Kol Nidre 2004
It’s not what you see; it’s how you see it that makes all the difference
A little boy was holding a mirror in his hand. His eyes were going back and forth from the shining sun to a second floor window of the house in front of him. The boy was working as hard as he could to capture the sun’s rays and reflect them onto that window.
A jogger going by stopped to ask what the boy was doing. “I’m throwing a little sunshine up to my friend’s bedroom,” said the boy. “He broke his leg and he can’t be part of our school trip today. So I thought I’d just send him a little sunshine to let him know we’ll all be thinking of him.”
How kind a friend was that little boy with the mirror. How kind you have been to me over the last several days in responding to the Rosh Hashanah story of my surgery.
Many of you have told me about illnesses you or a loved one have experienced. A number of you have even told me about your own Elijah experiences – a time when someone you met – a stranger - unexpectedly raised your spirits.
Someone who was a guest at Rosh Hashanah services met his Elijah figure at the Basketball Hall of Fame a few days later. Apparently, the fellow who had heard my sermon was standing at an exhibit in the Hall of Fame, when a stranger struck up a conversation with him. It turns out that the stranger had the same illness our guest had. Whatever the stranger said, our guest left the encounter with a fabulous sense of hope.
I received an e-mail from someone else who heard me describe that wonderful stranger who reached out to me in the hospital. The e-mail read as follows, “The Elijah part of your sermon was so curious, because I had a totally similar experience the night before the Caesarean section for my second son. A young resident, whose name I never knew, came into my room for no particular reason while I was waiting to be induced. I guess she knew I'd been in the hospital for a long time, and she must have seen the worry all over my face. So she sat down on the bed and quietly explained what a Caesarean section was like. She answered all my questions and made me feel so very calm and peaceful. The baby, who was born the next day, is now my beautiful 25 year old son. All these years later, I still remember that resident.”
And now some of you are wondering perhaps one of two things: How come things like this don’t happen to me? I haven’t had an encounter with Elijah. OR perhaps you’re smiling and saying to yourself that the Elijah reference is cute but also just a bit much. A coincidental meeting at the Hall of Fame, in an obstetrics setting, or, as was the case for me, a meeting in the hallway at Mass General is not really anything more than a coincidence – even if it does make someone feel good.
This is what I want to talk about tonight. I want to talk about my imagination, about how I imagine life, how I see life, how a Jew might see life. As a good friend commented to me at lunch on Rosh Hashanah day, “It’s not what you see or experience in life. It’s how you see it that makes all the difference.”
So let’s go back in time. It’s June 2 (the day before my surgery), and I’m sitting in that colorless hallway at Mass General waiting for a CAT scan. I’m alone there. I am starting to realize this surgery is really going to happen in less than 24 hours. I am probably in great need of some emotional support. That’s when another patient comes along, offers me some comfort, and continues on his way. To tell the truth, I probably can’t remember too much about him – he remains a stranger to me - because I was too nervous to pick up on anything but the emotional content of what happened between us.
I know this rationally. I can rationally explain where my head was in that hospital corridor. But remember. It’s not what you see; it’s how you see it that makes all the difference.
And what happened for me is that, in an unguarded moment, when I needed to grab hold of something that was sure and certain, my heart gave me a way to make sense of my experience. Since I was a youngster, I’ve loved the mystery of Elijah. I’ve loved the whimsical idea of his showing up here and there when he’s least expected. And I’ve certainly been enamored of the idea that Elijah shows up to bring comfort, defend the weak, or fight for the underdog.
So when I’m feeling defenseless a day before something I’ve never experienced like brain surgery, who’s going to come to mind? How am I going to color my experience?
I see Elijah in that hallway because he’s already somewhere in my awareness as a Jew anyway. And when I do see him, here’s the point. I’m not alone. I’ve got all those Seder memories of going to the door for Elijah as a child. I’ve got the Elijah stories I’ve told about justice and love from this bimah. For me as a Jew, Elijah comes with a network of meaning.
It’s not what you see. It’s how you see it, and when I see Elijah at the hospital, I am connected and protected by all the memories and values he has quietly represented over the years in my heart and in my imagination.
Everybody does this. Everybody colors his or her world. If you’re a baseball fan, you may do it by thinking about various setbacks in your life in terms of what happens to the Red Sox (although that shouldn’t happen tonight). You may tell time as a football fan by saying something was either before or after Tom Brady became the Patriots’ quarterback. If you’re artistic, a sunny fall afternoon may make you feel as if you are inside a painting by Vermeer. If you’re a music fan, you may interpret what’s happening to you by quoting lyrics from songs by the Grateful Dead.
And if you’re a Jew, you can love football, visit the art museum, listen to as much music as you can, and still have another dimension to your life. You can see the world – sense the world - through Jewish eyes. In fact, you may already do that without even knowing you do.
Here’s an example – a sensory example. It probably explains why Shabbat resonates with me in a special way. The matter stretches back as far as elementary school when my mother used to have a cleaning lady come to our house on Fridays. Friday may have been cleaning day for any number of practical reasons, but it turns out that Friday played another role in my life. You see, I can still remember the look and the smell of the house when I came home after school on Fridays. My mother might have been cooking and those smells might have been in the air, but there was something else about the house on Friday afternoons.
If I could step back in time and enter that house one more time around 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, I bet I would have the same experience.
There was something fresh in the air. There was a look to the clean house. Before a blessing was ever said, it was Shabbat. It felt like Shabbat. It smelled like Shabbat.
And how did I learn respect for the generations?
I’m sure my parents told me about honoring the elderly and the memory of those no longer with us. But before they told me about such values, I am sure it’s what I saw them doing that made those Jewish values a part of me. They lit yahrzeit candles on the kitchen counter when a yahrzeit came around for one of their family members. They also lit them (as we did here on the bimah) when Yom Kippur came around.
I saw them lighting candles and absorbed the notion that it must be good to honor the past. I smelled the house on Friday afternoons and absorbed again a sensitivity to Shabbat.
Smells, sights, and stories of Elijah all rumble around in my soul. They color the way I know my world. It’s not what I see; it’s how I see it.
A case in point: Like so many people, I’ve been reading about Darfur, one of the western provinces of Sudan. The place is a nightmare. As many as one million black Africans (citizens of Sudan) have fled their homes because the central government has embarked on a campaign to eliminate these black Sudanese. Government-supported militias have attacked them, burned their villages, and killed more than 50,000 of them.
Secretary of State Colin Powell has called this situation what it is: genocide, but it didn’t take the Secretary of State to draw me in. That’s because it’s not only what I see, it’s how I see it, and, as a Jew, I can’t help but see Darfur through the lens of Torah verses that I’ve known forever. It is as if the lens on my eyeglasses have certain words imprinted on them. “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor…You shall not wrong a stranger…for you were strangers in the land of Egypt…You must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
This is the basis for Jewish ethics. Along with anything else we may have eaten at a Seder, all of us have tasted these words from the Haggadah. “In every generation each one of us should feel as if he or she was a slave in Egypt and was able to go free from Egypt.”
I may not always act as I should, but being a Jew means that the notion of being saved from slavery is always somewhere in my subconscious.
Some of you know that I teach a survey course on Judaism at Springfield College. This year’s class has about 25 students. Only one is Jewish. And my task is to communicate to these students what Judaism is all about when they haven’t ever tasted, touched, or smelled the Jewish experience.
Last week we were talking about Jewish ethics. I was telling them about the influence of the Exodus on Jewish behavior, but I sensed the point was not clear. So I asked how their priests or ministers might launch their parishes on something like a campaign for Darfur. The hands went up and most of the students said their clergy would appeal to them as Christians by asking, “What would Jesus do?” The answer: Jesus would be in Darfur washing the faces of the ill and holding the hands of the weak. The result: Today’s Christians would feel they had to reach out too.
Jews and Christians both do good in this world, but, when you really pay attention, you realize that Jews and Christians imagine the world differently. Christians have internalized the story of Jesus so that his behavior becomes their model. Jews have internalized the story about being slaves. We don’t what that to happen to anyone else. At our best, then, we see the world through the eyes of the oppressed and it gives us the impetus to fight for justice.
So I’m a Jew who’s heard great stories about Elijah and Egypt for a lifetime.
I’ve smelled the clean house on Friday afternoon as well as my share of brisket and chicken soup.
I’ve tasted the matza balls.
I’ve touched the challah, the etrog, and the silver Kiddush goblet.
But what do I see when I want to capture the essence of Judaism? I see candles. They’re with us every Friday night. They’re with us every single holiday from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur throughout the whole year.
But think about it. They’re not only a part of our holidays. Candles come at the beginning of every holy day. Candles start the holy day -- which didn’t have to be the case. The Torah doesn’t even mention candles in connection with Shabbat or the holidays. If anything, the Torah says we are not supposed to light fires during Shabbat.
So what were the sages thinking when they chose to begin the holy days with light?
I like the way our prayer book, Gates of Prayer, describes the significance of candles. “These lights,” says the siddur, “are only flickering flames…Yet…flames purify and renew, soften and refine, they brighten and make warm.” And they do all this, of course, when night arrives. When you can’t see a thing (which would have been the case for most of pre-electricity history), candles come into play.
Why? Why does Judaism become a religion of candles and light?
Perhaps in a world where only the rich and noble could afford light after dark, our sages felt that every Jew ought to have a chance to feel like royalty. Light candles on Friday nights and seasonally with the holidays and you’re not a peasant. You’re created “in the image of God,” says the Torah. When you light candles, it’s a profound way to affirm that you’re as good as a king, a queen, a princess, or a prince.
More than that, in a world that was so dark and cruel, candles became a symbol of hope for Jews who wanted to believe life wasn’t meant to be lived in the shadows. When our ancestors lit candles, even the ugliest shack could look beautiful.
When our ancestors saw those fragile flames shooting up and leaping up, they could believe a better day might be just around the corner.
Candles are like Judaism. They soften and refine life’s harshness. They give life a touch of elegance and grace. Candles are all about hope, which in the end is what Judaism is about too:
hope that the Egypts which afflict all people literally and figuratively will not be forever,
hope that there are Elijahs out there waiting to take the sting out of a bitter moment,
hope that it’s even worth being here tonight.
It’s worth being here because every year that brings frustrations, challenges, and disappointments still somehow offers triumphs and possibilities.
I’m a Jew.
I tell stories. I remember stories.
I see what others see, but I also see it in my own way.
And that’s my greatest blessing.
To be me.
To be part of this tradition.
To live it.
To see, taste, touch, smell, and hear what the rest of the world does, but to do it in my own unique way as well.
I’m a Jew. I wouldn’t have it another way.
By the way, did I tell you this story about Elijah? It comes from the Talmud where the rabbis imagine that one day Elijah appeared to a certain rabbi in the market of a certain town. The rabbi asked Elijah if anyone in that market was worthy of being rewarded with a place in the world to come. Elijah looked around the town square until he saw two men approaching. He told the rabbi that these men were worthy of eternal reward. The rabbi walked up to them and asked what their occupation was. “We are jesters,” they replied. “We cheer up the sad; we help them smile.”
The Talmud continues:
Elijah smiled when he heard their answer. Elijah knew that sometimes all of us need to lighten our burdens.
That too is part of the blessing Judaism offers us.
May it come true for you this coming year, this coming day, and, especially now, for Kol Nidre, for tonight.
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