Community Allows us to Overcome our Adversity

This sermon was given on Rosh Hashanah 5776 at Temple Emanuel, Denver, CO

We just read one of the quintessential stories in our Torah – Abraham attempting to sacrifice his son Isaac.  We imagine the struggle that Abraham must have experienced as he handed Isaac the wood, picked up his knife, walked up the mountain, bound his son upon the wood and raised his hands over his beloved child   only to hear God cry out Abraham, Abraham, stop!  It was only a test Abraham, put down your knife.

We cannot imagine what Abraham must have felt when God asked him to sacrifice his beloved son?  Abraham’s heart feels torn by God and his conscience – he was alone.  Abraham did not have a partner in this parable – he never reveals his sacred plan to Isaac or Sarah.  Nor does he ask God for mercy, as he did when he asked God not to destroy Sodom and Gemora.  He tried to save an entire city, but did not have the strength to plead with God to save his son.  Abraham did not have to endure his pain in solitude; rather he could have sought support from Sarah, Isaac, Lot, any of his servants, or even God.  Instead, Abraham attempts the unthinkable until God intervenes and spares Isaac.  What if Abraham had disclosed his plan to Sarah?  Would she have been able to convince him not to follow God’s orders?

We all experience personal struggle, the tension between expectation and reality because life is not perfect.  No matter how hard we work, at our jobs, our families, our relationships, or at our faith, we all struggle when any aspect of life does not go as we had planned.   We need others to help us through adversity.  Our community, whether it consists of our family, friends, or our congregation, helps us overcome the challenge we face in our lives.

Later in our narrative, two generations after Abraham, our struggle with God defines the future Jewish people.  An exhausted Jacob lies down on a rock to take a nap.  His eyes slowly close as his breathing slows and he drifts off to sleep.  His rest is not peaceful.  Jacob dreams that a man comes upon him while sleeping and attacks him.  Jacob wrestles with the man, and eventually, Jacob pins the man to the ground.  “Jacob,” the man says, “You will no longer be known by the name Jacob, but instead by the name Yisrael, for you have struggled with God and human begins and prevailed[1].”  Several weeks later, God appears to Jacob and confirms his dream: “Jacob is your name; but Jacob you are called no more, for Yisrael is your Name![2]” Yisrael means the one who struggles with God and we, the Jewish people, call ourselves b’nei Yisrael, the children of Israel.  We are by definition “the people who struggle.”

Our moments of adversity define who we are; not in the challenges themselves, but by how we choose to overcome them.  Our Tradition provides many tools to help us through difficult moments: prayer, study, sharing stories, ritual, clergy and educators, but the most important resource we have at our disposal is our community.  When we work together and gather to celebrate happy occasions such as birthdays and weddings, and when we support each other through difficult times such as job or personal loss, we form deep meaningful relationships with one another and we help each other on life’s journey.  In fact, Judaism often requires us to gather as a community – to say the bar’chu and amida prayers aloud, to read the Torah publicly, and to recite the mourner’s kaddish while sitting shiva.  We call this requirement a minyan, and we form a minyan when we gather with ten adult Jews over the age of bar mitzvah.  We fulfill a commandment when we form a minyan.

I felt the profound feeling of forming a minyan when I spent a month in Israel volunteering on a goat farm in northern Israel during my second year in rabbinical school.  The nearest synagogue was in Yodfat, a small town two miles away.  On my first Shabbat, I woke with the sun, and walked 45 minutes along a dirt road, past ancient ruins, until I crossed one the pavement of the town.  I followed my directions to the small, one room synagogue.  As I approached the room, I saw a group of men wearing mostly casual clothes chanting the Torah without removing it from the ark.  At first I was puzzled, but before I could summon an answer, one of the men turned around, saw me, and shouted “minyan!”  He rushed over to welcome me as the others took the Torah out of the ark, and asked me to have the honor of the Aliyah.  I was number 10.  I formed the minyan.  I was counted.  I spent the rest of the morning with them in prayer, then study, and someone invited me over to their house for Shabbat lunch overlooking the valley.  For the next three Shabbat mornings, I embarked on the same journey, and each time became an essential part of forming the minyan.

We all become number 10 when we form a minyan to help people on their journey.  Everyone faces adversity and we all need to help each other.  Take a moment and think, what is your struggle?  Is it a personal challenge or does it affect others?   Do others know about your pain?   The great R. Moshe Leib taught the following:

“I overheard two friends in a tavern.  The first said, ‘Tell me, dear friend, do you love me?’ The second replied, ‘I love you deeply.’ The first asked, ‘Do you know, my friend, what gives me pain?’ The second answered, ‘How can I know what gives you pain?’ The first cried out, ‘If you do not know what gives me pain, how can you say that you truly love me?’ To love — truly to love someone — means to know what brings pain to your fellow human being.” [3]

Think about the people you love.  Do you know their joy and pain?  Now look around the room, look at the person sitting to your left, and to your right.  Someone sitting here with us just got a promotion and someone else was recently let go.  A young woman is sitting here fresh with the news that life is beginning inside her, while another just buried a person they loved and relied upon.  Someone just learned that they or someone they love was diagnosed with cancer, and someone else has just removed a cast.  A husband does not know how he will pay his family’s electric bill this month, and a mother worries day and night about her daughter’s battle with addiction.   We do not have to struggle alone.  Through relationship and community, we can love each other and become partners on the journey toward redemption.

As a society, however, we have created barriers for people on their journeys.  While we welcome people sharing their struggles with us, especially physical ailments, we do not always feel comfortable opening our lives up to the world. We sometimes feel stigmatized in order to uphold the “holiday card” or “Facebook” version of ourselves, pretending that we do not face any challenges.  We might choose this path lest people judge us and leave us isolated for violating the sacred communal code of admitting that we struggle.  Chanah felt that way.

In our Haftara for Rosh Hashanah, we read the story of Chanah who struggled with infertility, about which she was taunted by her friends.  She did not know where to turn so went to the Temple and poured her heart out to God in prayer, weeping and trembling.  Eli the priest saw her, and rather than approach her with compassion, accused her of being drunk – of having a problem that she needed to take elsewhere.  What a way to treat a member of the community, committed to her faith, when she needed love more than ever!  Yet, 2500 years later, we are guilty of the same offense, stigmatizing infertility by assuming that every Jewish couple will have children, stigmatizing mental health so that people don’t feel comfortable seeking treatment, stigmatizing addiction, stigmatizing financial difficulties and unemployment, and stigmatizing the very concept of personal struggle so that we are too afraid to ask for help.

We can do more as a community to help people overcome adversity, allowing people to feel comfortable sharing their struggles with us rather than isolating those who need our help the most.  At Temple Emanuel, we have processes in place to help those who are struggling.  When someone tells us that they are having difficulties, perhaps with a physical or mental illness, financial issues, difficulty with family, or matters of faith, we are committed to providing help.  We are here to listen, to visit you in the hospital, to mourn with you and of course also to celebrate life’s joys with you.  Please let us know when you need us.  However, we grapple with the fact that we as rabbis and cantors cannot do this alone.  We need our community to support each other as well.

We must work to create a healthy environment that allows and encourages people to share their challenges.  One way of creating these relationships is by talking to each other, and listening.  Throughout the next year and beyond, as we experience a major time of transition in our community, we are going to do a lot of listening.  We want to hear your voice.  We count everyone at Temple Emanuel as an important member of our community; each person forms our minyan.  Listening will not only strengthen our programs but will create a stronger community, one in which people can give and receive support.

This summer I was hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park with my fiancé Jenny and my parents when we got to a point and were not entirely sure which way the trail continued.  We had a moment of slight panic that we were lost.  It made me think of a Chasidic story about a man who was walking in a forest, his mind wandering, when he looked around and realized that he had no idea where he was, no trace of a path in front of him or a clue of how he came to this stream.  “I’m lost,” thought the man, “how do I find my way out?”  He continued walking, until he got to a stream.  He bent down to get some water, when he heard footsteps approaching from the other side.  “Hey,” a woman’s voice called.  “Hey,” she called again, “Thank God I found you, I have been lost for hours!”   “It is so good to see you,” said the man with increasing despair, “but I am sorry to tell you that I’m lost too.”   The woman jumped across the stream, and came up next to the man, grabbing his hand.  “That’s OK,” she said, “let’s find our way out together.”

On this Rosh Hashanah, may we find the courage to come together as a holy community and overcome our struggles together.  Shana Tova, may we all experience a sweet and happy new year.

[1] Genesis 32:29

[2] Genesis 35:10

[3] This story is attributed to Rabbi Moshe Leib (1745-1807) from the Ukrainian town of Sasov

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