The New Shul

Rabbi Kanter’s Rosh Hashanah Drashah – October 1, 2019

L’shana tova tiketeivu v’teihateimu, May you be written and sealed for a good year.

Growing up, this was a hard time of year for my dad, and a particularly sweet time for his family.  Hard for my dad, because as a rabbi of a large congregation in Rochester NY, he had a lot of sermons to write, and sweet for us, because if we were home, we’d get to hear them, and if we weren’t they would arrive shortly after yom tov, first by mail, and later by email.

The high holiday sermons were like a feast:  whereas on a regular shabbat you would get a story or an insight, or a movie mention, or an art or literature reference, on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, you’d get them all in one sermon.  You’d be filled up with an inspiring, insightful, tapestry of torah, that nourished the spirit, excited the mind and increased your inner strength.

As many of you know, this is the first time in my 59 years when I don’t have my father with me.  For those of you who didn’t know my father, Rabbi Shamai Kanter, zichrono livracha, as a congregational rabbi he was a master preacher, a poet and a great storyteller, a professor of religious studies but also an activist who marched for civil rights.

His teachings, especially his high holiday sermons, inspired and helped me, so I thought I would share parts of them with you in the hopes that you might find them helpful too.  So what follows is a tapestry of my father’s teachings, from various sermons he gave over the years.

Of the many questions we ask as human beings, there is one that especially plagues highly competent people, people who might be more susceptible to the illusion that we are in control of our lives.  My father explained this question by way of a midrash on Adam and Eve.

“A story is told to explain why we lift our fingernails to the light of the candle during Havdalah.  Originally Adam and Eve didn’t look exactly like us.  Human beings were covered by a flexible armor, made of the same material as our fingernails that protected us.  When Adam and Eve left the garden of eden they lost that protective armor.  We have only our fingernails to remind us.

So at the start of the new week, we look at the reminder of our lost armor.  Nature hasn’t provided us with a shell or claws.  We go out into the world with only our intelligence to protect us.  The question we face as human beings is this:  How do we deal with that vulnerability, our openness to danger and hurt?”

This idea of lost armor is really the subject of the Unetaneh tokef prayer, who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water…  We know we are finite, and we know we are vulnerable and that our lives are simply not in our control, so how do we live in the face of that vulnerability?

To answer this question, my dad told the story of a friend of his, who was in his first year as a rabbi.  Just after the holidays, this young rabbi’s first friend in the community suddenly died.  He went to the family home not knowing what to do.

There’s a scene in a medical show series, where the new surgical resident, overwhelmed by a dozen simultaneous crises, cries out “Somebody call a doctor,” and the nurse tells him “you are the doctor!”  That how this young rabbi felt that night sitting beside the widow as she cried, holding her hand until her crying subsided.

Some weeks after the funeral there was a town election and he went to vote.  Coming out of the polling place, he saw the widow.  There had been an early frost and the sidewalks and streets were icy.  She was having trouble making her way, so he went’ over to her and took her arm.  She said “Rabbi, why does life have to be this way?  Why can’t a person even walk on the street without being afraid of falling down?”  He realized she was asking about more than an icy sidewalk, but all he could do was to take her arm.  He accompanied her to the voting booth and then to her car.  When they got there, she turned to him and said “I guess I needed an arm more than I needed an answer to my question.”

 Our vulnerability means that we need each other and we can help each other.  And as this widow found, sometimes the question you ask is actually not the one you need answered.  When we are dealing with our frailty, and the losses that humans experience, we need people to offer us a hand, to reach out to us, to comfort us, and to help us.  So the first thing we do with our vulnerability is use our recognition of it to help others, knowing that we all need help at different times.

The second response to vulnerability has to do with words.  For this I want to share a poem my father quoted by an anonymous author, called All I got was words.  It goes like this – part of it is in Yiddish, but I’ll translate the Yiddish as I go:

All I Got Was Words
by: unknown

When I was young and fancy free
My folks had no fine clothes for me
All I got was words:
Gott vet geben! God will provide
Gott tsu dankn! Thank God
Zoll mir nur leben un sein gezund. We should only live and be healthy
When I was wont to travel far
They didn’t provide me with a car
All I got was words:
Gay gezunt! Go in good health
Fuhr pamelech! Go slowly
Hob a glicklikhe reise! Have a fortunate journey
I wanted to increase my knowledge
But they couldn’t send me to college,
All I got was words:
Hob seichel!  Use your intelligence
Zei nit kein nahr! Don’t be a fool
Toire iz di beste schoire! Torah is the best merchandise
The years have flown. The world has turned.
Things I have forgotten, things I’ve learned,
Yet I remember:
Zog dem eemss! Tell the truth
Gib tsedakah! Give to charity
Hob rachmaness! Have compassion
Zei a mentsch!  Be a decent human being
All I got was words

My father’s poet ‘complained’ that all he got was words – but what words!  Words that taught him what’s truly important in life – not the clothes you wear, not the college you go to, not the car you drive – what truly matters are the values that you live by.   How do we find our stability in this world in the face of vulnerability of life?  We find it by attaching ourselves to certain values that we stand for, and that help us to withstand the experiences we encounter in this life:  the values of truth, and common sense, and menschlichkeit, and gratitude.  These words, these values, can help shape the kind of life in which we can find meaning and purpose, regardless of the losses we sustain.

And finally, in confronting our vulnerability, there is power in being part of a people, part of the larger community.  

For this point, I’ll share with you an essay my father quoted.  It was published many years ago in the NY times, by a Rabbi named Susan Schnur.  She wrote about her grandmother, whom she called Nana.  Every year Nana would buy a seat in her shul, next to her, for her husband Simon, who had been dead for 37 years.  The grandchildren would take turns sitting with her there.

But Rabbi Schnur went on to say that her Nana wasn’t alone in having her husband Simon with her.  Indeed, everyone there came with his or her invisible person:  The women whose children moved away – they were their invisible people; the man whose wife was ill – she was his invisible person; the man who davened all day without ever sitting down, his invisible people were from a lost world, a shtetl in Poland where the roofs leaked and the shul was falling down.

What I understood from this essay my dad cited, is that some of the emotional intensity that we feel in being part of a community on the high holidays, happens because its not just we who sit in this sanctuary today.  With us are our invisible people, our beloved ones from the generations that came before, and through the power of hope and imagination, the generations that will come after.   There is that sense of all being in it together, and that as we stand before God, we will come out ok at the end of the journey, because we are all in it together.

Being part of something larger than ourselves, something that came before us and will continue after us, is another way of facing our vulnerability as human beings.  We are all subject to the hard knocks of life.  But when you are part of something beyond yourselves, you can face your own frailty because you are not facing it alone.  You are in shul with a group of people who are doing what you are doing, and although each person’s story is different, and our weaknesses are our own, just the fact that we are next to each other – both in this space and through time – can strengthen us, and give us courage.

Helping and caring for each other when we need help, attaching ourselves to certain unshakeable values, and being part of a larger community of people who share our journey, these are some of the things that can help us confront our frailty, and come out the wiser from that encounter. I know I’m not the only one on this Rosh hashana who is feeling bereft from the loss of a beloved one.  There are people here who have lost a spouse or a sibling, or God forbid, a child, or their health, or simply feel raw as they worry about aging perhaps.  But sometimes coming face to face with our vulnerability can actually help to secure our footing in this world, and if we can learn that, we will have gained some very precious wisdom from these holy days.  So may it be.