Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD & Chancellor Arnold Eisen, PhD – March 15, 2019
From the astoundz
Yom Kippur Afternoon Drash — 5777
Rabbi Adrienne P. Scott
October 12, 2016
10 Tishrei 5777
The Hebrew Bible includes stories that are very human and often very realistic. More than an ancient history book, the Torah portrays our ancestors as they went about their daily lives. We see plenty of family conflicts, sibling rivalries and violence. We cringe when we read certain events and sometimes wonder why they are part of our sacred Jewish text. Some of the stories even make us uncomfortable. But each one is included to teach us something. We are meant to understand that just as our ancestors struggled with so many issues, we too struggle today. These early Jewish families often had to rise above countless challenges and obstacles. Some proved successful, others didn’t.
There is no better example of this inherent conflict than in the story of Jonah. Jonah earns himself a prominent place in our Jewish calendar because we read this book every year on Yom Kippur afternoon. Why? What is so great about this prophet who tried to escape his calling? Why should we be reminded of him on our holiest day that is filled with reflection, atonement and contemplation? Our rabbis teach that the story of Jonah is important on many levels and for many reasons. It reminds us that God can find us wherever we are, even in the belly of a large fish. It also reminds us that when we are confronted with making a choice, we have to make the right decision, even if it is unpopular. Jonah is a complex character who suffers from his own unwillingness to listen to God’s calling. But ultimately, he embraces his Jewish identity and how important faith can be.
Our lives are complex too. We suffer challenges and setbacks that we can name and others that we choose to keep hidden. We can no longer believe that the Jewish community is immune from the plagues that exist in our larger society: mental illness, domestic abuse or poverty. As a community we represent a minority. But make no mistake – there are those among us today who are fighting for survival every morning when they wake up. Jonah’s message implores us to acknowledge our fears and insecurities. Through him, we learn to identify the problems that we might face and how our community can assist us in resolving them.
We are fortunate in our Jewish community to have an organization like JFS, Jewish Family Service, which provides resources for those who suffer as individuals and as families. The staff at JFS serves as an extension of our own spiritual home at Beth Israel. They are our advocates and our voices. JFS reminds us that suffering alone does not need to be a part of our lives in the 21st century. We can work to eradicate the issues that plague us. On this sacred day, we acknowledge the many innocent victims who lost their lives to domestic violence. Through the JFS program of Shalom Bayit, we recognize the call to action through the project of an “Empty Place at the Table,” which you may have noticed outside as you walked into Levit Hall.
When one person is no longer able to sit around the table, our entire community suffers. We are taught, “Kol Yisrael Aravim Zeh b’Zeh,” each person is responsible for one another. Now is the time when we must firmly take hold of this responsibility. We can no longer turn a blind eye or bury our heads in the sand, we must acknowledge that suffering exists among our friends and neighbors. Now is when we must all be agents of change.
Beth Israel is a congregation dedicated to carrying out the work of our people. With our newest standing committee — the Inclusion Committee – we have already begun this work. We have started many of the conversations. Our work is nowhere near complete, but I invite you to join me and our very dedicated group of members to work towards establishing a fully inclusive congregation, where all are welcome despite any challenges or disabilities.
This New Year is a sacred opportunity. Our people need us. We are well-equipped to handle the modern challenges. We stand firm in our history, which reminds us of our perseverance and our faith. No longer should we feel like Jonah- alone and afraid of what the future may hold. No longer should we feel ill-equipped to make positive changes in our lives. As Jonah spent time on his own in the depths of a large fish, he took the time he needed to reflect and contemplate his future. Sometimes, we need to take the necessary time to assess where we are too. Our days are filled with many distractions and deadlines. Too often, we rush about and leave little time for introspection. At this moment, we are reminded that while Yom Kippur comes but once during the year, we are now in the belly of the fish — able to assess our ability to change and improve our lives and the lives of others.
We can also look to Jonah as a prophet who wrestled with accepting his mission. He needed to discover how to develop his personal relationship with God. Until he was ready personally, he couldn’t be in a position to help others. So too with us. We must first help ourselves before we can connect with the larger community. We feel challenged today in many ways. We feel pulled in many directions. Let us work together in restoring an ultimate feeling of fullness and wholeness that we crave and desire in this new year.
As the gates will soon close on this Holy Day, I share a poem written by Rabbi Miriam Terlinchamp, entitled “Tell God:”
The moment we say
I can’t handle this anymore
God says, I know you can’t.
Let’s talk tomorrow.
The moment we acknowledge what we cannot do
We open the door a little wider,
giving ourselves a bit more strength than we thought we had.
God has a hand in the work that we do
And just maybe
In the way we cast aside our grudges
In the way we comfort another
In the way we stand in the middle of difficult stories
and are willing to listen and face the pain
we teach God a little something too.
We can never know in a moment of pain
What fortune may arise
We can never know in a given moment that what feels fortunate at first
may, in the end, turn out to be otherwise.
Each day belongs to itself.
Every story we tell about ourselves
about one another
has an ending.
With endings come a possibility of new stories and new strength.
What it is that you can’t handle
What burns inside you
What peace you seek
And thereby open a door
To what you can handle
What thrives within you
And what new story may emerge.
Allow each of us to have the strength and ability to share with God all that we hope to achieve in this new year of 5777. Let us be empowered to repair our souls as we remain committed to our sacred heritage together.
And then let us move together from personal reflection to being united in purpose and mission as we work to improve our lives and the lives of everyone in our community.
Ken Yehi Ratzon, May this Be God’s Will.