February 25, 2020

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder Erev Rosh Hashana 5779 Sermon

This sermon came from Rabbi Steven Z. Leder at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles.

I suffer from anxiety.  It is very real and sometimes very frightening.  It can ruin parts of days, weeks, months and years.

I worry about finishing what we started on this campus more than a decade ago.  I worry nearly every day that whatever I am doing for a Temple member I am simultaneously disappointing others because I am not tending to them.   I worry about having enough money when I retire, about my elderly parents and my kids. And as a rabbi I see so much dysfunction, so much hurtful gossip, so much cancer and death that it is hard not to feel like I’m next.

And of course there is the news. That daily toxic cocktail of mind boggling instability, criminality and drama in Washington, tweeting and testing the very fabric of democracy itself.

Wildfires, Putin, Assad, Iran, North Korea, global warming, Mueller, racism, corruption, sex scandals, immigration cruelty, floods, homelessness—over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.  And tonight we’re supposed to wish each other a shana tova?  Really?  Yes. Really.

Our ancestors put celebrating on Rosh Hashanah ahead of the past remorse we face on Yom Kippur.  First hope in the future, then the muck of our past. And believe me, the sages knew a lot more about anxiety than we do.  Consider the Unetane Tokef prayer we say on Rosh Hashana.  The one that asks, “Who by water?  Who by fire? Who will be troubled?  Who will be needy? Who shall live and who shall die?”  That prayer was written at least 13 centuries ago.

Life 13 centuries ago was nothing but anxiety.  Rape, murder, muggings, death by fire or flood or plague or starvation or war were regular, daily occurrences.  Today a Western European has 1/35th the chance of being murdered compared to his medieval ancestors. Thirteen hundred years ago 1/3 of all children were dead by age five.  It’s true. “Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.” Thirteen centuries ago, if they had it, everyone would have been on Xanax.

But our ancestors had a different, more powerful prescription for managing their anxiety and fear.  I try to use it every day. Remember how that prayer ends; what comes after that long list of terrible things to worry about in the coming year?  It ends with three simple things that can get us all through. “But teshuva—repentance, tefilah—prayer, and tzedaka—generosity” says that wise prayer, “Ma-a-virin et roah ha-gezarah—will make whatever comes next year easier to live with and through.”

This was the ancient rabbis’ simple, three-part formula for surviving in their time and it can be ours too.  First, teshuvah–repentance.  And what is repentance really, other than trying to make things right with others?  Our ancestors lived in small villages, where the key to survival was the quality of relationships with a handful of people who really mattered.  Are we any different? Do any of us have more than a small handful of people in our lives who really matter?

So when that wave of worry sometimes overwhelms me, when I cannot sleep, when I do not understand myself, I reach out for Betsy.  I tell her. I hang out with Aaron and Hannah, doing nothing much, which of course, means everything. I pour it out to a friend I know will never gossip about me.  Often, the only thing that helps is opening my heart to someone I deeply love.

So double down, says the Unetana Tokef.  When you are in pain, when you are lost, when you are afraid—double down on your relationships.  Cherish them. Nurture them.

Whoever you came here with tonight or called to wish a Shana Tova, that person by your side right now, he loves you, she loves you, he will shelter you when the rain falls, she will hold you when the darkness is too dark to see.

No one, no one endures suffering better alone.

Tend to your relationships with teshuvah.  Do not let the centrifuge of life’s stresses whirl your family and your friendships apart.  Double down. Make things right with the people you love. For only love can lift us from our suffering and our fear.

Second, there is t’filah—prayer.  I know what you might be thinking.  “Oh great—the world is coming apart at the seams and the rabbi wants me to pray?  I thought this was a reform synagogue.” I do want you to pray, but not in the way most people think.

The English word “prayer” comes from the Latin precari, which means to beg.  But the Hebrew word for prayer is tefilah from the root pelel which means “to reflect upon or evaluate oneself.”    The rabbis did not envision God as a cosmic Grantor of Wishes.  To the contrary, prayer is supposed to change us, not God.

Prayer is a different way of thinking about the world, than CNN, Twitter, or Fox.  Prayer is the counting of our blessings even when that is such a difficult thing to do.  Consider the Kaddish.  When we least feel like it, when we would rather sink into the very ground and die ourselves, when we feel so terribly cursed, we are commanded to stand up and affirm the blessing of life.

Legend has it, in the time of Kind David, 100 people died every day from a terrible plague. So King David and the Sages instituted a spiritual “measure for measure;” the saying of 100 blessings each day.  And suddenly, the plague stopped. To this day a traditional Jew says 100 blessings a day. A blessing for awaking? Yes. For eating a strawberry? Yes. For the ways our bodies work? Yes. For narrowly avoiding a car crash?  Yes. A tree swaying in the breeze? Yes. Almost all cultures have some sort of blessing over bread. Why a blessing over something as ordinary as bread? It’s simple of course…if we can be grateful for bread, then we can be grateful for the other, greater blessings of life too.

I keep a small, laminated prayer in my closet about the miracle of our bodies.  I say it every morning because just a few years ago, after that terrible back injury, Betsy had to dress me like a child and more than once I wept in her arms saying, “I can’t walk.”  I pray in my closet each morning because I can put on my own socks and shoes, and walk onto this bimah to be with you. Simple blessings are easy to miss. A friend of mine calls this “Standing knee deep in the river and drowning of thirst.” So yes, pray.  Use whatever words you wish, but count your blessings 100 times a day. It will change your life.

I saw a fascinating exchange on Bill Maher’s show a few weeks ago.  It was between Harvard Professor Steven Pinker and the African American comic and political commentator D. L. Hughley.  Pinker uses facts to tell the truth about modernity. You don’t have to listen long to realize that although the news isn’t fake, it is false sample.

For example, 200 years ago, 90 percent of the world’s population subsisted in extreme poverty. Today, fewer than 10 percent of people do and the world has never been more democratic, with two-thirds of the world’s people living in democracies.  Last year the world had 12 ongoing wars, 60 autocracies, and more than 10,000 nuclear weapons. But 30 years ago, there were 23 wars, 85 autocracies, and more than 60,000 nuclear weapons.

Over the last century, we’ve become 96 percent less likely to be killed in a car crash, 88 percent less likely to be mowed down on the sidewalk, 99 percent less likely to die in a plane crash, 95 percent less likely to be killed on the job, 89 percent less likely to be killed by drought, flood, wildfire, storm, volcano, or landslide.  Pinker proves the real answer to that Rosh Hashanah question who shall die by water, or by fire, is probably not a single one of us.

During Maher’s show, Hughley challenged Pinker’s claims of progress with a rant about the state of African Americans, claiming no progress since the 60s and the decimation of his people.  Pinker shook his head and calmly replied, “That’s not true. There is more to be done, but there has been a lot of progress. Income is up, especially for black women, violence is down, and racist incidents are down.”  Hughley was silent. He had a hard time acknowledging that while we still have a long way to go, things really are much better.

The Talmud put it differently.  “We do not see things as they are,” say the rabbis, “we see things as we are.”  That’s why Pinker’s statistics were so dumbfounding to Hughley. What we see is always within us even before we begin to look.  If you don’t believe that people are mostly good, you will see mostly evil in others.  If you expect the worst you will be blind to your blessings. If you think religion is the source of evil you will never see the good that religion does for people.  We see the world not as it is, but as we are.  Or, as I often like to say, “A sad Jew, is a happy Jew.”

You never hear a journalist say, “I’m reporting live from a country that has been at peace for 40 years,” or “a city that has not been attacked by terrorists.”  This morning the LA Times could have run the headline, “137,000 people escaped from extreme poverty yesterday and every day for the last 25 years.” That’s one and a quarter billion people leaving poverty behind, but you never read about it.

Progress is the greatest fact in human history.  We are surrounded by miracles every day. But as humanity has gotten healthier, wealthier, wiser, safer and happier, so many of us have become more anxious and afraid.  I know I have.

Often when every other option fails someone will say, “There is nothing left to do but pray.”  It is the response of last resort. But the rabbis put it first, not last. It is the thing we are supposed to do more often each day than anything else.  It is a wise person, a happier person, a calmer person, a better person, who affirms the enoughness, the beauty, the miracle of bread, socks and shoes. It is hard to be hopeless when you are grateful.

And let’s not forget that final antidote to fear prescribed by the rabbis in the Unetana Tokef prayer.  Tzedaka–the righteous act of helping others.

I wonder how many of you were raised with the same parenting technique I was.  My father called it the “Stop crying or I will really give you something to cry about,” technique.

I hated it when I was a boy.  But the older I become the more I realize, crude as that parenting was, there is a lot to be said for perspective.  We all need reminding that things really could be worse and that for many people they are.

When someone comes to see me about a problem, I sometimes offer a seemingly unrelated solution.  “Volunteer one Sunday at the Temple’s food pantry,” I suggest. Hand out sandwiches to the homeless, the mentally ill, the friendless, the forgotten, the aged poor and I promise, you will have a new perspective on your own life.

This Chinese proverb says it best:
If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap.
If you want happiness for a day, go fishing.
If you want happiness for a month, get married.
If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune.
If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody else.

“We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are.”  Who am I—really? Can I become calmer, better, more hopeful, more helpful and at peace in the year to come?  Who are you–really? And how will you find the hope and peace that are sometimes so elusive in your life?

The answer was given to us long ago:

Teshuvah—let us love more deeply.

Tefila—whatever our losses let us count our many blessings.

Tzedaka—and let us reach out with what we have to those who have so much less.

For it is in these ways, come what may, we will make it a shana tova.

For more of Rabbi Steven Z. Leder‘s work, visit his website.