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Erev Rosh Hashana 2005: Looking Toward the Treetops

Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro
Sinai Temple, Springfield, MA

Last month I visited the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.  Those of you who have been there know how beautiful a building it is. 

         I was looking at the many Rockwell paintings that have become American icons when I happened in front of one canvas called Freedom from Fear.  The painting is part of a series on freedom that Rockwell created during World War Two, and it portrays the ultimate family scene. 

     A mother and father are tucking in their children.  A soft light from the hallway illuminates the bedroom.  There is a toy doll on the floor beside the bed.  The children’s clothes are crumpled up under the bed.  The mother is bending over the sleeping children as she straightens the blankets.  Father is standing by with his folded newspaper.  A few words from the headlines stand out.  Something like – Bombs fall…War’s horror unfolds….

     The painting is most perfectly called - Freedom from Fear.

     And I know why I stood there for a good five minutes looking it over, reading and rereading that title – Freedom from Fear.

     I stayed there because the cozy painting didn’t answer a question.  It raised a question.  The image of those children sleeping so sweetly in the land of Rockwell forced me to wonder if there really is such a thing as “freedom from fear.”

     Can we be safe?  Can we be sure?  Can we have what we want in life and rest at ease?

     After Hurricane Katrina (and Rita too), those questions have been rolling around in my head non-stop.        

     Every day since Katrina all of us have encountered those images.  The crying babies.  The needy mothers.  The frightened fathers.  People hungry, thirsty, and desperate.

     One story stays with me.  It’s about the 5,000 evacuees from New Orleans who are living in the River Center convention hall of Baton Rouge.  They can’t stay in the River Center forever.  Many don’t want to return to New Orleans.  But what can they do to save their families from the fear of never finding home again?

      Here’s one solution.  According to The New Republic magazine, “Out in the lobby, tacked to an information board, there (are) numerous notices offering the evacuees new lives in faraway places.  “Space to house 6 families with up to 6 people each. In South Dakota,” says one.  Another reads, “Columbus, Ohio.  We have furnished apartments and jobs for families interested in relocating.  Call Dave.” 

     “Every few hours,” says the New Republic, “an announcement is made over the public address system that a bus bound for a distant city – like Indianapolis or Lansing, Michigan, or Casper, Wyoming – is at the River Center ready to roll out.  Sometimes, those in the shelter have less than an hour to decide whether they want to get on the bus for that unknown destination where they may spend the rest of their lives.”

     Can we be safe?  Can we be sure?  Can we have what we want in life and rest at ease?

     Now, it’s true that most of the people in the River Center and most of those who are the most desperate are not you and me.  They’re poor and black.  Before Katrina hit, they were already in pretty bad shape. 

     But that’s not the case if we look at some of Katrina’s other victims.  Take, for example, the Jews of Metairie.  (Their rabbi is the one to whom we have sent our World Crisis Funds.)  These people live about as close to New Orleans as people in Longmeadow or Wilbraham live to Springfield.  Most of them have the kinds of resources we have.  They’ve got flood insurance the way we would have it.  They know contractors the way we would.  They’re connected; they are not refugees. 

     But some of them have still lost their homes.  Some of the lawyers have lost their files.  The dentists have lost their patients.  In many homes, the precious Bar/Bat Mitzvah albums are ruined.  The children’s Lego, someone was saving for nostalgia’s sake, is gone. 

     The levee wasn’t high enough or strong enough to protect even them from the hurricane and flooding.

     In fact, in real life “the levee” can’t ever guarantee full safety – whether you live in New Orleans Ninth Ward, Metairie, Longmeadow, Suffield, or Springfield. 

     Rockwell’s painting may promise “freedom from fear,” but the truth about real life is that levees break and people get hurt.  Although we parents struggle as hard as our parents and their parents before them did to protect the ones we love from pain, we never have total success.  In Metairie or New England, there is always a breach in the wall, and we – even our children – encounter loss or disappointment.

     Nobody lives a life without getting bumped and bruised.

     And we knew this all along. Even if Katrina made this painfully immediate, Judaism taught us this lesson many times over.

     If you’ve been to a wedding, you know something about living realistically.  Call it Judaism’s gesture towards truth in advertising.  It takes place at the conclusion of the wedding ceremony.  When everyone is happiest, when the couple has already been declared husband and wife, Jewish tradition offers a final comment.  It comes in the form of breaking the glass under the chupa.

     What’s that all about?  Why take a moment when the sun shines so brightly on the newlyweds and cast a shadow on it with a shattered glass?  We’re conditioned to yell Mazal Tov when the groom crushes the glass, but that’s only because our enthusiasm carries us over the stark meaning of the glass.

     The dark message is that nothing is perfect.  The happiest couple has to know that, when they leave the chupa, they are leaving the Garden of Eden.  They are returning to a world where broken glass is a symbol for all the ways in which life can let them down.

     Then there is the sukkah.  Every autumn we Jews build this beautiful outdoor dwelling.  We decorate it with the colors of the rainbow.  It looks glorious.  It smells sweet.  And then the sukkah stands there for seven days, drying out, sagging, and withering.  It very quietly reminds us over the week that life has ways of battering us just as much.

     One more example comes to mind.  It’s the placement of the Mourner’s Kaddish in every synagogue service.  I know the Kaddish is there because we want to honor the memory of those who were precious to us, but recently I’ve also realized something else.   I was teaching a session on how adults can explain death to children when I realized that, to some extent, Jewish tradition takes care of the issue for us. 

     Once again, it’s subtle.  No one gives a sermon, but if a child attends services once, five times, or 25 times, he or she witnesses the Kaddish in every service and simply absorbs the fact that life isn’t forever.  Names are read in a long list.  Some grownups look as if they are going to cry. 

     The Jewish meta-message is that life isn’t only fun.  Life involves tears and limitations.  The levees protecting us from the hurricanes of life are never perfect.

     It is a dark message, although I don’t believe it’s a desperate message.

     There is a way forward because nothing I’ve described here happens in a vacuum.  Unforgiving as life can be, we also don’t have to live life alone.  In fact, as Jews we are not supposed to live life alone.

     Go back to the Kaddish.  There is a tough message there.  You can’t go to a service without being reminded that somebody is in mourning.  Somebody is hurting. 

     Of course, you also can’t have a service without a minyan, which is that ten person minimum quorum or community for Jewish worship. 

     And that’s the key.  In Jewish tradition, we acknowledge regularly and consistently that death and loss are all around us, but we also insist that no one should bear that pain alone.  We provide a minyan or community for the wounded. 

     We build communities because we are always stronger together.

     That’s one part of the High Holidays I love.  When the familiar melodies come along, I am nourished by the sound of your voices together.  That unified singing and that rumble that comes when 300 or 600 people share in a reading lifts me up. 

     The same holds true on a Friday night.  Honestly, the experience doesn’t have as much to do with the literal words of the prayer book, as it does with the presence of a community.  Some Friday evenings I arrive at services pretty tired.  It is after all the end of the week. 

     But the strangest thing happens when the service gets going. 

     After a few minutes, I feel invigorated.  I often feel as if there is pool of energy brought together when we assemble.  Each of us brings his or her spirit, and we create, as it were, a communal reservoir out of that spirit.  What happens then is that if one of us has less energy, he or she draws on the extra energy brought others.  Some nights I need that energy; other night you may need it.  With community around us, the reservoir is there for all.

     The end result is more than the sum of its parts.  Everyone grows.  Everyone is more fortified for whatever life brings his or her way in the coming days.

     That’s why I also think home shiva services are so important.  Again, the particular prayers don’t fully explain the experience.  Shiva services don’t work because you’ve mouthed the Shema or the Amidah.  They have their effect, however, because the mourner who is banging right up against the unfairness of life doesn’t have to stand alone.  Words said among friends are better than words said alone.  Pain felt among others is easier to bear.

     When the levee springs a leak in life, we’re always better off to have others at our side.  As Pirke Avot teaches us, “Al tifrosh min ha-tzibur…Don’t ever feel you need to tough it out alone.  Two or twenty are always better than one.”

     And what complements the presence of community as we face life’s storms?  Here we do come to something that is individual and personal.  It’s got to do with your attitude.

     Before I tell you a story, may I ask you to pause for a moment and think about your experience if you’ve ever been in the hospital or if someone has told you about the hospital.  I think you’ll agree that almost anyone who comes out of the hospital has a pretty dismal story.  They complain about the food or the personnel.  They talk about people being abrupt or unfeeling.

     Now let me tell you about Marsha’s grandmother, Bubbe Millie.  Years ago Bubbe Millie was in a not-very-fancy hospital in Toronto.  I got chills just walking down the corridor to visit her one day.  But I also remember asking her that day, “How is the hospital treating you?”

     To which she replied with a smile, “Oh, everyone is so nice.  They treat me very well.”

     Now it’s possible that Bubbe Millie had landed in the nicest hospital in Toronto, but I have always remembered her response because I am sure the hospital couldn’t have objectively been so wonderful.  What made the difference was how positively Millie experienced the hospital.

     It’s not what happened there that mattered.  It’s how Millie saw it that made the difference. 

     So too, how you and I look at life greatly influences what we ultimately do with life.  We can’t avoid the hurt.  There isn’t such a thing as freedom from fear or freedom from a thousand other problems.  As the Torah so beautifully teaches, humanity left Eden long ago.

     But come back to the wedding with me.  True - Breaking the glass does darken the moment with a dose of reality.  Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean the rest of the ceremony and the marriage are pointless.  The rest of the ceremony, the vast majority of the ceremony, is actually as full of life as we should be.  There is wine for the couple to drink.  There are words of love and hope.  There is beauty galore in a wedding ceremony because Judaism always has us looking for the possibility of good no matter how fractured the world may be.

     Sure, it will rain on the bride and groom.  Their lives will be marked by plenty of adversity, but that doesn’t mean they won’t also love each other, God willing create a family, and live to see more weddings with all the hope they embody for the future.

     Some of you may remember how popular existentialist philosophers like Jean Paul Sartre were some 50 to 75 years ago. The existentialists used to look at life and teach that since we are all going to die, life is essentially absurd.  

     And what did Jews say about this claim?  Jews looked at life differently.  Instead of working backwards from the end, Jews chose, as they always have, to grab life and give it purpose here, now, today, and tomorrow.

     As Shakespeare put it, “Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

     Which reminds me of what our Temple member, Joan Rosenbaum, once said on a  miserable Shabbat morning.  It had snowed too much that week.  New England slush and filth were all over.  At Torah Study, we must have been talking about the weather and the prospect of more snow when Joan offered us a unique way to color our experience.  She said, “Here’s how I handle the winter.  When the weather turns this dirty, I’ve taught myself to look up at the treetops.”

     That’s how I want to think about life and see life too.

     I have no intention of closing my eyes to the chaos around me.  Hurricanes happen in many ways in all of our lives.

     But as a Jew on Rosh Hashanah I simply refuse to let a hurricane have the last word.  I’ve got you to help me think other thoughts.  We are not alone. We have our community.

     Plus I’ve always got the option of looking toward the treetops. “Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” and I think as a Jew tonight I’m not lost, I’m not afraid, I’m ready for a new page in the Book of Life.

     Won’t you please join me?

     We may have miles to go before we sleep, but we can do it together. 

     We do have community, and, remember, whenever we wish, as often as we wish, we can also look up. 

     The treetops will be there and so will hope for the New Year.

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