The New Shul

Rabbi Kanter’s Message on Rosh Hashanah

[This drashah was given on Sept. 27, 2022]

A colleague of mine once said that teachers teach what they themselves need to learn.  In the rabbinate we say, rabbis give the sermon that they need to hear.  If, like me, you’ve struggled with life this year, or know someone who has, the words I offer this morning may be helpful for you too.   

There is a rabbi on Long Island who I like to listen to.  The first time I heard him, I was bowled over by his ability to tell powerful stories with important messages.  So I went to the internet in search of something recent, and what I found was the recording of a program where he was taking questions from his internet audience.

After he gives the d’var torah, a woman named Miriam calls in.  And Miriam says to him, Rabbi, A little while ago, I got divorced, my situation is such that I had to move into to a basement apartment. And one of my favorite things about Judaism has been shabbat.  God has been very good to me, I always looked forward to it, always loved celebrating it with family and friends.  And I still get excited about it and prepare for it, and look forward to it.  But recently, right after I light the shabbat candles, I start to feel so alone and in such pain, that I get into bed and I can’t get out.  I want to get up and go be with people, but its hard to find the strength to do it.  Perhaps you might have some advice for me, how I can get my shabbat back to the joy I know it can be.

The next person calls in and she says, Rabbi, my friends tell me I’m the most positive person they know.  And much of the time I really am, and from the outside looking in, it probably looks like I’m a person who knows how to take joy in life.  But sometimes, I just don’t feel it and it’s hard for me to put on the hopeful face that used to come so easily.  And I’m very aware of wanting to be a good role model to my children and teach them to have a positive outlook on life.  But sometimes, I just feel a bit dead inside, and it’s hard to pick myself up.  I’m wondering if you have any advice you can give me.

And so went the hour, an hour in which people spoke honestly and movingly about real struggles and daily difficulties that make life hard.  Each person’s story could break your heart, as would many of our stories if we shared them:  some of us struggle with mental illness, others feel knocked over by the loss of a loved one.  Some of us quietly deal with the pain of infertility, others with losing a home or with worry about a child.   The forms are abundant.  No matter how gorgeous or wealthy or successful or learned you are, life’s hardships come to all of us.

And each time, we learn once again, that we don’t control what happens to us.  And then we remind ourselves that the fact we don’t control does not mean we are powerless to act, or to impact what happens.  And if life is how we respond to that which befalls us, the rabbi’s advice was masterful.

He said to Miriam, before I begin my response to you Miriam, I want to tell you something.  Myself and every person on this phone call, we want to give you a blessing and we bless you that you should never be alone, that your future shabbats will be filled with joy and light and companionship.  Every single person on this call joins me in this blessing for you.  I may not know you, but I can tell from your words and your sincerity that you are very special person, and we all hope and pray this for you – that’s the first thing.

Second, I know something about the pain of divorce because two of my children are divorced. Each situation is different so I don’t mean that I know everything that you are going through, but I have seen how wrenching the loss of a marriage can be.  You are not alone in this experience.

And what’s more, I’ve come to believe over the years that many of the questions people ask are essentially what you are asking, they are struggles with how to keep going when life is so hard.  But Miriam, what you are asking is not something that can be answered with theology, or philosophy or commentary.  The answer to your question comes through companionship, through the presence in your life of someone or someones who you love and are loved by. 

And if I could find the person for you to love, who would appreciate the kind of person that I believe you are, if I could bring him or her to you, I would, and your shabbat would shine with the joy that you hope for. 

I can’t answer your question with a great commentary or a deep insight, but perhaps I could add one thing.  I come from a family where my parents and people they know lost entire families and they had nothing.  And I think the first thing they would tell you was that what helped them keep going was the knowledge that they were not alone.  And you’ve already told me you have a relationship with God, so I would say, to the extent that you can strengthen that relationship on the other days of the week, this can help.  It’s not a replacement for another person or persons, but remembering that God is the friend and beloved of your soul and will be with you, that can help you while you’re waiting, while you are in the process of finding that special person or persons.  That is what I hope and pray for you.

 And so this rabbi spoke with all the other callers, with the same kindness he showed to Miriam.  Why was this rabbi’s advice so powerful?  In it, you hear several key ideas that can help us as we struggle to keep going, and as we continue to search for the joy that will match the amount of blessings we have been given.

First he simply blessed her, that she should find what she was looking for – he gave her the message that what she wanted and needed were the right things to want and need in this life:  not things, or stuff, but connections with people to love and be loved by.  Those are good things to need, and those are the right things to want, and every person should be blessed with the joy of having them.

The second is that he acknowledged her pain – he simply told her that from his own experience he knew what she was going through was deeply painful, and there was no way to sugar coat essential pain.  He didn’t try to fix it, he didn’t try to solve all her problems for her, but he affirmed for her that the pain she experienced was real, and furthermore, that she was not alone in experiencing the heartbreak of divorce.

And the third thing he did was to suggest something that was in her reach to do. He picked up on the fact that she already had an existing relationship with God, an existing spiritual life that she could strengthen.  By growing stronger in her connection to the One who was with her all the time, this would help her to wait, while she was finding and creating those relationships that would fill her shabbat with joy.

A blessing, a validation of her experience, and something to do – and through all of it, the responses to this woman were striking in the deep compassion that came through.  Not pity, but real, genuine compassion for the sadnesses that a person encounters in this world. 

This is something we can give each other.  Compassion, genuine and generous, real understanding that no one gets by without struggling, without dealing with pain and loss.  And to the extent that we have people around us who understand and sympathize with our struggles, we feel less alone, and more able to keep going, in search of that which will energize our spirits and expand our souls.

 And something to do – that is something we can all remind ourselves.  That we are here for a purpose; the question is not just what do we need, but what are we needed for?   The work that we have to do does not ask us to save the world, although it would be great if we could.  The work we are talking about is the work that is possible for any of us to do:  a kind word to a.neighbor, a hello to those we see walking, head bowed and shoulders slumped, giving tzedakah according to our means, giving the benefit of the doubt for everyone.

Those are the pieces of work we can do – and they make a difference.

And what about the blessing the rabbi gave her?  This is also something that anyone of us can give to any other.  I bless you that you should find the life partner you are looking for.  For those trying to change, whether it be how they eat, or how they speak to others or anything else, I bless you that you should have strength to get up if you fall, and to keep reaching for the changes you are trying so hard to make.  For one whose worried about a child having a rough time,  I bless you that your child will be able to find her equilibrium once again, and be restored to health of body and spirit.

We all need blessings and we all need each other’s compassion and we can give each other both.  And we are all needed for something in this world, and when the opportunity to do that mitzvah or to be that loving listener comes our way, may we not miss the opportunity to do it, because it’s the reason we are here.

The shofar is supposed to remind of us crying.  It is supposed to train us to hear people’s tears and be with them in their brokenness, as we hope they will be with us in ours.  But the broken notes, the shvarim and the truah, are preceded and followed by one long unbroken note.  And particularly the unbroken note that follows the broken ones, is supposed to remind us that after brokenness can come wholeness again.  That is the most basic messsage of these holidays:  In the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, Im atah maamin she efshar l’kalkel, taamin she efshar litaken If you believe you can mess something up, you also have to believe that you can repair it.

Teshuva, the return to God, the turning toward others, and the return to the person we want to be but got too distracted from being, those are the possibilities and the hopes of these days.  May we take this precious time to internalize these messages.  And may we emerge from these days, closer to the people we want to be, and actively working to make better the parts of this world that are within our reach to improve, make them better because we are in them and because we are working to do so.  So may it be.