- Rabbi Nanus
- Rosh Hashanah
SECOND DAY ROSH HASHANA SERMON
Rabbi Susan Nanus
Maybe it’s because I’m the oldest of four siblings, or maybe it’s because I enjoy learning, or maybe it’s simply because I like to tell people what to do, but I’ve always loved teaching. I started teaching Religious School when I was eighteen and a freshman in college. Because I’d gone to orthodox Jewish Day School and Hebrew High School, I had a pretty decent Jewish background, and I was always reading and studying on my own in order to really know my stuff. I didn’t teach just for the money, though of course, that helped. It was also because I really loved Judaism. To me, Judaism has always offered this beautiful way of life that elevates us to become our best selves, and I wanted to share that with my students.
I taught all through college and afterwards in New York City while I was a struggling writer. And I have to say, I was very popular. I was young, I was cool, I had wild curly hair and kind of looked like a hippie -- half the time I was less than ten years older than my students. I knew their music and their TV shows and their favorite movie stars – I could totally relate to them, and they could relate to me.
Even after I finally started to earn a living, I still taught Religious School just for sheer pleasure.
And so, when I moved to LA for my career, I started asking around, “What’s the biggest Temple in Los Angeles?” and a week later I was being interviewed by this cute, young, assistant rabbi with a full head of curly hair and glasses and big smile, named Steve Leder. I handed him my resume and said, “You should hire me to work here because I’m really good,” and for the next six years, I was a teacher at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. But then, life just got too busy, and for a really long time, I stopped teaching completely.
Until my 50’s, when I started rabbinical school, and then I taught adults. Seniors, converts, Torah study, Adult B’nai Mitzvah – I have taught a lot of grown-ups and as you know, I still do – but children? No. That was in my past. I felt way too old, from a different world, there are at least – dare I say it? 3 generations between myself and kids today, and so much technology! I’m still not sure what Instagram is and Tik Tok is a complete mystery.
I was positive that I would never teach children again.
But then came Covid 19.
First, we all had to learn to navigate this thing called Zoom. All our classes and services were now on screens which for me was completely overwhelming, and then came this request from Brawerman Elementary School, which was also completely on Zoom. “We would like each rabbi to teach one of the grades in the school once a week for 30 minutes, and Rabbi Nanus, we would like you to teach Third Grade. And by the way, there are four third grade classes, so every week, you will be teaching four times, to a total of about 55 eight-and nine-year-olds.”
My heart sank to the pit of my stomach. How was I going to connect to 8 and 9 year-old children and how were they going to connect to me? How was I going to teach them anything that would interest them, relate to them, seem meaningful to them in 2020, during a pandemic, in a lockdown, on a screen? I had no idea what they thought about, what they cared about, what excited them – or – and this really worried me – what bored them.
I met them for the first time about a year ago right before Rosh Hashana 5781, and now we are sitting together on Rosh Hashana 5782. And I am here to tell you that teaching those kids was one of the most beautiful, profound, uplifting experiences of my life. Not only did I teach them, and not only did they teach me, but they touched me and moved me in a way that no other class of students had ever done before.
And I think it’s precisely because I am so much older now, that we do have this huge age gap, that I was able to take in what they had to say and recognize their incredible wisdom and marvel at their thoughtful questions and be amazed at their kindness and generosity, and I want to share some of this with you this morning.
Because after the past year, if ever there was a Rosh Hashana where we needed something sweet, something a little stronger than apples and honey to lift our spirits and flavor our prayers with the taste of hope and optimism for the coming year – this is one of those times.
The first time I met my students, I introduced myself and asked them what their Hebrew names were and if they knew who they were named after. Then I asked them to share one thing about themselves that they were proud of. A lot of them said they were good at sports or the arts. One girl said she was a playwright and wanted to be a famous writer, and then one gentle, soft-spoken boy raised his hand and said, “I’m an ambassador to sick children in the hospital.” “Really, I said, surprised. “What does that mean exactly?”
“I go there and visit on weekends. Sometimes I collect toys and bring them presents.” I later found out that this boy himself had been ill and spent months in the hospital. Now, at the tender age of eight, he was giving back. The Talmud teaches that visiting the sick is one of the holiest mitzvot in the Torah, comparable to saving a life, and guaranteed to bring you blessings in this world and rewards from God in the next. It says that when you visit a sick person, you remove one sixtieth of their pain. Here was a child making a difference in the lives of others because he understood what they were going through.
The following week, we listened to the Shofar and discussed the meanings of the different sounds.
Tekiah is a call to pay attention and to show up. What do you have to show up for, or pay attention to?
Shevarim reminds us of our brokenness or the brokenness of the world. What do we need to repair that is broken?
Truah is an alarm to wake us up. What do we have to wake up to? To be reminded of?
“I have to show up for school because that’s my job.”
“My grandma is kind of broken because she’s sick and we can’t even see her. I think I should call her more. She lives by herself, and she might be lonely.”
“I need to be reminded that even though we’re stuck at home, I have a nice house and an ipad and good food and everything I really need. It’s a lot worse for other people.”
Beautiful answers to difficult questions. How would you answer them?
Before Yom Kippur, I had the kids to create their own Book of Life.
On the cover, they wrote their own names and inside, the names of all those whom they wanted to have a good year. They wrote down their families, their friends, their teachers, their pets (one girl, by the way, had a pet tarantula) and many of them wrote, “Everyone in the whole world.” There were no Democrats, Republicans, red state, blue state, races, religions, nationalities, gender identities, - Just everyone, God, please give them a good year.
There is one mitzvah in the Torah that is repeated 36 times, far more than others. “Remember the stranger because you were a stranger in the land of Egypt.”
Thirty-six, which is 2 times 18 – double chai, which I understand to be mean it brings life to us when we perform the mitzvah, and life to the person who receives the mitzvah. It seems that these third graders inherently understand that even those who whom we don’t know or don’t agree with or who are so different are still worth remembering and caring about.
Finally, I asked them to create a prayer for all of us for the coming year, because as we have learned during this time of Covid – we really are all in this together.
Out of the mouths of babes, I heard --
Please God, --
Help us find a cure for Covid.
Help feed the homeless and find them houses.
Protect the elephants and other endangered species.
Help us take care of the earth before it’s too late.
We need rain, but no mudslides, and no earthquakes.
Make people stop hating each other.
These are not new requests, I know. But when you hear the sincerity, the concern, the anxiety, the worry in the voice of a child, these appeals take on a weight and an importance that is impossible to ignore. They care so much, I thought to myself, how can we not work to make this world a better place for them?
As the months wore on, the children opened their hearts and minds to me. We played games, created art projects, read stories and acted out plays about Jewish values such as kindness, gratitude, justice, responsibility, and they shared their philosophies and fears about what it’s like to live through a pandemic when you’re eight years old.
What’s one kind thing you can do this week?
A lot of the kids said - Help my mom.
A lot more said - Not fight with my brother or sister. (Which is a big challenge when you’re living together 24 hours a day)
And one boy said – If someone bullies my friend, I will stick up for him.
What’s one good thing that came out of this quarantine?
I get to each lunch with my parents.
My mom and I bake challah together.
My Dad and I bake challah together.
Almost all of them answered with some version of - I get to spend more time with my family.
No one said, “I get packages from Amazon every day or I get to play more video games.” There is a painted sign hanging on the wall in my kitchen which reads, “The Best Things in Life aren’t Things.” They were in third grade and they had already figured this out.
Write a letter to your future self and tell them what you’ve learned from living during Covid.
If you can go to school, don’t complain.
If you can see your friends, be happy.
If you don’t have to wear a mask, you are really lucky.
What responsibilities do you have at home during this time?
One rather shy boy who didn’t talk much shared that he did the laundry for his entire family.
“Really?” I said, impressed. “Let me ask you a question. Do you put the detergent in before or after you put in the clothes?”
“Detergent before, fabric softener after,” he replied with confidence.
“Wow,” I said, “you really know your stuff.” He beamed, and after that, started to talk a lot more.
The Kabbalists teach that every person contains a Divine Spark, a tiny light of holiness which is the part of us created b’Tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. I believe that it’s up to us to ignite those sparks by recognizing the value of those around us – by really seeing them and appreciating their light within.
Every child in the Third Grade had a special light and when I recognized it, I watched them open up like beautiful flowers. Imagine if we all did this – not just with children but everyone. Imagine if we acknowledged the inner beauty that each one of us possesses – what would our world be like?
On Rosh Hashana, we ask God to inscribe us in the Book of Life, but the fact is, we each have our own Book of Life that we ourselves inscribe. Some chapters are written by our relationships with other people; some chapters are crafted by the decisions and choices we make, and some very special chapters are created by the lessons we learn.
And that is precisely why my chapter with the Third Grade is one of the highlights of my Book of Life. It is filled with lessons, not just for me but for all of us as we strive to move out of the darkness of this past year.
Lessons about what’s important, about what counts, about the difference between what we want and what we need. About what we struggle with and what we hope for. About the power of love and the holiness of every human being. About finding the good even in the worst of times.
Just as we dip apples into honey, may we all dip our hearts and minds into the sweet words of these sweet children. Let them inspire us and guide us to become more caring, more understanding and more grateful in the coming year. Let us all follow their examples and be inscribed for a beautiful chapter in our Book of Life.