Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5749-1988

Two years ago on Rosh Hashanah I told you that I was preaching my last Rosh Hashanah sermon at the Park Avenue Synagogue, that I would be retiring at the end of that year.  Well here I am back again and I do not mind telling you it feels good.  I am delighted to stand here again and to be able to look out at this wonderful congregation and to see so many good friends and to have the opportunity of wishing each one of you and your loved ones a year of health and happiness.  I am appreciative of the kind invitation of Rabbi Lincoln and of the officers of our congregation.

At the beginning of this summer Hadassah and I did something we had been wanting to do for a long time, to tour the National Parks.  We saw such great breathtaking beauty.  One of the English-men in our group turned to us and said, “Why do Americans come to Europe?  We have nothing in Europe to compare with what you have here.”  Indeed, the beauty is incredible.  Yellowstone Lower Falls, the water plunging far down into the deep canyon with its orange, yellow, and brown sides.  Zion National Park with its majestic tall red sandstone pillars.  Monument Valley, its buttes and pinnacles, mesas and monoliths, rising mysteriously out of the sanded desert.  The grand Tetons, towering snow-covered mountains so foreboding.  Cedar Breaks, 11,000 feet high covered with a blanket of pure white snow, its thousands of fingers of high stately snow-covered Douglas fir reaching out toward the dark blue heavens, while you gaze at far distant peaks and below you a steep canyon dappled with patterned colors of red and black.  The sometimes playful, sometimes frightening magic  of the underground in the Carlsbad Caverns.  The Grand Canyon, awe-inspiring, and yet filling you with a sense of wild joy.  Mark Twain said, “When God created the Grand Canyon he failed to create the adjective to describe it.”

An Englishwoman in our midst, greatly moved, whispered, “You must believe in God!”  Reminiscent of Jacob’s words when he awoke in the desert after his dream of the ladder stretching from heaven to earth and said, akhen yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh ve-anokhi lo yadati, “Surely the Lord is present in this place and I did not know it.”  As for me, I thought of the rabbinic comment on the verse in Psalms, en tzur ke’elohenu, “There is no Rock like our God.”  With the slight, revision of the word zur, rock, to zayar, artist, painter, the rabbis understood the verse to mean, en zayer k’elohenu, “There is no artist like our God.”  What we saw during those two weeks convinced me, if I ever needed convincing, that indeed en zayer ke’elohenu, “There is no artist like our God.”

But I thought to myself, you have visited most European lands from the fjords to the Alps, from Finland to the Greek Islands and from Ireland to Poland.  Across all of Africa you have gone, from Cairo to the Cape, and literally all around the world, including Hawaii and Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and India – but all of this inspiring beauty is right here, in your own backyard!  Just a few hours away, but you have to see what is near you and you have to open your eyes to look

Strangely enough, the Torah readings for both days of Rosh Hashanah emphasize the same message.  In today’s reading from the Torah, Sarah pressures Abraham to expel Hagar and her son Ishmael from their home.  The hapless mother and son wander in the hot desert until their water is spent.  Weak from thirst she places the child under a bush so that she will not look upon his dying, and she goes off a short distance and weeps.  God reacts to the pitiful scene: va-yifkah elohim et eineha va-teire be’er mayim, “Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.”  Mind you, Scripture dos not say that God performed a miracle and created a well of water for her where none existed before.  The well was there all the time but she did not see it.  She did not look for it; it was there nearby, close to her, va-yifkah elohem et eineha, “God opened her eyes,” and for the first time she saw it.  

Tomorrow on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Torah tells the well-known story of the test of Abraham’s faith, when he is asked to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Abraham and Isaac and their servants were on the way to the place where the sacrifice was to be.  Abraham peers into the distance and he sees something.  He halts the procession and he asks his servants, as the Midrash tells it, roim attem mah she-ani roeh, “Do you see what I see?”  The servant answers, “We see only the trackless wastes of the desert.”  Abraham then turns to Isaac and asks, beni roeh attah mah she-ani roeh, “My son do you see what I see?  Do you see anything?”  And Isaac answers, har naeh u-meshubah ani roeh ve-anan kashur alav, I see a mountain, majestic and beautiful, with a cloud of glory hovering over it.”  The servants and Isaac are staring in the very same direction, they both have 20/20 vision.  The servants only see the empty stretches of sand, while Isaac sees a scene of inspiring beauty.  Because you have to see what is near you and you have to open your eyes to look.  Surprising it is not that the Scripture readings of both days of Rosh Hashanah should deal with the importance of developing the art of vision.

Soon the annual cycle will bring cooler days and nights, and the leaves will turn color in nature’s most spectacular show.  And we do not have to travel far to feast our eyes on the riot of color as the leaves dance in their raiment of yellow and gold, orange and red, green and brown.  Of course, we can drive to Vermont, or to the Adirondacks to enjoy the magnificence.  But that is not necessary; we are fortunate and we can spend an hour or two in sheer delight right here in Central Park.  But how many of us will do that?  How many will see and drink in the beauty, the beauty of God’s creation and be thankful? 

In her book, The World I Live In, Helen Keller, who achieved so much despite her blindness, wrote those poignant words, “I have walked with people whose eyes are full of light, but who see nothing in woods, sea or sky, nothing in the city streets, nothing in books.  What a witness masquerade is this seeing.  They have the sunset, the morning skies, the purple of distant hills, yet their souls voyage through this enchanted world with nothing but a barren stare.”  Her words ring true.  For you have to see what is near you and you have to open your eyes to look.  You have to see, you have to appreciate, and you have to act.  To open your eyes to the beauty of nature, to be grateful that such beauty exists, should lead to action to preserve that beauty for future generations.

Judaism is a religion of action.  It emphasizes not believe alone, but mitzvoth maasiyot, the doing of practical deeds, translating faith and gratitude into action.  God’s beautiful earth is deteriorating in our day, despoiled and ravaged by human hands.  The oceans, lakes and rivers are polluted so that people can no longer enjoy them.  The ozone layer is being rapidly depleted.  We are filling the air with poisonous gases which absorb the heat radiating from the earth and prevent it from escaping into space.  That is called the greenhouse effect, and some scientists say it is already here and this summer’s heat was no accident.  And future summers will be even hotter.  Seeing the earth’s beauty and being thankful for it should lead us to raise our voices to protest, to join those pressuring  government to act and to act fast, to clean the air and the water and to preserve our planet.  So we shall fulfill the mandate of our tradition to be a shutaf le-hakadosh barukh hu be-maasei bereishit, a partner to God in the creation of the earth and its preservation.

The family has come in for much attention this summer.  A bright spotlight has been focused on the family, I am sure you have noticed it.  The Democrats set off the celebration of the family at their convention of July.  So the Republicans had their candidates bring more members of their families to their conventions in August.  Candidates’ wives were speaking, and daughters were nominating, and sons were introduced, and brothers were being interviewed, and parents were beaming, and children were waving.  Both the principal candidates and everybody else in sight were running for or with or on the family.  The kiss before the television cameras and the playful pat that became de rigeur.

It is encouraging to know that the family is now receiving good notices.  But one cannot help but question the genuineness, the sincerity.  Is it all being orchestrated by campaign planners?  Are effusive “impromptu” words written beforehand by professional speech writers?  Is it for a political purpose, to be brought front and center at the right time?  Our Rosh Hashanah’s Scriptural readings remind us to open our eyes and to see what a life sustaining treasure we possess today and every day as well in our wife, in our husband.  To strengthen today and every day the bond that unites us in an ahavah she’einah teluyah be-davar, a love that is not dependent on a reason or an occasion or a purpose.  A display of affection not because we want others to notice but because it wells up from our innermost being and is blended with gratitude for our good fortune.

Too many like Hagar do not see the well of refreshing water that the family can be.  They think that having a husband or a wife is a matter of convenience, having someone who is a provider and an escort or one who is an arranger of meals and a decorator of the home.  They assume that their children can be raised exclusively by others and can learn reading in school, religion, in the synagogue and life from their friends, with nothing at all for parents to do. 

I feel sorry for them.  Not only because they do not see the problems they are creating that will come home to haunt them some day, but even more because they are denying themselves the greatest happiness that life can bring – to develop a close personal relationship with your children and your grandchildren.  How rewarding that is!  To learn with them, to play with them, to go to the circus with them, to put something of yourself in them.  What great joy that brings.  To Adam paradise was home.  If we work at it, home can be paradise.  But you have to see what is near you, you have to open your eyes to look.

But it is not enough to see the joy a family can be and to be very grateful for it.  You have to work at it.  Success in marriage does not come just through finding the right mate, but by being the right mate.  To share responsibility and work in building a happy home, a Jewish home.  To help each other, husband and wife, parents and children and sisters and brothers.  To try even when it may be difficult, to understand your children.  The Hebrew word roeh means to see, but when you say ani roeh et devarav, it does not mean, “I see his words.”  It means, “I understand him.”  To not only see your children but to understand them, to change and grow with your children and certainly not to expect them to be your clones.  And to encourage them, to give them a pat on the back. 

Kirk Douglas, the movie star, published his autobiography several week ago called The Rag Man’s Son.  He tells how difficult it was for a poor Jewish boy, growing up 60 years ago in Amsterdam, New York.  Coming home from Hebrew school he was so often beaten by young Christian ruffians because he killed their God.  And he was so lonely.  But what created the anger that has been with him all his life?  He describes it, “The real motivating feeling is that I never got a pat on my back from my father.  He important it was for me to get his approval, and he never gave it to me.”  Rich, successful, a great career, all that Kirk Douglas has, but what still remains with him to this day is his anger because his father never gave him his approval.  So you see you have to work at building a happy family every day.

The ancient rabbis had an expression for Torah, for Judaism.  They called it be’er mayim hayyim, “a well of living waters.”  Certainly the life-sustaining waters of Judaism are close at hand.  No right-wing tyranny, no left-win dictatorship interferes with the full exercise of our right to explore and cultivate Judaism to the fullest.  America encourages religious participation.  We Jews have never before lived in a land so friendly to Jewish religious life, where living a Jewish life can come so easily.  Yet like Hagar so many Jews do not see the well, the be’er mayim hayyim, the well of life-sustaining waters.  And that is certainly too bad, for Judaism can enrich their lives, can give their lives meaning and purpose.  We live in a world of ever greater perplexity with technology replacing the individual.  Judaism tells you, “You matter.  You are of the greatest importance.  What you do counts.”  Moreover, Judaism gives us a sense of belonging to a community, an association with an extraordinary people that has not only lived a long time but a people that has given so much to human values – to the civilizing values.  It was George Bernard Shaw who said, “The Jew is born civilized.”  And the Christian theologian Carl Cornill wrote, “Israel” – that is the Jewish people – “gave the world the sense of true humanity.”

But being a Jewish is something more than a matter of sociology.  We are a faith community, a community that believes, a community that lives by what we take to be God’s law, that tells us what is moral, what is ethical, what is right and what is wrong.  It is our values that connect the mundane to the majestic.  We take seriously the  teachings of our prophets and our Tradition, regarding freedom and law and justice and compassion – to say yes to life and to say no to every form of injustice.

Many of us have forgotten the glory of being a Jew.  We are strangers to a heritage that sustained our parents and our grandparents and our ancestors before them.  So we are without help in confronting the existential anxiety of human mortality.

So many are afraid of dying, and so many are afraid of living, living from day to day without hope, without fulfillment, without meaning in their living.  And the well is right there, the be’er mayim hayyim.  But you have to see what is near you and you have to open your eyes to look.

It is not enough, however, to pledge your allegiance to Judaism, to affirm that you are proud to be a Jew, not enough even to express your gratitude for being a Jew.  Remember, to be a Jew means to act, to apply Jewish values to the world’s problems, to the ills of society.  We say, do we not, that Judaism stands for freedom and law and justice and compassion.  How do these relate to what is happening in Israel?  Can Israel dominate another whole people?  And if it can, should it wish to, if it be true to Jewish teaching?  Are beatings and freedom the answer?  The Jewish answer?  Yet, yet my friends, never to lose the sight of the preciousness of Israel – never to turn our backs on Israel – never to forget what Israel has achieved and what is continues to achieve. 

Where else should Jewish values of justice and compassion move us to action? Do we see the homeless sleeping in our streets?  Men and women created in God’s image as we are, reduced to such degradation, to such dehumanlization, and we walk right past them, without turning our eyes to see.  The plague of drugs sweep through our nation, and think not that it affects only the others, only the strangers.  In this richest country there is the callous rejection of the mentally ill and their expulsion into the streets of our cities.  Racism too is growing afresh, even among Jews, lit by new fires.  And how little compassion there is for the victims of the newest disease of AIDS.  Where there should be compassion and encouragement and support for research leading to a cure.  So many areas in the world where Jews should be involved in putting their values to work, beginning with the Synagogue, the mother institution of Judaism and its values.  If our eyes be opened to see, to appreciate, and to act.

There is a story that is told by Rabbi Bunam and retold by Martin Buber about a Jew named Eisik ben Yekel who loved in great poverty in the city of Cracow in Poland.  One night he had a dream that there was a great treasure awaiting him buried under the bridge in Prague that leads to the royal palace.  After the dream occurred a second time, and then a third time, he went off to Prague with his shovel in his hand, but the bridge was guarded, so Eisik kept walking back and forth on the bridge every day waiting.  Finally one day the captain of the guards, having noticed this man for such a long time, asked whether he was looking for something or whether he was waiting for somebody.   Eisik mustered up all his courage and he told the captain of the guards about his dream, but the officer burst into laughter, saying, that he too had such a crazy dream once, telling him to go to Cracow to dig for treasure under the stove in a room that belonged to some Jew by the name of Eisik ben Yekel.  The officer laughed again, “What a crazy dream!”  Eisik bowed, hurried home, and dug up the treasure from under his stove, and he built a Beth Midrash in Cracow which is called Reb Eisik Yekel’s shul.  When we were there a few years ago I saw it still standing in Cracow.

As with Eisik ben Yekel, so with us.  The treasures are nearby, in the beauty of nature, of art, of music, of the book, in the warmth and comfort, and inspiration and the joy of the family, in the riches of Judaism, the community and the culture of the Jewish people.  But like Balaam in the Biblical story who described himself as ha-gever shetum ha-ayin, “the man of the open eye,” so too must we open our eyes to see, to appreciate, and to act.

On Rosh Hashanah we ask God for so very much.  Perhaps if we were wise we should ask God not to grant us one more gift until we have learned to see what is already ours.  Sight we have, but we must pray for insight.  God opened Hagar’s eyes.  May He open ours.

Amen.

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This is a tribute to Rabbi Judah Nadich z"l and Martha Hadassah Ribalow Nadich z"l, created and maintained by their family. If you have a memory or thought to share, please submit it to nadichblog at gmail dot com.

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