Finding Hope in a Broken World

Hayom Harat Olam – Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world. Today marks just over three months since Jenny and I welcomed Aiden into our lives.

My dearest Aiden,

There is a tree across the street from our synagogue that takes away my breath every time I see it in the Spring and Fall. It erupts in bright red leaves as though it is on fire. When I pause to take in the beauty of that tree, I can almost hear God calling to me: “you are standing on holy ground,” just as God called to Moses at the burning bush.

Judaism teaches that the burning bush has always been burning since the beginning of creation and that Moses was not the first person to see this miracle. Moses was the first person to pause, long enough to consider the fact that the bush was burning but not being consumed by fire. Often we need to pause long enough to witness the miracles and hope in our lives.

Aiden, I pause whenever I look into your eyes, which grow bluer with each day. I stare, in awe, of your face, your smile, and your innocent soul. While I see myself in you, I remember that you are greater than the sum of your mom and me. You are you, unique and unlike anyone that has lived or will ever live. God created all human beings b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. When I see your face I feel the presence of God and I certainly see God’s reflection in you. When I hold you, the ground upon which I stand becomes holy.

Yet I cannot hold you forever, and when I reluctantly lift my eyes from your face and hand you to your mom, I turn to the breaking news on my phone.  My overflowing love and hope fades into dispair. For a moment you provided a respite from the constant chaos that surrounds us. I’m sorry that our world might seem broken and filled with fear.

Last May, in response to two second synagogue shootings, we locked the doors to our synagogue and hired an armed security guard. Fear enveloped us and left us unsure if it was safe to attend services and religious school. We questioned our safety in the one place that we should always feel safe. Acts of anti-Semitism, from swastikas in schools to those two fatal shootings in Pittsburgh and Ponway have grown exponentially in the past few years. The rise of anti-Semitism parallels violence toward many marginalized groups, including immigrants, people of color, and the LGBTQ community. Fear is a natural reaction to hate, but we cannot let fear dictate our actions and divide us.

Many in our community have reached out to me in fear, especially worried about their children. I have reassured parents that we are taking precautions at CMI to ensure that every child is safe when they come into our sacred home. I wish that I could guarantee that we will never be attacked, but I cannot. I can promise that I will do my best to keep you, your sister, and all of our children safe. This is not what I envisioned doing when I became a rabbi. I don’t want this responsibility. Nonetheless it is a responsibility that I must accept and that we must all accept. As a community we cannot let fear prevent us from coming together and building relationships. A strong community committed to love and hope offers an antidote to fear.

Fear is dangerous. Fear of violence, fear of the other, fear of losing our jobs, fear of a changing world can cause us to act irrationally, to close ourselves off to others just at the moment when we need to embrace and reach out.

Our tradition offers us a cautionary tale about letting fear guide our actions. A long time ago there lived a man with his son, daughter and wife on a farm. Their life was good, especially the milk that they would get from their prized goat. Oh that milk – the best, sweetest milk you have ever tasted. They never kept the goat in a pen, each morning it was there, outside the door waiting to be milked, and during the day she would disappear to places unknown. Every evening she returned, again waiting to share her sweet produce.

Finally, the man and his daughter grew curious about where the goat went and what it ate to produce such delicious milk, so they devised a plan. They tied a long rope to the goat, and the next morning the daughter grabbed the rope and followed the goat. Over one hill, past the clover, over the next hill, and into the mouth of a cave the girl had never seen. The goat walked deep into the cave, and the girl followed. All of a sudden the girl saw a light, and she stepped cautiously as she walked into the most beautiful garden she had ever seen – overflowing with fruits, vegetables, flowers and springs. The goat began to eat and so did the girl – she had never tasted such bounty! She looked around her and realized the goat had found an entrance to the Garden of Eden.

Not wanting to leave, the girl wrote a note to her father telling him to gather the family and follow the goat. She tucked it in the goat’s ear, knowing that each night her father would pet the goat in the evening before milking, causing the goat to flick her ear dropping the note. The daughter sent the goat on her way and remained behind.

When the goat returned, the father saw that his daughter was nowhere to be found, and he was overcome by fear. As night fell, and morning rose, he didn’t tend to the goat, he didn’t pet her head, she didn’t flick her ear, and so after several days he believed his daughter was gone forever. Blaming the goat for his daughter’s disappearance, he decided to slaughter the goat. Just after he cast the fatal blow, his daughter’s notes fell out of the goat’s ear, onto the floor at his feet. The man had succumbed to fear.

Instead of succumbing to fear ourselves, we should instead pause and look for glimmers of hope, in order to focus on creating peace and wholeness in our world. Hope reminds us to act based upon the love we feel for both our neighbors and the strangers among us. We, your parents and your community, will work day and night to leave you, your sister, and all children with a peaceful and loving world. Even when we are most afraid we will remember to pause and reflect on this mission, creating holy ground and miracles through our actions.

Aiden, in just over a year since arriving in New Haven, this sanctuary and building have become holy spaces for me – this is now my second home, not only because of the beauty, and it is a truly beautiful building, but the experiences I have had with bar mitzvah students, wedding couples, worshiping on Shabbat, celebrating holidays, and of course, your bris. In the chapel we welcomed you into the covenant of the Jewish people. We began your bris by placing you on your Grandpa’s lap who was sitting on the chair of Elijah the prophet. We place every newborn on the chair of Elijah because Elijah will one day return and announce that the Messiah has arrived, ushering a perfect world, purged of hate and filled with only love.

Judaism teaches that when this time arrives we will all return to the Garden of Eden, in Hebrew Gan Aiden. Some believe that perfection will come from God. I believe that perfection will come from the human partnership with God. When we work together and fulfill the prophetic vision of creating a just society we plant seeds that transform our existing world into Gan Aiden, a garden filled with every kind of food and abundant chesed, loving kindness. Your name, Aiden, represents the hope that you will plant and experience this garden. We placed you on the chair of Elijah because you, my little one, have the potential to repair our world.

Aiden Max, at your bris we named you for your great-grandfathers, both of blessed memory. Mom’s Zayde, Harry, whose Hebrew name was Aharon, and my Papa, Milton. They both had qualities that we pass on to you and they both served in World War II. Harry was part of the ground forces in Europe and he lived to tell the story of his capture behind enemy lines. After a bomb exploded, killing most of his companions, he tore off his dog tags that marked him as a Jew and threw them onto a fallen soldier. He survived the attack and was taken as a prisoner of war. When he was liberated and returned to the United States, he re-dedicated himself to helping others through his Jewish values and traditions.

My Papa Milton was a photographer in an air unit that followed the bombers in Japan. He photographed the devastation of war, and when he returned he pursued his love of photography by capturing the beauty in our world. One of his pictures of the mountains of Colorado hangs in your room. Aiden, while it fills me with sadness that your great-grandfathers are not here to meet you, I pray that you inherit the legacy of them both. Embrace and live your Jewish values and always pause to see the beauty inherent in our world.

We concluded your bris by reciting the motzi, the blessing over the bread. Science has shown that pausing and offering a blessing before food actually makes it taste better. Saying motzi causes us to take that pause, and the words of the prayer remind us of our partnership with God.

“Blessed are You Adonai, Our God, ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” Yet we know that bread does not come directly from the earth. Bread is the result of a complex process that involves planting, harvesting, winnowing, grinding, delivering, mixing, kneading, rising, and baking. Yes, the grain comes from the earth, sun and rain from the heavens, but bread is so much more. Bread is the end product of the human relationship with God to transform something inedible into something edible. Bread, which we take for granted as a staple of our diets (perhaps not if you are gluten free), is a true miracle. When we say the Motzi, we pause and recognize the miracle that comes from our sacred partnership with God.

God created many other natural resources that we can use to repair our world. These include chesed, loving kindness, in order that we treat all people, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexuality, and national origin with dignity and respect, hoda’ah¸ gratitude, so that we can appreciate the abundant blessings we have in our lives, emet, truth, allowing us to trust our fellow human beings and to rely on them to be our allies, and teshuvah, the ability to recognize when we have erred so that we can return to our best selves.

Aiden, err you will because we are a combination of both the yeitzer hatov – good characteristics, and yeitzer hara, those that lead us astray. Human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, we are reflections of the divine, not divine ourselves. When I hold you in my arms and look at your face in the mirror, I see God’s reflection smiling back at me, and my gaze also travels to my own face. I see the pride of a father and husband, I see a rabbi who loves Jewish traditions, and I see a grateful smile enjoying the blessings in my life. But if I hold my gaze long enough I also see fear of failure, I see sadness from loss in my life, and I see anger that I cannot control our world. Why did God create us with the yeitzer hatov and yeitzer hara, both the good and the bad?

When Moses stood next to the burning bush he asked God the same question. Our greatest prophet, we learn, was “slow of speech and slow of tongue.[1]” As a result Moses pleads with God not to send him to Egypt because of his deficiencies, and God responds “’Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now Go,” God tells Moses, fulfill your mission.

Aiden, you are not perfect, none of us is perfect, though it’s OK if at times you think that your mother and I are perfect. I’m sorry in advance for when you learn that we are not. Perhaps our imperfections are a gift, a nudge from God, forcing us to work together repair our world. Our tradition teaches that “None of us on our own can finish the work, but neither are we free to neglect it[2].” We can work together as a community to plant the seeds that will become the Garden of Eden.

I am so proud that you are born into this incredible community at CMI – a community that I know will embrace you with the love that your mother, Maggie and I feel. Our community will not only teach you a love of Judaism and traditions, but will also teach you the sacred obligation of to pursue tzdek – justice for all people. Soon you’ll be planting corn in the Peah garden, cooking with Life is Delicious, serving dinner to our Abraham’s tent guests, and, I hope, pursuing your own path of righteousness.

We have a choice about the direction we take along life’s path. I get out of bed each morning because I am confident that more people choose righteousness than wickedness. Aiden, your mom and I started teaching you core values from the moment you were born to teach you these values by reading you books about kindness.

One of the first books that I read to you and Maggie, now stained with my tears, is the Lorax. I picture the cover of the book filled with colorful images of bright red truffala trees. Yet the story is told in a barren landscape around the darkness of a stump, carved with the word “unless.” “now that you’re here,” I read to you, “the word of the Lorax seems quite clear. UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” The onceler then throws a seed down to the child.

Adien, here are the seeds that you need to plant gan aiden. Seeds of trees, seeds of peace, friendship, and love, and seeds of hope. Plant them, nourish them and watch them grow. Never forget to pause and appreciate the miracles in your life, and never stop pursuing justice.

May the immense joy and hope that you bring to your mom and me spread over our community as well. May we all be blessed with sweetness, love, and hope in the Year 5780.

Shanah Tova u’mitukah.

[1] Exodus 4:10-12

[2] Pirkei Avot 2:16