Rosh Hashanah 5782/2021 - Rabbi Leder

  • 5782/2021
  • Rabbi Leder
  • Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah 5782

Rabbi Steve Leder


“Dad, do you think the world is going to end?” my son asks me while sitting at the kitchen table.  “There are a lot of really bad things happening.”   

What kind of world is it, I wonder, that can shake someone so young’s faith in the future?  Maybe it’s the plastics, sewage and death in coastlands and oceans of the world upon which we depend for food.  Maybe it’s wildfires with smoke visible from space blanketing the country, blotting out the sun in the middle of the day.  Maybe it’s pieces of glacial ice the size of Manhattan crashing into the sea, making us wonder when, not if, we shall go the way of the dinosaurs. 

Maybe it’s our children and grandchildren, who have graduated from college with low-paying jobs, living with their parents, discouraged as each day passes.  Maybe it’s that the number of Americans who are receiving food stamps rose to a record 40.8 million.  Maybe it’s the bloody wars, bickering, corruption and salacious scandal that pass themselves off as news, every minute of every hour of every day.  Maybe it’s the way the world hates Israel and therefore us, so unfairly and dangerously, wishing upon us annihilation in words all too familiar from less than a century ago.   

I could have written these words yesterday, but I didn’t.  I said them eleven years ago on Rosh Hashanah.  If I had written them yesterday I would have added how exhausted, how angry, frustrated, and often discouraged we are because of Covid-19.  

 “How many will die?  Who by water in Louisiana or New York?  Who by fire in California?  Who by war in Afghanistan?  Who by hunger on the streets of Los Angeles?  Who by thirst in Africa?  Who by earthquake in Haiti?  Who by plague everywhere and anywhere?”  This too could have been written yesterday.  But minus the specific locations, it was written 1,000 years ago.  

We read the Unetantokef prayer every year.  It never leaves the prayer book.   That’s true of the al cheits too.  The world and the human condition haven’t changed much over the centuries.  We are subject to the very same fears and guilty of the very same sins as our ancestors ten, twenty, even thirty centuries ago.    

There’s a story is about a young rabbinical student running as fast as he can down the street right past the head rabbi of the yeshiva.  “Where are you running to?” the rabbi asks his student.  “I’m rushing home to look over the High Holy Day prayer book before I have to lead services,” the student answers, huffing and puffing.  

The rabbi smiles and says, “Slow down.  The prayer book hasn’t changed since last year.  Look over yourself instead.”   

Rosh Hashanah is a powerful promise and declaration of deep faith, that while the world doesn’t change much, we can.  We can change, we can grow, we can have a more beautiful and meaningful life.  

I have changed this year in a way I never expected.  I have begun to speak more openly to my family, close friends and the larger community about my lifelong battle with anxiety.  For most of my life I subordinated the feeling of impending doom through workaholism--I worked nearly all the time.  Only I knew the dark secret behind my accomplishments. My anxiety was locked in the basement by my ambition and could only pound on the ceiling with a broom stick now and then to annoy me.  

But, earlier this year, the stress of leading and caring and burying so many during the pandemic, combined with the alarming fear of being canceled when it was revealed publicly that I stood up privately for someone I believed deserved another chance -- although many others did not -- resulted in that locked basement door to my psyche being flung open. This left me trembling … possessed by heart-racing, paranoid, gripping, unceasing anxiety I could not control.  I needed help.  

For the first time in 61 years, I am now properly medicated.  I pay attention to my mental health.  My life is better and more beautiful now.   It is true, what the sages say about Rosh Hashanah.  We really can change.  

An evangelical pastor of a massive church in Texas asked me on a podcast recently what part of God I thought was missing the most on earth?  I answered immediately with a single word: Empathy.  

But like floods, fires and plagues, this is not a new story either.  Consider this interview with Helen Levitt about what happened to her 70 years ago during the McCarthy era when the question asked by Senator McCarthy of so many was, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” spawning an era of cancel culture in America then called blacklisting.  Levitt was cast out of the community to which she belonged, by virtue of her beliefs, and the experience was nearly unbearable. 

Levitt: Our best friends called—the ones that we had seen every Saturday night previously in Brentwood—and said, "Don't come to the party this Saturday night." That was a terrible moment...

Q: Did you lose a lot of friends?

Levitt: All our friends.

Q: I know you're not a bitter or angry person, but weren't you outraged at all then?

Levitt: I was lonely, lonely, lonely. It was so sad.

Malcom Gladwell came across that old interview with Levitt and decided to write about today’s cancel culture.  “I was just as outraged by her views about Stalin as her contemporaries,” Gladwell says. “What gave me pause, though, was hearing—in her own words—about the consequences of her ostracism.”  This all causes Gladwell to ask a question about today’s America.  It is also the High Holy Days question of questions “Is our moral vocabulary now so impoverished,” he asks, “that we no longer have room for the possibility of redemption?”  

Are you now or have you ever been foolish, prejudiced, unkind, or a gossip? Are you now or have you ever been a person who regrets what you did or said or believed at some time in your past?  Of course you are.  Al cheit shchatanu--We all are! 

While I was going through that terrible period of anxiety, I learned so much about empathy I never fully understood before.  In the depths of my despair over some people believing I had committed a moral failure, I remember every email, every call, every zoom of support.  I remember every friend who showed up.  I remember every person who disagreed with me with respect.  And, I remember every person, some of whom I have known and cared for over three decades, who treated me with anger, suspicion and even cruelty.  To shed some light on why that is, I am going to try something I have never tried in a High Holy Day sermon before.  I am going to straight up teach a Torah text.  

You all know the basic story of this text.  It is about the ninth of the ten plagues in the Passover story; the plague of darkness.  Here is how the Torah puts it: “So Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days.  They did not see each other, and no one rose from his place…”  

This was the Torah portion of the week during the time I was at my most vulnerable with anxiety and fear; and it was also the week I was scheduled to present the week’s Torah portion online to those of you who study with me.   I was nervous and afraid when I sat down in my study alone to review it and prepare to teach.  

“So Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days.  They did not see each other, and no one rose from his place…”  Now stay with me.  The Hebrew word translated as “from his place” is “mitachtav.”  But that word actually means “from underneath it.”  The verse doesn’t really say it was so dark “…no one rose from his place.”  It actually says, it was so dark “…no one could rise from underneath it.”

Mitachtav-- "…no one could rise from underneath it.”  From underneath what?  And then it hit me—the reason we don’t see others is that we cannot get out from underneath the weight of our own assumptions, prejudices, and point of view.  Instead we sometimes choose the smug, self-imposed darkness that comes from turning a blind eye to the possibility that we are wrong about another person--and that is the blackest most paralyzing plague of all. 

Other than a spouse, lifelong friend or a sibling, how many people do we truly, deeply know? And yet, we so often rush to judgement despite our fundamental ignorance.  One teacher put it this way.  “We meet people in the middle of their life stories, in chapter three.  We have no idea what went on in chapter one and chapter two, and we don't know what lies ahead in chapters four, five and six.” Maimonides said that a person may achieve one merit that could “outweigh a lifetime of mistakes.”

This year of anxiety and fear has taught me to think twice before casting dark shadows on people I do not understand or who do not understand me.  Jewish tradition says we can't judge someone "unless we've arrived in his or her place." In order to do that, we have to get out from underneath the weight of our self-righteousness.

I discovered a Chassidic blessing I never knew before when studying that verse about darkness in the midst of my own.  I immediately printed it out in large letters and taped above my computer at home.  That blessing simply says, “Just as you have judged me favorably, so may God judge you favorably.”  

Isn’t that what we are doing here, asking God to judge us favorably?  Isn’t that what we all want—to be seen for who are at our best; for the judge to stand in our place?  And if that is what we all want; how can we not grant that same empathy to others?  

The head of that yeshiva was right.  The prayer book doesn’t change, and the world doesn’t change all that much either.  But we can change.  I learned all too well this year how agonizingly hard it is to face the locked basement of our psyche and our lives.  But I also discovered it is the truest path to change, the surest road to the beauty and the power of redemption.   

We can change.  We can throw off the weight of anger, conquer the darkness of canceling, quell the plague of our own narrow mindedness.  We can rise from where we have been, move forward into the New Year, reach out to each other, and hold that piece of God that matters most.