rabbis tell us of her cry. And we must think of all the husbands and wives who are not heard, their words, their needs, their feelings. When we don’t try to hear, to listen, to know another…we can’t feel their pain.

And you want to know what we know? It’s not just about people who are out there, people from different socio-economic classes and ethnicities and regions in the world. Too often we really don’t hear the cries of those closest to us.

We’re so busy defending our own feelings and actions, so fearful that giving attention to other’s feelings will diminish our own…and so we don’t hear, we don’t listen. And so, homes are filled with alienation and mistrust and resentments. We’re too caught up trying to tell our kids to do that we don’t listen – We’re not feeling what they feel.

When we read of the Dreamers can we see people? Can we see what it means to grow up in a place that becomes home and then told, you don’t belong here?

Over and again the Jewish people have had that experience. We must see it in others. Can we feel for them?

I will share with you that this past election day, in the evening as the tallies were being reported, Tobi and I went to watch the results at the big screen at the Islamic Center of Boca Raton. That community was so fearful that they would suffer deportations and from hatred because they are not known. Because, yes there is Islamic terror, but it’s not them. I went there, because I know their leadership. I know their members. I could only imagine their fear and pain.

Today in the Haftarah we read about the pain of childlessness. And the barren Hannah cried out. The people at the religious site thought she was crazy. They didn’t hear her cry. They couldn’t see her pain. They didn’t know what it can mean to a woman who wants a child more than anything in the world and she cannot conceive. any of you do. I see you. In a culture that emphasizes L’Dor VaDor this can be so painful. Do we hear that cry? It’s here, it’s in this room.

Judith Jaroff, whomever she is, and whatever synagogue or temple she sits in today, I thank you for your message. Because the message of a single woman from a community here, is a message about empathy. We lose empathy when we build walls. I think empathy may be the most important religious call. I know that when we only see ourselves, we are the only thing that matters.

We are very challenged because for all different reasons we create a world where we have built fortresses and walls and we have successfully separated ourselves from others.

But to understand another we need to see them, hear them, we need to know them.

You know the most important prayer that we recite, the first prayer that we learned… it is the shema. What is it?

It is a command to listen.

And one of the very few commandments associated with this holiday? It is L’ishmoa L’kol Shofar…to listen to the shofar.

Listening, seeing, touching… basic human capacities; and we lose them as we shrink and turn more and more to ourselves.

My generation remembers the brilliant rock opera Tommy by “The Who.” Tommy was the pin ball wizard. He was deaf, dumb and blind. We learn that he was also a victim of abuse because of his disability. And in a poignant call… He sings “see me, hear me, feel me, touch me.” It is his call for compassion and protection. He wants to know.

The act of hearing, seeing, touching can create empathy.
Seeing another can create compassion.
Touching another can create love.

For years now I have been thinking that the most important Jewish obligation is found in the Haggadah. We read on Passover. And there we read:

“B’chol Dor vador Chayav Adam lirot et atzmo k’eilu hu yatza mimitzrayim”

In every generation, a person should see themselves as if they went out from Egypt.

What does that mean?

I know some Jews read it differently than me. For some it is read… they enslaved us, they tried to kill us. Never again. Don’t forget… always suspect THEM!

But I don’t think that is the meaning of the line. I think if it was, it wouldn’t say “chayav adam”… a person is obligated. It would say, chayav Yehudi, a Jew is obligated. No., here I believe the intention is bigger:

Remember your pain, your suffering, you were a slave in Egypt. Remember the experience. There will come a day when you are free. There will come a day when you will have power. On that day remember the pain of others, the meaning of being oppressed, the experience of being without a state, degradation, powerlessness. And if you do, you will be change the course of history. Your power won’t be used to oppress, but to liberate.

One of my sons was telling me about a Facebook stream after the hurricane. There was some looting in Ft. Lauderdale. Someone posted that the looters should be shot. Another posted kill every one of them. Another… We give them everything.

He told me that these were young Jewish men writing this.

We can agree that looting is criminal. They should be stopped, arrested and experience the full weight of the law… but to say they should be killed? Shot on the spot? What happened to these boys? That indicates a total lack of empathy. How desperate need one be to loot? How desperate need one be? What conditions does one live under… hopelessness and helplessness and poverty, and lack of opportunity? We’re different than that.

There are so many examples that we have seen in our lives. I remember when the conversations began about the inclusion of gay people and the empowerment of gay people began in our Jewish world. And remember the kind of harsh rejection it was met with. And then people began to see that they have a neighbor who is gay, they have a daughter who is gay, they have nephew whose gay… and once there was that kind of knowledge, knowing people, then the restrictions began to fall. Like Judith in the shelter, you can only understand when you know others.

My message is simple. This world is harsh. And we don’t have public leadership that expresses concern for those who are different, be they disabled, women, be they people from other cultures, people with different gender identities, immigrants… but we have a firm foundation in compassion and we have a basic call towards empathy. That’s why the rabbis taught us that the shofar is a reminder of Sierra’s mother. As she cried for her son, they understood the need to feel for every broken heart. Because we believe that this has the capacity to shift the world.

As we begin a new year, we have to try to see beyond our selves… look across our tables, look beyond our walls, see beyond our borders. It’s the only way we will set this world right.

I hope this year is a good one for you and your family.


May we all grow understanding for our lovers and friends, our children and neighbors…I hope this year is a better one for our people, our nation and our world…May you experience the understanding and compassion of others.

And, may we all grow in empathy for others.

May we deserve our name as Rachamin B’nai Rachamin…Merciful people, the children of merciful people.

Shana Tovar