My Dear Friends,
Some of you may remember that exactly five years ago this month, a huge flood devastated parts of Colorado. The flooding impacted 24 counties, causing nearly $4 billion in damage. As rivers overflowed their banks, more than 1,800 homes were destroyed. In all, 27 state highways were shut down, covering some 485 miles. It cost more than $700 million to repair and rebuild those roads[i]. Today, as we sit here in this holy place – on this holiest day of the year, our thoughts are also directed to those who have been impacted by Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas, and those who are still impacted by Hurricane Maria one year later – especially in Puerto Rico – which is still reeling from the death and destruction it caused. When natural disasters like fires, hurricanes and flooding hit a community, the carnage and devastation can be overwhelming. We feel powerless and fragile in the face of the awesome power of these events. Scientists tell us that man-made climate change is releasing more and more CO2 into the atmosphere - thus exponentially increasing both the likelihood and severity of future natural disasters. On this 5-year anniversary of the massive Colorado floods, when rivers overflowed their banks I want to talk about lessons that we can learn from rivers – and how we can apply them to our own lives.
The first thing we learn from Rivers is the power and the inevitability of change.
We are like rivers - for like rivers, we change.
Rivers have currents. Rivers are constantly changing. The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, taught that you cannot step into the same river twice. Rivers flow - they are movement itself. In the Torah, in Jewish folklore and mysticism, rivers are powerful symbols. We are told that 4 rivers flowed out from the primordial waters of the Garden of Eden: the Pishon, the Gichon, the Tigris, and the Euphrates[ii]. On their currents traveled the innocence of humanity - going further and further away from that garden paradise. Throughout the Torah we find images of rivers as powerful symbols of change.
When Jacob prepares to meet his brother Esau after years of anger and mistrust, he must cross the river Yabok. Before his crossing, he wrestles with a mysterious stranger until daybreak. When he arises from the encounter, he is a changed man. He crosses that river with a new name, Yisrael - and a new outlook on life. Rivers are all about change.
Yom Kippur is about change as well. We sit here in this sanctuary - and we pray that we might find the strength to change - to better ourselves - to fulfill the role that is set out for us. This is not an easy thing to do for we must confront the most painful aspect of ourselves - our limitations. This takes a tremendous amount of effort.
When we look at a river, we can see the stillness of the water. All appears to be peaceful on the surface. Nonetheless, we know that beneath that calm there is a vast, intricate ecosystem that manifests itself in a battle for life and death. So many of us present an unruffled, smooth facade - while underneath we are a mass of combating urges and impulses. We struggle with our inadequacies and shortcomings - our desires and temptations – our secrets and psyches. We are weak, and we easily succumb. Because of our weakness, we need the cleansing power of Teshuvah - of repentance.
There is a custom that many Jews practice on Rosh Ha-Shanah called Tashlikh. This consists of going to a body of water and throwing out bread crumbs. The crumbs are symbolic of our sins. We watch as they are carried away by the currents or devoured by fish or birds. This symbolic act shows that we are ready to change our ways. We cast our sins upon the water as a sign that we are ready to do Teshuvah - to turn in repentance.
This morning, we have come to this place, in order to admit our failures, and promise to begin anew. We do teshuva in order to cleanse ourselves. The flow of a river can be cleansing. Teshuva is like a river's current. It can carry our burdens away - if we open ourselves to the possibility of change.
To be open to change - is to admit that we are weak-is to confront the fact that we have hurt those whom we love; that we have become distanced from the paths of wholeness and holiness that are set out for us. Teshuva means turning back in repentance. On Rosh Hashanah the shofar called out to us: "Listen," it said. "Remember who you are." "Remember how far you have drifted." "Come back. Come back." On this holy day it is our task to heed it’s call for turning.
When we repent for our sins, our tradition teaches, we are moving back in synch with the current of our lives. These currents teach us the true meaning of teshuva - of repentance.
The second lesson is that rivers teach us about boundaries.
Four rivers flowed out from Eden. They spread out over the world to form the boundaries of civilization as we know it. Rivers serve as borders between nations and communities, they also become focal points of tension. The West bank of the Jordan river symbolizes statehood for the Palestinians - and security for the Israelis. Similarly, the shaky peace between Israel and her neighbors by necessity involves a different understanding of the boundaries of the land of Israel than that found in Genesis 15:18 where we find:
On that day, God made a covenant with Abram, saying, 'To your offspring I assign this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.....'[iii]
When we look closely at rivers, we find that they also can symbolize the way we perceive ourselves. Just as rivers define physical and geographical boundaries, they also can teach us about other types of barriers. So many of us believe that the boundaries and limitations we face every day are really tests or obstacles that must be overcome, rather than accepted and assimilated. So much of what we do - so much time and effort is spent on improving, developing or re-shaping our physical, emotional and spiritual environments - testing our limitations - that we often lose sight of who and what we are.
Sue and I have a cousin who supplemented his income handsomely while he was in graduate school in Manhattan by working as a tutor for wealthy families who wanted to give their children “an edge” that would allow them to get into the best nursery schools, so that they will get into the best private schools, so that they will get into the best colleges, graduate schools and “make it” in life. Sue’s cousin admitted that a lot of what he did made him feel uncomfortable. He saw how these parents placed such high expectations on their children that they were sending a message that failure is never an option.
My friends, there is nothing wrong with striving to do our best. But the truth is that our borders and boundaries are as important as our potential - for they help us to define our goals. We also need to teach our children — and ourselves — how to fail.
Failure is increasingly becoming taboo. Our president repeatedly uses the adjective to describe people and institutions – especially those in the media that he dislikes. The pejorative “loser” is insidious. It equates failure with weakness; winning becomes our ultimate goal. Those who come up short are worthy of contempt.
In this light, some flooding and other disasters can partly be blamed on our fear of failure and our hubris -- our vain egocentrism as a nation. As we witnessed last year in Houston, and as we have seen time after time across our nation, our belief in our superiority caused us to build cities on natural flood plains. We were confident that our engineering could protect us from the waters. We reasoned that if we built our walls high enough, strong enough and with enough ingenuity, we would never have to worry about flooding. We were wrong. We failed and did not allow ourselves to learn from our failures.
But rivers do not only represent boundaries within society, they also serve as powerful symbols for the limitations we place upon ourselves.
We are like rivers: our lives also flow between the banks of our own, personal boundaries. We move through the events, expectations, compromises and covenants by and through which we gauge the passage of time and the fulfillment of our expectations. There are moments when our banks overflow - when we cannot contain the feelings, emotions, and passions which course through our veins like a raging torrent.
Along the banks of our own, personal rivers, there are high points which teach us of the meaning and purpose of our very existence. When we stand under the Chuppah; when a child is born; when we hold the Torah for the first time as a Jew by choice; when we overcome illness or misfortune; when we rejoice with our children or grandchildren as they become Bar or Bat Mitzvah - these are defining moments of our lives .... when our banks overflow with joy and happiness.
But there are low points as well - when, instead of flooding, we experience drought. When a cherished loved one dies, a marriage fails, illness strikes cruelly and unexpectedly - all too often we can find ourselves in the midst of a barren, dry river bed - parched and utterly alone. We gaze up at the heights along the banks - we cannot seem to find a way to climb up out of the abyss.
For many of us, these times when the banks of our lives are changing - whether overflowing or drying up - are unnatural. We often don't know how to deal with them. I cannot tell you how many times when, as a rabbi, I stand with people at moments of great joy or great crisis and they do not know what to do. "Rabbi," they say, "I promised myself that I wouldn't cry at my son's Bar Mitzvah." Or, "Rabbi, I can't allow myself to break down at my mother's funeral - I don't want to lose control - I'm afraid that I might never get it back...."
I want to tell these people: “Good! Go ahead and cry!!! Lose control - that’s what you’re supposed to do.”
All too often we build walls around ourselves to keep from overflowing or to serve as reservoirs during times of drought. We create artificial levies, bridges and dams to prevent the floods from disrupting our daily routines. We strive for ways to control, monitor and regulate the high and low points in our lives. And yet walls and bridges cannot really help us. They cannot give us strength during times of spiritual emptiness - nor can they prevent the torrents of emotion from overwhelming us. Like floods and hurricanes, like the current drought much of our state is experiencing today, eventually, these defenses will be breached - and we can find ourselves at the mercy of events and feelings - and we don't know what to do because we have not allowed ourselves to experience the power of allowing our emotions, our feelings, our joy, our fear, our pain.... to overflow.
My friends, this is dangerous, for part of who and what we are is based on our ability to appreciate, accept and assimilate our lives in their totality - the good and the bad; the highs as well as the lows. The more walls we build, the more we keep our emotions, our loved ones, our fears, hopes and dreams in check - the less in touch with our true selves we become - and the more alienated we are from life.
The ancient Egyptians understood the dangers of building walls. Every year, the Nile river would overflow its banks. Instead of catastrophe, this yearly flood brought with it prosperity. The Nile was a sacred river. Its overflow brought new life to the desert soil on its banks. The people worshiped the Nile because of its rising and falling - its highs and lows. It became the source of their spiritual and physical life. They made no separation between the two.
As Jews, we have a vehicle for expressing ourselves at those moments when our banks overflow and when we are parched with drought. At times of our greatest joy and sorrow, we express ourselves in Tefillah - in prayer. The Psalmist said it best perhaps in the 23d Psalm: "You have anointed my head with oil, my cup runneth over..." Tefillah - prayer is a central theme of these Days of Awe. We come together as a community and examine our deeds. We look deep inside at our successes, our failures - our highs and our lows. We travel down the banks of the river of the past year.
Milton Steinberg, in his book, Basic Judaism, called prayer a "bridge to God."[iv] Prayer becomes a bridge - not for the avoidance of our essential selves, but towards understanding who we are and what is truly important. Through prayer, we find the words, the opportunities and the paths to cross over or submit to the barriers in our lives. Prayer is a humbling experience. To speak to God means to admit that there are things in our life that we cannot truly understand. What if God does not hear us? Or even worse, what if there is no God at all? What if all our words, our liturgy, our deepest thoughts are emptied out into an abyss of nothingness?
These are real questions....they cannot be avoided.
To attempt to stand in the presence of the Divine is to expose ourselves to the unknown. It's risky. And yet, it is precisely because of this risk that prayer can be so powerful. When we pray - we gaze down at and inside of the river of our lives. We step back and appreciate all that we have. We take stock in ourselves and our world. We allow our banks to overflow.
But prayer is not only for those times in our lives when we are overcome with emotion. Prayer can be a powerful, ongoing affirmation of who we are, and where we want to be. On Yom Kippur our sanctuary is overflowing – and we love to see everyone hear. But we have services every week! Join us! To pray on a regular basis is to acknowledge to ourselves and our God that we appreciate and are thankful for all that life has to offer - all the time. It prepares us for when we need to pray the most, it provides us with a reservoir from which we can draw when we have to find the words, the feelings, the ways and means with which to confront and contend with our highs and our lows.
The banks of the rivers of our lives are built on the prayers of our hearts.
The third thing we learn from rivers is that everything is connected.
We are like rivers - for like rivers, we are connected to one another. Four rivers flowed from Eden. They all shared a common source. One of the lessons we learn from flooding is that the actions of cities and towns at the head of the river affects those communities down below. As each community downstream builds the walls of their dams and levies higher and higher, the pressure is increased on the walls of successive communities until the inevitable occurs – walls collapse, and flooding ensues.
A third message of these High holidays is the importance of Tseddakah. This is often mistranslated as "charity" - but it means much more. Tseddakah literally means righteousness. It means that we have an awareness of how our actions can impact others - for bad or good. In the Mishnah, tractate Avot, we read: Mitzvah goreret mitzvah, averah goreret averah - Acts of loving kindness lead to further acts, transgressions lead to further transgression[v]. Rivers are systems - nothing is independent. The water is contained by the banks, the currents flow to the sea, the plant life and the animals - all are dependent upon one another. Rivers teach us that everything in life is connected. We are no exception.
This afternoon, we will be reading from the Book of Jonah. If you will recall, at one point in the story, a huge storm erupts while the prophet is fleeing from God. All the sailors and passengers pray to their gods to save the boat which is being mercilessly tossed by the wind and the waves. Jonah, however, goes down to his bunk and falls asleep. When the Captain finds him snoring away he confronts him: “How can you sleep? Get up and pray to your God so that we might be saved![vi]” Jonah’s selfishness and inability to see the pain of others was part of his undoing. As I said last night, we need to listen to one another. We need to have compassion and empathy - to cooperate and understand that everything and everyone is connected.
All of us are responsible for one another - we are taught in our sacred texts. My world does not end with my family, my synagogue, my neighborhood, my country, or even my people. All people are God's children. Rivers teach us of our interdependence and connectedness.
In the Siddur we are told that On Rosh Ha Shanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall live and who shall die, who by flood and who by fire........
But we are told that Teshuvah, Tefillah, U'Tseddakah maavirim et roa ha gezerah – repentance, prayer, and acts of righteousness temper God's decree.
On this Yom Kippur, may we learn the lessons of the rivers. May the currents that pull us in every direction show us the path to true Teshuvah - turning towards repentance for our sins. May we learn to live within the changing banks of our lives through Tefillah - the prayer of our hearts. And may we learn that we are all interconnected through the process of Tseddakah. Then, truly, our lives will be for a blessing.
L'Shanah Tovah Teychateymu --- may we all be sealed for a blessing in the book of life, blessing and peace.
[iii] Genesis 15:18
[iv] Steinberg, Milton Basic Judaism Harcourt Brace, p.116
[v] Mishnah, Avot 4:2
[vi] Jonah 1:6