As I prepare for the coming Jewish New Year (5776), I am engaged in my typical practice of looking back at past teachings. Here is what I shared last year with the community members of Congregation Shalom Aleichem in Kissimmee, FL. Others who read this may recognize it from a sermon I gave at my former congregation in Texas. I am grateful that I may adapt my own words without recrimination of plagiarism, and I am grateful to be returning to Kissimmee this year.
Award winning Israeli writer Shai Agnon once told a story of a young boy and his father engaging in a little game. Standing over his son, the father held onto the most beautiful red apple. The boy, wanting the apple, attempted to take hold of it, each time having the apple playfully snatched away by his father. This continues back and forth for a little while until, finally, with the apple in his father’s hand, the boy smiles. He retreats a few steps and makes the bracha (blessing) over the fruit – borei pri ha’etz. The father, not wanting his son to make a blessing in vein, quickly gives his son the apple.
Each year prior to Rosh Hashanah, the image of an apple creeps into my mind. Tasting the apple with honey is a significant association with Rosh Hashanah for many, and the honey itself has a rightful place in other parts of our lives as well. I remember my first year of marriage, when each Shabbat my wife and I drizzled honey over the challah on the Shabbat table instead of salt.The moment in this story when the father gives the child the apple may be about ensuring that the child does not make a blessing in vain. It is also, I think, about the child in each one of us who, at one time or another, wants something so badly that we would do well to stop and take a few steps back before realizing what we must do to obtain the object of our intention. Is it a moment of self-awareness that the child possesses or perhaps a more manipulative and child-like behavior that the kid is behaving like, a kid?
The story does something else extremely important that is timely to the New Year and in line with some of our Rosh Hashanah liturgy. The tale illustrates the role each of us plays in giving something of value to another person. We can pay attention to others and recognize their greatest moment of need and help them. When we can act like the father in Agnon's story, we possess the potential to enable the joy of another person or quench their thirst. We don’t seize those moments enough, when we can act like the father, and give a gift that is so sweet, so tasty and fulfilling on both a physical and spiritual level to others who need it.
I view a passage in the mahzor as demonstrating this and pulling us forward in a new direction in the year ahead. The prophet Jeremiah, within the traditional Zichronot portion of the service, states "Zacharti lach hessed neurayich, ahavat kelulotayich. “I (God) remember the affection of your youth, your love…when you followed Me in the wilderness, a barren land.” (Jeremiah 2:2) Jeremiah proclaims, on God’s behalf, what many see as the beginning and foundation of the covenantal relationship between God and humanity. We must build our relationship with God and each other on a charitable base. We are meant to enable and empower others.
The title of the service, Zichronot, shares the root word "zeycher" (memory) or the infinitive "lizkor" (to remember) and presents a metaphor of God with a memory. At the most simple and literal meaning, God remembers us. On a deeper level, God impresses upon us a sense of accountability for our deeds. (Mahzor Lev Shalem, 133) God takes note of our actions and our past, something we tend to link to the Book of Life (sefer chayim). As Jeremiah indicates, God remembers us because of our affection toward others – the hessed that we complete. Agnon’s story, together with Jeremiah, shows that only we can close the gaps, the empty pockets that people feel.
Are we literally meant to follow God (or others) into the wilderness, as Jeremiah’s words would have as us? Watching or reading the accounts about the Syrian refugee crisis as thousands of people escape their home in order to find comfort and refuge in a place unknown to them is deeply troubling and somehow familiar. And our response as Jews is not without its own struggle. Some would quickly open their arms while others question are we doing enough for our own people before we bring in others? Can we find a way to let people in or ensure safe passage for them?
Jeremiah portrays a Jewish people that follow God into the land "not sewn", led by nothing more than a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire demonstrates that these moments may not be without risk or anxiety. Maybe this is part of what makes gemilut hassadim more significant. Zacharti lach hessed neurayich… Simple as it sounds and perhaps more profound than we realize, hessed is intertwined with our hearts and souls. When we may not physically be able to stand side by side someone who is suffering or follow in their wilderness, we can explore charitable acts that see to their safety. Engaging in acts of kindness transform spaces that might otherwise be empty – a space where someone reaches out his or her hand and there is nothing.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, once pointed to these words (Zacharti lach hessed neurayich) as the embodiment of faith. The Jewish people acted and followed God with the unknown before them. “The whole of life is facing the unknown,” Sacks said. “We can know everything, but there is one thing we can never know…what tomorrow will bring.” “Every single course of action we take has an underside of doubt.”
God loves us because we have the courage to act and help each other, to go to a place where we are needed most. As the verse suggests, there are times we go to a place we may have never seen before. We follow without a map, without clearly paved roads, and we have no choice but to act. When we can follow the unknown and help someone who is facing the unknown, we are at our greatest. The reward, whether loyalty, love or a simple thank you, is not ours but that which we provide to others. Yet without our actions, we end up as Jeremiah describes, in a wasteland, barren and unknown.
The great rabbinic sages taught that before God gave the Torah to the Jewish people, the Torah was offered to other nations of the world. Each nation rejected the Torah, saying that it was impossible for them to observe it. Ishmael had a problem with "You shall not steal.” Esav had a problem with "You shall not kill." (Sifrei, Devarim 33:2) Often faced with the claim that it is difficult to observe Torah, it is in fact easier than we think to live a life of Torah – a life of good deeds. Discovering moments like the one between father and son – where we are all at one time or another the fathers and others are our children – will yield the greatest hessed.
May we conclude, as Agnon concluded, that on the high holidays we are each the child who stands before the apple. We do not simply look and gaze at the apple but we do more. We are the parents. We see other people who desire and are reaching out their hands and heaven forbid their actions and words are in vain. On the High Holidays, we call on God as Avinu – our parent – to forgive our wrong doings and assist us in finding our way. We call to God Malkeinu – the wise Ruler – for us to be full of wisdom and courage that we may redeem and rebuild God’s realm through love and hessed. Hopeful that our prayers will reach fruition, we look toward God that we might offer something simple, elegant and fulfilling like the love that a parent gives a child or a friend gives to another. May we find in the New Year something in our hands and our hearts the ability to give to others in need. And, when we are the child who can eat the apple, may we give pause to bless the moment and taste the sweetness.
What a long and strange trip I had this Monday morning. It began Sunday afternoon, when I drove my older son - a rising third grader - to stay with friends for the night so that he ("B") could join other children Monday morning at the nearby Conservative synagogue and embark on a 6-day "Taste of Ramah" camping experience at Camp Ramah in the Poconos. Never mind why he went to Poconos (another post for another time), I was there with B to watch him do something that I am not sure I was ready for even though my wife and I (and he) did all that we could to prepare for his week away.
We discussed the traveling and week at camp more times than necessary, and I am proud to say that we adequately prepared B for the trip.
Preparing ourselves is something all together different. In retrospect, I am not so sure that may have been possible. So many of my life experiences and training have taught me not to over worry or try to anticipate every thing. I did not think about, nor should I have, what I would feel driving home without my son. I did not think about, nor should I have, what it would be like to walk by B's room every night this week and see his possessions but not him. I did not think about any of these moments nor did I consider my emotions during these subsequent moments.
But I digress. After my son got on the bus in the synagogue parking lot, the bus remained for quite a few moments while the Ramah chaperone did a thorough job ensuring everyone was there and had what they needed.
But what about what I needed?
I readily admit this may not have been primary among the chaperone's priorities, but still a worthwhile question to consider for those of us who have been in this position. Wanting to get on the bus and steal one more glance, one more wave, and one more smile at our child/ren before they go to sleep-away camp is natural and completely fair. We do it - or should I say we want to do it - from a place of love. Our drive to get on the bus also stems from a difficulty, unwillingness even, to detach ourselves from our children. I am surprised in that I did not think I would be that parent who wants to get on the bus and see my son, and I surprised myself by asking the chaperone (there was time) if I could see him. I was not at all surprised by his reply. "We'd rather parents not get on to the bus once their kids are on."
I get it, and I am grateful for his answer. As much as I might have wanted to see my son one more time, far more important to his maturation process is his ability to achieve increased measures of independence and confidence in himself to be okay. This can only happen by not getting on the bus. I also readily admit that the chaperone's response to my question was crucial to my parental evolution. Rather than feeling anger or disappointment, I turned the moment into an instant of further joy, satisfaction, and pride.
Not getting on the bus has implications for my belief that my son will be okay as well as his own self assurance. In those moments that followed, B was all smiles. I could see this through the window as he waved and smiled. Indeed, many of the future chanichim - campers - were waving and smiling giving me greater conviction in the chaperone's answer and even deeper faith in the experience - for those who are willing - of sleep away camp.
As I began the drive back to New York City, I called my father (hands' free, I promise) to let him know that I had mixed feelings about what just transpired in the synagogue parking lot. I admit I came close to tears during the conversation, tears of gratitude and gravity. I wanted my dad to know, albeit candidly, that I blamed them for what happened. Were it not for my experiences at overnight camp (at Ramah Palmer and Wisconsin) I might not have considered allowing B to have a week-long overnight experience. I also wanted my parents to know that they have done a good job and sharing one's profound appreciation with a parent when the opportunity presents itself is not something I take for granted. My parents raised two children both of whom had extremely positive experiences at Camp Ramah and have subsequently sent their children (my parents' grandsons) to Ramah camps. My wife deserves credit too, but as I mentioned above, where B is at camp for this week is for another post at another time.